24 July 2009

Occupied Palestine: How the West Was Lost (Photo Essay by Bob Simmons)

Damascus Gate, Jerusalem. The West Bank or Judea has always tried to solve things with walls... but somehow they always fail. Photo by Bob Simmons / The Rag Blog.

Occupied Palestine:
How the West Was Lost (A photo essay)

Words and images by Bob Simmons / The Rag Blog / July 24, 2009

Last week I had an opportunity to visit the West Bank (Israel), or its preferred name, Occupied Palestine. I was with a group of doctors called Physicians for Peace who had invited me along to shoot some video and photos.

I was starkly introduced to how the mainstream picture of the area is distorted in the USA media, and how the constant pressure and humiliation that Palestinians have endured for now more than sixty years is deftly avoided in the reports for American consumption.

Stateless inside their own country, the Arabic residents of the former Palestine suffer a gradual but relentless ethnic cleansing effort that keeps them in political and cultural exile. It is something in the USA we used to call “separate and unequal.” One suddenly understands the meaning and the reasons for the word “intifada” or uprising.

Nothing exemplifies this Middle East apartheid better than the West Bank wall that is being built with the assistance of U.S. funds at a rate of $3.5 million dollars a mile. It is a bigger and better, more high tech version of the wall between East and West Berlin that fell at the end of the cold war. It is the symbol and the fact of Israel’s shame. There is almost a hundred miles of it as it dissects and bisects the country as the Israelis build another settlement on an Arab hillside.

What follows are my notes and some photos. If you can’t get there for yourself, perhaps these will give you a tiny taste of why conflict in this area will continue until some form of justice is granted to the Palestinians who remain in the West Bank and who have not yet fled to become second-class refugee citizens all over the Middle East. Or maybe peace will only be achieved when the last suitcase is packed and the last olive grove is dozered under an Israeli tank?

It may be a cliché or a commonplace that Occupied Palestine -- or Israel's "West Bank" -- is a land of contrasts and paradoxes, but that fact is never so sharply defined as when one has the opportunity to share the lives of the residents. One won't really gather a deep understanding in a few days, but the media veil that filters the light from this part of the world can begin to lift, and we can call it a start.

My first impressions of the citizens of Ramallah are of a basically decent people who have been dealt a lousy hand by history. Worse, they haven't played that hand very well either. In a culture this generous and hospitable, it makes one doubly sad to sense the feelings of resignation and desperation that are cloaked by the smiles. But in the early morning dark when you turn on one of the radio channels and listen to the prayers you can hear the bone deep sadness in the call of the muzzeins. For some reason I kept thinking this is really the blues, and about as soulful as it gets. I wasn't ready to jump on a rug and devote my life to Allah, but I suddenly understood the urge a little better.

I went to Ramallah with Physicians for Peace, a group of doctors who do missions in a half dozen medically challenged countries. The doctors donate their time and efforts, as well as often pay their own fares and housing costs, in order to help bring modern medicine to places that have limited access to current therapies and techniques. The local populations get the benefit of the procedures and therapies, but more important, the local medical infrastructure gets new training and collegial support from the visiting team. New friends and colleagues are created, and they take another small step, changing the world a few friends at a time.

As for the West Bank and Gaza, many of you know the story of the 1948 partitioning of former Palestine for the creation of the Jewish state of Israel. I won't dwell on it. There are thousands of papers and histories of the events of that momentous year and its disastrous aftermath. A new nation may have been born, but a very old one was thrown into the dustbin of history, except that there were five or six million quite alive people who found that dustbin an unacceptable place.

Facts about the West Bank

There are approximately 640 checkpoints on roads and intersections in the West Bank. The Israeli Defense Force mans these stations with young soldiers all of whom seem to have a bit of “tude” toward their “customers.”

Palestinians, Arabs, non-Jews have differing status at each of these checkpoints. These differences are carefully delineated and marked on one’s identification documents. Arab descent is glaringly noted; whether you are Jewish, Christian, or other is also noted. Your license plate separates you. If you have a mustache, if you wear European sunglasses or have a woman in the car with you in a hijab scarf you can be sure you will get special attention, meaning that your moment at the checkpoint can stretch into an hour while some detail of your “papers” is gone over, and over, and over. This happens every day. Even a trip to the grocery store can become a hellish experience if the paperwork is outdated or not correct in every detail. It defines the meaning of a police state.

There are close to 600,000 Palestinian displaced refugees living in the West Bank, with a total population of 2.5 million overall, including (not confirmed) approximately 200,000 Israeli settlers occupying hilltops and recently built villages and settlements... this process continues unabated.

Palestinians are not allowed in Israel without a rigorous documenting procedure, and even then only on a limited basis for even the Israeli born. Many, if not the majority, of Palestinian villages and neighborhoods are now separated by the Israeli wall which has been constructed in a strategic manner to divide the Palestinian territory into isolated segments. This dividing line between the two societies almost assures that there can be no peace between the cultures. Dividing a state along race lines is universally condemned in all parts of the world, except Israel. It can be termed by no other name than race warfare and ethnic cleansing.

It is true that the number of suicide bombs in Israel has been much reduced by this policy, but at the same time army assaults on Palestinian civilians in the West Bank continue on a daily basis.

I am in a car with the director of a local hospital. He demonstrates the five pieces of ID that he must show ten to twenty times a day to one "authority" or another in order to simply navigate the streets of East and West Jerusalem and to travel to the West Bank. With his car with green Palestinian plates, there are certain roads that he may not take. No matter that he was born in Jerusalem. He is of Arab descent.

Munir was kind enough to drive us down to Jericho and the Dead Sea. Munir was born in Puerto Rico and is part of the Palestinian Diaspora. He has a U.S. Passport and has returned to live in WB with his family. Munir gave me an earful

This is a section of the Ramallah wall between East Jerusalem and the "no man's land" and Israel. The balloon graffiti is by the English artist Banksy.

This wall cost approximately $3.5 million per mile to construct. It snakes all over the country, starting and stopping in almost random fashion to the untrained observer. One can be shot, just as they were during the Berlin Wall days, if caught trying to go over it. The amount of U.S. funds that went into the building of this wall is undetermined. One thing for sure, it was not insignificant. Ask Joe Lieberman.

From my little daily journal:
The Palestinians, whether they know it or not have the air of a beaten people. Some have a resigned and philosophical attitude, some are angry with a barely suppressed edge, yet they all struggle on knowing that each day will bring its own set of challenges. These are challenges not put in place by pure chance or life itself, but as though there were an active evil alive in the world that made plans to make them suffer. It is not the indifference of the Universe, but the face of an arrogant and vindictive policy that is put in place in order to subjugate and humiliate a population that is not secretly despised.

This is the situation. The Palestinians know they have lost, at least in any real world way. Now they only want to salvage their lives and dignity and be spared further abuse. Yet each day, the powers that be conspire to divide, conquer, and confiscate land, to pass new discriminatory laws against simply existing. The Israeli settlements bloom. Each month a new hilltop sprouts a few Israeli trailers, followed by construction of houses, then fencing, then a road. Suddenly another fifty acres is added to the archipelago of Israeli islands in the Palestine sea. The pressure mounts as Israel's plan to push all Arabs out of the former Palestine takes another olive grove. The settler's attitude is, they are Arabs, they can go to any other Arab country. We are Jews, we have only here to make our stand, and the relentless pressure continues. No matter that the Palestinians have 2,000 years of tenancy, they are being cleansed, family by family, acre by acre.

Checkpoint Ramallah

This checkpoint is a constant traffic jam. It can take 20 minutes or two hours to get through. It is like a country border crossing. Cars are subject to random search. Documents are vetted. Guns are pointed in people’s faces every day.

Says it all.

Over 400 Km of barriers erected to separate the quarrel. It cost more than the entire health budget.

Checkpoint Ramallah A kid hangs out.

More from checkpoint dystopia.

I am not sure what the sign says, hunting supplies perhaps? Actually I think it is a memorial to an Intifada fallen hero.

Kids can get shot doing this. I met one in the hospital who had been shot in the legs 4 times breaking bones and probably crippling him for life. He was 15.

Not all of the wall is bricks and mortar. Some is just wire and sensors.

The slow erosion of Palestinian lands:

My Conclusion (from the journal again)
The wall and the history are irrefutable. The Israelis want it all. Maybe they don’t want it today, but they are patient. They know that they can continue to make life so difficult on the resident Arab population that eventually everyone will just have to leave. It is a two or three hundred year game for the hard Zionists who believe that the homeland is for Jews and Jews alone. The Palestinians I spoke with echoed this sentiment. They know what is happening, and some are determined to make it as difficult as possible. Some are looking for another place to eventually move. They know their chances of actually winning anything back is infinitesimally small. So they send a member of the family out into the world to find a refuge to run to when the day finally comes. A cousin goes to Saudi Arabia, a brother moves to Detroit, sister Reema has married and lives in Southern Brazil... the diaspora slowly grows.


Not everyone is in the dumps.

Ramallah skyline from hotel… The large house in the foreground belongs to the local Ramallah Volvo dealer. Obviously not all suffer in the West Bank.

Strangely, in central Ramallah, there is a kind of prosperity that one does not expect. Buildings are going up. Apartment high rises sprout everywhere, and there are many cars on the street. The air might be of resignation, but there are some who are making hay while the sun shines. Though there is a small local economy, much of the income of the West Bank comes from foreign aid. The Palestinian Authority, the inheritors of the Al Fatah seem to be in charge of who gets what, and in so doing, are unequivocally in bed with the Israeli authorities. It is no wonder that Hamas in Gaza gets trusted and the PA seems to be reviled or at best accepted as "the only game in town," however corrupt it might be. If Amehd wants to get a permit to sell apples, he has to go to the PA, and then the PA asks the Israelis if he can, and Amehd has to pay both of them to get his license. So it goes. Still, in this equation, no one is looking out for the "Palestinian people," whatever that phrase means.

And the struggle beats on. A Palestinian wedding or 10 seems to happen every night. Cars drive by honking. Finally someone is going to get something they want in this country that finds itself so shut in from so many sides. But if you can have more than one wife... well, personally I don’t like to think about what THAT would be like.

[Bob Simmons is a veteran broadcaster with over 30 years experience in most aspects of radio. He has been everything from deejay to station owner, from talk show host to news writer. He is a graduate of the University of Texas and presently lives in Austin where he has business interests and pursues his longtime avocations of photography and video production.]

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