Living under siege

Meet the residents of two Middle East cities -- one Palestinian, the other Israeli. Both share the same concerns about violence and security -- from opposite sides of the conflict.

Topics: Religion, Middle East,

Living under siege

A crane lifts reinforced concrete slabs, each the size of a door, and stacks them upright, side by side, until they form a long wall along the southwestern edge of Gilo, a middle-class Jerusalem neighborhood. A few Jewish residents from Gilo mill around the men at work to catch one last glimpse of the hills and Palestinian villages across the valley before the wall obstructs their view.

“It’s more psychological than anything,” said Galina Shifrin, out with her husband to inspect the new wall. “The bullets can fly over this easily.”

During the past three weeks, the apartment blocks of Gilo, a neighborhood built on Israeli-occupied land, have come under Palestinian gunfire at least a dozen times. Though the shots fired from Beit Jala, a mostly Christian village just across the valley and only minutes from biblical Bethlehem, haven’t killed anyone so far, they did leave one policeman severely wounded 10 days ago, and they continue to terrorize Gilo’s inhabitants.

“It’s a very bad situation,” said Shifrin, a 50-year-old Jewish woman who immigrated from Moscow 20 years ago. “It’s very dangerous because they are our neighbors, they’re very close. There are Arabs on our left and on our right.”

The same day the Israeli policeman was shot in Gilo, Israelis and Palestinians agreed at the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh to try to implement a cease-fire. But the goodwill was shorter lived than the participants’ tans and was followed by intense violence and verbal threats, further entrenching deep resentment and conflicting positions on both sides.

Sunday, fresh violence in a Palestinian town near Bethlehem brought about a heavy-handed reaction from the Israeli army. Two tanks stationed on the edge of Gilo sprayed Beit Jala with machine-gun fire and shot a tank shell into a nearby field while helicopter gunships fired missiles into the village, punching through the walls of several houses, striking a marble factory and disrupting the town’s electricity.

“The sound of the bombing was very loud,” said Rose Saqa, a 26-year-old Palestinian from Beit Jala. “You cannot figure out where it will fall next.” Saqa said her home, a 200-year-old stone house built atop a hill directly across from Gilo, doesn’t feel safe anymore. “Wherever you are, you can see my house. It’s easy to bomb.”

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The next day, again, the Saqas and the Shifrins, on either side of the valley, could barely sleep, ducking instinctively, deserting the most exposed rooms, and feeling under siege, as organized Palestinian gunmen and Israeli Defense Forces exchanged lead over their rooftops.

“The Palestinians go ‘Tuk. Tuk.’ But then the Israelis respond ‘Trrrrr-trrrrrr-trrrrrrrrr.’ There’s no comparison between the two,” said Saqa, a travel agent in peaceful times who has now learned to distinguish between the sound of rifles and heavy machine guns.

“You cannot compare the violence of an occupying army with the violence of those resisting it,” Phyllis Bennis, a Middle East expert at the Institute for Policy Studies, told CNN recently. But you can compare the feelings on both sides and, surprisingly, at a time when everything else separates them, the feelings on the Israeli and the Palestinian side are often the same: Both sides are terrified; they feel besieged.

The circumstances of the siege are different for the Israelis and the Palestinians, but a similar pressure-cooker atmosphere accounts for much of the thirst for cathartic violence on both sides. Nowhere was that more clear than in Nazareth, where on Yom Kippur several hundred armed Israeli Jews descended on their Israeli Arab neighbors, smashing property and firing shots while the police mostly stood by, in scenes witnesses likened to pogroms.

The outburst of rage came “after 10 days during which the city was blocked,” explained Edna Rodrig, the deputy mayor of Upper Nazareth, the mainly Jewish part of town. “People felt trapped without the possibility to go where they needed.”

Upper Nazareth, built in 1956 in an effort to settle Jews in the mostly Arab region of the Galilee, is surrounded by Arab villages and lies cheek-to-cheek with the larger Arab population of historical Nazareth, Jesus’ boyhood home. When Arab-Israelis started rioting at the beginning of October in solidarity with Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza, the stones and Molotov cocktails they threw at policemen during street clashes made many roads around Upper Nazareth unsafe for travel, and many were closed.

“People outside the city couldn’t come to school or work. There was a lot of frustration,” recalled Rodrig. “If the violence of our Arab neighbors had not happened for 10 days, nothing would have happened [on Yom Kippur].”

If a 10-day siege could make Jews from Upper Nazareth lose their sanity, it is easy to understand the depth of Palestinian rage after seven years of confinement. Indeed, since the Oslo accords were signed in 1993, Palestinians have been subjected to a number of vexing travel restrictions.

When Israeli troops partially pulled out of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, they also fenced off Gaza, allowing only carefully screened Palestinians with special work permits to enter Israel and established checkpoints outside West Bank Palestinian areas. The Israeli government required Palestinians to hold a special pass to visit Jerusalem. And Israeli conscripts, barely out of school, frequently questioned and turned back Palestinian adults, humiliating them in front of their children or ruining family outings. In practice, many West Bank Palestinians drove around the checkpoints, taking dangerous side roads and risking arrest along the way. But the feeling of claustrophobia could not be dodged as easily as Israeli checkpoints.

After three weeks of violence, that sense of imprisonment has grown even more acute for the 3 million Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza. To punish the Palestinians economically and prevent terrorists from infiltrating its cities, Israel has imposed a tight blockade (called “closure” in Israeli-speak) on the Palestinian territories, preventing most of the roughly 120,000 Palestinian workers from reaching their day jobs in Israel. With the exception of a few VIP passes, all travel permits have been suspended. And in some areas, Israeli forces have moved in with tanks and concrete boulders to surround individual “trouble spot” villages like El Khader, a small hamlet next to Beit Jala. (Under the Sharm El-Sheikh agreement, Israel was supposed to gradually lift the closure of the West Bank and Gaza. But since the ceasefire was never applied, Israel did not feel compelled to loosen its grip on Palestinian territories.)

“People are unable to get food. They’re living off the supplies they’ve stocked,” said Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, head of the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees. “More importantly, medical teams are not allowed to move freely.” Wounded Palestinians have died because ambulances could not reach them or were delayed too long at Israeli checkpoints, he said.

“We live in a big zoo, but we are not even kept safe in that zoo,” said Saqa, the woman from Beit Jala. “As soon as it gets dark, nobody goes out.” Saqa moved temporarily into her brother’s house in search of a safe haven during the past few nights. But the Israelis “shoot randomly,” she said. “Not only at houses near the edge of Beit Jala but in the middle of town.”

Most believe the shooting from Beit Jala originated with members of the paramilitary group Tanzim and other Palestinian organizations who move between houses at night and take aim at nearby Gilo. In retaliation, however, civilian homes in Beit Jala have come under massive Israeli attack.

Although the Israeli army has advised residents of the village to evacuate their houses to avoid getting struck or killed by tracer bullets or tank shells, very few Palestinians feel they can leave their homes. Saqa’s great-grandfather fled Jerusalem during Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, lost his house and became a refugee in Beit Jala. As a result, she is now suspicious of the Israeli army’s motives. “They’re doing the same [as in 1948]. They think people will leave so they can take our land. But it won’t happen. People today are not so naive. They’re not as afraid as our ancestors.”

Then, in a sentence weighted with all the pathos and tragedy of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Saqa added: “We don’t have a choice. Where would we go?” Certainly not to Arab countries, she said. “They have no solidarity. All they are willing to give us is money.”

Barely a mile across the valley, a Jewish resident of Gilo mulled over the same dogged perception. “Arabs have millions of lands but they want to take ours,” said a distressed Ariela Waknim, 17. “We only have this little piece of land and we believe what the Bible says. This is our land.”

When Palestinian gunfire recently hit a street where Waknim was babysitting, the young woman had to lie flat on the floor with the children for several minutes before the violence finally stopped. “It’s not normal that we can’t live peacefully here without huge security,” Waknim said, pointing her finger at the two Israeli tanks that are now part of the neighborhood’s landscape. “We want a peaceful life, but the Arabs just want to kill us.”

Since Egypt first signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, followed by Jordan and the Palestinians in the 1990s, the sentiment of being surrounded by hostile Arab nations bent on wiping Israel from the face of the Earth has gradually receded in Israeli minds. But the past three weeks’ scenes of virulent anti-Israeli protests and anti-Jewish acts all over the world have resurrected old, existential fears.

Soldiers and settlers living on outposts of land occupied by Israel since 1967′s Six Day War are primary targets of the Palestinians’ anger and fire. Responding to the recent wave of violence, the Israeli government has asked settlers to restrict their movements and to travel in convoys with bulletproof vehicles, if possible. But all Israelis feel more or less under threat. The Israelis also believe Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has released dozens of terrorists who are now plotting attacks in crowded places around the county. “The whole country right now is held hostage to terrorism, ” said Yehudit Tayar, a spokeswoman for the settler movement.

“For the Palestinians, there are settlers also in Tel Aviv,” Tayar said, implying that Palestinians will not stop at liberating the occupied territories, but will instead continue to push on until there is no Jew left in Israel. The problem is, the Israelis have nowhere else to go. Like Saqa’s Palestinian ancestor who was kicked out of Jerusalem by Israeli forces in 1948 and became a refugee in Beit Jala, many Jews who came to Israel were refugees from Holocaust-era Europe and other countries in the Middle East. Both sides see Israel/Palestine as their end station, a land they will not flee.

“The battle now is for the independence and survival of Israel,” said Tayar. Certainly that is the view of most American Jews who have showed overwhelming support for Israel in the recent clashes. Last week, a high-powered delegation of American Jews visiting Gilo announced, “Yes, Americans believe Israel is under siege.” The Conference of Presidents of Major American Organizations and other Jewish organizations are also organizing a solidarity trip next week because, their press release states, “We cannot allow Israel to be isolated from the rest of the world and its people forgotten. We cannot allow violence and terrorism to have a stranglehold on Israel and her economy.”

Meanwhile, Israeli forces pummel mostly unarmed Palestinian civilians with the latest high-tech weaponry and, according to a United Nations report, the Palestinian economy is losing approximately $9.8 million each day the Israelis continue their military-imposed closures of areas run by the Palestinian Authority. But Israel has shown no willingness to call off its troops. “For the time being, we don’t want to see Palestinians in Israel,” said Shlomo Dror, spokesman for the federal office that coordinates Israeli and Palestinian activities in the occupied territories.

On the contrary, talk of permanent unilateral separation from the Palestinians is in fashion again as Israelis contemplate ways to minimize their security risks by removing Palestinians from their sight. (“Us here, them there,” after all, was a campaign slogan used by Ehud Barak in his bid to become Israeli prime minister.) On the Palestinian side, there have been calls for a boycott of Israeli goods until Israel ends its occupation of the entire West Bank and Gaza.

Given the level of economic and physical interdependence binding Israelis and Palestinians, both measures are impractical. Israel is not yet prepared to import hundreds of thousands of foreign workers to replace the cheap Palestinian laborers it would lose. And given the absence of an independent Palestinian economy, Palestinians “don’t have anything to replace Israeli products,” said Saqa.

“There are no alternatives unless we return to how we used to live, with chicken and sheep in the backyard.”

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