But who are the ones that we call our friends?
These governments killing their own?
Or the people who finally can’t take anymore
And they pick up a gun or a brick or a stone.
And there are lives in the balance;
There are people under fire;
There are children at the cannons;
And there is blood on the wire.
Jackson Browne, Lives in the Balance
Indomitable ninety-four year old Uri Avnery is an Israeli writer, founder of the Gush Shalom peace movement, veteran of Israel’s Independence War, and former member of the Knesset. He has written a weekly column for Gush Shalom since 1993. I republish his latest in In That Howling Infinite as a reminder that the world looks different from the other side of the wire.
The Arabic in the featured picture says: “View Us Through the Eyes of Our Children”.
A Tale of Two Stories
Uri Avnery, September 29, 2017
This is the story: at 7 o’clock in the morning, an Arab approaches the gate of Har Adar, a settlement close to the Green Line near the Israeli-Arab village of Abu Ghosh.
The man is a “good Arab”. A good Arab with a work permit in the settlement. He lives in the nearby West Bank Arab village of Beit Surik. He received a work permit there because he fits all the criteria – he is 37 years old, married and father of four children. The inhabitants of Har Adar know him well, because he has been cleaning their homes for years.
This Tuesday morning he arrived at the gate as usual. But something aroused suspicion among the guards.. He was wearing a jacket, though the weather was quite hot on this early autumn day. The guards asked him to remove his jacket.
Instead, the man took out a loaded pistol and shot three of the guards in the head at close range – two civilian guards and a member of the semi-military Border Guards. Two of the victims were Arabs (one of them a Druze) and one was a Jew. Another Jew, the local commander of the guards, was severely wounded. Since the assailant had never received military training, the precision of his shots was astounding. The pistol had been stolen 15 years ago.
All Israel was shocked. How could this happen? A good Arab like this? An Arab with permits? Why would he do such a thing in a place where he was well liked and well treated? Where he played with the children? And that after he was thoroughly vetted by the Security Service, which has innumerable Arab spies and is considered well-nigh infallible?
Something extraordinary must have happened. Someone must have incited him against the Jews and the nice people of Har Adar, who had treated him so well. Perhaps the UN speech by Mahmoud Abbas. Or perhaps some secret contacts with Hamas. “Incitement!” cried Binyamin Netanyahu.
But then another fact emerged, which explained everything. The man had quarreled with his wife. He had beaten her up, and she had escaped to her family in Jordan, leaving the four children behind.
So, obviously, he had become temporarily unhinged. In a state of mental derangement he had forgotten the kindness of the Har Adar people. Just a unique case, that need not trouble us further.
But it all shows that you can’t trust the Arabs. They are a bunch of murderers. You cannot make peace with them until they change completely. So we must keep the occupied territories.
THAT IS the story. But there is another story, too. The story as seen by the man himself.
From his home in neighboring Beit Surik, the man – whose name was, by the way, Nimr (“leopard”) Mahmoud Ahmed al-Jamal – could see Har Adar from his home every day when he woke up. For him, as for every Arab, it was a flourishing Jewish settlement, built on expropriated Arab land. Like his own village, it belonged to the Palestinian West Bank which is occupied territory.
He had to get up in the darkness of the night in order to get to Har Adar on time – 7.00 o’clock in the morning – and work hard until late in the night, arriving home at about 10 o’clock. This is the lot of tens of thousands of Arab laborers. They may look friendly, especially when their livelihood depends on it. They may even be really friendly to benevolent masters. But deep in their hearts they cannot forget for a moment that they are cleaning the toilets of the Jews who came to Arab Palestine and occupied their homeland.
Since most of the agricultural land of their villages has been expropriated for Jewish settlements, they have no choice but to work in these low-status jobs. There is no industry to speak of in the West Bank. Wages are minimal, often below the legal minimum wage in Israel proper (some 1500 dollars per month). Since they have no choice, they are not far from being slaves. Like the nice slaves in “Gone with the Wind”.
Such a man may be at peace with this reality, but if something bad happens, he may suddenly become upset with his status and decide to become a martyr. Nimr left behind a letter in which he defended his wife and absolved her from any responsibility for the deed he had planned for the next day.
So these are the two stories, which have very little in common.
The people of Har Adar are completely shocked. Since they live 20 minutes drive from Jerusalem, they do not consider themselves settlers at all, but Israelis like any other. They don’t really see the Arabs all around them as people like themselves, but as primitive natives.
The Har Adar people are not like the fanatical, religious and nearly fascist people in some settlements. Far from it. Har Adar people vote for all parties, including Meretz, the left-wing Zionist party which advocates the return of the occupied territories to the Palestinians. This is not seen as including Har Adar, of course, since there is a consensus among Zionists, right and left, that the settlements close to the Green Line should be annexed to Israel.
Har Adar people can rightly be proud of their achievements. From the air, the place looks very orderly. It has 3858 inhabitants. Their average income is about 5000 dollars a month, well over the national Israeli average (some 3000 dollars). Their local council is the third most efficient in the entire country.
Located in the mountainous area around Jerusalem, it has a beautiful landscape. It also has man-made amenities: a library, a youth club, a skate-park and an amphitheater that seats 720 people. Even for an average Israeli, this is paradise. For the Arabs around, who cannot enter without a special permit, it is a perpetual reminder of their national disaster.
Of course, like other settlements, Har Adar is not located on land that was empty. It occupies the location on which stood a village called Hirbat Nijam, a village which already stood there in Persian-Hellenistic times, some 2500 years ago. Like most Palestinian villages, they were Canaanite, then Judean, then Hellenist, then Byzantine, then Muslim, then crusader, then Mameluk, then Ottoman, then Palestinian – without the population ever changing. Until 1967.
WHEN NIMR was born, all this long history was long forgotten. What remained was the reality of the Israeli occupation.
This now looks like the normal state of things. The members of Har Adar are happy, feeling secure and well guarded by the efficient Security Service, the Border Guard and local mercenaries, mostly Arab citizens of Israel. Neighbors like Nimr seem content, and probably are, if they are lucky enough to have a job and a work permit, even with pitiful wages. The historical grudge lies deeply buried within their consciousness.
And then something happens, something that may be quite irrelevant – like the escape of his wife to Jordan – to bring it all up. Nimr the lowly laborer suddenly becomes Nimr the freedom-fighter, Nimr the martyr on his way to paradise. All his village respects his sacrifice and his family.
Israelis are furious that the families of “martyrs” are paid an allowance by the Palestinian Authority. Binyamin Netanyahu accuses Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) of incitement to murder with these payments. But it is quite impossible for Abbas to annul them – the outrage reaction of his people would be tremendous. Martyrs are holy, their families respected.
THE DAY after Nimr’s dastardly terrorist act and/or heroic martyrdom, a grandiose national ceremony took place in another settlement.
All the country’s major dignitaries, led by the President and the Prime Minister, assembled to commemorate the 50tth anniversary of “our return to our homeland, Judea and Samaria, the Jordan Valley and the Golan Heights”.
Missing in the list is the Gaza Strip, which Israel has evacuated, leaving behind a tight land and sea blockade aided by Egypt. In the Strip there are about two million Palestinians. Who the hell wants them?
All hell broke loose when the President of the Supreme Court, who was supposed to send a judge to represent the court at this ceremony, canceled his attendance because of the highly propagandist style of the event. She decided that this is party propaganda, in which her court would not take part.
Altogether not a day of quiet in this country, a state without borders and without a constitution, where every story has two totally different sides, where nice and quiet people suddenly become raging martyrs.
There will be no quiet until there is peace, with each of the two peoples living in their own state, a situation where real friendship has a chance of blooming.
A recent article in Newsweek noted:
“More than three-quarters of Palestinians feel their government is corrupt. Asked to name the biggest problem in society, a majority of respondents choose internal ones: poverty, unemployment, corruption and the political schism between Hamas and Fatah. Just 27 percent say the occupation is their largest concern, according to the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, the top pollster in the territories. The official unemployment rate in the West Bank is 16 percent, and roughly one in five families lives in poverty. (The actual figures are thought to be higher). Yet the streets of Ramallah are lined with billboards advertising million-shekel apartments. A tenuous middle class has loaded up on consumer debt, which soared from $1.3 billion in 2012 to $2.2 billion just three years later. All of this has served to make Palestinians more risk-averse. The way a CEO of a major bank in Ramallah sees it: “You’re not going to join an intifada when you have to make mortgage payments.”
Meanwhile, the economies of Israel and Palestine are effectively integrated. Israel controls trade The Palestinian market us captive one for Israeli products, whilst Palestinian goods have limited acess to the Israeli market. Al Jazeera has recently published an informative piece this subject.
The following is based on our own observations and knowledge, and these are informed by what we have seen and read, and what we were told by Palestinians we talked to during our travels through the West Bank. We do not profess to be experts – we are neither academics nor professional commentators. And accordingly, we welcome objective comments and contributions that both support and question our observations.
Castles Made of Sand
Whilst the attention of the international media and of NGOs is focused on Israeli settlements, there is a land rush going on in the cities of the West Bank.
A big surprise in our travels through the Occupied Territories, was the residential construction boom going on in cities fully governed by the Palestinian Authority (PA). We had been aware of this prior to coming to Israel, but not of its scale. To our knowledge, mainstream media has hardly covered this at all, and when it does, more often than not it is PR rather than critical analysis (see links below). Our guides, for reasons of their own, were reticent about discussing it.
We often hear that development is held back by the Occupation, that buildings without official approval are subject to demolition, and that there is no land available for Palestinians to build on. Likewise, we hear about how the water supply to the Est Bank is severely restricted. Israeli settlements enjoy an abundance whist Palestinian homes endure meagre rations. Indeed, our guides would stand beneath hills covered in building sites and repeatedly tell us all this.
Most certainly, building by Palestinians is severely restricted in Area C (60% of the West Bank, and 4% of its Arab population) which is under Israeli control, and Area B, under the joint control Israel and the Palestinian Authority (22% and 41% respectively). And water is indeed problem insofar as the aquifers are located in Israel itself, and supply is hostage to logistical and political exingenices, and also, to an antiquated Jordanian distribution infrastructure vulnerable to regular breakdowns and leaks.
But billions of expatriate dollars are being invested in medium and high density apartment blocks in area A, the 18% of the West Bank controlled by the PA (and 55% of Palestinian Arabs) in Ramallah, the de facto capital, and in Nablus, Hebron and Jenin. It is a common practice throughout the Middle East for expatriates to remit funds to build a house or houses for their families, or to add extra storeys to the old family home (unfinished upper storeys are a familiar feature of Arab towns in the Levant). But since its establishment, the PA has actively encouraged Palestinians who have “made it” overseas to invest in their nascent homeland by repatriating their stash and putting it into the burgeoning property market. The national accounts prepared by the Palestinian Monetary Authorty show that remittances from overseas have risen steadily in recent years. But do not detail where it is ultimately invested
Where does the land available for development come from? Local commentators suggest that families sell their land to developers. There are suggestions too that speculators take advantage of Shariah inheritance laws, whereby a parcel of land or an apartment block is divided up between sons, by targeting the weakest link – the most needy for quick cash, or more easily intimidated by strong arm tactics – and then persuading the other siblings to sell. The PA is regarded by many as notoriously corrupt, and it is not unlikely that government land and land held in trust is transferred into private hands through cronyism, kickbacks and connections. And what better home for trousered cash that cannot be transferred into offshore bank accounts than bricks and mortar?
Whatever the mechanism, the slopes of the hills surrounding the larger cities are adorned with hectare after hectare of high rises. Most are works in progress, and much of those that are completed appear to be unoccupied. And, on the subject of water supply, we observed that the new buildings were not topped by the roof water tanks that are ubiquitous in most Palestinian towns and villages. No water shortages here, it would seem.
We were informed that a small apartment can cost between $60 and $100,000 before fit-out. Add another 10-20% for fixtures and fittings. Most Palestinians cannot afford these modest apartments. Those that do are in paid employment, mainly working for the PA or for UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) and the many NGOs that operate here. And they raise the finance through very un-islamic mortgages. Large billboards on highways offer financial advice and funds to affluent-looking young professionals.
The irony is that most employed Palestinians depend upon the survival of the PA and indeed, on the continuation of the Occupation. UNWRA, the United Nations agency that caters exclusively for Palestinian refugees employs some 30,000 people, the vast majority of whom are Palestinian (only a few hundred are not), and as such, it is the largest single employer of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank (by comparison, the UN High Commission for Refugees employs only 5,000 to 6,000 people globally).
Should the PA collapse or be abolished, should UNWRA be dissolved, should a Palestinian state be established in the West Bank, the government, and those businesses and agencies that depend upon it for contracts and custom could become insolvent, whilst there is always the possibility that international funding could be reduced or withdrawn. In short, the housing bubble could burst, the property market collapse, and those photogenic young professionals in the billboards, and their families, could lose their jobs and their homes.
The health of the Palestinian economy is also an perennial risk factor. The economy had been improving in recent years, with unemployment in the West Bank falling and and private investment in construction growing. The two might have been working hand in hand, coinciding with commencement of the building boom. But during the past three years, economic indicators have gone backwards owing to the political and economic uncertainty, with falling rates of growth, high inflation, and continuing high rates of unemployment and poverty. Economic recession, therefore, could likewise impact on the property market.
These are worst-case scenarios. But there are other economic implications.
For example, this property boom is speculative rather than productive investment in a Palestinian economy that is heavily dependent – some would argue almost totally – on Israel and on international aid. Whilst aid donors and agencies bankroll roads and essential services like schools, power, water, and the like, some say the money should instead be invested in business startups and entrepreneurial enterprises, developing the fiscal and human capital so that Palestinians can provide for their own welfare. National self-esteem should come from being economically sustainable and not from being an indigent state.
Also, there is growing economic inequality between the haves and the have nots. Before the establishment of the PA, we were told, things were more evenly balanced. Most of the population were on a more or less equal footing. There was a sense of “we are all in it together”. Now there is a palpable sense of every man for himself.
Reiterating the forward to this post, this is based on our own observations and knowledge, and these are informed by what we have seen and read – we are neither academics nor professional commentators. But, as we sincerely desire to acquire and to present as accurate a picture as possible, we welcome objective comments and contributions that both support and question our observations. Any such insights will be incorporated into the post.
Much of what I have written is covered in this illuminating report by the Jerusalem Centre for a Public Affairs published in November 2015 (the picture gallery is an eye-opener): Luxury alongside poverty in the Palestinian Authority
Photographic Postscript: every picture tells a story
Palestinian developer and billionaire Munib al Masri, so-called “Duke of Nablus” built himself a mansion atop a hill overlooking Nablus. That’s his personal mosque up there. Some locals say he could’ve built one for them in the city instead.
New high-rise buildings look down on a billboard honouring a young shahi-d or martyr.
Afterword : The Duke of Nablus and his kin
Relatives Municipal al Masri include his cousin and fellow billionaire, Arab Bank and Paltel chairman Sabih al-Masri, and nephews, developer Bashar Masri, and Jordanian former prime minister Taher al-Masri. The Masris would appear to be the Palestininian Authority’s development choice, and also, Israel’s.