Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, August 2012, Pages 8-9, 13

Special Report

Netanyahu Tightens His Grip While Palestinians Stand Fast

By Rachelle Marshall

While the international community has failed to pay attention, the third Palestinian intifada has begun...and it is characterized by volunteerism and nonviolence.

Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, member of the Palestinian legislature.

A Palestinian boy from the West Bank village of Jabaa, east of Ramallah, looks at Hebrew graffiti reading “revenge” (l) and “the war has begun” (r) on a mosque which Jewish settlers tried to burn overnight on June 19, 2012. (Abbas Momani/AFP/GettyImages)

Not until four Palestinians had gone without food for 70 days, and seven for 50 days, did the world take notice of an act of nonviolent resistance that is certain to have a prominent place in the history of the Palestinian people. What began this spring when a Palestinian prisoner demonstrated his willingness to starve to death in order to achieve justice, eventually became a massive hunger strike by thousands of fellow prisoners and by sympathizers around the world.

The protests ended on May 14 with an agreement brokered by Egypt and Jordan by which Israel would release prisoners now being held in solitary confinement into the general prison population. Israel also agreed to restore family visits and other rights that prisoners have been denied ever since the capture of an Israeli corporal, Gilad Shalit, more than five years ago. It was anything but an unalloyed victory, however. At least 330 Palestinians who were being held without charges have not been released, and 40 more have been incarcerated since the agreement.

Hunger strikes by Palestinian prisoners have in the past gone largely unnoticed by the press, even though hundreds of prisoners have taken part in them and two have died. The latest strike was started in April by Khader Adnan, who months before had been dragged out of bed by Israeli soldiers in the middle of the night and taken away blindfolded and shackled as his wife and two little girls looked on. After being held for months without a trial, Adnan began a fast that lasted for 66 days, until an Israeli court ordered his release.

He was followed by Hana Shalabi, who took no food for nearly two months and was finally released but exiled to Gaza for three years. (She is pictured on the cover of the May 2012 Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.) As of early June, 25-year-old Mahmoud Sarsak had gone more than two months without food. Sarsak, a football star, was arrested at the Erez checkpoint in Gaza in July 2009 while he was on his way to join the Palestine National Football team in the West Bank. Israeli authorities claimed he was an "enemy combatant," but have filed no formal charges

Over the years tens of thousands of Palestinians have spent time in Israeli prisons without being tried. Some have endured years in solitary confinement, many have been tortured. Almost every Palestinian family has or has had a relative in prison, and more are arrested every day, most of them for taking part in peaceful protest. Zacharia Zubeida, co-founder of Jenin's Freedom Theater, has been held without trial since last winter, and more recently the theater's artistic director, Nabil Al Raee, was seized from his home at gunpoint in a 3 a.m. raid. The theater has recently shown adaptations of "Alice in Wonderland," "Animal Farm" and "Waiting for Godot"—all apparently considered dangerous by the Israelis.

Israel's alarm at the growing nonviolent resistance movement is reflected in its refusal to allow entry to any foreign visitor suspected of harboring sympathy for the Palestinians. Arabs and Muslims have for years been subject to invasive searches and long waits at the borders; journalists and members of some tour groups are now subject to the same treatment. In May Israel denied entry to four American women, including Sandra Tamimi, who was jailed and then deported when she refused to open her e-mail account for inspection. The region's most heavily armed nation regards a 42-year-old Quaker and member of a peace delegation as a security threat.

The challenges to Israeli and Palestinian peace activists became even more daunting in early May, when Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's Likud party and the center-right Kadima party headed by Shaul Mofaz agreed to form a new coalition. Together, the two parties will now control 120 seats in the 196-member Knesset, assuring Netanyahu a comfortable margin of support for the foreseeable future and depriving the once powerful minority parties of their influence over the budget and other legislation.

On being elected head of Kadima in March, Mofaz had pledged that "Starting from tomorrow, Israel will have a fighting and relevant opposition." Instead, as Netanyahu's deputy prime minister, he is proving to be a loyal ally—especially in his hard-line stand toward the Palestinians. The former army chief of staff was minister of defense during the second intifada in 2002, when in March of that year the Arab nations offered Israel a comprehensive peace in return for Israel's withdrawal to its 1967 borders. Israel rejected the offer, and within days launched an invasion of the West Bank called, with Orwellian doublespeak, "Operation Defensive Shield." (For extensive coverage of the Israeli invasion see the May and June/July 2002 issues of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.)

The operation was anything but defensive. The day after Israeli tanks, bulldozers and helicopters stormed into the territory, Serge Schmemann of The New York Times reported in a front page story that the Israelis had created "a landscape of devastation from Bethlehem to Jenin." Schmemann described "husks of savaged computers littering ministries in Ramallah, rows of storefronts sheared by passing tanks in Tulkarem, broken pipes gushing precious water, flattened cars in fields of shattered glass and garbage, electricity poles snapped like twigs, tilting walls where homes once stood, gaping holes where rockets pierced office buildings."

The damage done to a vibrant society by a nation that claimed to have "made the desert bloom" was impossible to fully estimate. "It is safe to say," Schmemann wrote, "that the infrastructure of life itself and of any future Palestinian state—roads, schools, electricity pylons, water pipes, telephone lines—has been devastated." No target was out of bounds or too small. A professor at Birzeit University told this writer of watching helplessly as soldiers wrecked the science library he had spent years collecting; a Lutheran pastor from Bethlehem told of soldiers tearing up the books in his church's kindergarten and smashing play equipment.

The disaster was compounded by the fact that until Israel's assault, the Palestinian Authority was "highly functional, and delivering good services," according to Nigel Roberts, the World Bank representative on the West Bank. The economy was growing by 6 percent a year, the airport in Gaza was in full operation, industrial zones were being developed, and new jobs were being created at a steady rate. "Municipalities were working, there was a government out there that was functioning," Roberts said.

A Palestinian boy from the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah plays with a soccer ball in front of banners forming part of a protest tent in solidarity with Palestinian prisoner Mahmoud Sarsak, June 10, 2012. A member of the Palestinian national soccer team, Sarsak was arrested in July 2009 as he was traveling from Gaza to the West Bank for a soccer match, and has been held since then without charges or a trial. On June 18 he agreed to end a hunger strike of more than three months in exchange for his release on July 10. (Said Khatib/AFP/GettyImages)

But then or now, a functioning Palestinian state is the last thing Israel's leaders want. Mofaz, the hit man for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in Operation Defensive Shield, will now join Netanyahu in seeing to it there is no prospect of such a state. The government approved plans for 4,300 new Jewish-only settlement units in May and is proceeding to turn more and more of the 400 unauthorized outposts on Palestinian land into full-scale communities.

Mofaz's own peace plan, which he favors imposing in the absence of negotiations, calls for giving 60 percent of the West Bank to the Palestinians for a state. All of the large settlements would stay in place, including those in the Jordan Valley. There would be no construction freeze and Jerusalem would remain "united" under Israeli rule. Settlers remaining in the enclave allotted to the Palestinians would be offered incentives to move. Several cabinet ministers, including Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and the Institute for National Security Studies close to the military, also favor taking unilateral action.

The only significant change in Israeli government policy resulting from the new coalition will be a lifting of the exemptions from military service that until now have been granted to ultra-Orthodox Israeli Jews. The chances are, however, that requiring the ultra-devout Jews to serve will only add to the ranks of occupation forces that support the settlers and ignore their increasing violence against the Palestinians—violence that is almost never punished.

In an article entitled "Israel in Peril" in the June 7 issue of the New York Review of Books, David Shulman refers to the West Bank as "a mini-state run by settlers," one "that disenfranchises a huge Palestinian population and continually appropriates Palestinian land in the interests of expanding and further entrenching the colonial project of the settlements."

Shulman, a professor of Humanistic Studies at Hebrew University, describes his encounter with Halima Ahmad al-Hadhalin, a widow with nine children living in a shack in Umm al-Kheir in the Hebron hills. In mid-January Israeli bulldozers accompanied by a group of soldiers suddenly arrived at the shack and in only a few minutes destroyed it, along with all of the family's possessions. When Shulman met Halima on a freezing rainy day a few days later she was standing barefoot in a neighbor's tent, still shocked and traumatized. "Such demolitions happen regularly at Umm al-Kheir," Shulman writes.

During the first five months of 2012, 78 Palestinian homes were destroyed and demolition orders issued for some 345 more. On May 1 a Caterpillar tractor and a Hyundai bulldozer, accompanied by 12 army vehicles, leveled a farm owned by the Rajabi family near Ben Naim, leaving a family with 15 children homeless, and 100 cows without shelter in blazing heat. Thousands of dollars worth of milking equipment was destroyed. When witnesses asked a soldier why, he replied, "Because we are the army."

Shulman's explanation is more convincing. He maintains that house demolitions and other abuses "are part of a malevolent campaign to make life as miserable as possible for the Palestinians...in the hope that they will go away."

The same explanation applies equally well to Israel's plans to extend its separation wall southeast of Jerusalem in such a way that it will destroy a 2,000-year-old irrigation canal that serves 6,000 residents of Battir. The stone retaining walls built into the hillsides have for centuries turned the hills into terraced agricultural land for olive trees and vegetable gardens.

Last year UNESCO granted the villagers $15,000 for safeguarding the historic landscape, but because the extension to the separation wall will cut off part of the irrigation network, the integrity of the terraces "will be totally dismantled," a UNESCO official said.

Meanwhile the shortage of fuel going to Gaza has become more severe. Israel held up an emergency shipment of fuel from Qatar for two months, forcing the tanker to remain docked in Egypt until early April. Dirar Abu Sisi, the skilled engineer who was able to keep Gaza's one functioning power plant running, was kidnapped by Israeli agents in Ukraine more than a year ago (see May/June 2011 Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, p. 18) and remains in solitary confinement, for reasons Israel has never announced.

Food supplies remain limited not only by border restrictions but as a result of Israeli military attacks. Gaza fishermen are restricted to staying within three miles of the coast and are constantly harassed by Israeli gunboats. Three years ago air strikes destroyed Gaza's main food warehouse and a large chicken ranch. In response to the shooting of an Israeli soldier in early June, Israeli forces launched several days of air strikes that flattened a dairy factory and a large poultry and cattle farm as well as several homes. Thirteen people were wounded, two of whom died.

The army has little need to worry about Palestinian civilian casualties. In early May a military court declined to prosecute the soldiers involved in killing at least 30 members of the Saumont family on Jan. 5, 2009 during Operation Cast Lead. The day after the army had ordered 100 members of the extended family into a house in Gaza City it was bombarded by Israeli tanks and Apache helicopters. Paramedics were barred for several days from reaching the house to treat the wounded. Nevertheless, in announcing the decision to exonerate the soldiers, an Israeli military spokesman denied they had acted recklessly, admitting only that "some mistakes were made."

Rachelle Marshall is a free-lance editor living in Mill Valley, CA. A member of Jewish Voice for Peace, she writes frequently on the Middle East.