TOPICS > Politics

Building Walls

January 21, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Since Friday, Israeli troops have fanned out through Ramallah, extending their reoccupation of the West Bank city, which was left to Palestinian control under the 1993 Oslo agreement. Israeli troops moved tanks to within 50 yards of Yasser Arafat’s office, where he is under virtual house arrest. They also blasted a radio TV station they accused of broadcasting inflammatory reports, and raided the home of Marwan Barghouti and other Palestinian leaders. Barghouti, general secretary of Yasser Arafat’s Fatah Party in the West Bank, said Israeli intentions are clear.

MARWAN BARGHOUTI, West Bank General Secretary, Fatah: I think that Sharon government has very clear plan. They plan from three points. First, to topple Mr. Arafat, to undermine Palestinian Authority, to crack down on the Palestinian intifada and the resistance and, of course, to reoccupy Palestinian cities. But this will not lead for security for Israelis.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: It was a member of the armed branch of Fatah who killed six celebrants at a bat mitzvah party last week in northern Israel, wounding 30. Fatah said it carried out that attack in retaliation for the Israeli assassination a few days before of one of its leaders in Tulkarm. And so the bloody cycle of violence escalated. Life has changed enormously throughout the West Bank in the year and a half since the most recent intifada, or uprising, began.

Beit Jala, an old partly Christian village near Bethlehem, looks quiet on this cold January morning, but there have been intermittent firefights between here and Gilo, an Israeli neighborhood just across a narrow valley. We reported from the Gilo side of this divide on Friday. Palestinians say Gilo is an Israeli settlement built on their confiscated land. Each town claims the firing originated from the other side. Some of the Palestinian shooting game from this house.

KHALID EL-MASSOU, Director, Inad Theater: This house was bombed by the Israelis’ tanks.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Khalid el Massou is a director of a Beit Jala theater company.

KHALID EL-MASSOU: There’s many houses that was damaged completely.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So did the firing come from right over there?

KHALID EL-MASSOU: Yes. The tanks was there and they bombed all the houses and all the area.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Who was doing the shooting?

KHALID EL-MASSOU: The people who wanted to defend… The people here. The people, they need to defend themselves.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Khalid’s Inad Theater wasn’t on the front lines of the shooting, but a tank shell hit it, destroying much of the structure. He and his group are rebuilding with help from the Swedish government and the Ford Foundation. He teaches classes and gives plays even now in the damaged theater. He’s also spending a lot of time traveling through the West Bank to perform. On this day, we accompanied him to a school in Abu Dis, a village east of Jerusalem. He took steep back roads to avoid long waits at Israeli checkpoints turning a 15-minute trip into an hour’s journey through small villages, including one where the shepherds of biblical renown witnessed the star that led them to the manger.

Khalid said he performs so that the children may laugh, diverting them from a conflict that has taken a terrible toll on young people. About 1,000 Israelis and Palestinians have been killed since the current intifada began. Three-quarters of those are Palestinians, and 20 percent were under 18.

KHALID EL-MASSOU: My main goal is to be with children trying to change that situation, make it more light, more easier to make the children participate with me, to sing, to dance, to play, to forget for a while the sound of shelling, of bombing.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: He told the children a story about Nicholas, a five-year-old Beit Jala boy who lost his left arm to an Israeli shell. The point was to encourage the children to say they’d help Nicholas. In Beit Jala the next day, Nicholas spent Sunday morning at church with his sisters. He is still in pain, they said, and very sad. He was wounded May 6 last year after the reoccupation of Beit Jala by Israelis. There was a firefight that day.

SAMAR ABU-GHANNAM, Nicholas’ Sister (Translated): The neighbors had gathered in front of the house. I called him to drink his milk and have breakfast before going to church. My mother took his hand and they were approaching the house when a shell came between them. It hit him. He was thrown aside.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The shell tore his muscle and his arm had to be amputated. I asked Nicholas’s sister if she was angry that Palestinian militants had used Beit Jala to shoot at Gilo.

SAMAR ABU-GHANNAM (Translated): No, we were not upset, because we knew our village was the nearest place where they could reach the Israelis and take some sort of revenge for what they were doing to the Palestinians.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Have you lost hope in the peace process?

SAMAR ABU-GHANNAM (Translated): I am not a big believer in the peace process. I pray to God there will be solutions. In my opinion, there is no solution.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And she’s not alone in that skepticism said Kahlil Shikaki, who runs a research center in Ramallah that gauges Palestinian opinion on the peace process.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You wrote that in 1996, the Palestinian approval of Oslo peaked at about 80 percent and support for violence at 20 percent. What’s happened since 1996 to those figures?

KAHLIL SHIKAKI: A tremendous transformation. All this has been reversed. Today, the belief that the peace process will indeed end up in a permanent settlement with the Palestinian state is almost 11 percent today. Support for violence has skyrocketed to almost 90 percent at times. It ranges today anywhere between 60 percent and 90 percent.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Shikaki supported the Oslo agreement, but criticized it as open-ended and thus easily subverted.

KAHLIL SHIKAKI: The Israelis, for example, continued to build settlements, continued to treat the Palestinians as occupied. Palestinians began to have doubts about the process. They began to see it as an Israeli effort to consolidate occupation rather than end occupation. That, of course, for the Israelis will be the continuation of the violence. This was seen as an Israeli concession for nothing.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Israeli actions have horrified Palestinians, too, Shikaki said. Images like this– a father and son caught in a firefight in Gaza, the son killed apparently by Israeli bullets– made the use of violence more acceptable here. Shikaki himself does not support armed tactics, but he said his research shows many Palestinians do condone attacks by groups like Hamas. That group claimed responsibility for the bombing of the Tel Aviv disco last June that we reported on Friday. Hassan Yosef is a West Bank spokesman for the political wing of Hamas.

HASSAN YOSEF (Translated): We in the political wing have no relationships to military decisions. But in general, what does the world expect from us? Isn’t it our right to defend ourselves?

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Shikaki said anger is a natural byproduct of what he calls “the daily humiliations of life” here.

KAHLIL SHIKAKI: The Israeli tanks can move freely in this area. We cannot move about, we cannot move out from our offices in this direction going back outside the city of Ramallah. For the most part, most Palestinians have not been working for almost 15, 16 months. The impact of poverty on the majority of the Palestinians has been tremendous.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Israeli leaders had told us that the Palestinian rejection of the Barak peace plan at Camp David a year and a half ago showed that Palestinians don’t really want peace. But Abu Ala, the speaker of the Palestinian parliament and a participant at Camp David, said 97 percent of the West Bank wasn’t offered to the Palestinians, as Israelis claim. And he said there were other problems, too.

ABU ALA, Speaker, Palestinian Parliament: They want to keep blocks of settlements. They want security areas. They asked to control the international borders. They are putting the Palestinian people in cages like chickens.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Khalil Shikaki said partly as the result of this disappointment with Oslo, leaders like Abu Ala — Shikaki calls them “The Old Guard”– are on their way out.

KAHLIL SHIKAKI: They’re being marginalized because they’ve failed to produce a state, they’ve failed to produce good government and they have failed to produce an agreement with Israel. The intifada and the violence involved in it was the way that the young guard wanted on the one hand to send a message to the Israelis that they no longer have confidence in the peace process and that they now want to emulate Hezbollah methods. The public supports the violence of the young guard.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And this explains, said Shikaki, why Arafat is still confined to Ramallah by Israeli tanks. Prime Minister Sharon has said he won’t ease the vice around Arafat’s headquarters until he arrests a list perpetrators of violence. Some have been arrested, but Shikaki says Arafat can’t confront them all.

KHALIL SHIKAKI: Arafat cannot risk such a crackdown because of the threat of civil war on the one hand and because, even if he is successful, and he gets back to a table to negotiate with Sharon, Sharon will see nothing but a very weak and humiliated Palestinian leader. Why should Sharon make concessions to that leader?

SARI NUSSEIBEH, PLO Representative, East Jerusalem: I think they’ve destroyed much of the structure of the Palestinian Authority.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Sari Nusseibeh, an oxford-educated philosopher, is the PLO representative in East Jerusalem.

SARI NUSSEIBEH: They’ve broken up its organization. It’s split into separate parts now that are so divided from each other that there’s no connection. There’s no communication.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You mean because of the checkpoints?

SARI NUSSEIBEH: Because of the checkpoints and sieges, the isolation of president Arafat in Ramallah, and the inability of its various institutions to get together.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So with the future of the Palestinian Authority hanging very much in the balance, Shikaki said much will depend on what this man, Jibreel Rajoub, does. He’s the head of the security force in the West Bank authorized by the Oslo agreement. He’s close to Arafat, but he and his counterpart in Gaza are seen as potential heirs to the throne.

KAHLIL SHIKAKI: Their decision as to where to go, whether to support the old guard or suppress the Islamists and the young guard, or to throw their weight with the young guard is going to determine the future of the intifada and perhaps the peace process.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: For now Rajoub, like Arafat, is talking peace. He calls for international and especially U.S. help to stop what he calls the Israeli reoccupation.

JIBREEL RAJOUB, Chief of Preventive Security, West Bank: I think that we do need the peacekeeping forces. We do need a third party to judge, to supervise, to monitor what’s going on because we are victim to the Israeli official terror, to the Israeli unilateral war and attacks against our people.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: He disputed Israeli claims which we reported last week that the Palestinian authority is building an alliance with Iran, as shown by the discovery of a ship laden with Iranian arms, the “Karine-A.”

JIBREEL RAJOUB: I can assure you for two things. The first thing is that the Palestinian Authority officially have nothing to do with this ship. We are not involved officially, neither directly, nor indirectly, with this ship at all. The second thing…

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I’m sorry. Let me interrupt one second. Are you involved unofficially?

JIBREEL RAJOUB: Excuse me. There are some Palestinians who were on the ship and there were others who were involved. But this was not our policy. This just destructive harming our cause.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: He insisted the Palestinian Authority is trying to stop attacks on Israel, but said the Israelis must end the occupation to guarantee security.

JIBREEL RAJOUB: If they want to put an end to their fears and their concerns, which are mine also, they should immediately start seriously the process of reconciliation. Withdrawing their occupation, ending their occupation. This is the only way.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: In Beit Jala last week, Khalid El Massou told us he sings to keep his baby from crying when firefights break out between here and Gilo. There was shooting from Beit Jala again Friday night, so Khalid was singing.