Today the major Palestinian factions are meeting in Cairo, to discuss the possibility of a ceasefire which, it is hoped, will be announced tomorrow (Sunday). In fact, there is already something of an undeclared ceasefire, with no suicide bombings or targeted assassinations carried out for the last seven weeks. Both sides are apparently assessing what will be the policy of the new Qureia government, and how best to respond to expressions of public weariness at the endless conflict, such as the formulation of the Geneva Accords and public displays of dissent by current and former members of the Israeli military establishment. We are in what the U.S. media routinely calls “a period of calm”.
Of course, calm is relative. To a U.S. audience, “calm” in the Holy Land means that another day has passed without the murder of Israelis in another atrocious suicide bombing. In the absence of news reports to the contrary, we are left to assume that violence has lessened, and Israelis and Palestinians are enjoying a period of precarious normality. But as Israeli journalist Gideon Levy points out, in the Territories the Occupation never goes away, and [q]uietly, far from the public eye, Israeli soldiers continue killing Palestinians. Hardly a day goes by without casualties, some innocent civilians, and the stories of their violent deaths never reach the Israeli consciousness or awareness. If there is one consistent piece of data in the current intifada, it is the number of Palestinian casualties: dozens a month, unceasingly.
From a Palestinian perspective, this is what the current seven-week period of “calm” looks like:
1. The IDF has shot dead almost 70 Palestinians, most of them civilians. They include Sayed Abu Safra, a Palestinian policeman who was shot in the head on 29 November as he tried to keep a mentally-retarded villager away from the perimeter fence around the Nissanit settlement on Gaza's northern boundary with Israel. He was 35 years old, and left a pregnant wife and 6 children, the oldest of whom is 14.
2. They also include three members of an armed cell, shot dead in Gaza on 27 November as they were on their way to attack Israeli forces. The IDF acknowledged the following day that the dead were actually three unarmed members of the Al-Smairi family, who were visiting relatives to celebrate the Eid festival, but declined to apologize for their killing, or to admit that it had made a mistake.
3. Seventeen of the dead were children. They include 10-year-old Mahmud al-Qayed from Shajiyeh in the Gaza Strip, who was shot four times while he was armed with a slingshot near the separation fence. He was using it to trap songbirds, which he sold at the local market. He used the proceeds of his trapping to buy a bicycle.
4. On 27 October 2003, two human rights groups, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and B'Tselem, submitted a petition to the Israeli High Court requesting that an investigation should be carried out when the IDF kills a Palestinian civilian. The petitioners noted almost 2,200 Palestinians have been killed in the current Intifada, but only 55 of those deaths have been investigated.
5. Throughout the second half of October, the Israeli Army conducted “Operation Root Canal” an armored incursion in the Rafah refugee ostensibly to destroy dozens of tunnels that are allegedly being used to smuggle Surface-to-Air missiles over the border from Egypt. The raid found three tunnels, no evidence of SAMs, left 18 Palestinians dead (including three children under 15) and more than 120 wounded, and destroyed nearly 200 homes, throwing about 1,700 people onto the street.
Local residents, and the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, charge that the real reason for the raid is to create an Israeli security zone between Rafah and Egypt, so that an eventual Palestinian state will never control its own borders. Israel denies that this was the purpose of Operation Root Canal, despite the fact that the commander of Israeli forces in the region had already acknowledged: "The IDF has to knock down all the houses along a strip of 300 to 400 metres. It doesn't matter what the future settlement will be, this will be the border with Egypt. This is a long-term policy…and I am happy it is being done, but it's being carried out in doses that are too small, I regret to say. It has to be done in one big operation.”
6. On 19 November, the UN Security Council unanimously approved the U.S.-backed Road Map to Middle East peace, and called upon Israel and the Palestinian Authority to implement it.
In response, the Sharon government invited bids for 13 plots of land for new housing in the Ariel settlement in the northern West Bank. This is illegal under the Fourth Geneva Convention, and an explicit violation of the Road Map.
It also broke ground on a new settlement on expropriated Palestinian land in Arab East Jerusalem. This is illegal under the Fourth Geneva Convention, and an explicit violation of the Road Map.
It also decided that instead of dismantling settlement outposts built without government permission since October 2001, it will give them legal status. This is illegal under the Fourth Geneva Convention, and an explicit violation of the Road Map.
7. On 21 November, the Israeli Air Force admitted it lied about a “targeted” killing in the Nuseirat Refugee Camp, which according to the army led to no casualties, but which Palestinians (and international journalists at the scene) claimed killed up to 14 civilians. The Air Force acknowledged it had lied in briefings to the Israeli and foreign press only after Israeli Knesset Member Yossi Sarid threatened to release evidence available to him, which showed that the military had used a weapon more destructive and indiscriminate than it had publicly claimed.
Ha’aretz suggested that the undisclosed missile weaponry being used against the Palestinians may be depleted uranium. The Guardian suggested it may instead be the American-made Flechette, which is illegal under international law because it fires thousands of tiny darts over hundreds of metres, causing horrific injuries. The nature of the injuries among patients at the Nuseirat Hospital suggests they were indeed wounded by a flechette. Something sliced through their skin "as though pieces of rice made of metal were hurled at [them]", as Gideon Levy learned when he visited the wounded, who included Mohammed Aqil Abu-Shmaleh, a young Palestinian passerby left mentally alert but pentaplegic by a missile fragment through the neck.
8. On 27 November Israelis got a glimpse of Palestinian daily life in Ha’aretz’s review of a newly-published book "Checkpoint Syndrome" , in which Staff Sergeant Liran Ron Furer describes his three years of experience as an Israeli soldier manning a Gaza checkpoint:
He described how they would order children to clean the checkpoint before inspection time; how a soldier named Shahar invented a game: "He checks someone's identity card, and instead of handing it back to him, just tosses it in the air. He got a kick out of seeing the Arab have to get out of his car to pick up his identity card ... It's a game for him and he can pass a whole shift this way"; how they humiliated a dwarf who came to the checkpoint every day on his wagon: "They forced him to have his picture taken on the horse, hit him and degraded him for a good half hour and let him go only when cars arrived at the checkpoint. The poor guy, he really didn't deserve it"; how they had a souvenir picture taken with bloodied, bound Arabs whom they'd beaten up; how Shahar pissed on the head of an Arab because the man had the nerve to smile at a soldier; how Dado forced an Arab to stand on four legs and bark like a dog; and how they stole prayer beads and cigarettes - "Miro wanted them to give him their cigarettes, the Arabs didn't want to give so Miro broke someone's hand, and Boaz slashed their tires."
A month before, students trying to reach Bir Zeit University complained at the arbitrary rules imposed by soldiers at the Surda checkpoint. They reported that the rule for 25 October had been that only those wearing hair gel would proceed. "Today, gel will buy you an education", was the ruling by one of the Israelis manning the checkpoint.
9. Acclaimed Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif spent the third week of November traveling the West Bank, and on 20 November visited the 3,000 villagers of Jayyus, whose 2,150 acres of farmland, with six groundwater wells, 12,000 olive trees and 120 vegetable greenhouses have been cut off from the village by the Separation Wall. Residents now have to apply for a permit to visit their own fields, which may or may not be respected by the soldiers manning the crossing gate, if they bother to show up to unlock the gate at all.
The villagers’ grazing pastures also lie on the “wrong” side of the Wall. The soldiers will allow smallholders with permits to cross over to the pastures….but they won’t allow them to take their sheep with them. They have no orders, they say, to let in sheep. The shepherds are rationing their fodder to slow down the process of starvation, but the ewes are already miscarrying and the lambs that are born are dying. One villager wonders whether anyone in the outside world might be able to help? He has heard that when birds get stuck in oil slicks or whales get beached, everybody rushes to help them. Maybe helping the Palestinians is complicated. But the world could help the sheep.
He has no expectation that anyone will act to help Palestinian humans, but wonders if we will be moved by the plight of Palestinian sheep.
Next time there is a Palestinian suicide bombing, (which we all know there will be, whatever new hopes we have, thanks to Geneva and the talk of a ceasefire), it will be presented in the U.S. news media as an inexplicable, unmotivated act that occurred in a vacuum. We will be told that Palestinians terrorists - implicitly part of our amorphous War On Terror – are responsible for destroying a period of relative calm. We should try to remember what “relative calm” means when you are a Palestinian in the Occupied Territories, where the little land you have left continues to be stolen from under your feet, and the outside world is more likely to care about the fate of your sheep than the fate of your your children.