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July 14, 2001
The Occupation is Futile

By Jesse Bacon


The Occupation is Futile. If it were a scientific experiment it would be pronounced a complete failure. It is a fantasy of the highest altitude. It is so politically and morally bankrupt that I have moments where I wonder whether good people should even waste their time fighting it. Why not crack open a Taybeh (the beer of Ramallah) , or even a Maccabee ("the beer the Chosen People Choose") and wait for it to crumble?

I will give you two examples of futility in the region I lived in. One major goal of the Occupation is to isolate East Jerusalem from Ramallah. In physical terms this is akin to separitng the heart from the brain, respectively. It's a lost cause. There's a road sign pointing the way to Ramallah right outside of the Old City. Fleets of services whiz up and down the roads between the two: Rickety minivans with yellow license plates marking Israeli citizens. My friend Muhanned was easily able to visit me in EJ, though we often met in the middle to minimize his risk.

A second example is EJ itself, the target of all sorts of urban planning terrorism from the Jerusalem City Council. Such acts have created a Jewish majority in the city. Having lived in the Old City for much of my stay, I can tell you it is about as Jewish as Tunisia. I awoke late on a sultry Shabbos to the din of church bells. The Jewish "quarter" is optimistically named and definitely has an inferiority complex. Trapped in its shiny boutiques by the limits of our Birthright Israel trip, my friend Imelda and I were drawn inevitably to the shops of the Muslim Quarter, a thriving and exotic version of the Pike Place Market. Where you can buy anything from Philadelphia Broasted Chicken, to $1 falafel (half the price of Israeli and better) to traditional Palestinian hand embroidery. Fearing the headlines should something go awry, we reluctantly returned to our group.

True, you do see the odd "pioneer" following Sharon's brave example, Israeli flags drooping limply from the roof. As Muhanned put it, "Only the insecure need flags." And I was quite amused to discover an EJ settlement named after the founding family of BRI, the Bronfmans.

So why do the Israelis do it? And more importantly, why do we pay for it. Here I must draw upon the experiences of my Birthright Israel trip, which I would suggest the pseudonyms "Birthrate" or "Deathwish" Israel, giving the motive and timing of the trip. Incidentally for those of you who wonder about our aid deficit with Israel, the Israeli government funded half of my trip! Israel is skilled at playing to our vulnerabilities of American Jews, and our deepest fantasies. The trip was exquisitely stagemanaged, a Jewish Disney World where we were fed a steady diet of hotel food, contemporary disco tunes, and inspiration wherever we went. For the most part, great care was taken not to offend our delicate sensibilities, and enough candor was supplied for our sophistication. Our wonderful guide, resplendent in his shaved head, an ex-peacenik no less, delivered a devastatingly accurate chronology of 1948. But he never missed a chance to remind us that we had to do for our own people before we could worry about such niceties as human rights or justice for anyone else.

My tripmates had almost no Jewish education in most cases, making me feel almost rabbinical in comparison. The Zionism offered up to them contained slogans every bit as powerful as "Sh'ma Yisrael" and far more accessible. Israel presents itself as a cause worth dying for, to the children of baby-boomers, fed up with their parents' self-involvement and history of draft-dodging.

But let us return to the real Israel now, and its all too real though futile Occupation. What is the end result of our $6 billion annual investment? One thing seems certain. The Palestinians are not going to agree to be "voluntarily transferred" or any such deranged scheme circulating the Sharon cabinet. They have learned the lessons of '48 too well. No one spoke with thought they could be driven out. And I have to admit, though much of Israel is as tacky as any American suburb, especially the settlements, they don't appear to be going anywhere either. So it may seem that the Occupation has reached a stalemate.

But it isn't true. For one thing, I have avoided mention of the Occupation's glowing success, the constant harassment, inconveniencing, and degradation of Palestinians. Forget rubber bullets. The symbol of the occupation is the Machzom or checkpoint whether it is a fortified military outpost or just a pile of those famous rocks bulldozed into a roadblock. I witnessed my friends humiliated by the rude treatment they received, and that was with me there. "If I'm still offended, I haven't gotten used to it" was Muhanned's hopeful take. It could have been worse, once when he revealed at a checkpoint that he did Palestinian humanitarian work, the solider replied, "Palestinian humanitarian work? Chavall Ha zman." Waste of time.

Worse yet, when I was staying near Hebron, the Highway in front of my house was declared Palestinian-free at about 6 pm. Perversely enough, earlier that day, a machzom cut off the alternate route. Two carloads of Palestinian men who missed the delivery of this Edict had their ID's and car keys taken away. Stranded right outside a settlement, as potential a death sentence as a black person stuck in a white town in the Segregated South after sundown.

It was only the intervention of human rights workers as the shadows lengthened that got their keys and ID's returned to them after several anxious hours, and only the hospitality of my Palestinian host that protected the one man who was unable to slip away, a Jericho cabdriver. As if this weren't maspik, enough, the Occupation is getting worse. The Israeli government seems determined to use the cease-fire for all sorts of mayhem. One settler was found dead, a hermit living on his own in a "caravan" or trailer. Using his murder as a pretext, the Army demolished cave dwellings belonging to 1000 people, dwellings that the Israeli Supreme Court had expressly forbidden from harm. I was reminded of President Jackson's words when hearing the American Supreme Court had prohibited the removal of the Cherokee. "[Chief Justice] John Marshall has made his ruling; let him enforce it!"

A soldier who blocked our van of motley human rights activists from reaching the scene of the demolition attempted to reassure us. "We're only demolishing cisterns." (True in some of the sites, not in others.) And we were not to worry as we contemplated the unbroken sandy wastes around us, for "these people have plenty of water." And even this "restraint" was not adhered to, for we later saw the remains of the demolished caves, the tiny neat bundles of extracted possessions resting nearby.

For sheer lunacy, however, it's hard to top the policy of extra-judicial assassinations. My friends Karen and Said were clear on the implications. "Every militant in Palestine is going to assume he's on that list. And he's going to think, why not take some Israelis with me?" Fearful for my safety, Karen urged me to stay in Palestinian areas, where indeed I felt much less vulnerable.

The shebab, Palestinian youth, can be forgiven for their automatic assumption. Indeed under such a policy of willful killing, anyone is fair game. A Dr. Thabet, who was engaged in "coexistence" dialogues, was deliberately executed last fall by Barak's Mafioso government. Israeli peace activists attempted to attend his funeral. Such killings are prohibited by the Geneva Convention are particularly loathsome coming from a state that only allows the death penalty for Hitler's war criminals.

As I had dinner with Karen and Said, the IDF shot an unarmed soccer coach named Nasser Abed, their friend's neighbor. We called the friend for an account of the killing, and found her comforting the grief-stricken widow, mother of his five children, who had been taunted by the soldiers. Thinking such a sympathetic target, might pique the curiosity of the jaded US Media, I searched in vain through the archives of the New York Times, CNN, Washington Post, and AP for any mention of his name or the circumstances of his death beyond the nondescript "shootout."

So again, I must ask "Why?" Said stressed that Sharon was acting in his own interests, not Israel's. There's a Likud primary coming up on Sept 30, and there's nothing like a pending war crimes case to motivate you to hold onto your current job, with all its privileges.

The only settler I encountered on my BR Israel trip, oddly enough the Director of Hillel at Tel Aviv University, also had interesting theories. He cited the theory that secular state of Israel is the donkey that Elijah rides to herald the coming of the Messiah. He unsurprisingly did not accept the authority of the UN, but then neither did the Rabbi or many of the other participants on my trip. And he was honestly completely unable to even contemplate my question about whether he would remain in the West Bank under hypothetical Palestinian sovereignty.

So this is the situation, what are we to do? I promise myself I would not leave you without at least some suggestions of answers to this important question. The first thing I can say is to oppose the Occupation to your last breath, wherever you may be. I myself received a chilling reminder at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum. Upon entering the indoor museum you are greeted with a map "Jewish Communities Under the Nazi Occupation of Europe" in English and in Hebrew. In both languages, the word ("Kibush" in the Hebrew) is the term used to describe the Israeli Occupation.

And please don't say, "I don't agree with many things Israel does, but The question is simple. Does Israel have a right to do whatever it deems necessary, or doesn't it. And of all its actions, the worse ones, the ones that any person of conscience should oppose, are the ones we Americans pay for, and we Jews provide moral cover for.

Don't nurture fantasies of unilateral separation. There is no one line to separate upon. It seems that every West Bank hilltop has a settlement running fingerlike atop it, beckoning menacingly.

Oppose the Occupation with your words and deeds, for your tax money and moral status pays for fantasies every bit as lurid as Ronald Reagan's. [should find contemporary example?]

At the end of the day, the worst fantasy we are fed as American Jews is that there is nothing we can do. In addition to opposition to the occupation here at home, there is a bewildering array of opportunities for Internationals, Jewish and non-Jewish alike. I will mention them in a moment.

I will now admit to the painful realization, that much of the resistance is as futile as the Occupation itself. The second Intifada appears to be winding down, and Americans are unimpressed with sequels. Intifada II may not appear to be changing political realities, but it does restore temporarily the dignity and humanity robbed from the stone-throwing youth, and of this I am in complete support.

However, growing numbers of Palestinians are seeking new tactics, ones that can be practiced by a wider range of people. These are forms of direct confrontation, collective defiance, or outright defiance of the Occupation's guises, such as the hated Machzoms or curfews. The presence of Internationals can elevate such efforts above "lying down and dying." They are small but important part, but I believe they hold a chance of success when combined with the continuing economic pressures of the Intifada and an increasing internal Israeli debate about the viability of Settlements Furthermore, Internationals can offer their assistance to the Palestinian NGO's such as LAW society, which do amazing, Occupation-defying work.

I would also recommend the Christian Peacemakers (Motto: "Getting in the Way" who are gracious hosts willing to find opportunities for people in the Hebron area, where they have been a respected presence for five years. And finally the tough Israeli women of Machzom Watch are seeking helpers. Together with Rabbis for Human Rights, ICAHD, the AIC, and other groups there is real work being done in the West Bank by Israelis. And it is appreciated, if not by all. "If all Israelis were like Jeff, we would have no problems" mused Jawdi, my Palestinian host.

Finally, just your presence in the West Bank (and yes I felt completely safe) shocks the settlers and soldiers alike. My Palestinian carpoolers jokingly suggested that the soldiers assumed they were my guards and driver. In any case, we got through checkpoints easier. "Be Careful. What are you doing here?" the Israelis say, astounded. The none-too-subtle meaning being, "I thought no one cared about what we do here." Let's make sure they're wrong!

I have talked enough, there is much to do. Let's get to work, starting with your questions.