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Tomgram: Sandy Tolan, The Occupation That Time Forgot

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This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

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I'm reminded of how Chinese premier Zhou EnLai supposedly answered a question in 1972 about the significance of the French Revolution. "Too early to tell," was his reputed reply; and though he may never have said it, how true it is that the major events of our world carom through history in ways that remain unpredictable even hundreds of years later.  How then to arrive at an assessment of the Arab Spring -- and now far harsher Summer and Fall -- of 2011, other than to say that it has proven monumental?

Perhaps all that can or should be said is that history's surprises have their joys (as well as horrors), and that the young people who propelled the Arab Spring, toppling some regional autocrats and tyrants, challenging others, and leaving still others shaken, offered genuine hope (Yes, We Can!) in a region where it had been a scarce commodity.  Their many and complex uprisings and serial demonstrations have clearly destabilized significant parts of the Middle East that had been in a kind of deadly stasis.  Who knows what will shake out from it all?  At this early date, however, one of the losers from these cascading events seems to be the ever more right-wing government of Israel which -- as its autocratic allies in the region totter or fall -- has been left in a state of growing isolation and anxiety.

The Arab Spring has evidently even offered a kind of confused and bedraggled hope to a Palestinian not-exactly-state, the Palestinian Authority, about as powerless as an entity could be, which is heading this week for the U.N. to do it's-not-quite-clear-what.  Its decision signals, at least, the utter bankruptcy of the former "road map" to peace in the region -- there are no roads, only checkpoints and obstacles, and as for maps, the Israelis control them.  The zombie-style "negotiations" Washington has long been brokering in the region are now officially dead, no matter how many diplomats rush from one capital to another.

If it weren't so grim, the uproar over such a non-power essentially pleading with the U.N. for membership when it controls next to nothing on the ground, and the scurrying around of everyone from Tony Blair to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, not to speak of the threats of the anxious Israelis to withhold money and tear up the Oslo Accords, of the U.S. Congress to withhold yet more money, and of Republican presidential candidates accusing the Obama administration of "appeasement" or worse would be the material for the Middle Eastern equivalent of a bedroom farce.

Journalist Sandy Tolan, author of a moving book, The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East, is just back from the West Bank.  As he makes clear, by anyone's measure the Israelis are winning the war of and on the land.  And yet symbols do matter -- and so, in the end, may the kind of isolation the Israelis could, one day, find themselves in, especially in a destabilizing region with potential surprises in store, some predictable, some not faintly so. Tom

It's the Occupation, Stupid
The State to Which the U.N. May Grant Membership Is Disappearing

By Sandy Tolan

It's the show that time and the world forgot. It's called the Occupation and it's now in its 45th year. Playing on a landscape about the size of Delaware, it remains largely hidden from view, while Middle Eastern headlines from elsewhere seize the day.  Diplomats shuttle back and forth from Washington and Brussels to Middle Eastern capitals; the Israeli-Turkish alliance ruptures amid bold declarations from the Turkish prime minister; crowds storm the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, while Israeli ambassadors flee the Egyptian capital and Amman, the Jordanian one; and of course, there's the headliner, the show-stopper of the moment, the Palestinian Authority's campaign for statehood in the United Nations, which will prompt an Obama administration veto in the Security Council.

But whatever the Turks, Egyptians, or Americans do, whatever symbolic satisfaction the Palestinian Authority may get at the U.N., there's always the Occupation and there -- take it from someone just back from a summer living in the West Bank -- Israel isn't losing.  It's winning the battle, at least the one that means the most to Palestinians and Israelis, the one for control over every square foot of ground.  Inch by inch, meter by meter, Israel's expansion project in the West Bank and Jerusalem is, in fact, gaining momentum, ensuring that the "nation" that the U.N. might grant membership will be each day a little smaller, a little less viable, a little less there.

How to Disappear a Land

On my many drives from West Bank city to West Bank city, from Ramallah to Jenin, Abu Dis to Jericho, Bethlehem to Hebron, I'd play a little game: Could I travel for an entire minute without seeing physical evidence of the occupation?  Occasionally -- say, when riding through a narrow passage between hills -- it was possible.  But not often.  Nearly every panoramic vista, every turn in the highway revealed a Jewish settlement, an Israeli army checkpoint, a military watchtower, a looming concrete wall, a barbed-wire fence with signs announcing another restricted area, or a cluster of army jeeps stopping cars and inspecting young men for their documents.

The ill-fated Oslo "peace process" that emerged from the Oslo Accords of 1993 not only failed to prevent such expansion, it effectively sanctioned it.  Since then, the number of Israeli settlers on the West Bank has nearly tripled to more than 300,000 -- and that figure doesn't include the more than 200,000 Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem.

The Oslo Accords, ratified by both the Palestinians and the Israelis, divided the West Bank into three zones -- A, B, and C.  At the time, they were imagined by the Palestinian Authority as a temporary way station on the road to an independent state.  They are, however, still in effect today.  The de facto Israeli strategy has been and remains to give Palestinians relative freedom in Area A, around the West Bank's cities, while locking down "Area C" -- 60% of the West Bank -- for the use of the Jewish settlements and for what are called "restricted military areas."  (Area B is essentially a kind of grey zone between the other two.)  From this strategy come the thousands of demolitions of "illegal" housing and the regular arrests of villagers who simply try to build improvements to their homes.  Restrictions are strictly enforced and violations dealt with harshly.

When I visited the South Hebron Hills in late 2009, for example, villagers were not even allowed to smooth out a virtually impassable dirt road so that their children wouldn't have to walk two to three miles to school every day. Na'im al-Adarah, from the village of At-Tuwani, paid the price for transporting those kids to the school "illegally." A few weeks after my visit, he was arrested and his red Toyota pickup seized and destroyed by Israeli soldiers.  He didn't bother complaining to the Palestinian Authority -- the same people now going to the U.N. to declare a Palestinian state -- because they have no control over what happens in Area C.

The only time he'd seen a Palestinian official, al-Adarah told me, was when he and other villagers drove to Ramallah to bring one to the area.  (The man from the Palestinian Authority refused to come on his own.) "He said this is the first time he knew that this land [in Area C] is ours.  A minister like him is surprised that we have these areas?  I told him, 'How can a minister like you not know this?  You're the minister of local government!'

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of (more...)
 
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