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Ahdaf Soueif

In December 2000, Egyptian-born Arab novelist Ahdaf Soueif travelled to Israel and the occupied territories for the first time. Here she concludes her remarkable account of the journey Published in The Guardian (UK), Tuesday December 19, 2000  [from Rick Rozoff]

Thursday For three nights now I have stayed up writing past 2am and yet  I have not recorded all I have heard and  seen.  I have not  even really thought about all I have heard and seen - that  will  come later. For now the present facts are all I can manage. We start early for Ram Allah and a couple of minutes from my hotel I see two Israeli flags fixed to the flat roof of a house.  Next to them four boys in civilian clothes nurse machine guns.  My driver, Abu Karim, says these are four houses that have recently been taken from their Arab residents.  Out of Jerusalem, major roads are being built to connect up with the settlements.  The roadworks are  guarded  by  Israeli  Army trucks.  The road north to Ramallah - the road that the Palestinians  may use - will lead us through the town of Bira and the news is  that Bira was shelled last night. Soon we see the concrete blocks, the waiting cars, the soldiers and we swerve off  to  the  right  and drive through dirt roads.  Abu  Karim  points  to  a  rectangular crater in the middle of the road the size of a grave.  The  army, he says, do this just to make life more difficult. A bone-jolting 20 minutes later we rejoin the main road about one kilometre up from where we had left it.  An hour and a half later (and a distance equivalent  to, say, Chelsea to Kingston) we are sitting in Rita Haniyya's living-room listening to her and her  friend  Layla  Qasim.  The women,  one Christian, the other Muslim, are founders of the  National  Union of Palestinian Women (NUPW) and  worked  hard  to  establish  the Centre for the Support of the Family in  Ramallah,  a  day-centre where children were taught music and  encouraged  to  draw:  "The children are not allowed to see maps of Palestine or learn  their own history," they tell me.  Eighteen  months  ago  the  Israelis closed the centre down for "inspiring sedition".  "Sedition!" snorts Layla Qasim.  "We  were  trying  to  help  the mothers give their children a 'normal' childhood. You  know  what the children sing? They sing: 'Papa bought me a trifle/A machine-gun and a rifle'.  "We were struggling to get them to sing normal children's  songs. But normal children's songs have nothing to do with  the  reality of their lives.  "When the children said 'The Jews came and took my cousin/Mixed our rice with the flour and the sugar', we would  say  don't  say the Jews, it's the Israelis, the Zionists. We were battling with the ethics of language."  "The media in Britain," I say,  "ask why  mothers  allow  their children to go out and throw stones at the army."  "Allow?" says Rita Haniyya, "You should  see  the  quantities of Valium we've dispensed to women in the camps simply to help  them cope with their lives: when their children go out to play they're playing under the guns of the army observation post above them  - these  people  have  been living  under  'temporary   emergency' conditions for 33 years, and  some  since  1948.  They don't  go looking for the army, the army is right on their doorstep."  "There isn't a child," says Layla, "who doesn't have a father or a brother banished or jailed or killed. When the soldiers come in and beat up a father - the kids see it - all they've got is one room. They see their father being beaten. What do you think it does to them? They ask us if people in the whole world live like this. What can we tell them? A three year old comes in and tells me: 'The Jews came and beat my father and his tummy fell out onto the floor but we got him to hospital and they're going  to  mend him.'"  The names come thick and fast, Jihad Badr who was bringing up his kid sisters and brothers after their mother died of  cancer,  who survived an operation for a brain tumour but was  killed  in  the al-Aqsa demonstrations; Hania, 13,  who  was  shot  in  the  leg, bundled into an army car and hit repeatedly on the same  leg:  "I didn't scream," they tell me she said, "not because I was feeling brave, just because I was afraid they'd kill  me."  The Hammouri twins, 19, shot on the same day. And on and on.  The NUPW now trains women in first aid  nd  civil  defence,  it organises vaccinations, it gives counselling and advises on  home economics  (this  includes  boycottinga   Israeli   and   American products). It is funded entirely by donations from its more well- off members - many of them abroad. There are 2m  Palestinians  in Israel and the occupied territories, 5m in the diaspora.  "We've  compromised,"  Rita  Haniyya  says,   "they   have   West Jerusalem, the Carmel, Yafa  and  Haifa  and  so  on.  They  have Israel. But they want everything, it's their nature. They  attack us - physically - in three ways: through the army, the  settlers, and the Mustaribs (agents who pretend to be Arab)."  The  Mustaribs,  she  says,  mingle  with   the   people   during demonstrations: "They choose  a  child,  grab  him,  throw  their keffiyehs over their faces (so  they  can  mingle  again  without being identified) whip out their yarmulkes and  a  gun  and  rush with the child over to an army car."  "You know the worst of it is," they  say,  "that  they  keep  you guessing. You never know if a road is to be open or closed.  When they're  going  to  shut  off  your  water  or  turn   off   your electricity. Whether they're going to permit  a  burial.  Whether they're going to give you a permit to travel. You can never  ever plan. They create conditions to keep you spinning."  At Oslo, Israel agreed to hand over some major Arab towns to  the Palestinian Authority. Israel, however, retained  all  the  areas surrounding the towns, so that to get from  one  to  another  the Palestinians had to carry permits which were checked  at  Israeli checkpoints. With the intifada the Israeli army simply  encircled the towns, preventing the residents  from  leaving  or  entering. Critics of Oslo at  the  time  said  this  was  a  blueprint  for disaster. No one understands why the Palestinian Authority agreed to it. Some say they simply  didn't  have  maps.  It  is  at  the soldiers encircling their towns that the youths and  children of the intifada throw stones.  There are some good Israelis, Rita says,  people  of  conscience. "Look at what Amira Hass writes in Ha'aretz. And Uri Avnery.  But they're marginalised."  Are you in touch with them? "Not any more. We realised they would go so far and no  further. The best of them balks at the right of return for the  refugees. Even Leah Rabin wanted East Jerusalem. At the  beginning  of  the intifadah when they got in touch we said you've been  talking  to us for years, now it's time for you to talk to your government."  Back in Jerusalem I break my fast at a  small  cafe  outside  al-Zahra Gate. On the  street  outside  is  the  army  car  and  the soldiers. At the table behind me three elderly men are  extolling the days of Gamal Abdul Naser and the idea of  pan-Arabism.  They end  up  singing  popular  Egyptian  songs  of   the   60s:   "Ya Gamal/Beloved of millions" and "We said we'd build and now  we've built/the Hi-i-gh Dam".  The owner, recognising my Egyptian dialect, gives me  a  tamarind juice and pudding on the house. He asks if I'm OK  at  my  hotel. His family would have been glad to take me in but they're in  al-Khalil (Hebron). He used to commute, it's only half an hour,  but now with the closures he can only manage to sneak in to see  them once a week.  A silent candle-lit demonstration outside the New Gate of the old city. Sixty candles flickered in  the  hands  of  60  Palestinian women just outside the Gate. Opposite them, on the other side  of the road 15 Israeli women dressed in black held 15 candles.  Friday This is the first Friday of Ramadan and Barak, in a move designed to "achieve quiet during the month of Ramadan", has repealed  the ban on men under 45 praying at the al-Aqsa mosque.  Israeli mounted police, armed and dressed in riot gear, guard the gates of the old city as  though  we  were  armed  and  dangerous football hooligans. We pass through al-Zahra Gate in single file between two rows of soldiers with machine guns. Each man  has to stop and show his identity papers. The women, if they keep their heads bowed and their eyes on the ground, are left alone. At  Bab Hutta, the actual gate to  al-Haram  al-Sharif,  there  are  more soldiers with guns. Inside, the men head for al-Aqsa,  the  women for that choice jewel, the Dome of the Rock. Because the  Israeli amnesty does not extend to the people of the West Bank, there are maybe 20,000-25,000 people here today instead of the 500,000  you would normally expect.  At the Dome I squeeze  in  through  Bab  al-Janna  (the  Gate  of Paradise). In straight lines, shoulder-to-shoulder, we pray then sit  to  listen  to  the  sermon.  The  Imam  preaches  patience, steadfastness and opposition. He  reminds  us  of  the  Prophet's saying that there are those who  fast  and  gain  nothing  except hunger; to fast is to renounce falsehood, hypocrisy and  all  bad deeds. He lists the crimes of  the  Israeli  military occupation against the people.  He lists the demands of the people: an end to the occupation, the implementation of UN resolution 242 and the return to the borders of June 4 1967, an independent and sovereign Palestinian state in the  West  Bank,  Gaza  and  east  Jerusalem,  the   release   of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails, the right of return  to the homeland  of  all  Palestinian  refugees.  He  repeats  God's promise that the righteous shall prevail, then he prays  for  al- Aqsa itself. Again and again he implores God to protect  it  from the plots being woven against it, again  and  again  the  women's voices from the Dome and the  men's  voices  from  al-Aqsa  rise: Amen.  The al-Aqsa, where the men pray, is close to Bab el-Magharba (the Gate of the Moroccans) which is close to  the  Wailing  Wall.  As prayers end, groups of young men and boys start gathering  there. But there the army and police are solidly waiting  and  everyone knows that if one stone hits that wall someone will be shot.  But the shabab [youth] are in the grip of fervour and a man who  some say is a  "Fatah  element"  starts  yelling  Hamas  slogans  and, playing Pied Piper, leads them away from the  certain  danger  of Bab el-Magharba and through  the  terraces  of  al-Haram  to  the relative safety of Bab el-Sabbat. There they stop.  Outside the gateway is a police station that they had set fire to a while back. The administrators of  the  mosque  rush  to  place wooden barriers between the shabab and the small army of soldiers and police taking up  positions  outside  with  guns  aimed.  The shabab chant of the Prophet's victory against the Jews at Khaybar in the 7th century, some of them rush back into the Haram and try to break down the iron door leading to the stairs of the minaret.  It will not break. One young man climbs a wall and tries to open a higher door into the minaret.   On the walls of the terraces hundreds of women  and  older  men stand and watch. The atmosphere is almost one of carnival.  Maybe a thousand shabab are facing the soldiers, but the gate is narrow so it's not too hard for the elders to hold  them  back.  On  the steps just opposite the gate, the steps leading up to the top  of the city  wall,  the  photographers  stand  with  their  cameras, helmets and bullet-proof vests. Something happens outside and the shabab scatter  for  a  moment  then  regroup.  A woman  in  an embroidered  bedouin  dress  pushes  forward  into  their  midst, yelling along with them and a man tries to hold her  back:  "They might shoot you!"   "Let  them  shoot  me.  Am  I  worth  more  than  any  of   these youngsters?"   A woman in horn-rimmed spectacles waves her arms at the soldiers from the wall where she's standing: "Get out!" she  shouts,  "Get out! You've strangled us, may God strangle you."   One young man is ordering his little brother to go home. "Let  me stay," the kid begs. "Just for a few minutes. Let  me  stay."  It takes a cuff on the side of the head to send him home.  A  couple of smallish stones are pitched across the wall. "Bet that  landed on our car," a very well-dressed, slim  young  man  says  to  his companion.   A well-built youth picks up a large rock and throws it  to  the ground to smash it. It doesn't smash and he picks it up again. As he raises it a mosque caretaker runs up and takes  it  from  him, quietly, without a word. He places it carefully under a tree and the young man walks away. An argument  is  breaking  out  on  the side: "They shouldn't make trouble," a  tall,  fair  man  shouts. "The Israelis will close it down. Let people pray."   A bystander laughs: "You've been praying for 50 years. What  good has it done you?"   A dimunitive sheikh in a very  trim  costume  and  brand-new  red cleric's hat is  marching  measuredly  up  and  down  beside  the yelling demonstrators  with  a  megaphone:  "Your  presence  here incites them. Disperse. Disperse."   No one pays any attention to him except one man who says  to  his neighbour: "He does this every Friday."   There are women and  girls  sitting  chatting  under  the  trees. Eventually the shabab start to drift away. It has taken two hours but this time, here, the Palestinians have no martyrs.   Saturday Noon, Ramallah The great hall of Our Lady of the Gospels independent  school  in Ramallah is filling up with students. Hundreds of girls and  boys crowd into the seats talking  and  laughing.  On  the  stage  the principal,  Mrs  Samira,  and  the  guest  speaker,  Dr   Mustafa Barghouti are setting up the overhead projector. Dr Barghouti  is one of the triumvirate heading the People's Party  of  Palestine, and - more importantly - he has been organising all  the  medical aid work for the intifada.   This talk is part of the independent schools of Ramallah's  joint initiative to "document  the  truth  and  demand  our  legitimate rights before the world". This group of kids is in economic  band A, their parents can afford to educate them privately,  can  stop them going to the barricades. Their hair is glossy,  their  teeth are good. As Mrs Samira lists  the  names  of  the  participating schools they cheer and stamp and she outlaws whistling.   They all want to know how they can contribute. They ask  why  the Authority has not declared Oslo dead? Why it arrests  members  of Hamas? What is the Authority doing to protect civilians from  the attacks of the settlers? Why does the Authority continue  to  try to coordinate security with the Israelis? They want a programme to support the thousands of workers who've lost their jobs inside Israel. They want the leadership to pull together and an end to the factions.  They want to talk to the world.  They want independence and they want to know what they can do.   Dr Barghouti tells them they can join the NGO across the road.  They can be trained in first aid and primary care,  in  crisis management. They can do media work, monitor the net, respond to articles ... They crowd around to put their names down before they rush off to be picked up by parents at 2.30pm sharp.   3pm, Ramallah Another Barghouti (it's a massive family), Marwan  Barghouti,  is mostly on the move. He is 41,  the  chief  executive  officer  of Fatah. Since the intifada he's  been  on  the  streets  with  the shabab and he has formed  the  People's  Watch,  groups  in  each village that try to defend the villagers  against  the  settlers. Everybody says he is targeted by the Israelis (Ma'ariv called him one of the "triangle of terror: Arafat,  Barghouti  and  Raggoub, head of Palestinian intelligence"). Some say he's targeted by the Palestinian Authority - for being too popular.   In his office, against a huge poster of al-Aqsa, he repeats  that the intifada and negotiations do not preclude  each  other;  that the intifada is the only way the people have of projecting  their own voice, their own will into the negotiations. He points  at  a poster of Muhammad al-Durra and says: "We need to get  away  from the image of the Palestinian  as  a  victim.  This  is  a  better poster," pointing at a poster of a child confronting a tank.   I say: "That kid was killed two days later." He says: "Yes." I wonder whether there is  space  to  get  out  of  the  "victim" frying-pan without falling into the "fanatical Islamic terrorist" fire. The margin is terribly narrow. Then a man sitting with us - clearly an old friend - says: "But I hear Qassam [Barghouti's 16-year-old son] is down at the barricades. Why don't you stop him?" Barghouti waves the question away. The man insists: "You have  to stop him." And for a moment the militia leader looks helpless: "I can't," he says. "How can I?"   3.45pm Abu Karim is getting restless. He wants to be home in Jerusalem before sunset, but I have asked to see the barricades and now  we examine them. An area of desolation at the edge  of  the  town  - which means 10 minutes from the centre. After  sunset  this  will turn into a battleground. Concrete blocks, stones, burn marks, some shattered glass. Two Israeli army cars on the other side  of the concrete.  A woman appears from nowhere. Fortyish, poor, dressed  in  black, she is an Egyptian who has married a Palestinian and  lived  here for 25 years. Umm Basim, I have heard of her, heard that she lost her eldest son in the previous intifada and that she  is  in  the thick of the action at the barricades every night.  Is it because of your son, I ask, that you come here? "No. I have four more, and they are with me here. I come  because this situation has to end. We can't live like this."  I ask if I may take her photo. She hesitates: "It won't appear in any Egyptian newspapers? I wouldn't want my mother to  know  what I'm doing. She'd worry." As I take the photo she turns to the man who brought us here: "I've seen Qassam here. Tell his  father  to keep him away."   Sunday 10.30am Psagot. ("Bascot," the students at Bir Zeit University had  said, "biscuits. Think American cookies.")   Psagot is a settlement built 10  years  ago  on  a  hilltop  just outside Ramallah and Birah. The Palestinians say it was built  by the government (like other settlements) on land expropriated from Birah. They say it  was  positioned  strategically  to  halt  thenatural expansion of the town and to control the Arab population. They say the settlers are armed and the army itself can move into the settlement at very short notice.  For  the  past  two  months Birah and Ramallah have been shelled every night from Psagot.  My calls to the Yesha council have paid off and they have sent me here to meet Chaim Bloch.  A western journalist connects me to a taxi driver who will go to a settlement (but charges triple), and from the start the journey is unlike any other I've made here. Smooth, wide roads,  speeding cars, no roadblocks. And Psagot, like almost every settlement, on the top of a hill like a look-out, like the spooky small town  of Edward Scissorhands. Barak's proposed budget for the coming  year would spend $300m on settlements.  Chaim Bloch is courteously waiting for us outside his  house.  He is dressed in a suit with a buttoned-up shirt and no tie. He  has a longish light-brown beard and speaks softly and carefully.  His father, a textile engineer, was offered a job in Israel 31  years ago  and  within  two  weeks  the  family  had  moved  over  from Baltimore. I work out that Mr Bloch is  39.  I  had  thought  him older.  In Israel, if you choose to do religious studies you  are  exempt from military service. For the young men  who  want  to  do  both special yeshivas exist. There are 30 of them round  the  country. Bloch is a graduate of one and, until  recently,  he  had  always taught at another. Now he teaches Jewish law  as  it  relates  to monetary management as a kind of "continuing  education"  course. He has been in Psagot nine years. Why Psagot? "Because this is the land of Judea and Samaria. It is  here  that the Israeli destiny is to be decided."  The people across the valley, in Ramallah and Birah say this land was expropriated from them. How do you feel about that?  "The government of Israel never takes land without paying for it. The Arabs tried to bring a court case against us and in  the  end they begged us to allow them to drop it because they  were  going to be ruined." [Full details and facts of how Israel confiscates land, and what it allegedly "pays", is available from  Peace  Now and B'Tselem and other Israeli and Palestinian sources-InfoPal.]  There are UN resolutions stating that the West Bank and Gaza are illegally occupied.  "Israel is a law-abiding nation but there can be  differences  in the interpretation of the law. What we  are  doing  here  is  notagainst international law." Then, without pause: "Even if  I  was100% sure that international law was  against  me  it  would  not change my views. Just because international  law  says  something does not make it so."  But if not the law, what is your reference?  "God promised us this land. The state of Israel  was  here  2,000 years ago and God promised this land to  our  forefathers  37,000 years ago. There was never a state of Palestine here."  The one thought that I have is that I am not afraid any more, not even uneasy. I feel nothing. I am conducting an interview.  Well, I say, there was never Syria or Lebanon or Jordan or  Iraq. As states. It was all part of the Ottoman empire and  was  carved up by the British and the French.  "This is the land promised to us by God."  OK. You say this land is yours because you were here 2,000 years ago. Across the valley there is a man who says this land  is  his because he has been here for 2,000 years. If - just for a  moment - you put yourself in his position ...  "I do not put myself in his position. You do that for  a  friend,on a personal matter. This is  a  question  of  nations.  And  my business is to look after the interests of the Jewish nation." So you have no individual moral responsibility in this matter? "No."  Well, from your point of view, what should the Palestinians do? "They can go on living here. No-one will throw them out. But they have to understand that they are living in  a  Jewish  state.  If they do not like that there are many places where they can go." But if they live here, in a Jewish state,  they  don't  have  the same rights as the Jews.  "Yes. It is a Jewish state and they live as a minority."  Believe me, 90% of Palestinians admire us and want to live in  the  state of Israel."  I know that a poll among  young  Palestinians  found  that  they admired Israeli democracy as it was applied to the Jews.  But it is not applied to the Arabs.  "Ninety per cent of Palestinians would be happy to  live  in  the state of Israel. I know this."  You know that 90% of Palestinians  would  be  happy  to  live as second-class citizens forever?  "This is what my Palestinian friends tell me."  You have Palestinian friends? "Yes."   Forgive me but - who are they?  Silence.  I don't want to know their names, just - where did you meet them, for example?  "One is a mechanic. He had to fix something for my car.  And the other - he knows him.  "Could I just  ask  you  how  life  on  the  settlement  works  - economically?  "How do you mean?"  Well, I've heard that settlements get government help.  "Barak's government has cut back on most  of  what  we  got  from Netanyahu. We get hardly anything."  (My companion Judy Blanc ascertains that the house  he  lives  in  was bought for a fifth of the market  value.  For  a  settler  to travel to and from his or her settlement the government  provides an armoured bus  and  two  army  car  escorts.  Water,  the  main resource under government control, is divided  between  the  Arab population and the Israeli settler:  each  settler  is  allocated 1,450 cubic meters of water per year. Each Palestinian is allowed to use 83 cubic meters. Electricity is regularly shut down in the Palestinian towns while the settlements are lit up.)  Mr Bloch, you have Israel. If you do not allow  the  Palestinians their own state in the West Bank this conflict will never end.  "Not everything has to be solved now."  You are happy that your children should inherit this conflict?  "Happy?" His voice rises, but only slightly. "My  sister  was  on the bus that they blew up. The woman  sitting  next  to  her  was killed. Children had to have their  limbs  amputated.  I  am  not happy."  But you believe your children should inherit this situation?  "Those children on the bus - I pray that God will never ask me to pay such a terrible price. But if He does, I shall pay it."  As we drive away from Psagot I feel empty. I look at my notes and realise that I have no impression of what the living room we  had been in looked like - except that it was bare and functional  and sunny - and looked out on Ramallah. The taxi  driver  (even  with $100 in his pocket) is speeding and angry  and  has  an  argument with a speeding young Israeli. Through the window I  hear:  "Kess ikhtak!" (Your sister's c***)  Is that the same in Hebrew? I ask.  No, that was Arabic, Judy says.  "I see a terrible fire," Mme Haniyya had said to me, "a  terrible fire coming to swallow us all, Israelis and Palestinians unless the Palestinian people are freed from their bondage." 1.30pm  n the way back to the bridge I see  that  the  army  has  dug  a brand-new  trench  between  the  road  and  the  town  of   Ariha (Jericho).  After  xhaustion hits me the minute I get to London. This conflict  has been part of my life all my life. But seeing  it  there,  on  the ground, is different.  What can I do except bear witness?  I am angrier than before I went. And more incredulous  that  what is happening in Palestine  -  every  day  -  to  men,  women  and children, should be allowed by the world to continue.  The choices are in the hands of Israel. They can  hand  over  the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem and live within their  borders as a nation among nations. There are no choices for the people of Palestine.  Ilan Halevi, a Jew who fought with the PLO, says it's a  question of macho image: "Israel does not want to be seen as 'the fat  boy of the Middle East'."  Others say Israel does not want to be a "nation  among  nations". It wants the beleaguered, plucky image - and the moral indulgence and trillions of dollars worth of aid that goes with it. If  that is so then the Israeli government has joined others of the region who are not working in the interests of their own people.  Awad Awad [two of whose photos were in the Guardian on  Saturday]says the Israelis have declared they will not renew the  licences of any Palestinian photographers working with  the  international  media.  What will you do?  "Just carry on taking photograhs. I'm a photographer."  I have seen women pushing their sons behind them, shoving them to run away, screaming at the soldiers: "Get out of our faces.  Stop baiting the kids."  I have heard a man say: "I have four sons and no work.  I  cannot feed them. Let them go out and die if it will help  our  country; if it will end this state of things."  I have seen children calmly watch yet another  shooting,  another funeral. And when I have wept they've said: "She's new to this."  I have listened to everybody predict that the leadership would do a deal. "But if they don't bring us independence and the right of return the streets will catch fire."  Palestinian weddings are celebrated over coffee, but when a young man is killed his mother is held up over his  grave.  "Trill  out your zaghrouda [ululation], mother," his friends say, the  shabab who might die tomorrow. A mother says to me: "Our  joy-cries  now  only ring out in the face of death. Our world is upside down."  

(c) Ahdaf Soueif   * Some names in this piece have been changed.

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