Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Jimmy Carter, Israel and Apartheid

On the New Book “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid”
Carter's apartheid charge rings true

(Originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle, 20 December 2006)

Former President Jimmy Carter has come under sustained attack for having dared to use the term "apartheid" to describe Israel's policies in the West Bank. However, not one of Carter's critics has offered a convincing argument to justify the vehemence of the outcry, much less to refute his central claim that Israel bestows rights on Jewish residents settling illegally on Palestinian land, while denying the same rights to the indigenous Palestinians. Little wonder, for they are attempting to defy reality itself.

Israel maintains two separate road networks in the West Bank: one for the exclusive use of Jewish settlers, and one for Palestinian natives. Is that not apartheid?

Palestinians are not allowed to drive their own cars in much of the West Bank; their public transportation is frequently interrupted or blocked altogether by a grid of Israeli army checkpoints -- but Jewish settlers come and go freely in their own cars, without even pausing at the roadblocks that hold up the natives. Is that not apartheid?

A system of closures and curfews has strangled the Palestinian economy in the West Bank -- but none of its provisions apply to the Jewish settlements there. Is that not apartheid?

Whole sectors of the West Bank, classified as "closed military areas" by the Israeli army, are off limits to Palestinians, including Palestinians who own land there -- but foreigners to whom Israel's Law of Return applies (that is, anyone Jewish, from anywhere in the world) can access them without hindrance. Is that not apartheid?

Persons of Palestinian origin are routinely barred from entering or residing in the West Bank -- but Israeli and non-Israeli Jews can come and go, and even live on, occupied Palestinian territory. Is that not apartheid?

Israel maintains two sets of rules and regulations in the West Bank: one for Jews, one for non-Jews. The only thing wrong with using the word "apartheid" to describe such a repugnant system is that the South African version of institutionalized discrimination was never as elaborate as its Israeli counterpart -- nor did it have such a vocal chorus of defenders among otherwise liberal Americans.

The glaring error in Carter's book, however, is his insistence that the term "apartheid" does not apply to Israel itself, where, he says, Jewish and non-Jewish citizens are given the same treatment under the law. That is simply not true.

Israeli law affords differences in privileges for Jewish and non-Jewish citizens of the state -- in matters of access to land, family unification and acquisition of citizenship. Israel's amended nationality law, for example, prevents Palestinian citizens of Israel who are married to Palestinians from the occupied territories from living together in Israel. A similar law, passed at the peak of apartheid in South Africa, was overturned by that country's supreme court as a violation of the right to a family. Israel's high court upheld its law just this year.

Israel loudly proclaims itself to be the state of the Jewish people, rather than the state of its actual citizens (one-fifth of whom are Palestinian Arabs). In fact, in registering citizens, the Israeli Ministry of the Interior assigns them a whole range of nationalities other than "Israeli." In the official registry, the nationality line for a Jewish citizen of Israel reads "Jew." For a Palestinian citizen, the same line reads "Arab." When this glaring inequity was protested all the way to Israel's high court, the justices upheld it: "There is no Israeli nation separate from the Jewish people." Obviously this leaves non-Jewish citizens of Israel in, at best, a somewhat ambiguous situation. Little wonder, then, that a solid majority of Israeli Jews regard their Arab fellow-citizens as what they call "a demographic threat," which many -- including the deputy prime minister -- would like to see eliminated altogether. What is all this, if not racism?

Many of the very individuals and institutions that are so vociferously denouncing President Jimmy Carter would not for one moment tolerate such glaring injustice in the United States. Why do they condone the naked racism that Israel practices? Why do they heap criticism on our former president for speaking his conscience about such a truly unconscionable system of ethnic segregation?

Perhaps it is because they themselves are all too aware that they are defending the indefensible; because they are all too aware that the emperor they keep trying to cover up really has no clothes. There is a limit to how long such a cover up can go on. And the main lesson of Carter's book is that we have finally reached that limit.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Lebanon's War with Cluster Bombs

[Originally published in The Los Angeles Times, 21 October 2006]

OF ALL THE statistics to emerge from Israel's recent war on Lebanon, the most shocking concerns the number of cluster bombs that Israel dropped on or fired into Lebanon.

A cluster bomb is made up of a canister that opens and releases hundreds of individual bomblets, which are dispersed and explode over a wide area, showering it with molten metal and lethal fragments.

About 40% of the bomblets dropped by Israel (many of which were American-made) did not explode in the air or on impact with the ground. They now detonate when someone disturbs them — a soldier, a farmer, a shepherd, a child attracted by the lure of a shiny metal object.

Cluster bombs are, by definition, inaccurate weapons that are designed to affect a very wide area unpredictably. If they do not discriminate between civilian and military targets when they are dropped, they certainly do not discriminate in the months and years after the end of hostilities, when they go on killing and maiming anyone who happens upon them.

When the count of unexploded cluster bomblets passed 100,000, the United Nation's undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, Jan Egeland, expressed his disbelief at the scale of the problem.

"What's shocking and, I would say to me, completely immoral," he said, "is that 90% of the cluster-bomb strikes occurred in the last 72 hours of the conflict, when we knew there would be a resolution, when we really knew there would be an end of this."

That was on Aug. 30, by which time U.N. teams had identified 359 separate cluster-bomb sites.

Since then, the true dimensions of the problem have become even clearer: 770 cluster-bomb sites have now been identified. And the current U.N. estimate is that Israel dropped between 2 million and 3 million bomblets on Lebanon, of which up to a million have yet to explode.

In fact, it is estimated that there are more unexploded bomblets in southern Lebanon than there are people. They lurk in tobacco fields, olive groves, on rooftops, in farms, mixed in with rubble. They are injuring two or three people every day, according to the United Nations, and have killed 20 people since the cease-fire in August.

"What we did was insane and monstrous," one Israeli commander admitted to the newspaper Haaretz. "We covered entire towns in cluster bombs."

As Egeland noted, the majority of these bombs were dropped in the last three days of the war — a time when the U.N. resolution to end the fighting had been agreed on, when the war was virtually over, when it was clear that Israel had failed to accomplish its declared objectives in launching this campaign.

Dropped so late in the war, it's hard to imagine what specific military objective these bombs could possibly have been meant to accomplish. Instead, they seem to have been dropped as a final, gratuitous act of violence in a war waged against an entire population. The vast majority of the 1,200 Lebanese killed by Israeli bombardments were civilians; one in three was a child.

With 100,000 innocent people trapped in the south because they could not, or dared not, flee on roads that Israel was indiscriminately bombing every day, Israel's justice minister declared that they were all — men, women and children — "terrorists who are related in some way to Hezbollah."

Nor was this his view alone. The Israelis dropped leaflets warning that "any vehicle of any kind traveling south of the Litani River will be bombed, on suspicion of transporting rockets, military equipment and terrorists." The Israeli chief of staff was especially clear. "Nothing is safe" in Lebanon, he said. "As simple as that."

Israel carried out 7,000 air raids and fired 160,000 artillery projectiles into Lebanon, a tiny country. That's about two air raids and 40 projectiles per square mile.

But the punishment was not evenly distributed. Israel's war was aimed specifically at Lebanon's Shiite population. Shiite neighborhoods in Beirut were destroyed, but other neighborhoods remained untouched. Shiite villages in the south were obliterated — literally wiped from the surface of the Earth — while nearby Christian villages escaped unscathed, mercifully able to shelter their Shiite neighbors.

Israeli officials said this was a war against Hezbollah, that Hezbollah was hiding in the midst of the population. But this wasn't a war against Hezbollah. It was a war to punish the entire population for its support of the guerrillas.

Not only was Hezbollah not hiding behind civilians, it ought to be obvious that the violence was directed in the first instance at the civilians themselves. To direct such violence at one community, one religious group, one minority — and to deny them the ability to return safely home — was what this war was all about.

To drop two or three bomblets for every man, woman and child in southern Lebanon — after having wiped out their homes, smashed their communities, destroyed their livelihoods — is to wage war against them all.

And we supplied the weapons.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Lessons Learned

Lessons Learned

[Originally published in The Nation, 20 August 2006]

Hours before the UN ceasefire went into effect, Israel quietly announced that it would, after all, be willing to negotiate a prisoner exchange with Hezbollah to secure the return of the two soldiers whose capture sparked the recent war.

Had Israel accepted Hezbollah's offer of a negotiated exchange five weeks ago, more than 1,000 people--the vast majority Lebanese civilians--would still be alive. In addition, more than a million people would not have been displaced from their homes; entire neighborhoods in Beirut and whole villages in the south of Lebanon would still be intact; and the Israeli army would not have reduced Lebanon to an environmentally devastated wasteland.

Rather than negotiating an exchange (as they have in the past), the Israelis launched a wave of air and artillery attacks on civilian targets in Lebanon.

When Hezbollah retaliated with several salvos of rockets, Israel angrily announced that no country--other than Lebanon, presumably--can tolerate such attacks, and it stepped up its bombardment of Lebanon, striking the international airport in Beirut as well as other civilian targets, and threatening to set the entire country back twenty years.

Far too many people in the US accepted Israel's claims at face value.

Hardly anyone bothered to put the capture of the Israeli soldiers (which was referred to as a "kidnapping," not a term normally used with reference to soldiers in wartime) in historical context. It was depicted as having come out of the blue, rather than being understood as one event in a continuous series originating with Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982-in whose aftermath Hezbollah was born. When the rockets started flying, no one seemed to notice that Israel had brought punishment on its own civilians by having chosen to respond disproportionately to a minor border skirmish, and to an attack on its army by bombing defenseless civilians.

Overnight, as the captured soldiers faded into the background, a consensus seemed to emerge in the US, according to which the bombing of Lebanon was really about Israel's need to protect its northern border from Hezbollah rocket attacks.

We were saturated with the message that Hezbollah is a shadowy terrorist organization that has spent years showering northern Israel with rockets--and that Israel had both the right and the duty to protect itself from such attacks once and for all. Thus was history instantaneously rewritten to Israel's own specifications.

In fact, from the moment that Israel ended its last military occupation of Lebanon in 2000 until the explosion of the current war on July 12, UN observers report that there was not a single casualty as a result of a confirmed rocket attack by Hezbollah on civilian targets in northern Israel.

A number of alternative explanations for Israel's bombardment of Lebanon have been proposed, most of them involving the Bush administration's regional ambitions. It may have been another attempt to create "a new Middle East," or, as Seymour Hersh suggests, it may have been a dress rehearsal for a future US war on Iran.

Whatever its real motivations, however, Israel failed. For all the damage it inflicted on innocent civilians, Israel's lumbering army was resolutely beaten back by Hezbollah.

We may never know the real reasons for Israel's attack, but there are lessons to be learned from the past few weeks of violence.

First, we should learn never to accept at face value any government's justifications for its own actions. Government claims need to be viewed skeptically, placed in context, read against the grain.

Second, we need to learn not to assess Israel's actions using Israel's own discourse. Not only, for example, do hundreds of millions of people not see Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, but to accept the Israeli designation is to ignore the material fact that Hezbollah is a massive social movement that gained prominence by resisting what would have been recognized in any other context as a brutal and illegal military occupation.

Third, it is essential for us to disentangle American interests from Israeli ones. Our government supported Israel's war on Lebanon. We financed and supplied it; our Congress affirmed it; our representatives repeatedly blocked international appeals for a ceasefire that would have saved hundreds of lives. It is childish for us to imagine that we will not have further prices to pay for our blind support for Israel. We should demand from our government an explanation of what we receive in turn--especially if that is nothing.

Finally, we must learn to see Israel for what it is. A state that punishes an entire population, flouts international law, commits war crimes, refuses to allow aid to reach beleaguered civilians, destroys ambulances, attacks civilians, and orders terrified people from their homes only to bomb them as they flee, is a rogue state. We need to ask ourselves what we gain by associating ourselves with it.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Israel Should Call it Quits

Israel's Raid on Baalbeck's Hospital: Time to call it Quits

[Originally published by Saree Makdisi in Counterpunch, 3 August 2006]

Israeli commandos staged a daring raid the other night on the ancient Lebanese town of Baalbeck, catching Hassan Nasrallah asleep, bundling him into a waiting helicopter, and spiriting him back to Israel.

But as the dust settled and reports from the ground began to emerge, it turned out that the Hassan Nasrallah that Israel's most elite military unit had captured-with the assistance of the formidable intelligence capabilities of the legendary Mossad-was apparently not Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hizballah, but rather Hassan Nasrallah, the owner of a small toyshop on the dusty outskirts of Baalbeck. They also nabbed his son, another relative, and a neighbor for good measure. Israel claims that the men are members of Hizballah, albeit not the ones they were hoping for. Their relatives and neighbors, and Hizballah itself, deny this.

The raid was focused on the Dar al Hikma hospital, which was heavily damaged by the Israeli raiders and supporting fire from aircraft. The hospital, however, was found to be empty. The kidnapped men were, according to local sources, taken from their homes.

To provide cover before and during the raid on the hospital, Israeli aircraft subjected residential neighborhoods of Baalbeck and neighboring towns to a withering bombardment, in which seventeen people, almost all of them civilians, were killed. The dead included the son of the mayor of al Jamaliyeh, his brother, and five other relatives. The mayor of al Jamaliyeh, incidentally, held a distinctly anti-Hizballah position in local politics.

Israel's aerial torment of a population entirely lacking in air defenses and even proper air raid shelters has now killed some 900 people, the overwhelming majority of them civilians, and about a third of them children. It has displaced almost a million people from their homes. It has devastated Lebanon's civilian infrastructure. It has reduced entire towns in the south-including Bint Jbeil, once home to 30,000 people-to rubble. And it has left block after block after block of Beirut in total ruins. (All this while Israel is at the same time holding the 1.4 million destitute people of the Gaza Strip in the world's largest prison, bombarding them day and night, and sadistically depriving them of sleep at night by repeatedly breaking the sound barrier at low altitude).

After three weeks of devastating bombardment, Israel's much vaunted army finds itself unable to fight its way more than a few kilometers into Lebanon. The heavy resistance they have encountered on the ground is the most obvious explanation for why the Israelis prefer on the whole to go on dropping bombs on children from a safe distance: not only is it less dangerous, it also involves much less effort.

The "deep penetration" raid on Baalbeck was meant to show off the capabilities of Israel's armed forces, to make up for their humiliating performance on the ground and their repeated massacres of civilians from the air, including the refugees sheltering in Qana (an event whose cover story has gone through at least three variations, none of them convincing to anyone other than the Israelis themselves).

Instead, it left a hospital in ruins, more than a dozen civilians dead, and elite forces in possession of an unfortunate middle-aged shopkeeper and an assortment of his friends and relatives.

Surely this would be the right moment for Israel to give up and call it quits

US Should not Abet Violence in Lebanon

The US Should not Abet Violence in Lebanon

[Originally published by Saree Makdisi in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, 22 July 2006]

Never has the gulf between U.S. and Israeli interests been clearer than during the present crisis. And not since the shameful coverup of the 1967 Israeli bombing of the USS Liberty - in which 34 Navy crewmen were killed - have our politicians done so much to protect Israel's interests at the expense of our own.

We have not been standing idly by as Israel destroys Lebanon's civilian infrastructure, obliterates entire neighborhoods and kills dozens of innocent people.

Not only has our government provided Israel with the weapons with which it is now bombarding Lebanon, it also has provided virtually unlimited financial, military, political and diplomatic support to enable - even encourage - Israel to continue.

Our government intervened to remove criticism of Israel from the G-8 Summit statement on the crisis. It stymied European efforts to call for a cease-fire to protect civilian life. It vetoed a U.N. resolution calling on Israel to stop its attack on Gaza's civilians. It rushed an additional $210 million of aviation fuel to Israel to help it "keep peace and security in the region." And it even granted Israel an additional week to continue its unrestrained pounding of Lebanon, according to diplomatic reports.

Lebanon is facing a humanitarian catastrophe; 335 people have been killed. The United Nations estimates that up to half a million people have been displaced from their homes. With Israel having reduced Lebanon to a large-scale version of Gaza - cut off from the outside world, denied water and electricity, unable to import essential supplies of food and medicine - the country is on its knees. Four million people are now not merely terrified, but increasingly hungry and thirsty.

It is absurd to consider this level of violence a legitimate act of self-defense. During its war with the IRA, Britain could have used the same argument to destroy Ireland's roads, bridges, ports and airports on the pretext that they were being used by the IRA to move weapons and supplies; it could have used it to launch massive bombardments of Catholic neighborhoods both in the Republic and in Northern Ireland.

The absurdity of the justification aside, Israel has bombed targets in Lebanon that have no possible connection to Hezbollah. It has killed sleeping Lebanese army soldiers in the north of the country, even though the Lebanese army is not involved in the conflict and is, moreover, supposed to be the key to the solution, according to Israel itself. It has bombed milk factories, cutting off the supply of a vital nutrient to Lebanon's babies and children. It has bombed a desperately needed aid convoy heading toward Beirut from the United Arab Emirates. It has bombed hospitals, schools and ambulances. All of this, of course, is in blatant violation of the U.S. Arms Export Control Act, under which our weapons are provided to Israel.

Why is our country supporting Israel's unlimited violence not only against an entire population, but a population that has historically been the most friendly to the United States in the entire Arab world? For decades, America has been a beacon of hope and liberty to the people of Lebanon. Its foremost university is an American institution. Its people have emigrated in tens of thousands to America (the majority of Arab-Americans are Lebanese), tying our two nations together.

Justice aside, what do we gain from the bombing of these people?

Are we really to believe that this attack will destroy Hezbollah? Israel enforced a draconian military occupation of Lebanon for over two decades; just as it failed to destroy Hezbollah then, it will fail again now.

Are we then to believe that this attack constitutes a slap in the face for Iran and Syria? The destruction of Lebanon's infrastructure hurts neither of them. On the contrary, it will provide them another chance to give generously during reconstruction.

This attack has nothing to do with Israel's self defense. Preparing for eventual negotiations, it is showing how it deals with those who dare question it: It reduces their country to rubble. In the name of combating one form of extremism, we are backing another - Israel's.

We gain nothing in the process. But we will pay a price.

Three hundred million Arabs and 1 billion Muslims are watching as one rational and peaceful and moral argument after another to restore peace is either denied or deflected or contemptuously spurned by our leaders in order to allow Israel to continue its bombardment. The next time one or three or 10 of them take it in their heads to launch a horrific attack on the United States - which they will regard as justified retribution - no one need bother to ask why they hate us. We will all know the answer.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Israel's Outrageous Attacks

Israel's Outrageous Attacks
Its blanket bombardment of Lebanon amounts to collective guilt.

[Originally published by Saree Makdisi in The Los Angeles Times, 19 July 2006]

APPARENTLY suffering from amnesia, Israel now says that its extraordinary collective punishment of the entire Lebanese population is intended to stop rocket attacks across its northern border.

However, Israel's blanket bombardment of Lebanon was sparked not by rockets (which came in retaliation) but by a guerrilla operation against a military target, the aim of which was to capture soldiers as leverage for the release of some of the Lebanese prisoners Israel stubbornly refuses to free. Israel itself has repeatedly crossed into Lebanon to capture prisoners — including civilians — for use as bargaining chips.

Indeed, although captures, negotiations and exchanges have long been part of Israel's relationship with Hezbollah, this time it categorically refused to negotiate the release of its soldiers — preferring instead to pummel hundreds of thousands of defenseless people on a scale out of all proportion to what it regards as the initial provocation.

So far, Israel has killed more than 230 people — all but a handful of whom were civilians — including whole families. With its customary arrogance, it has issued peremptory warnings to entire communities to get out of its way or face the consequences: terrorism in the true sense of the word. It gave the residents of the town of Marwaheen in southern Lebanon, for example, a few hours to leave their homes. The terrified residents came under Israeli fire as they fled. More than 15 people, most of them children, were killed.

Israel later warned the entire population of southern Lebanon to leave. No Arab can forget that terrorizing an entire population from its homes is the tactic that was used to seize possession of Palestine in the spring and summer of 1948. Not everyone will leave. Many will reject Israel's imperious warnings — what right, they will ask, does Israel have to terrify us into flight from our homes? In any case, most of them have nowhere to flee to — and even if they did, Israel has destroyed the bridges and is bombing the roads out of the south.

In a week of vindictive bombardment, Israel has destroyed the infrastructure that Lebanon spent a decade building. Under the cover of misleading headlines, such as one that read "Israel Pounds Hezbollah Strongholds," Israel has in fact bombed towns and villages, provincial centers and Beirut.

Israel has killed Christians, Sunnis and Shiites, old and young, men and women, from the great Phoenician cities of Sidon and Tyre to more humble towns — Chtoura and Juniyah, Damour and Naame, Jiye and Baalbek, Khiam and Batrun.

It has wrecked roads, bridges, a lighthouse, ports, tunnels, electrical pylons, water mains, fuel depots, gas stations, power plants, houses, shops, schools — and even a milk factory. It has repeatedly blasted the international airport that was the symbol of Lebanon's rebirth from 15 years of war.

Where, when or if Lebanon will ever get the funding to rebuild what Israel has smashed remain open questions. When Israel finally relents, it will leave Lebanon without a functioning infrastructure — and the lives of nearly 4 million people altered beyond recognition.

That, of course, is explicitly the point of this outrage. Israel's army chief bragged that he would set Lebanon back "20 years." That is what is happening — as a silent world watches.,0,4920124.story?coll=la-opinion-center

Saturday, July 15, 2006

No Peace for Israel without Justice for Palestinians

No Peace for Israel without Justice for Palestinians
[Originally published by Saree Makdisi in the Houston Chronicle, 14 July 2006]

The civilian infrastructure — notably Beirut International Airport — was the first target of the attack that Israel unleashed on Lebanon in response to the capture of two Israeli soldiers this week.

This mimicks Israel's earlier assaults on the essentially defenseless population of the Gaza Strip. Israeli missiles destroyed Gaza's only power plant, depriving half the population of electricity for the hot summer months (no fans, no fridges, no light after sunset). Israeli interdictions severely disrupted supplies of food, fuel, medicines and water. Midnight air raids, artillery bombardments, and sleep deprivation are taking a psychological toll, particularly on young children.

Israel is, in short, now punishing more than a million men, women and children in Gaza for a Palestinian guerrilla attack on an Israeli army post (an obviously military target), and the entire population of Lebanon for a Hezbollah attack on Israeli troops on its northern border.

As Israel lashes out indiscriminately, mocking international law, U.S. government officials and prominent pundits have expressed sympathy — not for the victims of these attacks, but for their perpetrators. Moreover, much of the arsenal that Israel uses against Lebanese and Palestinians is American, including the armored bulldozers it uses to crush homes, the missiles recklessly fired into crowded neighborhoods and the gunships that launch them.

Such support tarnishes U.S. standing in a strategically vital region of the world. More and more Americans realize that we pay a price for Israel's abuses — and receive nothing in return.

What we most urgently need to know is that the tragedy now unfolding in Gaza is not merely one more episode in a supposed "cycle of violence" (which implies proportionality), let alone a genuine military contest (for only one side has an army).

But if the current Israeli attacks are utterly disproportionate to their alleged provocations, that is because far more is at stake than Palestinian pinpricks. What is happening in Gaza is an expression of Israel's political vision.

Israeli politicians speak openly of that vision (indeed, the current Israeli government won recent elections with a pledge to fulfill it): the consolidation of a state with a Jewish majority in a land in which barely half the population is actually Jewish.

There is no way to implement such a program without violence. That was the case in 1948, when half of Palestine's non-Jewish population was driven into flight — never to be allowed to return — in order for a Jewish state to be created on what had been Palestinians' land. And it is the case today, as Israel seeks to forcibly isolate the land's remaining non-Jewish population into barren islands cut off from each other and the rest of the world.

Gaza is only one of these islands. The others are in the West Bank which, with Gaza and east Jerusalem, are what remained of Palestine after it was dismembered in 1948 — only to be captured by Israel in 1967.

Jerusalem is already off limits to most Palestinians. Israel has broken the West Bank into three separate cantons. A grid of roadblocks further fragments each canton internally. Israel's separation barrier only adds to the fragmentation, as do a road network barred to Palestinians — and a sprawling array of illegal Jewish settlements — whose annexation to Israel, while bypassing areas of indigenous, non-Jewish population, is Israel's objective.

Israel claims to hold the Palestinian "government" accountable for the raid on its Gaza outpost. But this archipelago of besieged territories does not — and it will never — amount to a "state." It is designed to be a collection of open-air holding cells for the land's non-Jewish population: spaces to detain them, isolate them from health-care, educational and infrastructural services, deny them access to land, resources and markets, until they either die or simply give up and go away. Gaza's suffocation over the past year illustrates this perfectly.

Each departing Palestinian will be triumphantly checked off the tally by Israeli demographers like Arnon Sofer who, anxiously monitoring what they unabashedly call the "demographic threat" to their country, obsessively calculate ratios of Jews to non-Jews.

Lacking an army, Palestinians do not pose a material challenge to Israel. They pose an ideological challenge. Raids like the one on the Gaza outpost remind Israelis that the Palestinians will not go away; this is why Israel cannot tolerate them.

Israel's announcement that it now intends to create by force a depopulated "security zone" in northern Gaza is eerily reminiscent of its futile attempt to enforce such a zone in southern Lebanon. Israel's northern border fell silent — not when it had finally used enough violence against Lebanon — but when it decided to end its illegal military occupation of Lebanese territory. That lesson has apparently been forgotten already, as Israel again holds an entire country hostage.

The same principle applies to Gaza. Israel's use of overwhelming force against civilian targets shows that it still fails to understand that occupation begets resistance — and that peace for Israelis is inseparable from justice for Palestinians.

These are lessons that Americans should learn as well. -- Section: Viewpoints, Outlook

Friday, March 31, 2006

The Real Winner in Israel

The real winner in Israel

[Originally published by Saree Makdisi in the San Francisco Chronicle, 31 March 2006]

Everyone is talking about the successful -- albeit lackluster -- performance of Ehud Olmert's Kadima Party in Tuesday's Israeli elections. Kadima won a marginal victory, gaining 28 seats in the Knesset, and giving Olmert the opportunity to form a government.

But, in a sense, the real winner of the elections was Avigdor Lieberman, leader of Yisrael Beiteinu, which pushed past Likud to become one of Israel's major political parties -- turning Lieberman into a potential kingmaker. This is a remarkable development because Lieberman's party stands for one thing: an Israel finally cleansed of the remainder of the indigenous Palestinian population.

Lieberman was born in Moldova in 1958. In 1978, he moved to Israel. Because he is Jewish, he was eligible for instant citizenship under Israel's law of return.

It was evidently not enough for Lieberman that, as a Russian-speaking immigrant fresh off the plane, he was instantaneously granted rights and privileges denied to Palestinians born in the very country to which he had just moved (not to mention those expelled during the creation of Israel in 1948). The very presence of an indigenous non-Jewish population in Israel was, in effect, unacceptable to him. In 1999, he formed a party called Yisrael Beiteinu ("Israel our Home"), made up largely of other Russian immigrants for whom the presence of Palestinians is also unacceptable. Lieberman's party believes what all Israelis believe: that Israel is a Jewish state. Unlike the more respectable Israeli parties, however, Lieberman's party is willing to add that because Israel is a Jewish state, non-Jews are not welcome. Even if they were born there.

Because Israel has -- somewhat conveniently -- never declared its own borders, Lieberman proposes that the state's borders be drawn in such a way that Jews are placed on one side of it, and as many Arabs as possible on the other. Ethnic purity is the operative ideal. The mainstream Israeli parties, and even right-wing politicians such as Moshe Arens, denounce what they regard as Lieberman's racism.

The difference between Lieberman and mainstream Israeli politicians, however, is not that they believe in cultural heterogeneity and he does not: for they are as committed to Israel's Jewishness as he is.

The difference, rather, is one of degree. Mainstream Israeli politicians agree that a line of concrete and steel ought to be drawn with Jews on one side of it and as many Arabs as possible on the other. But they argue that it is OK to have a few Arabs on the inside, as long as they behave themselves, and don't contribute too heavily to what Israelis refer to ominously as "the demographic problem." Contenting themselves with the platitude that Israel is a democracy, mainstream Israeli politicians ignore the fact that, in matters of access to land, questions of marriage and family unification, and many of the other normal rights and duties associated with citizenship, Israel's Palestinian minority faces forms of discrimination not faced by Jewish citizens of the state. This is hardly surprising.

As the state of the Jewish people, Israel is, after all, the only country in the world that expressly claims not to be the state of its actual citizens (one-fifth of whom are non-Jews), let alone that of the people whom it governs (half of whom are Palestinian). Non-Jews have always been, at best, an impediment to Israel's Jewishness. The only question has been what to do about them.

The point, however, is that -- as the Israeli journalist Gideon Levy points out -- Zeevi and Lieberman are no more racist than mainstream politicians such as Ehud Olmert. The difference is simply one of modalities. "Lieberman wants to distance [Palestinians] from our borders," writes Levy; "Olmert and his ilk want to distance them from our consciousness." Racism, Levy concludes, is the real winner of the 2006 elections.

The question is whether this represents some new development, or merely a sign that Israeli politics are becoming truer to the nature of Israel itself -- a reminder that the quest for ethnic purity, no matter how it's dressed up, is inherently ugly.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Speaking Falsehoods to Power

[Originally published by Saree Makdisi in The Los Angeles Times, 10 March 2006]

RICHARD ROGERS, the noted British architect, was recently summoned to the offices of the Empire State Development Corp. to explain his connection to a group called Architects and Planners for Justice in Palestine. Empire State is overseeing the redesign of New York's $1.7-billion Javits Convention Center, and Rogers is the architect on the job.

According to media reports, Rogers has sparked the anger of various New York politicians and Jewish organizations for what he now claims was only a fleeting association with Architects and Planners for Justice in Palestine. The group has taken the "outrageous" position that Israel's West Bank barrier (sometimes referred to euphemistically as a "security fence") is, well, problematic — because most of it is built not on Israel's 1967 border but within the West Bank; because it violates international law; because it separates farmers from their land, one town from another, people from their doctors, children from their schools; and because it generally wreaks havoc on Palestinian life.

Members of the group have proposed a boycott of Israeli architects and construction companies working on the barrier, saying their involvement in such a project makes them "complicit in social, political and economic oppression" and is "in violation of their professional code of ethics."

Apparently anyone associated with such a position — in other words, anyone taking a principled stand in favor of human rights and international law — may have to count himself out of a contract for the Javits Center.

This is only the most recent example of Israel's American defenders — who will not tolerate any criticism of Israel — using their political clout to punish or silence dissident voices. Last month, the New York premiere of a play based on the words of Rachel Corrie, a young American who was crushed by an Israeli Army bulldozer while protesting the demolition of a Palestinian home, was indefinitely postponed for fear that some might find her words "offensive."

Naturally, Rogers has been desperately trying to distance himself from anything that might stand in the way of his retaining the Javits project, including severing his ties with the group and stating that he does not back a boycott.

Israel's barrier is fine, Rogers now says. In fact, he's now in favor of it. Further, "Hamas must renounce terrorism," he told the New York Post. "Hamas must recognize Israel's right to exist. Just making a statement is not enough. They have to back it up."

Alas for Rogers, such effusion may not be enough to save his contract.

"His position on Hamas is not relevant," said Malcolm Hoenlein of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. "The relevant issue is a group that is convened for the purpose of activities detrimental to a democratic state…. [The Javits Center] carries the name of someone whose legacy is exactly contrary to such views. It certainly would be offensive to his legacy, and it would be an offense to the people of New York, who reject what that group stands for."

What that means, presumably, is that Sen. Jacob Javits and the people of New York do not stand for justice, peace, humanity and the law but injustice, war, inhumanity and illegality — for what else could "exactly contrary" signify?

Unless brave New Yorkers — including members of the organizations in whose name this position is being taken — stand up and refute it, this is how the record will remain.

Yet all I hear, unfortunately, is deafening silence. Or maybe what I hear is what Wordsworth once called "the still sad music of humanity."

PS: It was reported today that New York politicians and Jewish leaders have given their approval for Rogers to retain the Javits project. That did not prevent Rogers from making a few final and gratuitous genuflections: "There were misunderstandings on both sides— certainly there were misunderstandings on my side," he said. Of Israel, he said: "I have always been a strong believer in that state . . . . I do believe there's a great future for Israel, and I'm a friend of that country."

Friday, February 24, 2006

Don't Blame the Victims

[Originally published by Saree Makdisi in the Chicago Tribune, 24 February 2006]

Sanctions and the peace process: Don't blame only the Palestinians

Last weekend Israel and the U.S. took the first steps toward imposing sanctions on the Palestinians following Hamas' recent electoral victory.

As Israel tightened the flow of money--beginning with tax funds that it collects on behalf of the Palestinians, who don't control their own territory, much less their own water, airspace or borders--it continued to insist that it will not negotiate with a Hamas-dominated Palestinian leadership.

The imposition of sanctions will certainly hurt the Palestinian population; but the suspension of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians is almost completely irrelevant, because there's hardly anything left to negotiate anyway.

Long before the Palestinian elections--by about a year ago, in fact--Israel had effectively annexed the Jordan Valley, an area comprising about a third of the West Bank. And for almost two years now, Israel has repeatedly announced its intention to annex much of the rest of the territory, as well as all of East Jerusalem, a position reiterated by the interim Israeli prime minister only a few days ago.

In fact, Israel's unilateralism predates the Hamas victory by decades, not just years.

Israel first expressed its intention to permanently retain control of most of the West Bank and all of Jerusalem in a plan formulated shortly after its conquest of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem in 1967 by former Foreign Minister Yigal Allon. A single glance at the map of the Allon plan shows that what Israel is talking about today is more or less what it was talking about almost 40 years ago.

Other than in terms of window dressing, hardly anything has made much of a difference in Israel's execution of its ambitions. What is needed now is not further peace-process negotiations but, finally, a genuine, peaceful resolution of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

If it is to be just and lasting, such a resolution must involve not merely an end to the horrifying and morally unacceptable Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians, and not just a halt to Israel's equally unacceptable--albeit much more devastating--provocations and escalations, but also something much more substantial.

For what all the hullabaloo following the Hamas electoral victory has covered up is the essential fact that it is not the Palestinians who are occupying Israeli land, bulldozing Israeli homes, uprooting Israeli olive groves, rounding up Israeli teenagers, imposing curfews on Israeli cities, assassinating Israeli activists, building barriers on Israeli land, demanding Israelis' papers every time they step outside their houses, stifling the Israeli economy, expropriating Israeli property, and illegally settling Israeli territory.

It's the other way around.

The simple fact of the matter is that Israel continues to occupy Palestinian territory, in violation of international law, in violation of the principles of the UN Charter, in violation of the Geneva Conventions, and in violation of the most basic codes of decent human behavior.

The most effective way to address this reality is not to threaten sanctions against the victims of this illegal military occupation (who, after all, never chose to be thus occupied), but instead to impose such sanctions--immediately--on the perpetrators themselves. Until the Israelis learn, the hard way, that the occupation that they have chosen to impose on another people for four decades is not worth the cost to themselves, hardly anything else matters.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Politics, Language and the Palestinians

[Originally published by Saree Makdisi in Counterpunch]

The widely circulated article by Khaled Meshaal, which first appeared in English in The Guardian and was reprinted in The Los Angeles Times, reminded all those who are involved in one way or another with the Palestinian struggle of the importance of language in framing that struggle, and—whether or not one agrees with Hamas—of redefining both the struggle and the language used to shape it in the difficult years ahead.

For most Palestinians, what was refreshing about Meshaal’s piece was his use of a defiant language of struggle—one appropriate to their desperate circumstances—rather than the meaningless, empty, bankrupt language all but handed to current and previous Palestinian leaders by a team of American and Israeli script-writers.

Amazingly, there are still some people out there who don’t understand that language and politics are inseparable from one another—that there is no way to understand politics without understanding language, simply because politics exist not merely in cold hard facts, but in language itself.

This isn’t a complicated literary-theoretical trick: it’s common sense.

It’s impossible to think about politics without using language for the simple reason that it’s impossible to think about anything without using language.

The kind of language you use helps define how you think. You can’t just hold a certain political position, then come up with the words to express that position afterwards; the words have to be there first.

Even if you are particularly clever, the words you draw on—and the concepts and narratives with which those words are framed—almost always pre-exist you and the political positions you want to express. And the more conventional your point of view, the more readily you’ll find words, concepts and narratives ready to suit your purposes.

It’s not very surprising, actually.

This is why the careless use of certain words—“terrorism” is a perfect example—almost automatically leads to the adoption of certain political positions, because the words are doing the thinking for you. Such words are not only pre-cooked, they’re pre-digested: they are just passing through you.

Drawing on ready-to-use political language is unlikely to yield anything other than pre-formed, off-the-shelf, conventional thinking, because that’s precisely the kind of thinking that ready-to-use political language is designed for.

So, in general, people who uncritically use the political language that is available to them are not likely to come up with fresh new approaches to apparently intractable problems. They are, on the contrary, far more likely to go on thinking the way others want them to think.

This is why if you find yourself using the language, concepts and narratives—the “truth-entangling lines,” Shelley once called them—that are used by those who exercise political or military power, you are not very likely to think very differently from the way they want you to think.

On the other hand, if you insist on developing alternative approaches to various political situations—if you insist on thinking for yourself—you have to spend a lot more time thinking about the political language you’re using, the concepts you’re drawing on, the narratives and discourses you’re otherwise in danger of unconsciously buying into.

In no situation is a critical attitude to political language more important than the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, where political language has worked miracles that not only defy, but breathtakingly fly in the face of, the cold hard facts.

There is, quite simply, no other way to explain how it could be that the victims of four decades of relentless military occupation are so often made out to be the real villains, while those who willfully entered into—and have perpetuated and extended—that occupation are so often made out to be the victims; or how it could be that a state that was founded on an act of violent dispossession and ethnic cleansing could be a member in good standing of the international community, while those whom it dispossessed and banished from their land and homes are the ones who are treated as outcasts, murderers, outlaws, constantly being asked to apologize, to atone, to renounce this or that scrap of writing or ineffective gesture of defiance. Rarely have language and reality been separated by a greater gulf.

In fact, it could be argued that the worst thing about the process set in motion during those secret talks at Oslo in 1993 was the way in which it so systematically separated language and reality. On the one hand, there was a whole vocabulary and even a grammar of “negotiations” which came to called “the peace process”—“Area A,” “Area B,” “interim status,” “final status,” etc. And on the other hand there was an actual set of material circumstances, whereby, notwithstanding all the talk, Israel went right on expropriating more Palestinian land, uprooting more Palestinian trees, destroying more Palestinian homes, building more settlements.

How many times does one have to point out that the population of Jewish settlers illegally living in the occupied territories whose future status was supposedly being negotiated actually doubled as those negotiations were taking place, before one is granted the concession that in fact the whole thing was a farce? It’s not just that the language of the so-called peace process and what was actually happening were fundamentally at odds; it’s that language was systematically used to mask reality—or, as Harold Pinter put it during his remarks on a similar set of circumstances during his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, language was actually “employed to keep thought at bay.”

This is why it was so demoralizing for Palestinians to see their political leadership not merely cave in to all the concessions extracted from them with such ease at Oslo, but also buy into the whole linguistic scheme—the language game—that was being used to mask the underlying intensification of the occupation which is what Oslo was really all about. For ordinary Palestinians, it was obvious that language and reality had been separated, and it grew increasingly objectionable for them to see their leaders use the set of terms that had been handed to them, which had no bearing on the reality they were experiencing, rather than trying to adapt language to actual political and material circumstances.

And this is why it was so demoralizing to for Palestinians to hear, often under appalling circumstances, Ahmad Qureia or Mahmoud Abbas helplessly pleading for a return to “interim status talks” or “the Road Map,” rather than shouting out in much plainer language, “stop what you are doing to my people!”

This is why the words of Khaled Meshaal offered such relief to so many Palestinians (and not just those who support Hamas): because, rather than wallowing in a vocabulary invented to suit the purposes of American and Israeli planners and technocrats, he was describing the world as it actually exists for the Palestinians themselves, in a language actually suited to the occasion.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Illusion of Democracy: The Palestinian Elections

Illusion of Democracy: The Palestinian Elections
(Originally published by Saree Makdisi in the San Francisco Chronicle, 22 January 2006)

With about 80 percent of eligible voters registered, and more than 700 candidates running in a hotly contested campaign for 132 seats on the Palestinian Legislative Council, the stage is set for what is being packaged as an impressive exercise in democracy when Palestinians in the occupied territories go to the polls on Wednesday.

There are, however, some problems with this rosy picture.

For one thing, candidates representing the Islamic Hamas movement seem positioned for a significant victory over their rivals in Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' ruling Fatah party. The United States and the European Union have threatened to cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority if Hamas is granted a presence in the Palestinian Cabinet, which would be the natural result of it taking a significant share of the popular vote. And Israel says it will refuse to negotiate with a government that includes Hamas.

Hamas has gained electoral support not because so many Palestinians support its ideology and violence, but because they are fed up with spending a 39th year under Israeli military occupation, with a Fatah-dominated leadership that has failed to deliver on any of the promises of peace and prosperity that have been made since the 1993 Oslo accords.

Even at the height of the peace process, less than 18 percent of the West Bank was ever actually returned to Palestinian control -- and even that was divided into dozens of disconnected fragments of territory. That is not the fault of Fatah, but rather of the Israelis, who continue to refuse to dismantle their occupation and abide by treaty obligations and the principles of international law.

But as long as Fatah leaders like Abbas refuse to countenance any alternative to participation in a process that has led to nothing but further paralysis and misery for the Palestinian population, a vote for Hamas is in reality a vote against Fatah.

This is political cynicism born of despair.

When Palestinians are asked which of their leaders they most trust, twice as many choose "none of the above" as Abbas -- and he is the least distrusted leader. Polls show that fewer than 3 percent of the Palestinians living in the occupied territories actually back Hamas' objective of creating an Islamic state in historic Palestine. Three-quarters support either a one- or two-state peaceful resolution of the conflict with Israel.

All the talk of elections is part of an attempt to impose a sense of normalcy on a highly abnormal situation: not just the endless occupation, but the unresolved future of the Palestinian people, two-thirds of whom are excluded from the electoral process because they do not live in the occupied territories but rather in refugee camps or in the diaspora, or as second-class citizens of the state of Israel. And none of this will be changed by the elections.

Leaving aside the question of what it means to hold a "national" election when the majority of the nation doesn't have the right to vote, even the process of holding elections while living under military occupation is highly problematic for those who are eligible to vote.

The Israeli army denies Palestinians in the occupied territories the right to free movement, so access to campaign rallies and even voting booths can hardly be taken for granted. Right now, for example, 800,000 Palestinians living in the northern West Bank are banned from traveling outside of their home districts, and a large strand of Route 60, the main West Bank artery, has been off limits to Palestinian traffic since August.

Campaigning candidates have to run not only the regular gauntlet of Israeli checkpoints, patrols and roadblocks, but also must navigate politically motivated interference of the kind that in last year's presidential elections guaranteed that only Abbas -- Israel's chosen candidate -- was allowed free movement. Other candidates were often detained and sometimes physically abused at Israeli checkpoints.

Israel recently gave permission for east Jerusalem Palestinians to vote, but it has banned Hamas candidates from campaigning there or having their names printed on ballots.

Of course, according to international law, east Jerusalem is considered occupied territory, so it's not really up to Israel to allow or prevent Palestinians there from participating in the political process.

In all, these can hardly be considered genuinely democratic elections, not because the Palestinians don't want them to be, but rather because of the larger circumstances, the indelible reality that it is impossible for a nation to hold genuine elections while one-third is living under military occupation and two-thirds are denied the right to vote.

This is not to say that there is no purpose in holding elections for a government that will find itself without a state to govern. The point of the elections is to maintain the illusion that there still is a political process that will eventually lead to Palestinian "statehood." The elections fit into a wider narrative of Palestinian statehood-without-a-state that has been pushed by the United States and Israel, with the Palestinian Authority's acquiescence -- since Oslo.

Not only do Wednesday's elections maintain this deception, they also reinforce the sense that they are part of a wider process of Palestinian "reform" and "democratization," which are keys to the future of the so-called peace process.

After all, the United States has decreed that all progress toward peace depends on the behavior of the Palestinians, rather than on the Israelis. Placing that burden on those who never chose to live under military occupation -- while exempting the occupiers -- is hardly likely to yield real results.

But it's not meant to. This is why Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's senior adviser Dov Weisglass describes the situation as "a bottle of formaldehyde." According to Weisglass, maintaining the illusion of a political process guarantees that there will be no resolution of the conflict "until the Palestinians turn into Finns." And that, of course, suits Israel just fine, because as long as the illusion is maintained, it doesn't have to do anything but hang on to the territories it took by force in 1967.

Witch Hunt at UCLA

Witch Hunt at UCLA
(Originally published by Saree Makdisi in The Los Angeles Times, 22 January 2006)

'UCLA STUDENTS: Do you have a professor who just can't stop talking about President Bush, about the war in Iraq, about the Republican Party, or any other ideological issue that has nothing to do with the class subject matter? It doesn't matter whether this is a past class, or your class from this coming winter quarter. If you help expose the professor, we'll pay you for your work."

This grotesque offer appeared last week on a new website taking aim at members of the UCLA faculty. The site, created by the Bruin Alumni Assn., a group founded by 2003 UCLA graduate Andrew Jones, offers differing bounties for class notes, handouts and illicit recordings of lectures ($100 for all three).

A glance at the profiles of the "targeted professors," however, reveals that they have been singled out, in most cases, not for what goes on in their courses, but for the positions they have taken outside the classroom — and outside the university.

I earned my own inaccurate and defamatory "profile," for example, not for what I have said in my classes on English poets such as Wordsworth and Blake — my academic specialty, which the website pointedly avoids mentioning — but rather for what I have written in newspapers about Middle Eastern politics.

My colleagues and I are being targeted for speaking out on the kinds of urgent social matters and universal principles that it has always — in every society and every age — been the task of intellectuals to address.

The website assumes that any professor who speaks out in a public forum must at the same time be indulging in ideological abuse of his or her students — proselytizing them, indoctrinating them. And it's actually not just any professor; it's only the supposedly "liberal" ones, since "conservative" faculty are not targeted on the website.

Naturally, a professor who speaks out in public expects to receive criticism in public. Criticism is one thing; a farrago of misquotations, misrepresentations and utter falsehoods, dragging in one's family and stretching back to one's high school days, is something else entirely. This is no way to assess someone's classroom conduct.

Ultimately, of course, this has nothing to do with me or my colleagues, or our teaching. A method for assessing how professors treat their students is already built into how universities work. Every course at UCLA gives students the opportunity to anonymously evaluate their professors, and those evaluations are used in hiring, promotion and tenure decisions; abusive professors don't get very far in their careers.

So the point of the website is not really to produce genuine "evaluations" of classroom dynamics — a cause that would hardly be well-served by a tiny group of politically motivated zealots accountable to no one and trying to use the cash nexus to break the sacrosanct bond between teacher and student. The point, rather, is to silence voices that go against the zealots' right-wing orthodoxy, and to subject the classroom to outside political surveillance, not simply by vigilante groups like this one, but ultimately by the state itself.

Jones, who created the website, is a former leader of UCLA's campus Republican organization. He explicitly aligns himself with the "student academic freedom movement" begun by conservative activist David Horowitz (although Horowitz last week criticized Jones, whom he said he'd once fired for pressuring students to file false reports about their professors).

The two distinguishing features of the academic freedom movement are the total absence of any significant student involvement and its use of Orwellian language — in which slogans such as "academic freedom" actually mean their opposite.

One member of the website's advisory board is state Sen. Bill Morrow (R-Oceanside), who has introduced a bill creating a "student bill of rights" — written not by students but by their paternalistic "friends" who assume they aren't up to the task of thinking critically for themselves.

Morrow's bill, which failed to pass last year but will be reconsidered this year, would wreak havoc. It could impose unprecedented state monitoring of classrooms and compel professors to teach discredited materials. It asserts, for example, that "curricula and reading lists in the humanities and social sciences shall respect the uncertainty and unsettled character of all human knowledge in these areas, and provide students with dissenting sources and viewpoints."

The intention is presumably to force "liberal" faculty to teach "conservative" materials, as though a university education functions according to the same degraded logic as the Bill O'Reilly show. But the bill could also force a professor teaching the Holocaust to teach the views of Holocaust deniers ("dissenting sources").

Such subtleties don't keep the conservative crusaders up at night. Irrespective of the damage their campaign inflicts, members of the hard right — who currently control all three branches of government and yet seem irrationally convinced of their own disempowerment — are seeking to impose their worldview on our university system through crude intimidation and "big government" intervention that reactionaries normally grumble about when it's taking care of the poor, the ill or the elderly.

Their success would almost certainly guarantee that what gets taught would be determined not according to scholarly criteria but according to political pressure. I'd hate to be mistaken for a "conservative," but the barbarians really are at the gates.

The Whitewashing of Ariel Sharon

The Whitewashing of Ariel Sharon
(Originally published by Saree Makdisi in The Los Angeles Times, 7 January 2006)

AS ARIEL SHARON'S career comes to an end, the whitewashing is already underway. Literally overnight he was being hailed as "a man of courage and peace" who had generated "hopes for a far-reaching accord" with an electoral campaign promising "to end conflict with the Palestinians."

But even if end-of-career assessments often stretch the truth, and even if far too many people fall for the old saw about the gruff old warrior miraculously turning into a man of peace, the reality is that miracles don't happen, and only rarely have words and realities been separated by such a yawning abyss.

From the beginning to the end of his career, Sharon was a man of ruthless and often gratuitous violence. The waypoints of his career are all drenched in blood, from the massacre he directed at the village of Qibya in 1953, in which his men destroyed whole houses with their occupants — men, women and children — still inside, to the ruinous invasion of Lebanon in 1982, in which his army laid siege to Beirut, cut off water, electricity and food supplies and subjected the city's hapless residents to weeks of indiscriminate bombardment by land, sea and air.

As a purely gratuitous bonus, Sharon and his army later facilitated the massacre of hundreds of Palestinians at the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, and in all about 20,000 people — almost all innocent civilians — were killed during his Lebanon adventure.

Sharon's approach to peacemaking in recent years wasn't very different from his approach to war. Extrajudicial assassinations, mass home demolitions, the construction of hideous barriers and walls, population transfers and illegal annexations — these were his stock in trade as "a man of courage and peace."

Some may take comfort in the myth that Sharon was transformed into a peacemaker, but in fact he never deviated from his own 1998 call to "run and grab as many hilltops" in the occupied territories as possible. His plan for peace with the Palestinians involved grabbing large portions of the West Bank, ultimately annexing them to Israel, and turning over the shattered, encircled, isolated, disconnected and barren fragments of territory left behind to what only a fool would call a Palestinian state.

SHARON'S "painful sacrifices" for peace may have involved Israel keeping less, rather than more, of the territory that it captured violently and has clung to illegally for four decades, but few seem to have noticed that it's not really a sacrifice to return something that wasn't yours to begin with.

His much-ballyhooed withdrawal from Gaza left 1.4 million Palestinians in what is essentially the world's largest prison, cut off from the rest of the world and as subject to Israeli power as before. It also terminated the possibility of a two-state solution to the conflict by condemning Palestinians to whiling away their lives in a series of disconnected Bantustans, ghettos, reservations and strategic hamlets, entirely at the mercy of Israel.

That's not peace. As Crazy Horse or Sitting Bull would have recognized at a glance, it's an attempt to pacify an entire people by bludgeoning them into a subhuman irrelevance. Nothing short of actual genocide — for which Sharon's formula was merely a kind of substitute — would persuade the Palestinian people to quietly accept such an arrangement, or negate themselves in some other way. And no matter which Israeli politician now assumes Sharon's bloody mantle, such an approach to peace will always fail.

Closed Off, Walled in

Closed Off, Walled in
(Originally published by Saree Makdisi in the London Review of Books, 1 September 2005)

Palestinians celebrated as Israel began to withdraw its soldiers and settlers from the Gaza Strip (and from a handful of small and isolated colonies in the northern West Bank). The withdrawal will, it’s true, offer some immediate relief after 38 years of military occupation. At the same time, however, it’s clear that it is designed to serve Israel’s interests, not those of the Palestinians. It will allow the Palestinians of Gaza greater freedom to move about internally, but it will do nothing to resolve their long-term problems; on the contrary, it will leave the territory just as isolated from the outside world – including the West Bank and east Jerusalem, which, with Gaza, were supposed to form the basis of a Palestinian state – and just as much subject to Israeli power.

The Gaza Strip is the unnatural product of the destruction of Palestine in 1948. Most of its inhabitants are descendants of people driven from their homes during the creation of Israel. Most of the Israeli settlers cleared from Gaza will move to the coastal plain south of Jaffa, which is where the refugees of Gaza came from in the first place. Not one Palestinian village there survived the destruction of 1948. The Jewish settlers lived their lives in Gaza in contempt and ignorance of the people at whose expense their fantasy of frontier settlement and biblical prophecy was being played out, and they will be blind to the fact that they will now be living amid the ruins of the homes of their former neighbours.

The Jewish settlers who lived illegally in Gaza will be handsomely compensated (an average family will receive around $350,000, as well as $500 or so as a monthly housing allowance for up to two years). In 1948 Jews took over the homes of some of the 750,000 Palestinians who were driven out of Jaffa, Haifa and Jerusalem, but Palestinians won’t be able to take over the houses in the former settlements in Gaza. Many settlers have destroyed their own homes to stop Palestinians having them, though they will all in any case be reduced to rubble by the army. Palestinians won’t be allowed even to stand on the rubble until a month after the Israelis have rolled up their razor wire and taken their concrete blocks and prefab observation towers to the West Bank, from which they have no intention of withdrawing.

The current withdrawal will, however, end some of the disruptions of life for the Palestinians of Gaza (and for those in the area of Jenin, whose lives were held hostage to the whims of four tiny Jewish settlements in the West Bank that have also been dismantled). For the first time in years, they will be free from constant Israeli supervision and harassment: they will be able to go for an evening stroll; to swim in the sea or to fish (indeed, they will be able to use the beaches for bathing, rather than as secondary roads); or to visit friends without having to run the gauntlet of checkpoints and patrols.

The Jewish settlers of Gaza had access to five times as much water and 700 times more land per capita than the local Palestinians. By the end of the so-called peace process in 2000, 0.5 per cent of the territory’s population controlled about 40 per cent of its surface area. Israeli rule, and the Oslo Accords which cemented the occupation, broke the Gaza Strip into four discontinuous chunks separated by Israeli roads, military installations and settlements. A network of Israeli checkpoints, open at haphazard times, severely limited the movement of Palestinians. A student from Gaza City attending classes in nearby Rafah would have to start walking to school at 3 a.m. in order to have any hope of getting to class on time – and to leave by 4 p.m. to be home by midnight. Ambulances were routinely held up at checkpoints. Since 2000, more than eighty Palestinians have died because they were not allowed through. According to the UN Population Fund, 56 Palestinian babies were born at Israeli checkpoints between late 2000 and summer 2003. Almost half of them died, and 19 women died in childbirth at checkpoints.

Such scenes may now be avoided, but even under optimal circumstances – and it remains to be seen how comprehensive the withdrawal will actually be – there are vast obstacles facing the Palestinians. The most recent World Bank assessment of the Palestinian economy, for example, found that average incomes have declined by more than a third since 2000. Nearly half of all Palestinians live below the poverty line of two dollars a day (and the proportion in Gaza is worse than in the West Bank, at 75 per cent). Recent studies have documented alarming rates of malnutrition in the Occupied Territories, especially among children. ‘The precipitator of this economic crisis,’ according to the World Bank, ‘has been “closure” . . . Closures, including the Separation Barrier, prevent the free flow of Palestinian economic transactions; they raise the cost of doing business and disrupt the predictability needed for orderly economic life.’

Before the Oslo peace process started, it was possible for Palestinians to move between the West Bank, Gaza, Jerusalem and Israel. Israel used the Palestinians as a source of cheap labour and the Occupied Territories as a captive market. A quarter of a million Palestinians – between a third and a half of the workforce – used to support their families by working in Israel. Today, only 15,000 Palestinians are legally allowed to work in Israel. Tens of thousands of Palestinians who were once able to work in the Gulf and send money home have had to move back (250,000 Palestinians were expelled from Kuwait after the first Gulf War). Unemployment in the Occupied Territories is now around 30 per cent, and again, the situation in Gaza is worse than in the West Bank.

The future of Gaza – and the reality of Israel’s ‘disengagement’ – depends on what happens in the city of Rafah, on the Egyptian border. Apart from the two or three crossings that allow access to Israel for the relatively small number of permit-holding Palestinians, Rafah is the only link between the 1.4 million people of Gaza and the outside world. It has also been one of the focal points of Israel’s systematic programme of house demolition. Two thirds of the 2500 houses that the Israeli army has demolished in Gaza since 2000 – leaving 25,000 Palestinians homeless once again, and uncompensated once again – were in Rafah. Some of them were destroyed as collective punishment; many others in order to provide soldiers with clear sight lines or to make space for border patrols.

Until 2000, almost half a million people passed through the Rafah border post each year. That number has dropped by half as Israel has tightened its grip on Gaza. In 2004, the crossing was closed for one stretch of almost three weeks and another of more than a month. Men between the ages of 15 and 35 are routinely denied permission to cross; so, often, are women of the same age. According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, 480,278 Gazans, a third of the population, are aged between 15 and 35.

One of the key features of disengagement was to have been the handover of the Rafah border post to the Palestinian authorities, who would – according to the terms of an Israeli plan – have been supervised by international inspectors. However, Israel is now insisting on closing the Rafah terminal altogether and opening a new three-way crossing, under its control, where the borders of Israel, Egypt and Gaza meet. If the Egyptians don’t agree to this plan, Israel is threatening to seal off Gaza from the east and make the Karni and Erez crossings into Israel the only ways out. Such behaviour would make clear that Israel has not disengaged from Gaza after all, and should still be regarded as an occupying power there, as in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. Gaza would then have to be recognised for what it is: an enormous open-air prison.

The suggestion that the withdrawal from Gaza is a sign of hope for the peace process – or even the beginning of the end of the occupation – is absurd. The Israelis have, for once, been brutally honest about this. ‘The understandings between the US president and me protect Israel’s most essential interests,’ Sharon said in December 2004: ‘first and foremost, not demanding a return to the ’67 borders; allowing Israel to permanently keep large settlement blocs which have high Israeli populations; and the total refusal of allowing Palestinian refugees to return to Israel.’ As the withdrawal from Gaza got underway, Israel’s minister of defence, Shaul Mofaz, announced bluntly that Israel intended to hold on to the core of the settlements in the West Bank – about half the territory. Withdrawal from Gaza will allow Israel to concentrate on fulfilling the Allon Plan of 1967, its original scheme for disposing of the West Bank by annexing most of the land and handing back the leftovers to Jordan or Palestinian self-rule. The Palestinians will now be dispersed between an isolated Gaza, bits and pieces of the West Bank and an isolated east Jerusalem. Oslo and Camp David repackaged this basic idea. Sharon is just less subtle than Rabin, Peres and Barak.

The strategic thinking underlying disengagement has been spelled out by one of Sharon’s advisers, Arnon Soffer of Haifa University. ‘When 2.5 million people live in a closed-off Gaza, it’s going to be a human catastrophe,’ Soffer told an interviewer from the Jerusalem Post recently. ‘Those people will become even bigger animals than they are today, with the aid of an insane fundamentalist Islam. The pressure at the border will be awful. It’s going to be a terrible war. So, if we want to remain alive, we will have to kill and kill and kill. All day, every day.’ Soffer has one worry. ‘The only thing that concerns me,’ he says, ‘is how to ensure that the boys and men who are going to have to do the killing will be able to return home to their families and be normal human beings.’ The ultimate purpose of all this is not merely separation, but what the Israelis call transfer, the completion of the ethnic cleansing project begun in 1948. ‘Unilateral separation doesn’t guarantee “peace”,’ Soffer says. ‘It guarantees a Zionist-Jewish state with an overwhelming majority of Jews; it guarantees the kind of safety that will return tourists to the country; and it guarantees one other important thing. Between 1948 and 1967, the [border] fence was a fence, and 400,000 people left the West Bank voluntarily. This is what will happen after separation. If a Palestinian cannot come into Tel Aviv for work, he will look in Iraq, or Kuwait, or London. I believe that there will be movement out of the area.’ ‘Voluntary transfer?’ the interviewer asked. ‘Yes,’ Soffer replied.

Israel’s so-called disengagement from the Palestinians – whatever its short-term benefits for the people of Gaza – is not designed to bring peace to anyone. It is designed to cement Israel’s grip on the core of the West Bank around an artificially expanded and systematically de-Arabised Jerusalem. Like the scrappy settlements abandoned near Jenin, Gaza is to be given up so that Israel can consolidate its hold over the much more valuable land and aquifers of the West Bank; Palestinians will be confined to walled-in ghettoes. Genuine peace – beginning with a genuine end to the occupation – is a distant prospect.

Israel Leaves, but Gaza is Hardly Free

Israel Leaves, but Gaza is Hardly Free
(Originally published by Saree Makdisi in The Los Angeles Times, 21 August 2005)

PALESTINIANS CELEBRATED as Israel redeployed its soldiers and settlers
from the Gaza Strip last week. The move offers some relief to the
people of Gaza after 38 years of brutal military occupation.

But, given its unilateral disconnection from any framework for a
genuine peace, the withdrawal does nothing to address Palestinian
aspirations. Palestinians will gain greater freedom of movement within
Gaza's borders, but it seems inevitable that the territory will remain
as isolated from the outside world (not to mention the West Bank and
Jerusalem) and as subject to Israeli domination as before.

Quite apart from the question of Palestinian self-determination —
which hinges on ties between Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem — the
withdrawal also will do nothing to alleviate the social and economic
crisis produced by the Israeli occupation.

A 2004 World Bank study revealed that, since the intensification of
the occupation in 2000, average Palestinian incomes have declined by
more than one-third. Nearly half of all Palestinians live below the
poverty line of $2 a day. The World Bank's assessment of the cause of
this dramatic deterioration in Palestinian living standards is
unequivocal. "The precipitator of this economic crisis has been
'closure,' a multifaceted system of restrictions on the movement of
Palestinian people and goods, which the government of Israel argues is
essential to protect Israelis in Israel and the settlements. Closures,
including the Separation Barrier, prevent the free flow of Palestinian
economic transactions; they raise the cost of doing business and
disrupt the predictability needed for orderly economic life."

Until the Israeli use of closure as a form of collective punishment
became routine in the 1990s, it was possible for Palestinians living
under Israeli occupation to move among the West Bank, Gaza, Jerusalem
and Israel. Israeli policy then was to use the Palestinians as a source
of cheap labor and the occupied territories as a captive market.
Between a third and a half of the Palestinian workforce supported their
families by working in Israel.

All this ended with the elaborate calculus of occupation devised at
Oslo between 1993 and 1995, which severely restricted Palestinian
movement. Today, only 15,000 Palestinians from the occupied territories
are allowed to work in Israel. Unemployment in the territories is
between 25% and 30%; some estimates place unemployment in Gaza at about

Obviously, for Palestinians to have a chance at creating and
sustaining an economy, Gaza must be able to connect freely with the
outside world. Israel, citing the usual security concerns, does not
want that to happen.

Gaza is a narrow strip, bounded by the sea, Egypt and Israel. Even
after the withdrawal, Israel wants to control land access to the
territory; and, by virtue of its military power, it also will control
approaches to Gaza by air and sea.

Now the only crack in the wall that Israel effectively forms around
Gaza is the crossing at Rafah, which straddles the border with Egypt.
Israel long ago asserted its control there by clearing away Palestinian
homes close to the border. Two-thirds of the 2,500 homes wantonly
demolished by the Israeli army in Gaza since 2000 (leaving about 25,000
Palestinians, many already refugees twice over, homeless once again)
were in Rafah. Most were destroyed to clear lines of sight and space
for patrols on either side of the dismal border terminal that allows
passage between Egypt and Gaza.

Because Rafah has no point of contact with Israel, Israeli forces are
supposed to leave it as part of the withdrawal. But Israel now says it
will redeploy its army away from the Egypt-Gaza border — later, not now
— only if it is satisfied with the way that Egypt secures its side of
the border. This is a major loophole in the disengagement plan.

Moreover, shortly before the Gaza withdrawal got underway, the Israeli
government announced that if it does withdraw from Rafah, it ultimately
wants the point of entry there closed so that it can instead open — and
control — a new three-way crossing, where the borders of Egypt, Israel
and Gaza meet. If Egypt doesn't agree to this plan, and instead decides
to maintain its own border crossing, Israel has threatened to suspend
agreements with Gaza that allow for goods to pass to and through Israel
without fees. That would throttle what remains of Gaza's economy and
further isolate the territory.

So long as Israel can control all access to Gaza, it cannot be said to
have truly disengaged. It will still be an occupying power there, as in
the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Which means that Gaza must be
recognized for what it is: the world's largest prison.

Brutality that Boomerangs

Brutality that Boomerangs
(Originally published by Saree Makdisi in The Los Angeles Times, 29 July 2005)

I am angered and sickened by the bombings here in London on July 7, but I am equally angered by the unthinking reactions in the United States and Britain to those disgusting attacks.

The usual self-congratulatory contrast between "our" civilization and "their" barbarism has set the stage for a cycle of moralistic inquiries into the motivations of suicide bombers and the supposed duty of "good" Muslims to restrain "bad" ones.

Few have noticed that suicide bombing is merely a tactic used by those who lack other means of delivering explosives. Fewer still seem to notice that what happened in London is what occurs every time a U.S. or British warplane unloads its bombs on an Iraqi village.

But, you may say, our forces don't deliberately target civilians. Perhaps not. But they have consistently shown themselves to be indifferent to the civilian casualties produced by their operations.

"Collateral damage" is the inevitable result of choosing to go to war. By making the choice to go to war in Iraq, we made the choice to kill tens of thousands of civilians.

It does not matter to bereaved parents whether their child was killed deliberately, as the result of a utilitarian calculation of "the greater good," or of the callous indifference of officials from a distant power.

American and British media have devoted hours to wondering what would drive a seemingly normal young Muslim to destroy himself and others. No one has paused to ask what would cause a seemingly normal young Christian or Jew to strap himself into a warplane and drop bombs on a village, knowing full well his bombs will inevitably kill civilians (and, of course, soldiers).

Because "our" way of killing is dressed up in smart uniforms and shiny weapons and cloaked in the language of grand causes, we place it on a different moral plane than "theirs."

I read an article about a Marine sniper who was given a medal at a California ceremony for having shot dead 32 Iraqis during the battle for Fallouja last year-- young men who were defending their city from an invading army. A nod to their deaths was made by the sniper and a chaplain, but these are the sentiments that struck me:

"He didn't kill 32 people," said a sergeant major. "He saved numerous lives.... That's how Marines look at it." And his mother said, "It's difficult. You send off your little boy and he comes back a man who has protected everyone." Clearly, "our" lives are all that matter and "their" lives literally don't count.

And are we really expected to believe that such brutal indifference to other people's lives has nothing to do with what happened in London three weeks ago?

"It is by distortedly exalting some men, that others are distortedly debased," the Anglo American revolutionary Thomas Paine warned two centuries ago. As a result, he added, "a vast mass of humankind are degradedly thrown into the background of the human picture." His point was that if people are treated inhumanly, they will cease to act humanly.

Our governments dismiss out of hand any connection between the London bombings and the war in Iraq. Such attacks, they say, predate 2003. But Iraq was first invaded in 1991, not 2003. Then a decade of sanctions against that country killed a million Iraqis, including 500,000 children. Over the same period, unwavering support for Israel has resulted in the deaths of thousands of innocent Palestinians and the total paralysis of an entire people. Tens of thousands have been slaughtered by U.S. and British forces in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001.

At no point has peaceful protest, persuasion, demonstration, negotiation or remonstration made so much as a dent in the single-minded U.S. and British policy. If all legitimate forms of dissent go unheeded, illegitimate forms will be turned to instead. Some will resort to violence, which does not producethe desired result but may, by way of unthinking reaction, give vent to the inhumanity with which they have been treated for so long. Paine was right:

People who are treated brutally will finally turn into brutes.

This is not a war between "civilization" and "barbarism" but a war between one form of zealotry and another, one form of ignorance and another, one form of barbarism and another. More of the same, underwritten by ignorance, will not yield solutions.

The time has come to be human, and — motivated by sympathy, actuated by reason — to think and act as human beings, not unthinking brutes.

Neocons Lay Siege to the Ivory Towers

Neocons Lay Siege to the Ivory Towers
(Originally published by Saree Makdisi in The Los Angeles Times, 4 May 2005)

In the months ahead, the state Senate Committee on Education will consider a bill that pretends to strike a blow for intellectual honesty, truth and freedom, but in reality poses a profound threat to academic freedom in the United States.

Peddled under the benign name "An Academic Bill of Rights," SB 5 is in fact part of a wide assault on universities, professors and teaching across the country. Similar bills are pending in more than a dozen state legislatures and at the federal level, all calling for government intrusion into pedagogical matters, such as text assignments and course syllabuses, that neither legislators nor bureaucrats are competent to address.

The language of the California bill — which was blocked in committee last week but will be reconsidered later in the legislative session — is extraordinarily disingenuous, even Orwellian. Declaring that "free inquiry and free speech are indispensable" in "the pursuit of truth," it argues that "intellectual independence means the protection of students from the imposition of any orthodoxy of a political, religious or ideological nature." Professors should "not take unfair advantage of their position of power over a student by indoctrinating him or her with the teacher's own opinions before a student has had an opportunity fairly to examine other opinions upon the matters in question."

To protect students from what one might (mistakenly) suppose to be an epidemic of indoctrination, the bill mandates that students be graded on the basis of their "reasoned answers" rather than their political beliefs. Reading lists should "respect the uncertainty and unsettled character of all human knowledge." Speakers brought to campus should "promote intellectual pluralism," and faculty should eschew political, religious or "anti-religious" bias.

Notwithstanding its contorted syntax, the bill may sound reasonable. But, in fact, it has nothing to do with balance and everything to do with promoting a neoconservative agenda. For one thing, the proposed "safeguards" to "protect" students from faculty intimidation are already in place at all universities, which have procedures to encourage students' feedback and evaluate their grievances. Despite a lot of noise from the right about liberal bias on campus, there are simply no meaningful data to suggest that any of these procedures have failed.

The real purpose of the bill, then, is not to provide students with "rights" but to institute state monitoring of universities, to impose specific points of view on instructors — in many cases, points of view that have been intellectually discredited — and ultimately to silence dissenting voices by punishing universities that protect them.

"Why should we, as fairly moderate to conservative legislators, continue to support universities that turn out students who rail against the very policies their parents voted us in for?" asks the Republican sponsor of the Ohio version of the bill.

Backers of the Florida bill would like to empower students to sue professors with whom they disagree on the theory of evolution.

The campaign for academic "rights" actually originated with organizations and individuals committed to defending Israel from criticism, and whose interest in curtailing academic freedom dovetails with those of conservatives.

At the federal level, for example, a confluence of conservative and pro-Israeli forces helped push HR 3077 through the House of Representatives in 2003. That bill, which foundered in a Senate committee (but has been resurrected in the current Congress), called for government monitoring of international studies programs that receive federal funding. The bill was drafted in response to the claim that the federal government was funding programs that criticize American foreign policy. If passed, it would have created a board (including two members from "federal agencies that have national security responsibilities") to ensure that academic programs "better reflect the national needs related to homeland security." Its supporters included the American Jewish Congress, the Anti-Defamation League, and the American Israel Political Action Committee, the bulwark of Israel's Washington lobby.

The bill was also backed by pro-Israel agitators Daniel Pipes and Martin Kramer, who, via allies such as neoconservative firebrand David Horowitz, are among the proponents of the "bill of rights" legislation at the state level. All the proposed bills before state legislatures are variants of a text written by Horowitz and backed by Students for Academic Freedom, which maintains a website where students can complain about their instructors' supposed bias.

The problem with all this is that the university is meant to be an insular environment. Those within its walls are supposed to be protected from outside political pressures so that learning can take place.

But the lesson of the recent upheavals at Columbia University — where an individual professor became the object of a concerted campaign of intimidation because of his criticisms of Israel — is that pressure groups targeting an individual professor for his public views are willing to inflict collateral damage on an entire university. What the new legislation offers such groups is the opportunity to inflict damage preemptively on our entire educational system.

Despite its narrow defeat in the California Senate Education Committee last week, SB 5's supporters clearly will not disappear quietly. If this and similar bills pass, who gets hired and what gets taught could be decided not according to academic and intellectual criteria but by pressure groups, many of whose members are failed academics driven by crassly political motivations. Society would pay the price.

Living with the Wall

Living with the Wall
(Originally published by Saree Makdisi in the London Review of Books, 3 March 2005)

It was on the way up to Qalandya, on the edge of metropolitan Jerusalem, that I got my first glimpse of the separation barrier. In the neighbourhood of al-Ram, large sections of the wall that Israel began building in 2003 have recently been erected, although gaps still exist towards the northern edge of the district.

As the construction of the wall north of Jerusalem enters its final phase, it has become clear that the 50,000 Palestinians in and near al-Ram will be entirely surrounded, cut off from each other and the outside world. Nearby, the wall will also isolate 70,000 Palestinians in and around Bir Nabala – people who already live between sections of wall in al-Ram to the east and al-Jib to the west, and have the Beit Hanina checkpoint to the south of them and the notorious Qalandya checkpoint to the north.

At one point, to stay on the west side of the wall, we had to drive along a pockmarked strip of road directly beneath it. Other Palestinians, most of them on foot, were picking their way among the potholes, trying to avoid being spattered with mud or hit by passing vehicles.

At the Qalandya checkpoint, there was a massive traffic jam of taxis, cars, buses, minivans and trucks. Some were trying to find a place to park; others to get out of the parking spaces they had been wedged into. Hundreds of people were milling about: women, children, men carrying boxes and suitcases, farmers carrying crates, merchants carrying loads of material, all hoping to find cars or buses or trucks to their final destinations – or, more likely than not, just to the next checkpoint, where they would have to go through the whole thing again. ‘Nablus! Nablus! Nablus!’ some drivers were calling out, offering rides there. ‘Beit Lahem, Beit Lahem,’ over here, for rides to Bethlehem; ‘al-Quds, al-Quds,’ over there, for Jerusalem. Somewhere in the sea of cars and people I found Hani, the driver who had arranged to take me on the next stage of my journey.

As Hani and I set off for Qalqilya, I worried whether the green West Bank licence plates on his car would cause us problems. Jerusalem residents have yellow Israeli plates, and so fare better at roadblocks and avoid routine army searches altogether. ‘These days, it’s not so bad,’ Hani assured me. ‘A few months ago things were terrible; we couldn’t move around at all, but the army’s recently relaxed its grip. That’s what they do: they throttle you so hard that you’re about to die, then they relax so it only hurts: there are still checkpoints and roadblocks, searches and harassment, but because you can kind of get around, it doesn’t feel so bad.’ He told me the road we were on was normally classified as a ‘restricted road’. Until a few months back, we wouldn’t have been allowed on it with West Bank plates. ‘But as long as the “loosening” lasts,’ he explained, ‘we can use this road. Provided we have the appropriate permits and our papers are in order.’

The operating principles of the Oslo Accords have greatly facilitated the Israeli stranglehold on Palestinian life. Oslo split the Palestinians in the West Bank into what the agreement defined as Areas A, B and C. Area A consists of the major Palestinian cities, like Nablus and Ramallah, which reverted to nominal Palestinian control under the agreement – but it amounts to only 18 per cent of the West Bank. Area C, under full Israeli control, amounts to more than 60 per cent, and Area B, which is under Palestinian administration but Israeli security control, to another 22 per cent. All the bits and pieces of Areas A and B are cut off from one another, islands completely surrounded by Area C. Oslo gave Israel a free hand over Area C until final status talks – which were never arrived at – could be successfully concluded. It was partly as a result of this that the Israeli building of colonies and roads continued feverishly throughout the so-called negotiations. In 1995 alone, Israel added 100 kilometres of new roads to the West Bank: 20 per cent of all Israeli road-building in that year. And the more Israel consolidated its hold on Area C, the more the Palestinians were forced to find ways around the roads from which they were excluded – the Israelis call them ‘sterile’ roads. Hani would periodically point out the dusty tracks on the hillsides which Palestinians have to use to get from village to village, since many Palestinian towns aren’t adequately linked to main roads (again, this is neither oversight nor coincidence). There are two semi-independent road networks in this tiny territory: the elaborate, well-paved, well-signed, well-marked and well-lit Israeli one, and the broken, potholed, discontinuous, repeatedly interrupted and regularly blockaded Palestinian one. In order to complete the separation of the Israeli and Palestinian road systems in the West Bank, Israel is planning a system of bridges and tunnels that will link the fragmented Palestinian areas while allowing Israeli traffic to cut through the West Bank on ‘sterile’ roads. The army likes this idea because it will in the future be possible to stop communication between the Palestinian areas simply by opening and closing a few of these bridges and tunnels. The whole thing is designed to look as if it makes life easier for the Palestinians, while actually facilitating the occupation for the Israelis.

In January 2004, according to the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), there were 59 permanent Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank, ten partial checkpoints, 479 earth mounds, 75 trenches, 100 roadblocks and 40 road gates, all designed to disrupt or halt the circulation of Palestinian traffic. All Palestinians need permits to travel around the West Bank (which was not the case before Oslo). Getting a permit requires a lengthy administrative procedure, and tens of thousands of requests from Palestinians who for one reason or another are deemed ‘security risks’ are flatly denied. The vast majority of permits issued are for pedestrians or passengers on public transport. Of more than two million Palestinians in the West Bank, only 3000 have permits to drive their own vehicles. Hani’s car belonged to the organisation he worked for. In any case, even Palestinians with permits have to contend with the grid of Israeli checkpoints, and their random opening and closing.

On the way to Qalqilya, we passed Palestinian towns and villages whose access roads had been blocked by the army with piles of earth or boulders. At each one there were parked cars and vans, or people waiting. The Jewish colonies we’d seen were very different. Invariably set on the highest hilltops, with grid layouts, chalet houses, woods and gardens, they presented a radical visual contrast to the parched communities beneath them. The settlements had wide, well-lit and beautifully paved access roads.

Qalqilya has a population of about 60,000 and is itself a major agricultural town, surrounded by fields, orchards, greenhouses and olive groves. Like other large Palestinian towns, it used to serve as a commercial and administrative centre for the towns and villages around it, whose combined population is another forty or fifty thousand. Because Qalqilya also lies beside the so-called Green Line that is supposed to separate the West Bank from Israel – a nominal border which is being made almost meaningless by the construction of the separation barrier, 90 per cent of which runs east of the Green Line, deep into the West Bank – it used to be possible for Palestinians from neighbouring towns inside Israel to go to the market there or meet friends and relatives. Israel’s separation barrier has destroyed a complex of historic, commercial, agricultural, social, cultural and familial relationships. Despite the talk of this being a ‘security fence’, it is obvious that the real aim of the barrier is to absorb as much land, and as few Palestinians, as possible, to acquire pockets of territory that can easily be connected – and are already de facto annexed – to Israel. Nowhere is this clearer than in the well-watered and fertile agricultural region around Qalqilya. North of the city, the barrier absorbs about 6000 acres of rich farmland. Qalqilya is now the westernmost tip of a territorial peninsula created by the barrier.

Qalqilya, and Tulkarem to the north, as well as another twenty or so towns and villages in the same area, now find themselves separated from their agricultural land by the network of walls, electric fences and ditches that make up the separation barrier. What’s worse, another six or seven Palestinian towns are wedged between the separation barrier and the Green Line. These cases are all in the immediate vicinity of Qalqilya, but the same sort of thing is happening all along the barrier.

In October 2003, soon after the erection of the barrier began, the army declared the land between the barrier in the east and the Green Line in the west a ‘closed military area’. The declaration states explicitly that no one can enter the closed area other than Israeli citizens and anyone to whom Israel’s Basic Law of Return applies (that is, anyone of Jewish extraction from anywhere in the world). ‘No one’, in other words, means those Palestinians whose land has been – or is about to be – taken from them. The inhabitants of the villages in the ‘closed area’ have to apply for a ‘permanent resident permit’ from the army. As its name suggests, this is something like a US Green Card, except that in this case the person applying for the permit wants only to be allowed to stay where he has lived all his life. The permits can be withdrawn or cancelled at any time, which means in effect that the people in this area are subject to summary expulsion from their land and homes whenever it suits the state of Israel. In the area around Qalqilya, several thousand Palestinians have permanent resident permits. When the barrier is completed, however, around 100,000 Palestinians will find that they need them. And tens of thousands of others will find themselves cut off from work, schools and healthcare (a third of the West Bank’s villages will have problems in getting access to healthcare once the wall is completed – 26 clinics have already been cut off, and that number will rise to 71 once the wall is finished).

Those Palestinians who live outside the closed area, separated from their farmland and orchards inside it, aren’t much better off. Palestinian farmers from Qalqilya, Jayyus and the surrounding villages who want to cultivate their land on the other side of the barrier must obtain permits from the occupation forces. Israeli military regulations specify up to a dozen different types of permit that Palestinian farmers need to apply for in order to reach and cultivate their land. Of course, in order to get these permits, a complex series of bureaucratic and administrative hurdles needs to be cleared. If there are errors in the original registration of the land, or if the original owner has died or moved overseas, or if there are any questions about inheritance or the reallocation of land among or between families, or any questions about bills of sale or titles – that is, if there are any of the legal problems associated not merely with land ownership in general but, in particular, with ownership of land whose legal documentation has passed through countless municipal offices under four different administrations (the Ottoman Empire, Britain, Jordan, Israel) – then the application for a permit will be suspended.

Much of the land in the West Bank has, in any case, never been formally registered by any of these governing bureaucracies, and is instead held informally, or, rather, in accordance with premodern, customary laws of land ownership and usage (including collective usage, such as grazing). To deal with this problem, the Israelis have dusted off the 1858 Ottoman Land Law and, applying their own highly selective interpretation of it, have declared much of the Palestinian-held land in the West Bank ‘state property’, or classified it, using the Ottoman terminology, as ‘miri land’, the ownership of which is tied to its productive use. According to Israel’s interpretation, miri land that is not actively cultivated for a certain period of time (even if its cultivation is being forcibly prevented) reverts to public ownership – which, as far as the Israelis are concerned, means they can do what they want with it. The only snag is that the Ottoman Empire expired with the Treaty of Sèvres, and so never signed up to the UN Charter or the Geneva Convention – both of which have stipulations regarding occupied territory – and Israel did. In any event, while the various legal issues are contested, much of the land will lie unused, and the clock will start ticking: this is the way the Israelis have used the miri land laws in the past to expropriate Palestinian territory.

So far, about a quarter of the applications for permits to gain access to land in the closed area have been rejected by the occupation authorities. Even those who receive permits do not necessarily manage to get to their land, since this also entails passing through a number of gates that the Israelis have built into the separation barrier, in reluctant response to protests. In the ‘seam area’ between Qalqilya and Tulkarem, for example, there are 12 gates, four of which have never been opened to Palestinian farmers, while a further three have been designated for purposes other than agriculture, and are also off limits to farmers. That leaves five gates. The gates closest to the northern edge of Qalqilya are among the ones that have never been opened or are not to be used by farmers, so any farmer living in Qalqilya whose land lies a little way to the north must leave the city along the road to the east (which is now open, but may be closed again at a moment’s notice), and, running the gauntlet of checkpoints and roadblocks, make his roundabout way to the east and then the north before reaching his land.

Or, rather, before reaching the gate closest to his land. During the months after the permit system came into effect, farmers had to wait for long periods before getting through. At the beginning of the 2003 olive harvest, the gates did not open at all for weeks as a collective punishment for a bombing in the city of Haifa.

Following a number of appeals and petitions to Israel’s high court, most of the gates – or rather, most of the five gates available to farmers – now operate on a more or less fixed schedule, opening three times a day, for half an hour at a time. Even so, plenty of problems remain for Palestinian farmers. They often cannot take their tractors and farm machinery through the gates; at peak times, such as harvest, it’s hard for them to bring through extra labour because the new hands might not have the right permits, and a day or a week or a month going through the nightmare of obtaining permits is a day or a week or a month away from the fields. And assuming that by a concatenation of miracles all goes well for a Palestinian farmer, he must still get his crop to market, which involves finding an open gate, getting his produce through that gate, half an hour at a time, negotiating roadblocks, obtaining transportation permits, waiting at the checkpoints that can hold up perishable produce for hours or days, and organising serial, or ‘back-to-back’, transport to get the goods from checkpoint to checkpoint without actually driving through each one (often prohibited). According to the most recent World Bank assessment of the Palestinian economy, ‘the “back-to-back” system for the transit of non-humanitarian goods’ – which requires unloading and loading the produce at each checkpoint – ‘became routine in 2003.’ But a day or a week or a month of closure or curfew would spell disaster.

Along the western edge of Qalqilya, the separation barrier takes the form of a 24-foot concrete wall. Along the northern side and the southern side, the road that used to take farmers to their fields is now interrupted by the usual mound of earth and concrete cubes, a metal gate, rolls of razor wire about three feet deep, a ten-foot wire grate topped by more razor wire, fifty yards of roadway, more razor wire, an electric fence, more razor wire, another fifty yards of roadway and then, on the other side, more of the same. All this is protected by an immense fortified tower, with the Israeli flag hanging from it. I was told, as I surveyed the Israelis’ efforts here, that I was standing in what had once been an orchard, but the trees had been cut down to maintain a clear line of sight from the tower.

It isn’t just that so much damage has been done to a relatively small area – although a swathe of permanent devastation 200 metres wide by eight kilometres long in a town the size of Qalqilya is already more than a poor community can sustain – but that the expropriation clock is now ticking on the Palestinian land here that isn’t being watered or tended because it can’t be.

The resumption of negotiations between the new Palestinian leadership and the Israeli government has generated a sense of optimism that one hesitates to dismiss out of hand. Yet previous rounds of negotiation, beginning with Oslo, served only to consolidate Israel’s grip on the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem, while making life even more difficult for the Palestinians. In the same way, the lull that followed the death of Arafat in November was seen by many as a time of hope, but it was then that the people of Jayyus, near Qalqilya, learned that more of their land would be expropriated in order to make possible the expansion of the Israeli colony of Zufim, in the ‘seam area’ between the Green Line and the barrier. Their olive groves were bulldozed in December. Blind optimism that overlooks these ‘facts on the ground’ is no better than despair.