Emma Williams

The reek of injustice

Emma Williams says good and conscientious Israelis live in denial of what is being done to the Palestinians

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Emma Williams says good and conscientious Israelis live in denial of what is being done to the Palestinians

Living in Jerusalem for the past two and a half years has meant living Israeli fear: the fear of taking children to school and hearing a suicide bomber detonate himself outside the school gates; of not wanting to go to a restaurant or bar or coffee shop for fear of being blown up; of hesitating to call Israeli friends for fear that one of their children had been killed in the latest Palestinian terrorist atrocity.

Living in Jerusalem also means seeing the suffering imposed on three million Palestinians because of these fears. The realities are ugly, difficult to talk about, difficult to believe: the brutality, the injustice, the silencing, the denial, the racism – above all, the Occupation.

Most Israelis never go to East Jerusalem; most Palestinians avoid the West. Jerusalem is desperate, beautiful and divided – so clearly divided that you could put up a wall along the seam. Indeed Israel is putting up a wall, but not along the seam. It doesn't so much divide Israelis from Palestinians as Palestinians from each other, and Palestinians from Israeli settlers, grabbing yet more land in the process; all part of the extremists' plan to make any future Palestinian state unworkable by expanding the network of colonies, intersecting roads and industrial developments, leaving the Palestinians living between the mesh, in ghettoes.

Unhappy word, ghetto; but there is no other word for the enclosures being built around Palestinian towns. Qalqilya, a once thriving market town of 45,000 people, is now shut off from the world by a fence and wall of concrete 24 feet high. There is one exit, guarded by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF), who determine whether the occupants, their produce, their food and medicines may or may not pass. The word 'ghetto' comes from mediaeval Venice. It described the walled-off quarter in which Jews were obliged to live: a barbarous, discriminatory policy.

But they were allowed out of the ghetto when they wanted. And even in the worst days of P.W. Botha, the Bantustans were nothing like as restrictive as life in some of the West Bank cities or Gaza – surrounded by a massive barrier, with armed guards at the only entrance that allows through selected foreigners and a handful of Palestinians with special permits. It is hard to describe the pricking alarm you feel when approaching the giant wall and its concrete watchtowers, manned by IDF soldiers who, for whatever reason, sometimes fire in the direction of the children within. I can say this from experience; it happened to my children, who are six and nine, when I took them to the local zoo.

'How irresponsible to take your children to such a place!' I hear the outcry. Blaming the victim is common practice in this conflict. In March a 23-year-old American student, Rachel Corrie, was crushed to death by an IDF bulldozer. The response: she was 'irresponsible' to have been there in the first place. It was an image reminiscent of another brave demonstrator, this time in Tiananmen Square, facing down a tank – except that the driver managed to go round, not over, him.

Corrie was demonstrating against the demolition of Palestinian homes. Apparently it is the Palestinians' fault when they see their life savings, possessions, memories – their homes – crushed under the military earth-movers. They shouldn't build without a permit. But wait; permits are given to Israelis to build illegal settlements on occupied land, yet not to Palestinians to build on their own land.

Injustice: the place reeks of it. Drive along the apartheid settler roads. Look at the watered settlement lawns and just beyond to the dusty Palestinian towns where water is rationed. Listen to Palestinian joy at a shower of rain, not because it is good for the crops (or the lawn), but because they might be permitted a little more drinking water. Daily the caged-in Palestinians watch the settlements bloom across the West Bank, riveting the Occupation into what remains of their small share (22 per cent) of Palestine.

The start of the Intifada set the scene: before a single Palestinian shot was fired, the world was shocked to see 'riot control' that consisted not of baton charges and water-cannon, but of shooting dead scores of stone-throwers and bystanders.

After that, the massively disproportionate response to Palestinian provocation, and the disregard for justice and international law, became commonplace. Unless it was bizarre, or directed at foreigners such as Ian Hook, a senior British UN official killed in his office by an IDF sniper, it was rarely considered newsworthy.

Almost all studies of violence in the occupied territories have found countless cases of Israelis firing on children, onlookers, old women; of pregnant women dying at IDF checkpoints because they are not allowed through; of hundreds of schools closed, tens of thousands of olive trees uprooted, thousands of houses bulldozed into rubble, entire quarters of historic Palestinian towns razed to the ground.

Earlier this year the Israeli daily Ha'aretz reported that the IDF fired internationally banned fléchette shells (designed to explode into thousands of razor-sharp darts) at a children's soccer field in Gaza while boys were playing. Nine were hit. Israel's supreme court has rejected an appeal by Physicians for Human Rights, an Israeli advocacy group, asking the court to ban their use.

Most stories of the daily brutality against Palestinians, unlike those of brutalities against Israelis, are not reported by international witnesses. But some slip through. Chris Hedges of the New York Times witnessed an IDF unit in Gaza taunting children over loudspeakers, in Arabic, to come out and throw stones: '"Come on, dogs. Come! Son of a whore! Your mother's cunt!" whereupon the soldiers shot them with silencers.' Hedges commented that he had seen children shot in several other conflicts, 'but I have never before watched soldiers entice children like mice into a trap and murder them for sport'.

The statistics speak of an Occupation unhindered by international or humanitarian conventions, that keeps thousands in administrative detention, imprisons hundreds of children, and has only recently abolished the official use of torture. B'Tselem, the Israeli human-rights organisation, numbers 102 planned assassinations by the IDF, in which 50 bystanders were also killed. There have been 231 incidents of Palestinian ambulances coming under fire.

There is an unspoken consensus among the international community in Jerusalem – at least among those who have any exposure at all to Palestinians – on two points: the enormity of the injustice, and the difficulty of being able to report it fairly. It is the same with diplomatic cables, published UN reports, news stories and articles: you meet the authors, hear their outrage at what they have seen, and then bemoan the reality that their products are unfailingly censored somewhere along the line (often by themselves in order to avoid the ubiquitous charges of anti-Israel bias by chancelleries, lobbies, editors, proprietors and advertisers).

There is almost universal admiration for the courage of Israelis who speak out: journalists such as Gideon Levy and Amira Hass who report graphically on the horrors of the Occupation; activists such as Jeff Halper, who takes matters into his own hands (literally) by rebuilding demolished Palestinian houses; Israeli groups who try to protect Palestinian farmers from marauding settlers; the refuseniks who decline to be party to the Occupation, risking prison and ostracism in a society built on military service; and the many Israelis who demonstrate, refusing to succumb to the mass denial that holds the majority in its thrall.

Denial makes the continuing brutality and injustice possible; most Israelis are 'unconscious' of what is being done in their name. It is imp ossible to believe that any Israelis who visit the Occupied Territories and see the pitiful state of the lives of Palestinians – screwed down under curfew, humiliated at checkpoints, forced, despite their degrees and skills and dreams, into penury and desperation – would not choke in revulsion.

But they are not allowed to go. Nor do they want to. In February, Gershon Baskin described Tel Aviv as teeming with young people enjoying the sunny afternoon, as they should be. 'But just a few miles away hundreds of thousands of people are living under curfew, locked in their homes and towns. Army jeeps parading the streets screaming "Curfew, curfew – get back into your house"; those who refuse the orders are threatened at gunpoint. This is the reality on both sides.'

One has to imagine what this means. Under curfew, you are in prison but have to fend for yourself, forced to remain indoors for up to eight days at a time, a brief release for an hour or two, and then several days' curfew again. In the grinding heat of the Middle Eastern summer, a family of 14 people in two rooms, with no running water and no air-conditioning you run out of baby milk because the Israelis didn't tell you how long the curfew would be, and anyway you have no money as you haven't been allowed to work for months, and if you step out you are shot on sight, and sometimes if you just go near a window you will be shot. If someone is ill, you have no medicine, and have to risk breaking the curfew to get help. And all the time the children scream because they are hungry and bored and beg to be allowed to go to school or just outside.

More than 700 Israelis and 2,000 Palestinians have been killed in this Intifada. That sentence is a problematic one, referring to the deaths of both peoples in the same sentence in order to be even-handed. Israelis call this 'moral equivalence' shocking. Many genuinely feel that to compare the intentional, random and innocent deaths caused by suicide bombings to those carried out by the IDF – always 'with regret', 'in self-defence' or as a 'preventive measure against more terrorism' – is an abomination.

But there is another way to look at moral equivalence: as the violence of a people who have struggled for 36 years to free their land from foreign military rule, as opposed to the violence of a massively strong army fighting to maintain and tighten that rule – in contravention of far more UN Security Council resolutions than Iraq has ever been. One should be 'even-handed', but what is less acceptable is equivalence between the resistance of the occupied and the repression by the illegal occupier.

Even-handed is what most members of the international press sincerely try to be, despite the reams of contrary accusations. There is always talk of suffering on both sides, as if they are somehow equal. Justice apart, and even numbers of casualties apart, one has to look at this suffering. It is true that the Israeli economy has declined by 5 per cent, that Israelis are demoralised, that people feel uneasy going to discotheques and shopping centres. But what about the other side? They don't feel nervous about going to cinemas; they are forcibly prevented from going anywhere at all. Their economy has not declined; it no longer exists.

Israelis justify all their actions on the basis of 'security', which cannot be compared with Palestinian 'terror'. For a country whose intelligentsia has more of a conscience than any other in the world, how can so many be so unreflective when it comes to the Palestinians, especially given the security and economic millstone that the settlements represent for Israel?

It doesn't get more racist than this: critics silenced because of the ethnicities involved. I will be accused of racism – racism against the occupiers. There will be letters that accuse me of anti-Semitism; of not acknowledging that this is all in self-defence; that the occupiers don't like doing this to their victims; that it's the Palestinians who 'make' them do it.

After two and a half years of watching the realities of this conflict, travelling and working in the Occupied Territories, getting to know many Israelis and Palestinians, I am left with a sense of the tragic waste of two peoples, their lives and their futures. Of course the Palestinians are guilty of atrocity and injustice, of silencing and racism. Theirs is a brutalised, sometimes brutal society. Many feel they have nothing to lose but their lives, and are ready to commit despicable acts in the process.

On the other side, a majority of Israelis feel they have no choice but to trust a government that has brought them nothing but more insecurity and economic difficulty, which appears to have little intention of ending the Occupation, and some of whose members openly advocate ethnic cleansing.

Talk of international 'road-maps' out of the conflict are to be welcomed, but when the political map proposing reason, hope and peaceful co-existence bears no resemblance to the geographical map, whose reality is an ever-expanding colonisation of steel, concrete and extremist ideology, which map is likely to prevail? And at what cost to Israel's future?