From This Side.

I’ve been back one month, exactly. At night, in my sleep, I seldom feel like I have returned. I dream of Palestine every night. I dream of Palestinians. I dream of the new friends I’ve made, I dream of the people I’ve met, of the places I’ve been. I wonder what’s going on at the checkpoint I used to film at. Probably the same thing that’s always going on, regardless of roadmaps and political summits: people are turned back and forbidden to pass, cab drivers are arrested for taking people through the hills, the kids come out and throw stones and the soldiers retaliate with tear gas and bullets – not all of them rubber or rubber-coated. It’s probably hot and dusty, the ice cream merchants are out in full force.

There are times during the day that I feel like I’m still not gone. I hear airplanes and I think they’re F-16s, I hear traffic helicopters and think they’re Apaches hovering over the refugee camps, I hear fireworks and think they're gun shots. I sit in the car and we drive on nicely paved roads for 25 miles without a stop at speeds over 70 miles per hour and I think I’m dreaming. Until I see a set of homes high on a hill, a gated community perhaps, and I think to myself, oh that’s a settlement. I go out for dinner with people and I’m surprised that no one is talking about politics… “road map? Are you going to Lake Tahoe for the weekend?” Nobody gets it here.

I read the news, in fact I spend a lot of time reading news. And I feel - no, I know - that I don’t know any better from reading what’s actually going on on the ground. I read about Sharon’s admittance of the word “occupation,” I read of Israeli government announcements that they will ease travel restrictions on Palestinians, I read that the settlers are uneasy about talk of dismantling some “illegal outposts.” None of this is true I hear myself saying. Nothing has changed, I doubt anything will change in the near future. I used to be a pessimist, now I know I’m just a realist; now I know that decades of racist policies against the Palestinians aren’t going to change overnight just because George W. Bush is flying to Jordan.

The 36-year anniversary of the Six-Day War is around the corner, a few days away. For Palestinians that means 36 years of official Israeli occupation; for Israelis that means a historical marker in their liberty and geographical expansion. For longer than I’ve been alive Palestinians have lived under the pointed gun of the Israeli military. It’s hard to describe or summarize “occupation:” on-going military presence and attacks, checkpoints, fear, imprisonment – in jails and at home due to curfews; ailing infrastructure, forbidding of books, lack of cultural centers, dismal educational system, economic reliance on Israel (by means of Palestinian workers in Israel, by import of Israeli goods into the Territories, by lack of export of Palestinian goods to anywhere in the world); screwed-up psychological mindset of 3.5 million Palestinians. While in the meantime Israel has prospered, grown and manipulated its image as a “Western democractic” nation: nuclear weapon facilities, publishing houses, packaged meat, a thriving film industry, toll highways, 24-hour water and electricity to the most out-of-the-way settlements, a tourist attraction.

The checkpoints are still there, sometimes still closed. Palestinians are still having a hard time getting to where they need to go. Besides, calling the policy a “travel restriction” is misleading; people need to get to their jobs, need to get to their doctors and families, kids need to get to school, agricultural trade needs to be reinvigorated if the Palestinian economy – in dire shambles – is going to make an impact on people’s daily lives, more than a mere 5,000 Palestinian workers used to hold jobs in Israel. It’s not about “travel,” it’s about necessity. It’s not about “restrictions,” it’s about imprisonement of an entire population, it’s about negating a whole way of life.

36 years ago Ma’ale Adumim did not exist. Today it spreads all around the Eastern boundaries of Jerusalem down to Bethlehem. As one of Sharon’s pet-projects, it’s a settlement that has seen the fastest amount of expansion and growth, a “natural growth” for a growing population – a population for the most part brought in through immigration policies from the outside… It’s got a huge mall, a number of schools, beautifully landscaped lawns, a special road to get there, even a newly-built tunnel that bypasses the Mount of Olives. It’s an Israeli natural wonder that in its need for expansion has made a few hundred Palestinian families homeless, has razed a few hundred ancient olive trees, and cut off access from Jerusalem to Bethlehem or points further East.

So the architect of settlements has admitted that such policies have not been good for either side, but he’s not going to undo the thirty-plus years of “illegal” action he’s been hailed and hated for. The settlers can rest assured, that hawk better known as Arik, won’t let them down. He’s built a “security fence” to include them on his map, that 9-meter high monstrosity is not about to be dismantled.

Of course Palestinian “militant” groups need to be dismantled. Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders need to be arrested, stopped, stripped of their weapons, killed preferably. That might happen. But no one seems to realize that a Palestinian civil war is on the verge of taking place. It’s not because Palestinians have a blood-thirsty nature or are natural-born terrorists, it’s not even so much the propaganda that they’re fed in their schools and media (as Richard Perle and Thomas Friedman like to point out incessantly - and often times innaccurately), it’s that they’ve had enough of living in repressed, occupied, war-torn states-of-mind. Hamas has given them some hope – symbolically and otherwise. It’s built schools, community centers, medical centers, and granted, a number of mosques with a “radical” interpretation of Islam. It’s more than a militant group, it’s become a way of life, and a way of life not all about eradicating the Jews into the sea. People have become supporters of Hamas – especially in the Gaza Strip – because they saw real changes come about with its presence. They were had by Arafat and his Authority, his wide-sweeping corruption meant that him and his cronies got beautiful sea-side villas, palm-tree lined paved roads, fountains and parks in the middle of Gaza City; but the rest of the people never saw any changes, they still get home through checkpoints, through sandy bumpy unpaved roads, still don’t have water or electricity, still live on top of each other in sardine-packed refugee camps, their beach access has been taken away by the settlers, most of them from France. They’re going to support Hamas, because that’s the one group that has tried to effect some changes “on the ground.” They have Hamas kindergartens, medical centers, community networks... Where are the Palestinian Authority kindergartens?

The new head of security for the Palestinian Authority is Mohammad Dahlan; the second in charge for Hamas is Abdul-Azziz Rantissi. They both grew up in the same refugee camp in the Gaza Strip (Khan Younis), they’re the same age, they went to school together, they both still stop by each other’s mothers when in town to say hello. Dahlan will have to “dismantle” Rantissi, according to Phase One of the Road Map. The battle between the two will filtrate down to the streets. If the majority of the Palestinian population isn’t going to see any cold hard changes instilled by the PA, then this time they’re going to revolt. Last time they took out on the Israelis and the Second Intifada started; this time they may very well turn their agressions inwards. The Road Map, as obscure as it is, doesn’t seem to take any of that into account. “Rebuild Palestinian institutions,” well what the hell does that mean when one can easily say that there is practically no such thing as a Palestinian institution to begin with?

So Sharon has used the “o” word. So Abu Mazen is getting good responses from the militant groups. So “Dubya” is going to meet them both this week. Oh the world’s press is talking about a peaceful solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, that political thorn in the U.S.’s foreign policy. We were here a few years ago. Arafat was welcomed at the White House, Ehud Barak was supposedly willing to give up more than any other Israeli leader, Bill Clinton was going to be the Middle Eastern hero. Whatever we’re told about the failure of Camp David and whatever we will be told about the failure of the Road Map, I’ll know better than to believe any of it. Only yesterday a woman gave birth at a checkpoint in the West Bank because she wasn’t let through…


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