Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Are Things Getting Better?

Today a few of us went to visit a Bosnian woman whom my colleague had picked up from the Tel Aviv airport a few days ago. The woman’s husband, a Palestinian businessman, was not allowed to pick up his wife himself because he lacks the correct Israeli-issued ID. On our way home, we met our neighbor Ayman, who operates a modest gas service shop on the road near our house. Ayman said the army had come one week ago to tell him he had one week to obtain proper papers for his shop from Qedumim settlement or they would take it away. But a few days later—well before the one-week deadline—the army arrived unannounced and destroyed the shop. Ayman said he had every intention of going to get the paperwork by the given deadline, but the soldiers were not interested. We can see the remains of Ayman’s shop from our office window—nothing but a tired metal frame and a small handwritten sign now crumpled and torn on the ground. Ayman still sits there every day with his dog the way he used to, but his means of supporting himself are now gone.

Many people have written me recently wondering if things are getting better here, if the mood in Palestine is as positive as it looks from the outside. Everyone is talking about Sharon’s planned disengagement from Gaza, and the new hope and potential for peace that Mahmoud Abbas—or Abu Mazen, as he is known in these parts—could bring. Are we finally moving towards peace?

Evacuating the settlers from Gaza is certainly not a bad thing, but it should be put into perspective: for every settler in Gaza, there are at least 50 more in the West Bank. While Israel prepares to pull 8,000 settlers out of Gaza, Israel is building houses for more than 8,000 new settlers in the West Bank, which is far richer in land, water, and other resources. Yet we don’t hear about the new settlers in the news. Israel is milking the pre-evacuation hype for more than it is worth, enjoying a collective pat on the back from the international community, while US-sponsored settlement expansion accelerates in the more crucial West Bank.

As for Mahmoud Abbas, the people most optimistic about his power to bring peace seem to be Israeli. Even those Palestinians who support Abbas have no illusions about his ability to change the situation in Palestine as long as every aspect of Palestinian life, government, and security is subject to the will of the Israeli army. Just last week I documented an army raid on the local Palestinian police station in the village of Kafr ‘Ain. The soldiers said they were looking for weapons they had seen in a picture taken from the sky. They found nothing. Some of the Palestinian policemen were beaten by the Israeli army, and one claimed that soldiers stole 1,000 shekels (US$240) from his bag, in addition to trashing the police headquarters and breaking a ceiling fan.

Palestinian policemen in Kafr ‘Ain are prevented from carrying weapons and are just as vulnerable to the Occupation as civilians are. A weakened and routinely undermined Palestinian Authority is helpless to control Palestinian attacks on Israelis as long as Israeli attacks on Palestinians continue with such regularity.

So my answer is no: things in Palestine have not improved. Not yet. Life here is more or less the same: farmers are beaten by settlers, young men are arrested en masse, resistance leaders are imprisoned or assassinated, and the checkpoints, roadblocks, and Wall prevent people from making a living or getting an education. Sharon’s disengagement plan and Abbas’ election don’t make an ounce of difference in the daily life of average Palestinians like Ayman, and they are not likely to for awhile. So while Bush and Sharon congratulate themselves on their “Roadmap to Peace” and Israelis enjoy a time of relative calm, nobody in Palestine is sleeping easily.

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