Thursday, April 17, 2008

Conflict seen through local eyes


When they meet Tariq Natsheh near a military checkpoint in Hebron, the afternoon sun floods the empty, worn street, casting shadows down from rusted awnings over shuttered storefronts.
A block and a half away, in plain sight, is the cemetery where Tariq’s father, once a leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, is buried. On the other side of the street is a Jewish settlement, surrounded by razor wire and military bunkers.

When Tariq went to his father’s grave, a month after his death in 2000, Israeli soldiers had already closed off the road to Palestinians to protect settlers following the launch of the second intifada.
As he entered the stone walls of the cemetery, soldiers armed with M16s beat him to the ground and told him if he returned, they would kill him.
Eight years later, he stands a stone’s throw away in neutral territory. The pain is clear in his hazel eyes and the group makes a spur-of-the-moment decision.
Israeli soldiers see them coming as they stand near their fortified encampment, 25 yards from the cemetery entrance. In full combat fatigues and M16s at their sides, they watch through binoculars as the contingent approaches.
At the stone entrance, the group stalls as Tariq’s slender figure continues on and disappears around a corner. The soldiers stand unmoving, binoculars raised. A few minutes later, Tariq returns, his eyes welling with tears.
“All he wanted to do was pay respects to his dad,” Frank Williams said.
Williams, a retired businessman and Santa Barbara resident, is one of the 13 Americans who escorted Tariq into the Israeli zone several weeks ago during a trip to the conflict-plagued region. Their presence kept the soldiers at bay, he said, in a desire to avoid an international incident.
Sponsored by Interfaith Peace-Builders and the National Peace Foundation, the two-week delegation to Israel and Palestine sought to educate participants, to deepen their understanding of the strife.
“We saw places that most church-related tours never get to and also most Israeli Jewish citizens can’t ever see,” Williams said.
Each day, the group splintered off from their base camp in East Jerusalem like spokes on a wheel — up north to Nazareth for one night, south to Hebron, west to Sderot — jumping back and forth between Palestinian and Israeli territory.
With high walls, stringent checkpoints and a strong military presence nearly everywhere he went, Williams said he never felt in danger. But understanding how the region can encompass two nationalities that rarely interact is another story.
“When I left, I was totally ignorant,” he said. “When I came back, I was somewhat less ignorant but totally confused.”
Lending to the confusion are separation walls built by Israel in 2001 and 2002, he said, defining what Israeli leaders apparently hope to be the permanent borders of their country. The difficulty from Palestine’s point of view, however, is that the boundary snakes irregularly into the West Bank to carve out significant Jewish settlements and water supplies.
It is representative of not only a physical divide between the two, Williams said, but a barrier to peace talks as well.
“It’s not going to happen in today’s environment with today’s politics and today’s leaders,” he said. “It’s a sad situation, but it’s a fair commentary.”
Complicating issues is the lack of a visible, recognizable leader of Palestine, Williams said. Mahmoud Abbas, current head of the Palestinian government, is aligned with Fatah, while Hamas is in control of the legislature, as well as the Gaza Strip.
Israeli leaders won’t deal with Hamas, Williams said, due to the frequent rocket attacks on Israeli settlements near the Gaza border.
“It’s like politics are here, but with a little more bite to it because it’s at the point of a gun.”
When Williams visited Sderot, a small village near Gaza where Palestinians periodically launch rockets — which he described as glorified firecrackers that kill people — he never got a chance to look over the wall into Gaza.
A high-ranking Israeli official visiting around the same time drew sniper fire from the Palestinian side as he stood on the same platform where the group would have been.
Nonetheless, while acknowledging that he has no place predicting the future of a region that has been mired in conflict for countless years, Williams said he can see peace in the future under a set of assumptions.
“It is within the abilities of both Israel and Palestine to solve it with some urging and help from the outside,” he said.
The United States needs to change its perception of being strongly in support of Israel. Palestine needs to support a single leader. Israel needs to back off on some settlement and wall issues and Palestine needs to back off on rocket attacks.
“But those are all big ifs,” Williams said.
In the meantime, militarization reigns. In the Palestinian village of Bil’in, where the separation wall cuts through farmland once worked by the townspeople, the group accompanied a local man to the boundary.
With cameras in a nearby watchtower likely trained on the group, the townsman approached the 15-foot wire fence, telling the Americans if he touched the nonelectrified portion, soldiers would be there in two minutes. He was wrong.
It took two minutes and 20 seconds for Israeli soldiers to arrive, Williams said, toting submachine guns and leading dogs. Get away, the soldiers ordered, and the group got away.
As they left to return to Bil’in, a nearby farmer rolled up razor wire being used at the border and dragged it along, jogging in front of the group’s van. Without Americans there as cover, Israelis would shoot him, Williams said. He’ll use the razor wire to protect his crops from animals.
Despite the bleak and gripping encounters he experienced during the two-week trip, Williams said at other times, optimism prevailed.
In East Jerusalem, a Palestinian-dominated sector of the holy city, the delegation met Bassam Aramin. Once a terrorist, the Palestinian is now a peace activist.
“He spoke very quietly and softly, with no rancor at all,” Williams said, as he told his version of the story.
One day, Aramin’s 10-year-old daughter left a candy store and continued walking down the street with her friends on the way to school. As she opened the bag to share her candy, an Israeli soldier fired from a passing Jeep, hitting her in the back of the head and killing the young girl.
“He realized that violence just doesn’t work,” Williams said. “You continue the cycle indefinitely.”
Now Aramin is aligned with Combatants for Peace, a group of Israeli and Palestinian veterans dedicated to solving the conflict in a nonviolent way, Williams said.
“The most moving thing he said is one Israeli soldier killed my daughter, but a hundred Israeli soldiers planted a garden in her memory.”
And along with deeply moving anecdotes and an image-laden camera, Williams returned with a greater awareness of how the conflict is covered by American media.
“There’s three sides to an argument — yours, mine, and the facts,” he said. “I think we’re only getting one side on the TV news and in the newspapers.”
Palestinians are underrepresented and facts are often missing, Williams said, while emphasizing he is not taking sides, but merely trying to step back and view the situation analytically.
“They’re both right and they’re both wrong.”
Back in Hebron, Williams strolled down that desolate street where Tariq set foot after waiting eight long years. Once one of Hebron’s main marketplaces, with fruit and vegetable stands lining the sidewalks, it stood deserted.
He snapped a quick photo of rust-encrusted doors and cages over second-story windows like something out of East Berlin in the 60s.
Around the corner, people bustled up and down the street, buying fruit and vegetables from colorful stands, just beyond an Israeli checkpoint.

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