Israel Allows Momentary Peace in Order to Maintain Long-Term Occupation

Reuters reports that the Nablus Shopping Festival last Saturday, “brightens up West Bank… marking a fresh start for the commercial hub that is reviving after years of decay.”  But there’s something not quite right…

Indeed, the city was brimming with people not only from other parts of the West Bank but from Israel and elsewhere in the world as well.  Thousands took to the main city square in front of the new movie theater and mall, as dancers performed the traditional dabkeh on a large stage and everyone marveled at the largest knafeh – a trademark Nablus dessert – in the history of the local delicacy.  I heard rumors that the feat went into the Guinness Book of World Records.

For the first time in nine years the city was open and people were able to come from all over to see Nablus and enjoy a giant festival.  While many suspected the Israelis would try to sabotage the festivities, one of the largest checkpoints in the West Bank, recently dismantled by the Israeli army, remained open.  The name Nablus Shopping Festival reflects the hopes of the town for economic revival and openness to trade with the outside world.  Judging by the massive crowds crammed into the square to see Prime Minister Salam Fayyad take the first bite of knafeh, and the teeming throngs that surged toward the table after he left, crushing the table and spilling food everywhere, the festival was an obvious relief from a decade of post-intifada zero-tolerance Israeli occupation.

Similar to Nablus, the city of Jenin further north has recently undergone an Israeli-permitted economic revival.  Israeli Arabs, previously unable or unwilling to venture into the occupied West Bank, find themselves making weekend trips when Israeli shops are closed for the Jewish day of prayer.  Shops lined all of the streets and the mood seemed light and carefree in the city center.

Yet, despite the promotion of “economic stability” in the West Bank, scars from the intifada just seven years ago lie just below the surface.  A kilometer from the Jenin city center lies the Jenin refugee camp, known for its fierce resistance to the Israeli occupation and Zionist expansion.  From April 3rd to 11th 2002, the Israeli army put the camp under siege killing 64 Palestinians and destroying an entire neighborhood of the camp, roughly 200-square meters of houses.  The leader of the Israeli Labor Party at the time called the siege a “massacre” and Amnesty International reported that there was clear evidence that the Israeli army committed war crimes against Palestinian civilians, including unlawful killings and torture, in both Jenin and Nablus.

Numbering roughly 12,000 people, compared to the 35,000 in Jenin proper, the Jenin refugee camp maintains its identity rooted in the resistance.  Posters of martyrs holding guns and rocket launchers plaster the walls of the city.  Plastic and metal signs with more images of the camp’s heroes hang from buildings and street lights.  While some of this is posturing, as the people are actually some of the most peaceful and friendly I’ve ever met, they maintain these images as memorials, and symbols of the violent and ongoing occupation by Israel.

Set just to the west of the camp, the graveyard holding the dead from the last intifada is the most tangible marker of the violence of the siege.  Kamal Awaad, a resident of the camp, shows us the many graves commemorating victims and martyrs – several of them his friends – most killed during the three days of 24-hour bombing raids on the camp.  Arriving at Kamal’s modest house, another camp resident tells the story of what happened to Kamal’s father in the days following the siege.  Once the Israeli army gained control of what was left of the camp and its residents, he says, they began searching and humiliating all of the residents in a sort of collective punishment as payback for the 23 Israeli soldiers killed in the attack.  A soldier ordered Kamal’s father, Emad Awaad, to strip naked and sit down in front of him.  Kamal’s father refused and punched the soldier in the nose.  Four soldiers jumped on him and started beating his head with the butt of their guns.  At this point in the story, a man walks into the room motioning that he’s unable to speak and I realize it’s Kamal’s father.  Not wanting to take responsibility once they realized they’d inflicted mental damage, the Israeli soldiers kept him in jail for a number of days.  He now has the mental capacity of a 5-year old.  Unwilling to momentarily submit to Israeli oppression, they subdued him for life.  Kamal and his siblings will always live with their father’s handicap as a stark reminder.

Keeping alive the memory of resistance in the camp, the Masrahe Hourriyya – or “Freedom Theater” as seen in the documentary “Arna’s Children” – was originally established by a legendary Israeli activist for the rights of Palestinians, Arna Mer-Khamis.  Following her death in 1994, the project was momentarily abandoned and her son, a well-known Israeli actor, returned to see what became of the young refugee actors his mother embraced.  Following the intifada from 2000-2002, only three of the children remained alive with one of the three in an Israeli prison.  This became his documentary and the event that sparked the rebirth of the theater.

Attempting to create a place of “drama therapy” for the conservative community of the camp which frequently associates psychological trauma and feelings of shame, the Freedom Theater puts on plays that not only maintain the identity of the place, but help the actors cope with trauma in their own past.  One such act is the “Circus Behind the Wall” from Ramallah.  At five o’clock all the kids in the neighborhood converge on the theater to watch the acrobatics of the circus.  While the show started with the normal flips, twists, and gymnastics associated with any circus, after roughly ten minutes three figures in black step onto the stage, representing death.  They take an olive branch from the acrobats and put up a large gray wall.  Light shines on the actors stuck on the reverse side of the wall from the audience and they continue their stunts as shadows, seen only as dark apparitions though flipping and juggling just as before.  Not only does this leave the viewer with a different perspective on the circus, but it turns an event that is usually only meant for entertainment into something artistic and deeply political.

Despite this recent history and Palestinians’ strong feelings about the occupation at present, there is an international agenda being pushed through that is not on their side.  The reality is that the current right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is trying to promote the idea of “economic and diplomatic peace” – as he recently put it – with the Palestinians, in the hope that they will be satisfied with something less than full statehood.  If this becomes the case, the occupation will intensify and Israel will continue to massively expropriate the remaining land in Palestine, as massive settlement construction is already continuing apace, especially in the area surrounding Jerusalem.  Setting aside $2.775 billion in military aid to Israel in his FY 2010 budget request, President Obama has already established his support for Israel despite their reticence to freeze settlement construction.  Some, like Noam Chomsky, are convincingly pessimistic about the outcome: “Obama called on Arabs and Israelis not to ‘point fingers’ at each other or to ‘see this conflict only from one side or the other.’  There is, however, a third side, that of the United States, which has played a decisive role in sustaining the current conflict.  Obama gave no indication that its role should change or even be considered.”  However, Obama perhaps understands that no people should live under an occupation by a violent and imperialist government that hates them, and wants to get rid of them by either driving them out or killing them.  “Economic and diplomatic peace” as intended by the Zionist leadership is fleeting at best and should not be considered an option.


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