Sunday, July 20, 2014

No Immunity Bubble Required

by Ed Thompson
Member, WGME

Downtown Ramallah
When I met Sam for dinner on Sunday night, June 15, 2014, in Ramallah, he said, “Things are tense.”

I had been on vacation with my family in Greece for the previous two weeks and had not heard anything about the three missing Israeli teenagers.

Over the course of the following week, however, I experienced first-hand the consequences for Palestinians living in the West Bank when Israel finds a pretext to unleash their military might.

On the ground in Ramallah

Sam Bahour had arranged my stay in Ramallah. He is a Palestinian-American business leader with whom I have co-founded a nonprofit organization named Americans for a Vibrant Palestinian Economy. Sam had arranged interviews with over 20 organizations from the Palestinian business community. These interviews would provide background as we establish our plans for action over the next couple of years.

I stayed in a small hotel a few blocks from Sam’s home in Al Bireh – a town adjacent to Ramallah. On Monday at dinner, Sam told me that Israeli military vehicles and Israeli soldiers had been on his street in the early hours of the morning, evidently looking for someone in connection with the case of the missing hitchhikers. I thought to myself, “How could that be as Al Bireh is part of Area A-a location where Israeli troops have no place?”

For those who are unaware, the meant-to-be temporary (now 25 years old) Oslo accords divided the Palestinian West Bank into three areas: Area A is fully under civil and security control by the Palestinian Authority, Area B has Palestinian civil authority, but Israeli security authority and Area C which while extending throughout the West Bank is fully under Israeli military and civil control.

Area A covers a tiny fraction of the West Bank – just 3% -- and a handful of cities: Nablus, Jenin, Tulkarem, Qalqilya, Ramallah, Bethlehem, Jericho and 80 percent of Hebron. Under the Oslo II Accord, Area A was supposed to expand progressively as additional parts of the West Bank were turned over to Palestinian control, but this has never happened. As such, that handful of cities – the precious area of full Palestinian control – has enormous symbolism for the people there.

Access to Area A

Entry into Area A is forbidden to all Israeli citizens – or at least is supposed to be. The missing hitchhikers had last been seen in Area C, and there was no suggestion that they were in any Area A location at any time.

It would have been very difficult, if not impossible, for Palestinian abductors to move Israeli captives into Area A. There would have been multiple check points along the way to prevent movement. In addition, since Israel has total control over Area C, had the abductors attempted to move their captives within Area C, they could hardly avoid detection by Israel’s extensive network of video cameras and other electronic detection equipment.

What, then, were Israeli soldiers doing in Area A?

The small white cars in the middle of the night

On Tuesday morning at about 2:30 a.m., I was awakened by what sounded like an explosion. I got up and looked out my window. Initially there was nothing visible but then four small white cars with flashing lights appeared on the road, traveling very close together. Who is in these cars, I wondered? They are quite obvious with their flashing lights so they are not trying to sneak around. The cars stopped near a large building with an open area that faced the street. As figures emerged from these cars, it was obvious they were soldiers. I pulled the drapes together and stepped back since I feared that whoever was out there might not like me observing them – even from the third floor.

The soldiers walked up the road as it turned to the left while their vehicles remained with lights flashing. I noticed a kid in a white t-shirt walking up the street, probably a teenager. When he saw the cars, he suddenly turned and ran. Nobody yelled or followed him so I concluded that no soldiers were left to guard the vehicles. It occurred to me that I could go down and drive away one of the vehicles -- if driven by a death wish.

After several minutes, maybe 10 to 15, had passed, the soldiers returned and got into their cars. One car went around the left turn on the road and disappeared. The other cars backed out and returned down the road behind the hotel the way they had come in with their flashers going and traveling close together.

I assumed that this was probably the Israeli military but I kept saying to myself, “This is Area A, how could this be Israeli military?” And yet this seemed consistent with what Sam had told me – that the Israeli military had been on his street the night before.

During the rest of the week, it appeared that the Israeli military invaded some part of the Ramallah area every night. I learned on Tuesday that Sam and his daughter had counted at least six Israeli military armored vehicles on the street in front of his house. They were careful not to get too close to the windows. Evidently a dozen or two kids had been on the lookout for Israeli invaders so there were many rocks thrown and some sound bombs used in Israeli military retaliation for the rocks.

In the coming days, we turned our attention to our schedule of meetings – easier for me, as an outsider, to do than for the local people. For instance, despite our intense focus on our meetings, I would hear Sam express concern from time to time that his car, which he had left outside his house but off the main street, might be damaged by the altercation between the stone throwers and the Israeli military.

As for those small white cars, in the course of the week, I learned that they had probably belonged to Israeli military intelligence. I learned that in the past Israeli military vehicles had entered Area A, and Israeli soldiers had seized Palestinians and delivered them to Israeli intelligence. The Palestinian detainees would be delivered to the little white cars, to be taken off for detention and interrogation.

Evidently, this kind of military invasion had not occurred in Ramallah since the second intifada over 10 years earlier. Even though refugee camps in some Area A cities were frequently invaded by the Israeli military, surrounding Palestinian cities were generally left alone as per the agreement.

Although appointments had been scheduled for visits in Hebron, a major Palestinian business center, they had to be cancelled because the Israeli officials closed all entry to and exit from Hebron checkpoints for the duration of my visit. We also had a visit to Nablus cancelled by closures.

Sam was unable to join us in Jerusalem or Bethlehem because his Palestinian ID would have required us to go through the Kalandia checkpoint. Because of the tightened security, this checkpoint would have added several hours to our trip. Israeli soldiers at checkpoints that are permanent fixtures for local Palestinians were being especially intrusive with Palestinians following the kidnappings. After waiting for several hours, he might have been detained and not permitted to exit even with a permit.

As I was leaving for home on Sunday, I talked briefly with Sam from the airport. He indicated that there had been a terrible battle on Saturday night between Palestinians armed with rocks and the Israeli military in central Ramallah. Two Palestinians were killed and dozens of Palestinians were injured in the clash.

Sam also told me that Israeli forces invaded Birzeit University. Evidently, the Israeli military went into the middle of campus, broke into buildings, destroyed property and then drove off with Hamas flags. Birzeit’s leaders were shocked at the military actions as an invasion to the center of campus had never before been undertaken.

Time to reflect

I returned to Chicago on June 22, and began to watch the news. I saw large assemblies in cities across the country -- of Jews and others – all of whom were in anguish about the three young Israeli settler hitchhikers.

I too was distressed about the abduction. But, the aftermath for Palestinians was far worse. I now understand that I was witnessing a military invasion of a land controlled by the Palestinian Authority. I can think of no justifiable rationale for the Israeli military to search for the teens in Ramallah. The more I reflected on the situation, the more distraught I became. “The three young Israeli settler hitchhikers are the only thing the media talks about,” I thought. “And this is the only thing the American people seem to be aware of.”

Where is the outrage about the invasion of Ramallah and other Palestinian cities? Where is the outrage about Israel’s assault on academic freedom at Birzeit University?

Do people need to be on the ground in Ramallah – as I had been – in order to know that the Israeli military had invaded that city, as well as many other Palestinian cities? Do they need to know people in the area in order to learn about the destructive assault on Birzeit University? How does this happen without a peep from the media or from governments around the world?

I considered two possibilities:

• Israel counted on the horrific fate of the missing hitchhikers as an excuse for the West to give them a pass on violating the Palestinian territorial autonomy represented by Area A, or

• Even the minimal notion of respect for territorial sovereignty and autonomy represented by Area A is something the West doesn’t care about in the first place.

Actually I believe it may be even worse. All of the mainstream media focused on the missing Israeli young settlers. There was little to no reporting of the deadly military invasions that took the lives of 9 Palestinians in the week following the reported kidnappings. The incidents that I observed firsthand were simply not discussed in the U.S. media. No American government officials commented about these violations. Silence by the media and American government officials meant that there was nothing to be explained or justified. The silence was a jarring contrast to reporting on and American officials responding to what Putin did in Ukraine.

What Palestinians suffered became even more Kafkaesque after reading an article entitled, “Was Israeli public misled on abductions?”

Ed Thompson is a member of Gloria Dei, Northbrook, and the Working Group on the Middle East (WGME), Metropolitan Chicago Synod, ELCA. He is co-founder of Americans for a Vibrant Palestinian Economy, and travels frequently to Israel/Palestine.

Related posts

On August 24, 2014, fresh from their recent visits to the West Bank, presenters Ed Thompson and John Holm shared experiences not found in the US media.

(See August 24 in Northbrook: "Two Lutherans On Their Recent On-the-Ground Experiences in the West Bank" )

There is no question in my mind that justice in Israel/Palestine is fundamental to peace and justice throughout the Mideast, and in the world. And there is also no question in my mind that, just as it was a group of people who considered themselves very serious about the Bible that got us into the present situation in Palestine, it is those of us who have inherited that tradition of seriousness about the Bible that need to "own" the consequences of our tradition, and work for a rectification of wrongs we have inherited.

(See Palestine: enough with 'the Lutheran both/and' already . . . ! on the Scarry Thoughts blog.)