International Writers Magazine: Comment
on a dreary patch of gravel high above the town, shielding his
eyes from the sun, our guide gazes down at the jumble of concrete
blocks spilling over each other below. Behind us, lush green fields
roll into the horizon. Down to the left, a motorway winds its
way through the landscape.
Beyond the distant
humming of traffic and the rustling of the wind, our vantage point is
eerily quiet. In the middle of a frenzied election campaign that will
have ramifications far beyond the countrys own volatile borders,
this rocky plateau straddling Israel and the West Bank feels like an
oasis of tranquillity.
In reality, it lies at the heart of the political battle that Israel
is currently engulfed in. We are standing on the edge of farmland belonging
to the residents of Qalqilya, home to 43,000 Palestinians. The town
is almost completely encircled by a security fence constructed by the
Israelis to stem the flow of suicide bombers coming out of the West
Bank and into the nearby city of Tel Aviv. Like the strength of feeling
the fence invokes, its construction takes different forms. North, south
and east of the town, razor wire runs along the outermost buildings,
with an electric fence patrolled by Israeli military vehicles. To the
west, a 25ft high concrete wall hides the motorway one of the
countrys key road arteries from the snipers the Israeli
government insists are lurking on Qalqilyas rooftops.
The fence snakes deep into the West Bank, looping round the Israeli
settlement of Alfe Menashe and segregating it from the Palestinian land
it occupies. But the route of the fence means that the agricultural
land that many of Qalqilyas residents rely on to survive is cut
off from them. Farmworkers have to obtain permits and pass through checkpoints
to reach the source of their livelihood. They are frequently prevented
from doing so. The young, well-groomed press officer from the Israeli
Defence Force who is showing us around claims the fence has cut suicide
bombings in the area by 90%. Yet since its completion, unemployment
in this grey town with its grey wall has reached 67%. "Nobody is
saying the situation is perfect," he says quietly.
On Tuesday 28 March, Israelis went to the polls to elect a government
that will decide how to resolve this situation. If, as expected, that
government is led by Kadima the nations youngest
political party that has bulldozed its way into the political centre
under the guidance of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon then
settlements like Alfe Menashe could find their days numbered. Like Sharon,
who is unlikely to emerge from a stroke-induced coma, Kadimas
new leader Ehud Olmert has promised to continue his predecessors
divisive policy of unilateral withdrawals from territory Israel annexed
following war with the Palestinians in 1967.
Israeli Election results
Final Poll results: 31.03.06
Kadima: 29 seats, centrist
2. Labour: 20 seats, centre-left
3. Shas: 12 seats, ultra-orthodox
4. Yisrael Beitenu: 11 seats, Russian emigres, far-right
5. Likud: 12 seats, right-wing
6.Arab parties: 9
7. Others: 26 seats
The strategy has
caused division on either side of the political spectrum, and either
side of the military fence itself. On the right, Benjamin Netanyahus
Likud party screams from buses and billboards of the horrors that will
follow if concessions are made to the Palestinians. On the left, there
is deep concern that Kadima, a affiliation of disparate groups brought
together by the force of Sharons immense political capital, is
not equipped to lead Israel through to final-status negotiations with
the Palestinians. "We need a government with a backbone, that knows
where it wants to go and how its going to do it," says Collete
Avital, a senior Labour member of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament.
Her partys response has been to try and enthuse voters on the
subject of economic reform, a concern that normally finds itself a remote
second to security when it comes to electoral priorities. In the 1950s
and 1960s, Israel was revered by European liberals as a model of social
democracy; even by the 1970s, the Labour-led government was, in its
own words, trying to build an egalitarian society. Today the widening
gap between rich and poor has prompted the left to dismiss what they
describe as Kadimas posturing over relations with
the Palestinians and instead tackle the real problems. "Whats
happening in Israel today in terms of poverty and social injustice is
a catastrophe," insists Avital. "Vague pragmatism is not the
answer; military security matters greatly, but so does social security."
Yet in a small country surrounded by oft-hostile states, populated by
a people ravaged by persecution, a security mindset is impossible to
escape. The election of Hamas in the recent parliamentary elections
and the increasingly belligerent noises being made by President Ahmadinejad
of Iran have understandably jangled nerves in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and
beyond. The granting of a mandate to a Palestinian party apparently
intent on wiping Israel off the map is one of the main talking points
in a country where everybody has a political opinion. Created from nothing,
bound together through a shared self-determination that has been threatened
ever since, Israel is not about to forget about its Palestinian problem.
In a third-floor apartment in Ramat Hatishbi, a small neighbourhood
on the slopes of Mount Carmel in Haifa, two mothers illustrate why.
Amidst a smorgasbord of cakes, sweets and hot Israeli tea, Tova Bahat
recalls the day in October 2003 when a family restaurant on the Hahagana
Boulevard was ripped apart by a female suicide bomber. Tova survived;
her husband and son did not. She speaks softly but firmly, interjecting
her account with soothing words to her remaining child and quick dashes
to the kitchen to fetch more crockery. "When you have children,
you have to survive for them," she explains.
The explosion killed 21 and maimed 100 more, a destruction of life shocking
in its magnitude but one of many which became a weary, yet painful fact
of life for Israelis, for whom security searches at restaurants, clubs
and transport hubs are a daily reality. Tova, and her friend Orly Almog
who also lost her husband in the blast, view the elections through jaded
eyes, but talk of the problems with real anger. "The Palestinians
are fanatics. How can you reason with these people, with mothers that
send their own children to die? To explode yourself next to as many
people as possible, next to babies
" Tova trails off. "Its
not human," she finally adds. "You cant expect me to
As Israel faces growing condemnation from the international media over
its actions in the West Bank, for those who have been on the receiving
end of such violence it can feel as if the world has turned its back
on them. The pair look at me and ask whether I can see the connection
between the tube bombings in London and the Israels struggle with
terrorism. "Europes support for Palestinians legitimises
these actions. Is our blood cheaper than yours? I dont understand
it." Does the world understand what they have gone through? "You
wouldnt be here if they did," smiles Tova. When asked about
the elections, the pair both shrug. For them, peace, if it comes, will
be too late.
And yet despite the hatred, as Israel approaches the ballot box, there
is an unmistakeable feeling of hope in the air. For those working for
an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, its been a dispiriting
few years. "Were not at the place we wanted to be,"
says Daniel Taub, deputy legal advisor for the Ministry of Defence.
"The sense of trust and vision that we once had has dissipated
somewhat. What we wanted was a spiral of confidence; instead weve
had a spiral in the opposite direction."
But the creation of Kadima, rightly or wrongly, has brought together
a real consensus around withdrawing from the West Bank and establishing
a lasting peace with the Palestinians along the lines of two separate
states. Many on the right have accepted that the ongoing financial and
security cost of occupation is not sustainable; on the left, there is
a feeling that protracted negotiations are impossible without a viable
partner on the opposite side, the prospect of which has almost disappeared
with the advent of a Hamas-led Palestinian government. That leaves Kadima,
a party formed by the right to carry out the policies of the left, in
the middle to soak up the votes.
Whether they can deliver is another matter. Yohanan Plesner, a fresh-faced
Harvard-educated Kadima candidate, embodies everything that is strongest
and weakest about this strange but powerful new electoral force. Crisply
dressed and smartly-spoken, Plesner does a great job in articulating
a spirit of optimism that does genuinely seem to have taken hold of
many in Israel. "There has been a substantial change in the political
landscape," he says earnestly, and its hard not to believe
him. Yet when asked to detail exactly what Kadimas policy commitments
are, he is flustered and avoids being pinned down. Kadima members, for
all their popular rhetoric, are only too aware that any firm engagement
now with the issues that will shape the next decade of Israeli politics,
such as the future of the settlements, the permanence of the wall and
the countrys uneasy relationship with its Arab neighbours, will
cost them dearly at the ballot box.
It is no surprise, therefore, that Kadima, which Sharon declared would
be joined by 100,000 people, has garnered a membership a tenth of that
size. The principle of disengagement is a widely supported one, but
with little else on the table, who can be too enthusiastic about men
like Plesner, a triumph of style over substance? For their part, the
Palestinians remain at best sceptical and at worst downright hostile
to Olmerts ambiguous plans. Saeb Erakat, the PLOs chief
negotiator and veteran of countless accords, treaties and road maps
that proved to be missed opportunities, is impatient for progress but
points the finger firmly at Israel for the present quandary. "This
is a country apparently immune to making mistakes," he says disdainfully.
"That is very sad. Israelis cannot open their eyes and see what
unilateralism has done."
In the aftermath of a prominent piece in the British newspaper The Guardian
that drew a direct comparison between apartheid South Africa and modern
Israel, Erakat rails against a system that requires him to obtain a
permit simply to travel in his own country. This week it emerged that
prejudice against Israeli Arabs is still ripe in Israel, with over two
thirds of Israelis admitting they would refuse to live in the same building
as an Arab and 41% calling for segregation of entertainment facilities.
Yet despite this, Erakat can still see a future beyond the distrust
and violence. "Israel has gone through labour pains," he says
with a discernibly patronising wave of the hand. "I hope it delivers
soon. Tomorrow must be a day for the endgame
today the line is
drawn not between those who are pro-Israel and pro-Arab, but between
the thousands who want peace and those who oppose it."
Back up on the Qalqilya hillside, staring down at the granite slabs
comprising a barrier that Israel insists is temporary but which, from
any angle, looks grimly permanent, it is difficult to see whether he
29th March: Israelis have had their say,
as predicted, they turned out in their hundreds of thousands for Kadima,
(though not overwhelming in numbers and Kadima will have to form a coalition)
the new government will have an unprecedented mandate for withdrawal.
Whether it can accept that challenge and transform rhetorical bluster
into progress as concrete as the wall encircling Qalqilya will have
profound implications in Israel and beyond.
© Jack Shenker March 31st 2006
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