Palestinians: descent into Hell — a personal reflection

Rezeq Faraj and the “Descent into Hell”

It was when I read Palestine: le refus de disparaître, the 2005 book of our dear departed friend Rezeq Faraj, that I realized the full extent of the Palestinian people’s continuing “descent into Hell” since my very first 1982 visit, when I lunched with budding chefs at Bethlehem University, enjoyed oudh concerts at Bir Zeit University, visited Bassam Chakaa despite his house arrest in Nablus, met with the active women of Inaash al-Uthra in Al-Bireh, and came to know many leaders in the Gaza Strip.

Rezeq was born before the Naqba (Catastrophe), the creation of Israel in 1948, and grew up in the Dheisheh refugee camp, near Bethlehem, where his family still lives. His harrowing account of the meticulous searches, complicated red tape and indefinite delays in crossing into and out of Gaza at the Eretz checkpoint dramatically brought home the ever-worsening reality of day to day Palestinian life – and death too, since ambulances and the critically sick are all meted the same treatment.

Of all the pivotal North-South issues which have focussed my professional and personal attention over my 40-year-career as a journalist specialising in international politics, the Palestinian Question is the one that has proved the most intractable.

The heroic century-old struggle of the Palestinian people for recognition of its legitimate national rights to its lands and resources, to self-determination, and sovereign, independent Statehood, has achieved some advances – but these have been all style and no substance, all words and no action, all plans without implementation.

From the breakthrough of the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference, in the immediate aftermath of Bush Sr’s War on Iraq, to the latest, ongoing attempt by Obama to force some kind of agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, we had Oslo, and Arafat was red-carpeted at the White House. We’ve had Camp Davids and Sharm al-Sheikhs, we’ve had Wye Plantation and Annapolis, we’ve had the five-party Road Map to peace. And many, many more…

On the ground where things really count, however, Palestinians have known nothing but setbacks, heightened repression, imprisonment and denial of residency and citizenship rights, continued loss of their lands and resources to Israel via Jewish settlements, dispersal into Bantustans cut off from one another by army checkpoints and walls of separation, fake “withdrawals” and real sieges and wars of aggression, disproportionate and barbaric. And the world has looked on, the one that still runs the global system, which calls itself the “international community” and backs Israel, and the one that represents the cultural hinterland of Palestine, the so-called Arab world.

From a first visit in 1982 to the 1st Intifada

My first visit to Palestine dates back to 1982. That was just after the annexation of the Syrian Golan Heights by Israel, and before the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Israeli occupation was constantly making life more and more difficult for the Palestinians, but one could still move quite freely within the West Bank, in Jerusalem and between these and the Gaza Strip. There was still some night life in restaurants in Nablus, Ramallah, East Jerusalem and Gaza City. Palestinians still had jobs in Israel.

I was part of a delegation assembled by the Arab-American University Graduates (AAUG) to look at the occupation on the ground. My paper, La Presse, refused then to publish the few articles I submitted. I turned to the French edition of the McGill Daily to expose Israeli repression of Palestinian universities, and to La Dépêche, organ of the Quebec journalists’ trade union FNC, to report on the Israeli repression of Palestinian trade unions.

My next trip was in August-September 1988, in the thick of the First Intifada. This time I was assigned by La Presse to report on the daily life of Palestinians under the occupation. I spent one month, staying with families, moving from Jenin in the north of the West Bank to Rafah, at the southern tip of the Gaza Strip, and spending time in Jerusalem too, with Palestinians in the East and progressive Israeli Jews in the West. My reports, splashed on the front page over a whole month, was a first for a major Western media: Palestinians were shown as human beings, caring for children and family against great odds, and determined to resist and fight for their legitimate rights.

There was the Ramallah family where the father was in jail and the mother active with the DFLP, while the children tended their dad’s bookstore. There was the father who saw his nearly finished concrete house demolished by the Israeli army before his very eyes. There was the 13-year-old girl, Suhail Fuad Affanah, shot by Israelis in civilian clothes who sprayed the Shatti refugee camp in Gaza with bullets from the stolen car of a local doctor. There was Marwan, the Gaza florist, who dreamt of selling bird pets, if he could only import them. There were the Israeli and US peace activists who accompanied Tahani Abu Daqqah to the Ramleh jail to recover her ID papers which had not been returned to her after her release. The stories, characters and situations just abounded, numerous and varied.

New refugees from the Gulf, and Russian Jews

I was back in December 1991, to witness the 4th anniversary of the First Intifada, and the massive return of Palestinians kicked out of Kuwait after the Iraqi occupation and the US war, and huddled in the refugee camps of their aging parents after having built up the modern oil sheikhdom and lived a life of ease in the Gulf. Interestingly, I also met some of the Russian and Ukrainian Jews who flocked then to Israel, with the fall of the Soviet Union, in search of a better life and, for many of them, in search of a passage to Western Europe and North America.

Many of these new Jewish overnight Aliyah citizens of Israel were artists who soon found that, as writers, they were cut off from their Russian and Ukrainian linguistic roots and public, and as  musicians, that they had to play in public and pass the hat to survive. But many were right wing xenophobes who, like the earlier refusenik Anatoli Schcharanski, were ultra-zionists who wanted to get rid of all Palestinians, including the 20% Arabs who people the State of Israel proper.  Avigdor Lieberman is one of them. Founder of the Yisrael Beiteinu Party which pulls together Jews from the former USSR, and an avowed anti-Arab ultra-zionist, he is now minister of Foreign Affairs and one of Israel’s four Deputy Prime ministers. He is also the driving force behind Israel’s anti-Iran campaign.

I have never been back since. But I know of the ever-worsening living and dying conditions of the Palestinians. While Oslo marked a first step to Statehood, and Palestinians began to build up their future, the West Bank was truncated, broken up, the Muqaata’a, Yasser Arafat’s headquarters in Ramallah, was raided, bombed and besieged. This blindly destructive policy became the Israeli norm for continuing the occupation. When Hamas emerged as a political rival to Fatah, especially in Gaza, Israel ‘withdrew’ its land forces and settlements from the Strip, but placed it under a land, sea and air siege, and boycotted Hamas as a “terrorist organization”, with a lot of help from its powerful friends – and its Arab neighbour, Egypt.

The brutal emergence of suicide bombings in such desperate conditions was never a surprise to me. Nor has the appearance of non-violent demonstrations, as in Bil’in village, caused me any astonishment. Asphyxiated and bombed to death by Israel, and abandoned to their dire fate by the rest of the world, the Palestinians, like any people, will resort to all possible means available to resist, make their voices heard and fight for their legitimate rights. After demonizing the suicide-bombers, Israel keeps shooting the non-violent demonstrators, even though they fly balloons and kites instead of throwing stones.

Occupation and settlements – Israel’s own undoing

The Phoenix will rise again

What peace agreement can one expect in these conditions? Pressed by mid-term elections in the midst of an economic crisis and stuck in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama is pushing Netanyahu and Abbas to come to some sort of compromise. Many former US presidents have tried and failed – for neither side will budge, and Uncle Sam keeps pressing the beleaguered Palestinians while condoning Israeli excesses. We again hear of a step-by-step “process”, with Netanyahu saying settlement building will officially resume by the end of September if Abbas refuses to give in. And now rabbi Ovadia Yosef, head of the Shas Party, Netanyahu’s government partner, is calling for death to all Palestinians!

My first emotional involvement with the Question of Palestine came about with the June 1967 war. I was a university student then in Montreal. The lightning victory of Israel over the Arab armies and its total control of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip came as a shock. Later that year came another shock: the defeat of Che Guevara’s guerrilla attempt in Bolivia and his capture, and execution on US orders. I never despaired that Bolivia, and the whole of Latin America, would one day shake off Uncle Sam’s hegemony. Evo Morales is now president of Bolivia, and Latin America has recently formed a continental organization explicitly excluding the US and Canada.

As the world shifts and the global balance changes with the decline of the West, the cause of Palestinians looks more promising than ever – despite appearances. Occupation and settlement-building have proved the undoing of Israel – which can be neither the Jewish nor the democratic State it claims it is. With half a million settlers in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, even a so-called “Two-State Solution” appears impossible. As Haitians proved their heroism in the 19th century, and Vietnamese and Cubans in the 20th, so will Palestinians be the heroes of the 21st. The Phoenix will rise again. Of this I remain utterly convinced.

Jooneed Khan was the Political correspondent for the Middle East in La Presse for over twenty five years. He has been a frequent contributor to Montreal Serai.