I recently returned from North Africa and Palestine. I found myself giving a talk to a group in the USA where I mentioned my trip as a way of discussing the manner in which events can unfold very rapidly. I mentioned that I had been to North Africa and the occupied Palestinian territories.
Barely had I finished speaking before an individual rose from their chair and moved toward the front of the room. When the session broke, the individual approached me and challenged my use of the term “occupied Palestinian territories,” claiming that that terminology is inflammatory and that I should have used a more neutral term like “West Bank” or “the disputed territories.”
I looked at the individual and listened to what they said. I then responded: “Well…it IS an occupation!”
It is difficult to describe the Occupied Territories. I have followed the Israeli/Palestinian conflict since the June 1967 War and I have been an advocate for peace and justice for the Palestinians since the spring of 1969. I have studied countless documents, articles, speeches, etc. I have seen pictures of the so-called settlements and the apartheid separation Wall. Yet, to be honest, I still was not prepared for what I actually experienced.
I was part of a labor delegation. When we crossed from Jordan into the Occupied Territories we immediately experienced the arrogance of the Israeli occupiers.
While waiting on line to go to the first passport control I was watched by an Israeli security person. I somehow knew that this was not a good sign. When my delegation awaited clearance to actually enter the Occupied Territories this same security person came up to me and me alone (in my delegation) and proceeded to ask me all sorts of questions about the objectives of my visit. Perhaps it was my naturally curly hair, or perhaps it was that I am told that I look North African, but in any case, there was nothing approaching politeness in this exchange.
The Israelis held us at the border for about two hours for no apparent reason and then let most of my delegation through. They then held one member of my delegation - not me - for an additional hour, again for no apparent reason and without explanation or apology (when they were released).
Driving from the border to Nablus is actually quite beautiful except for a few things. You drive past these so-called settlements. You can clearly distinguish an Israeli settlement from a Palestinian village or town, both by the newness but also by the often lush character of the surroundings of the settlements. But here it is important for me to note that even the use of the term “settlement” does not convey what you see. You see, in effect, either very big farms or you see suburban communities. I don’t know about you but when I hear “settlement” I tend to think about something that can be easily disassembled. Forget that idea, my friend. These settlers have no intention of going anywhere.
This brings up another point or question of terminology. What is going on in the occupied Palestinian territories is not really an occupation; it is an annexation-in-progress. The Palestinians are being squeezed out, with the obvious Israeli hope being that they will simply give up and move out of the West Bank and go to Jordan, Lebanon, or who knows where ever, but just out of the area.
When you think about an occupation, you think about the troops of one country taking over another—which, of course, happened to the West Bank—but you do not normally think about settlers moving in, unless you are thinking about the way the United States expanded west; the manner in which Morocco took over the Western Sahara; or what we have been witnessing in Palestine.
Whatever the original ambitions of the Israelis in the aftermath of the June 1967 War, it is clear that the settlements are no longer a bargaining chip but are there as part of a process of annexation.
This is a slow-moving annexation that is accompanied by slippery rhetoric out of the Israeli government. The creation of the so-called Separation Wall, but what most of the world condemns as the Apartheid Wall, is all part of the annexation process.
The Wall is one of the ugliest, most offensive pieces of work you will see. It was NOT created along the so-called Green Line (the pre-1967 border of Israel) but along lines that protect some of the key territories that the Israeli government seeks to formally annex. It also is used to divide Palestinian territories such that farmers are separated from their land.
When you stand near the wall, however, you do not think much about the larger political issues at stake. Rather, it feels like you are inside a prison. You look up and down the expanse of the Wall at the guard towers and, frankly, you do not know what will happen next. The environmental damage created through the building of the Wall is a sight in and of itself. Piles of dirt, rubbish, concrete, weeds, etc., on the Palestinian side of the Wall reminded me of construction debris that some contractor ‘forgot’ to remove from a project. This damage makes the land in the immediate vicinity of the Wall useless and, for all intents and purposes, dead.
The sense of being imprisoned was more stark when we witnessed thousands of Palestinian workers pass through the Qalqeelya border crossing to go to Israel for work. We arrived at the border crossing around 3:30am and workers (men and women) were already crossing the border, though in small numbers. As dawn approached this trickle of workers turned into a flood.
The workers proceeded down a covered walkway and then went to a turnstile, reminiscent of one you might find in a subway system. But this was not a turnstile that one can jump over, but fully metal where only one person at a time can pass, assuming that the light over the turnstile is green. There is an assembly point on the other side where the workers then gather and seek transportation to their jobs. They have to arrange their own transportation, either through their employers or on their own, because public Israeli transportation is denied them. They cannot drive into Israel and go to work because that is forbidden. The process is so demanding that many Palestinian workers remain at their worksites for days rather than go back and forth in this process. And, while this is going on, it is all under the watchful eye of the Israeli guard tower, shouting commands to the Palestinians in Hebrew.
The violence of the Occupation is what you feel more than any other sensation. Not the violence that you hear about on mainstream television when they discuss a terrorist attack or a military action, but rather the silent violence that includes traffic signs in big Hebrew letters, while the Arabic wording has been crossed out by fanatical settlers. Or it may be the violence of the apartheid Wall, supposedly constructed to stop Palestinian terrorist and military attacks, yet no one can seem to explain if that were the case, why the Wall was not built on the Green Line rather than over and through Palestinian territories.
There were moments when I forgot where I was. My own anger boiled to the surface and I came close to yelling at the Israeli security personnel or making signs at them with my fingers, only to stop myself and realize that I was not an angry African American in the USA (which carries its own set of risks), but a North African-looking man in Occupied Palestine who could easily get shot - or cause my colleagues to get shot - with the assurance that my wife would get a letter of apology from the Israeli government for the incident, which they would certainly alleged to have been the result of my unprovoked actions.
This is what Palestinians experience every day…and then some.
So, yes, this is a violent occupation, and no semantics will get around that simple fact.