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The Inadequacy of Reality
Last week, I went to the London Institute Gallery to have a look at an exhibition of paintings on Gaza and the West Bank...

16 February   |   2004   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

... John Keane, the painter of this collection, had visited the Holy Land in 2002 as part of a sponsorship effort by Christian Aid.

All visitors to the exhibition are welcomed at the entrance by a written introductory message from John Keane himself. It states, My visit to Israel and the West Bank left me feeling the utter inadequacy of attempting to convey the reality of daily lives there to anyone who has not witnessed it first-hand, despite the prolific news coverage we receive.

Viewed through Keane’s personal filter, the paintings reflect the reality of daily life for Israelis and Palestinians alike. One large canvass, for instance, depicts the scene of a gruesome suicide bombing with blood splattered all over Israeli Jewish victims. Another one shows two Jewish kids looking at the pictures of Arab refugees, with the chilling caption reading ‘No Arabs, No Terror’! I found most of the paintings harshly articulate for they bore testimony to the fact that history and reality in both Israel and Palestine have acquired the rather awkward habit of confounding preconception and even defying belief.

However, the one painting for me that stood out above all others showed the ‘separation wall’ (Israelis call it a ‘security fence’, whereas the Palestinians refer to it as the ‘wall of shame’) as it split the large canvass diagonally in two. It drew my attention not only because Keane’s work was evocative, but because it represented also the one issue that has galvanised world opinion and cast another huge shadow upon any hope for a peaceful settlement between Israelis and Palestinians.

So is this ‘wall’ one of security, shame or perhaps both?

In an article in the Ha’aretz daily Israeli newspaper on 16 January2004 , Lily Galili wrote, ‘With great speed, the original low, irrelevant wall is being replaced in East Jerusalem with a new structure that resembles some vast mythological dragon. All around are people who thought they’d already seen everything during the occupation, watching the scene in disbelief.’ She added in the same article, ‘It’s easy to understand how flesh-and-blood Palestinians feel in the face of the “obstacle” that is being built in front of their eyes - a concrete wall, 8 metres high, made of slabs that are connected to one another. There are many objections to the Israeli use of the word “obstacle”, as though it were a euphemism to avoid the open use of the word “wall”. In fact, though, “obstacle” is an extraordinarily accurate word in this case. A wall is just a wall, but this threatening concrete monster is rapidly becoming a true obstacle in every sphere of life.’

Indeed, according to the Jerusalem-based UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the wall will disrupt not only the mobility of the Palestinians, but also their access to education and health services, and sources of livelihood - all basic, essential needs that are protected and ensured by the Fourth Geneva Convention. Besides, the oppostion of the OCHA to the fence is not all-inclusive: it is based as much on the route it takes as on its infringement of basic human rights. In fact, and taking just one example of the impact of the wall on Palestinian Jerusalemite residents, the OCHA figures indicate that about15 % of the11 , 000residents of Abu Dis and about25 % of the16 , 000residents of Azzariyeh, are having to abandon their homes and relocate to the ‘Israeli’ side of the wall despite soaring prices in order to protect their freedom of movement.

In a recent symposium held at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem, Israeli Defence Force Colonel (ret) Shaul Arieli (who was involved in the recent Geneva Accord that meant to introduce a flush of new hope into the moribund Israeli-Palestinian process) was soldier-like and blunt about the consequences of this wall. He underlined that ‘the fence around Jerusalem in the east is not separating Israelis from Palestinians, but is separating200 , 000Palestinians who will remain in Israel, from82 , 500outside the fence. The political consideration overcame the security consideration.’

But the wall is not only attarcting political opprobrium. Last week, a Legal Opinion by the Oxford Public Interest Lawyers (OXPIL) was pretty much scathing when it condemned ‘Israel’s construction of a separation Barrier in the Occupied Territories for numerous violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law.’ The58 -page Opinion, written at the request of the Israeli Association for Civil Rights, was requested for use before the Israeli High Court was petitioned, as well as for the hearing by the International Court of Justice on 23February 2004 [following an urgent request for an Advisory Opinion by the UN General Assembly in December2003 ].

Political, legal ... and definitely existential too!

Indeed, this wall is having a devastating impact on the lives and livelihoods of scores of Palestinians both in Jerusalem as much as in the West Bank. As Sister Marie Dominique Croyal, Directress of the Home of Our Lady of Sorrows in Jerusalem, wrote in an Open letter on15 January2004 , ‘The people around us live in fear: fear of being arrested, fear of being tear-gassed, and fear of being mistreated, as so often happens. Tension is constant for the entire [Palestinian] population whose living conditions have become more and more miserable. It’s a daily struggle for those people who are constantly humiliated and assaulted. We really feel alone and helpless in the face of generalised inertia. We want to be spokespersons for these voiceless people who, each day for more than two years, have had to fight their way to reach their workplaces and schools, to say nothing of all the sick who die for want of medical treatment.’

Where to now?

When the Israeli Government decided to erect this wall that is snaking a path through the West Bank and parts of East Jerusalem, I was not immediately or unduly worried since I considered that it could perhaps mark the overall delineation for a future sovereign Palestinian state. Many other political colleagues and journalists disagreed strongly with my position and considered it naïve at best! But with so many setbacks, disappointments and failures on the road to peace - from Madrid to Oslo to Taba to the Roadmap for Peace to the Geneva Accords - I might have been willing to accept this latest move if it had adhered strictly to the pre- 1967Green Line boundaries. However, the wall is not applying itself to the 1967 lines. On the contrary, it is gobbling up the remaining Palestinian sparse lands that have not yet been expropriated, let alone causing untold human misery to countless Palestinians. This is not only unacceptable, it is equally dangerous and could well establish the irreversible parameters of a future ‘arrangement’ over Palestine that would rob Palestinians of their inalienable rights.

This grim reality facing Palestinians today was equally highlighted in the recent Report of the International Development Select Committee entitled “Development Assistance and the Occupied Palestinian Territories”. It stated, ‘The fact is that Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank have no state, neither de jure, nor de facto, no citizenship, no rights, no remedies, and no one from the international community taking the responsibility to seek to ensure that an occupied people in these circumstances are treated as humanely as possible. The appalling situation in the OPT is not the result of a natural disaster, it is man-made and as such requires a political solution.’ Amongst its multiple recommendations, the Report specified also that ‘the “Wall” and settlement activity were damaging the viability of any future Palestinian state.

Over the many taxing years that I have engaged the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on many levels, I have witnessed and heard many stories of extra-judicial killings, hardship, misery, discrimination, segregation and dispossession heaped upon Palestinians. But I have also witnessed and heard the sheer atrocity of suicide-bomb attacks that have wrought pain and havoc upon Israeli society and killed many innocent bystanders or orphaned their families. Sadly enough, in both cases, human life and dignity are being desecrated and frittered away – cheaply, wantonly - in order to sate a political expansionism that Israel pursues in its occupation of Palestinian land. For in the final analysis, despite all the smart words or even smarmy formulæ, the root of this whole conflict can be translated into one problem of occupation. It is the primary cause for all other ills, and it is rendering both peoples hopeless, bitter and vengeful. From an ever-redundant economy, to a disjointed geography to a ghettoised demography to a frustrated reality, Palestinians are at the receiving end of both insult and injury.

Now, a wall is also meandering through the remaining territory that Palestinians live on, earn a living from, or call their own ancestral land. Bereft of their most fundamental rights and basic freedoms, devoid of any authentic or meaningful support, they are now meant to cope with this latest intrusion into their lives. US foreign policy elegantly favours Israel, the EU [whether pre- or post- expansion] seems incapable of making any political impression, and most Arab states are fighting for their surviving breath. So Palestinians are left to fend for themselves - and quite randomly too!

No surprise then that the Meeting of the Catholic Bishops, 12 to 15 January2004 , stressed in their Final Statement from Jerusalem that ‘the Holy Land does not need walls, but bridges!’ They also affirmed, ‘We have seen the devastating effect of the wall currently being built through the land and homes of Palestinian communities. This appears to be a permanent structure, dividing families, isolating them from their farmland and their livelihoods, and cutting off religious institutions.’

Is it any wonder then that Palestinians feel isolated, and that they believe today in the inadequacy of their own reality?

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2004   |   16 February


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