Canada and the World

LAND OF BLOOD AND SUFFERING

A veteran correspondent returns to the Middle East, and finds that hope has all but disappeared

JEAN-FRANÇOIS LÉPINE May 27 2002
Canada and the World

LAND OF BLOOD AND SUFFERING

A veteran correspondent returns to the Middle East, and finds that hope has all but disappeared

JEAN-FRANÇOIS LÉPINE May 27 2002

LAND OF BLOOD AND SUFFERING

Canada and the World

A veteran correspondent returns to the Middle East, and finds that hope has all but disappeared

JEAN-FRANÇOIS LÉPINE

Even as Israeli troops again swept through Palestinian territories last week, there were rumblings of change in Israel and the West Bank. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon acknowledged that the creation of a Palestinian state was “\very possible, ” although he called for changes to Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority before any negotiations could begin. Arafat in turn promised reforms, including elections within six months—as long as Israeli troops cease their current occupation. But both leaders face hurdles: Sharon’s Likud party has passed a motion opposing the creation of a Palestinian state, while radical Palestinians have warned Arafat not to make any concessions to Israel. Veteran foreign correspondentJean-François Lépine, currently the anchorman of Radio Canada’s weekly documentary TVprogram Zone Libre, recently visited the region. His report:

Samer Shalabi and Gideon Levy have something in common—they are both daring journalists without whom we would know a lot less about the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. They also have another point in common: they are the exceptions in their own societies.

Samer Shalabi is a cameraman working for the CBC in the occupied territories. During the Defensive Shield operation launched by the Israelis in the major cities of the West Bank at the end of March, Samer was locked up in his home in Ramallah, like everybody else. Bur he managed to sneak out, almost every day, to take pictures of the fighting. Without such courageous Palestinian journalists, we would have seen nothing of what was going on because foreign camera crews and journalists based in Jerusalem were rarely able to get into the territories.

Gideon Levy is a well-known Israeli journalist. He works for Haaretz, one of Israel’s most sophisticated daily newspapers. Levy is among the few Israeli journalists who dare to report inside the territories, because he thinks it is important to see for himself the real situation there. Since the beginning of the second intifada in September, 2000, most Israeli journalists, citing security reasons, have refused to cross the Green Line, the border of Israel, to venture into the territories. Even when they try, Israeli soldiers stop them at the

checkpoints. But, Levy says: “I think they could have reported much more than they did, and it’s only partly because of physical difficulties. Partly it is because neither the Israeli press nor the Israeli public is interested right now in what is happening to the Palestinians. And this I find so tragic.”

For more than a year, as the fighting has increased, a huge rift has been created between two societies who had started, for a brief period, to believe that a solution was at hand. With close to 500 Israelis and 1,500 Palestinians killed, the reason for this failure is written in blood and suffering.

I ran into Shalabi in Ramallah on April 11. The military curfew had just been lifted after three consecutive days of total confinement for this city of 80,000 Pales-

tinians. Crowds of people had invaded the commercial district in search of food and basic supplies before another three days of curfew. Shalabi, with whom I had worked a few times in the past, is a sort of hero here. During the first intifada, from 1987 to 1993, he was a well-known shebab, a fighter who took to the streets to battle Israeli troops with rocks. He was arrested many times, and often badly beaten. Now people praise Shalabi for a different form of courage: risking his life to send pictures of the situation here to the rest of the world. He’s not arrested and beaten up by the Israeli army any more—just shot at by soldiers who have orders not to allow journalists to stand in their way.

On the al-Manara Square in the centre of Ramallah, the traffic is jammed; people are eager to finish their shopping before the resumption of the curfew. On one side of the square, a huge billboard shows Yasser Arafat addressing a crowd. A message in Arabic says: “Abu Amar [Arafat’s nom de

guerre], tell us what you want, and we will do it!” But graffiti covers Arafat’s picture. Written in Hebrew characters, it says: “Mom, mom, I’m scared—the Israeli army is here!” Those who have written this insult are standing in the square—dozens of Israeli soldiers in full combat gear, with their tanks lined up. They are part of the huge military operation designed, in the words of the army chief of staff, to destroy the “infrastructure of Palestinian terrorism.” For me, the scene is a shock: a year and a half ago, when I last visited Ramallah, the city was booming and peaceful. Israelis were even coming here to shop.

Omar Jayousi is waiting for me at the alManara Square. He runs a small NGO in Ramallah which is involved in promoting education and non-violence. He offers to drive me around Ramallah to see the im-

pact of the fighting. At the Ministry of Health, offices have been ransacked, and freezers containing vaccines have been left open. “They probably thought it was anthrax!” complains one of the ministry doctors. Ramallah is the administrative capital of the West Bank and most public buildings have been severely damaged. “Is that the infrastructure of terrorism they were looking for?” Jayousi asks sarcastically.

What went wrong? How did Israelis and Palestinians reach such a level of violence and hatred, in spite of all the hopes that the Oslo peace treaty in 1993 had created? In the years that followed, more than $ 15 billion was invested in construction in the territories, estimates Mohammed Shtayyeh, a senior economist working for the Palestinian Authority, much of it from rich Palestinians who had been living abroad. That sudden prosperity was mirrored on the Israeli side, where the country had accumulated more than $30 billion in foreign currency reserves at the time

the second intifada began. Everything went wrong, says Yossi Beilin, one of the architects of the Oslo agreements and a former justice minister in the government of former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak, “because the situation on the ground didn’t change for the Palestinians.” From 1993 to 2000, the number of Jewish settlers in the territories rose to more than 220,000 from 100,000. Increased security measures for them created more and more problems for Palestinians. The frustrations helped lead to renewed violence and terror. “I think both sides didn’t respect their commitments,” says Beilin. “The Palestinians didn’t respect the Oslo articles with regard to incitement and violence and the size of their security forces.” After the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, Beilin adds, “The Israelis

made the mistake of electing [Benjamin] Netanyahu, who had promised to end the Oslo process. As a result, we never achieved a permanent solution for the Palestinian problem.”

Then came the Clinton initiative: in the summer of 2000, the U.S. president convinced both Arafat and Barak to meet at Camp David for an intense round of peace talks. What happened there and in the other round of negotiations that took place in the Egyptian town of Taba in January, 2001, is still open to interpretation.

What we know for sure is that a new and more intense wave of suicide bombings started in September, 2000. Arafat’s own Fatah movement created the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades that have claimed responsibility for the majority of the terror attacks since then. Shlomo Ben-Ami, a former foreign minister in the Barak government, believes Arafat was never interested in a peaceful compromise and tried to undermine the negotiating process by tabling conditions he knew Israel wouldn’t

accept, such as the return of all Palestinian refugees. “The whole process that started in Oslo was built on wrong beginnings,” Ben-Ami wrote in his 2001 book, What Future for Israeli “He always said that he would free Palestine with blood and fire. It is the Israelis and the Americans who were wrong to believe that he was ready to achieve a diplomatic arrangement.”

Many Palestinians also believe the process was fundamentally flawed. Saleh Abdel Jawad, a political scientist at Bir Zeit University near Ramallah, publicly denounces the use of arms by the Palestinian side—a courageous stand in a society where dissent is not tolerated. When I reached him at home by phone during my stay in Ramallah he said it was Israeli actions that doomed any chance of peace. “Sharon did whatever he could to create an

intolerable situation hoping that it would force us to leave,” Jawad told me. “He destroyed the capacity for the Palestinian Authority to stop the violence, because a calm situation would force him to discuss a peaceful solution. The Israelis should realize that the only way to stop the violence now is to go back to the golden age that we have experienced between 1993 and 2000.”

But even for those who still believe in peace, the hope of going back to that golden age is fading. One barman who gave his name only as Roy recalled how, on the evening of March 9, he was working at the Café Moment, a trendy bar just a few metres away from the official residence of the prime minister in Jerusalem, when something happened that changed his life. Dozens of young Israelis were enjoying drinks and conversation when a suicide bomber entered the bar. Eleven people died, 54 were wounded; their average age was 26. “I can understand why the Palestinians do that, but I understand also that

we cannot live together anymore,” Roy told me when I met him a month after the tragedy. “We have to settle on borders as soon as possible and split,” he added. “We have to get out of there.” Until that tragic evening, Roy thought that Israelis and Palestinians were destined to someday live in peace together.

A majority of Israelis now believe the only solution is to build a wall around the Palestinian territories and, literally, forget about who lives on the other side. Just before I left the region, the Israeli government announced it would spend more than $ 150 million to build a huge, electronically monitored fence around parts of the West Bank in an attempt to stop the infiltration of suicide bombers into Israel.

But such a wall was built around the

Gaza Strip, and attacks have still originated from there. Palestinians are desperate and have nothing to lose: their economy is in a shambles, with more than 50 per cent unemployment, while the government, the largest employer in the territories, has not been able to pay its employees for months. “We should have learned from history that no military solution can solve a national problem,” says Ben-Ami. He now believes that neither Sharon nor Arafat can achieve a peaceful solution, and that only an international conference could bring about a negotiated settlement.

But how can you convince the two sides to take part in any peace process after such violence? The little mutual confidence that was created after Oslo has vanished, even among the most optimistic. But, says Levy, “I must remind you that things change very quickly in this region.” The Haaretz journalist is back in the territories doing his job. As is Shalabi, who can now freely leave his house in Ramallah. Small gains, even as the horrors continue. Eli]