Hour Before Dawn
By Nick Pretzlik
writing from Occupied East Jerusalem,
28 January 2004
to Jerusalem yesterday, an Israeli soldier at the Bethlehem checkpoint
glanced at my passport and mumbled "Did you enjoy the visit?"
"Yes" I replied. "Well," he said pointing towards
the town "it stinks in there. I smell it every day."
Taken aback, I asked
"What do you mean?" He simply repeated his comment and waved
The previous day
at the al-Hamra checkpoint, south of Jenin, I watched a soldier order
people out of their cars. It was 7:00 a.m. and the slopes of the hills
down one side of the valley were bathed in soft dawn light. Songbirds
flitted from tree to tree, the valley floor was lush and green, and
the sky a pristine blue. A long line of cars taking Palestinians to
work had already formed and the soldier was strutting up and down in
Chaplinesque fashion, his rifle comically large in proportion to his
Passengers - even
local UN personnel - were subjected to shouted instructions to line
up in front of him and then harangued as he jabbed his finger repeatedly
in their direction. His aim was to humiliate and the process continued
until appropriate signs of submission were displayed. Only then were
the passengers permitted to continue on their way. The charade took
hours and did nothing for Israel's security. But then, security was
never the soldier's intention.
All Israeli checkpoints
are on Palestinian land - under military occupation since 1967 - and
incidents like the one I witnessed are commonplace demonstrations of
the racism that infects the Israeli armed forces. The contrived sloppiness
of soldiers in their dealings with Palestinians in the occupied territories
is further evidence of their mindset - a young woman conscript blowing
bubbles of gum as she questions Palestinians standing in front of her,
her stubble-chinned male counterparts ostentatiously filling their mouths
with food while doing the same thing, others drinking coffee and puffing
cigarette smoke nonchalantly while yelling at their victims.
These actions are
anathema to Palestinians, for whom dignified behavior and bearing in
public are of paramount importance. Palestinian women, scarved and tidy,
do not eat, drink or smoke in public. Palestinian men, generally well-educated
and cultured, dress as smartly as their straitened circumstances will
allow. Nor is the soldiers' behavior, which is designed to demean and
humiliate, confined to the military. The border police and traffic police
act in similar fashion.
Israelis have recently
complained about a perceived rise in European anti-Semitism. They might
want to take a closer look at their own institutions as purveyors of
racism and be mindful of the fact that, once conscripts have completed
their stint of military service, they return to their communities carrying
toxic attitudes with them.
A successful military
career in Israel is a stepping-stone to success in the political arena
and it is not unreasonable to suppose that ex-soldiers carry army-inspired
prejudices with them when they enter the Knesset. Therein, perhaps,
lies a partial explanation for the construction of the apartheid wall,
now acknowledged as a ghastly mistake by many politicians. Maybe the
idea wouldn't have taken root had those involved not been conditioned
during their formative years in uniform, and maybe it also explains
why the wider Israeli public fails to oppose the project in larger numbers.
were not thought of as second or third class human beings, would the
concept have been given serious consideration? Would it really have
been thought acceptable to incarcerate Palestinians in the world's largest
ghetto, to pen them in behind five hundred kilometers of concrete and
razor wire with large and forbidding swathes of no-mans land on both
sides - a barrier which cuts through neighborhoods and divides villagers
from their fields and their water and separates whole Palestinian communities
from schools and hospitals?
It appears that
Ariel Sharon's government did not foresee the negative global implications
of the apartheid wall. And the implications could be dire. Watchtowers,
machine gun emplacements and blocks of concrete up to nine meters high
make uncomfortable viewing and are not images that a public relations
campaign can easily tone down. Furthermore, it is likely that the myth
of the vaunted security benefits may be rapidly exposed. With tension
running high and large numbers of Israeli settlers refusing to move
and continuing to reside within the perimeter of the wall, violence
will continue. It is a question of "when" not "if"
violence explodes on the Israeli side of the barrier.
This moment in time
is the Palestinian equivalent of the hour before dawn - their darkest
hour. It is also a moment when the Jewish state itself is imperiled.
Israel displays scant inclination to withdraw to the 1967 borders and
seems intent on completing the wall without delay. If that is indeed
the case, the Palestinians may decide to abandon their aspirations for
a two state solution and instead co-opt the global anti-Zionist sentiments
aroused by television images of their plight to mount an anti-apartheid
style campaign for a single state - incorporating Jews and Palestinians
- from the Jordan river to the sea. The campaign would be hard for Israel
to counter, particularly if it is accompanied by demands for democracy.
One person, one vote is, after all, President Bush's messianic mantra.
trends indicate that within ten years Palestinians will become the majority
in a single state. And what would be wrong with that? I have yet to
meet a Palestinian unwilling to accept living alongside Jews on equal
terms, pooling resources and sharing the vast potential of the Holy
Land. Surely such an arrangement is preferable to the insanity occurring
today. Only the colonial concept of Zionism stands in the way.