Jewish New Year's day in late September 2000 was hot, as usual. We Israelis love to sing melancholy autumn songs, but the brutal truth in Israel-Palestine especially in the age of global warming (which unlike in some parts of the world, is felt there in a rather direct and unmistakable way) is that there is no autumn to speak of: bone-dry summer continues to blaze full steam until sometime in October-November. So it was hot, as usual, on that last weekend of September 2000.
We - parts of my wife's extended family and their significant others and kids - convened as usual at her parents' home in a farming community in southwestern Israel, not far from our own home at the time. As usual, we enjoyed the amazing delicacies my mother-in-law cooks on such occasions. While our kids ran around the house and the yard, the grownups' idle conversations around the living room included among other things - how not? - some politics as well. Most of the family was left-of-center, longtime Labor supporters, with a couple of well-known exceptions to the right and left of this respectable default. Any political differences served mostly to spice up the chatting. No earth-shattering rifts. Everyone including myself (one of the known "lefties") was well within the spectrum of mainstream Israel; two Jews, three views, right?
There were some recent political events to chat about, such as the failed Camp David summit, and the previous day's provocative visit of opposition leader Ariel Sharon to the mosques on Temple Mount which sparked angry riots. But during the holiday there are less news on the Israeli media and the extent of the anger in the West Bank, and the extent of the bloodshed exacted of riot participants by the Israeli forces, were not known yet. So we weren't too concerned about recent news. Most of us did not hold any of the region's politicians - Barak, Arafat, Sharon et al. - in high esteem. The general sentiment was that their antics and acting out would be eventually held in check by the US and the international community, and the inevitable deal would be reached. Riots in the OPT had come and gone over the years, and had usually petered out.
Who could blame us for being complacent? After all, by summer 2000 Israel was enjoying genuine prosperity and a de-facto peace. In the two years leading up to that Jewish New Year's Day, less Israelis were killed by Palestinians than the number of Israelis getting killed in traffic accidents in two weeks. A year earlier, a Chihuly glass exhibition in Jerusalem's Old City brought Israeli tourists back to the Arab markets there after a 12-year absence, and Israelis continued coming to the Old City throughout 1999-2000. Israeli bargain-hunters discovered the cheap Palestinian-made furniture sold in Bidya, West Bank, where brisk business was taking place at a ragtag strip-mall sprung up along the highway built for settlers, only a half-hour hop away from the Tel Aviv region. Israel was enjoying friendly relations with practically all the world, including an ever-increasing number of Arab countries. Why would any Israeli leader want to ruin this?
And on the Palestinian side, even though this "trickle-down peace process" which had so far dealt most of its tangible benefits to Israelis and not to Palestinians, was not trickling very well yet, there seemed to be a general optimism, that "the world" (whatever that means) is on board making sure that eventually they too would get something out of it. Hamas, a right-wing Islamic movement that tried to derail the process in the mid-90's, was increasingly marginalized and unpopular. The "armed struggle" option - a misnomer for the spates of frustration-born semi-organized violence against a hopelessly stronger military force or its civilian population - was scoring very poorly in Palestinian opinion polls.
Among the guests in our family holiday meal were my wife's aunt Hannah Relevy, her husband Jan and their 3 grown children. They live in Gilo - a neighborhood built by the Israeli government in southeast Jerusalem beyond the 1967 lines. No one living in Gilo consider themselves settlers, because it has always been conceived and framed as an integral part of Jerusalem.
"How did you arrive?" I asked them.
"As usual, via the Tunnels Road. It is so quick!"
The Tunnels road is yet another Israelis-Only settler highway built in the West Bank by the Rabin government in 1995, mainly to connect some outlying settlements to Jerusalem (imagine: a highway with two long tunnels and a huge bridge spanning a mountain canyon, to serve the needs of roughly 10,000 settlers. All of it planned, funded and built by the government outside Israel's legal borders. And these warped budget priorities came from Israel's most progressive government in the past generation. But I digress.).
As the Tunnels Road was completed, it has also turned out to be a convenient shortcut for people living in the southern Jerusalem neighborhoods traveling towards the south. It saved them the tortuous trip via the city center's narrow streets to its perennially jammed main exit: 20 minutes in the best of times. We ourselves used the Tunnels Road the previous January, when my niece's birthday in Jerusalem coincided with the first Jerusalem snowfall in several years. As the major Tel Aviv - Jerusalem highways became parking lots filled with Tel Avivites wishing to touch the White Wonder, the Tunnels Road was the only viable way to get to the capital, for those who knew about it of course.
Back to September 2000: the Relevy family returned that day on the Tunnels Road, but by the time the holiday weekend was over the West Bank and Gaza became a war zone. Regular Israelis stopped using the Tunnels Road for the following several years. It turns out that the "solution" implemented by the IDF and other security forces to that particular wave of riots was to exact a painful death toll. Dozens of Palestinian rioters, mostly teenagers, were killed in the first wave. Rather than pacify Palestinians and "teach them a lesson" as the prevailing Israeli
stupidity wisdom had preached for years, this tactic only fanned the flames higher, with riots - and killings of rioters - even spilling over into Israel proper for a few weeks.
In particular, for many long months shots were fired by Palestinian militants every night from Beit Jalla to the Relevys' Gilo neighborhood, and IDF helicopter gunships hovered in the air firing into Beit Jalla houses. Life in Gilo seemed to return to normalcy only around 2003 or 2004. But on July 2 2008, as my wife's uncle Jan Relevy was going about his daily business of fixing people's heating and cooling systems, the "Bulldozer Terrorist" ran over his pickup truck near downtown Jerusalem and crushed it. Jan died on the spot.
Thus, the Relevy family in particular and my wife's extended family in general joined the community of conflict-bereaved families. According to Btselem, nearly 1100 Israelis, mostly civilians, were violently killed by Palestinians in the decade since that fatal New Year's holiday. This amount of Israeli casualties is the highest since the traumatic 1973 war, but in terms of civilian casualties it is the highest since the 1948 war. Hundreds of the Israeli dead had lost their livest in the notorious suicide bus bombings, a tactic first appearing in Israel-Palestine in 1994 to avenge the massacre of Muslim worshippers in Hebron, and reaching its ghastly climax from late 2001 to mid-2002.
According to Btselem, about 6400 Palestinians were killed by Israelis, and at least half of them, too, were civilians. This is the highest level of Palestinian casualties since at least 1967, if not 1948. Thousands died in massive, planned Israeli military operations: in the West Bank in mid-2002 ("Defensive Shield" and its satellites), and in Gaza in 2004, 2006 and most painfully in 2008-9 ("Cast Lead"). But thousands of Palestinians were killed in the constant drip-drip-drip of sporadic killings by security forces and settlers, tragedies that hardly even make the Israeli news not to mention to outside world. Just from my contact with one or two villages, I know of a young man shot by border guards and left to die in the mud; of a schoolteacher who tried to break curfew through the olive orchards in order to bring food for his family, and was shot dead; of a man who stepped out of a taxicab and then turned around to take a bag he forgot in the cab - and was shot by the trigger-happy soldiers in the observation post on top of the hill; of a van driver who was shot in cold blood, in broad daylight, by a fanatic settler. These killings all took place around two villages during 2001-2004.
The Palestinian casualty figure is most likely an undercount: for example, the tragic death of toddler Tabarak Odeh due to denial of medical access by the IDF, exactly on Israel's 2002 indpendence day, is probably not included in it. I was personally involved in that story trying to save Tabarak's life. The aftermath of this tragedy helped spawn the hub of activism known as The Villages Group.
But the overall 7500-death estimate is an undercount in another important way: it omits the 2006 Lebanon war, which is a direct by-product of this decade's deteriorating conflict with the Palestinians. Roughly 1200 Lebanese (mostly civilians) and 150 Israelis (mostly soldiers) were killed. So the correct figure to use for this lost decade should probably be nearly 10,000 totally needless deaths over ten years.
Since Israel-Palestine-Lebanon is a small geographic region with barely 15 million inhabitants and a relatively tight-knit society, 10,000 violence-related deaths have quite an impact. Practically all Palestinians, and a large chunk of Israelis and South-Lebanese, know a recently bereaved family on a first-name basis. However, from a global perspective about human-caused disasters, the death count alone is far from devastating. Compare to, say, Iraq, Afghanistan, Darfur, Congo, etc. In each of these places the number of violent deaths this decade has been at least 20 times higher.
But something far worse has taken place in Israel-Palestine: the two nations and the country itself have lost much of their former character. Most terribly, hope has gone out of people's lives. This is certainly true for Palestinian life. The World Bank estimated that by early 2003, real Palestinian per-capita income fell by an average of 46% compared to 1999 levels (pdf link). The modest recovery in the West Bank in the past 1-2 years has fallen far short of the needs; in Gaza of course things have been only getting worse. Some observers mistakenly called the destruction of Palestinian economy at the start of this decade "the worst peacetime economic collapse in modern history". In fact, this was actually a rather devastating and deliberate campaign of economic warfare.
The initial set of measures - barring Palestinian access to the West Bank's best highways, placing numerous checkpoints on other major roads, and physically destroying side roads that connect many towns and villages with these roads - was later marketed to Israelis and the rest of the world as a response to the 2001-2003 terror waves. The truth hidden in plain sight and even admitted by IDF generals, is that this warfare had been set in motion from the very first day of the Intifada in fall 2000, to quote its architect General Yaalon, in order to "sear the Palestinian consciousness". Therefore the deliberate destruction of Palestinian economy is more likely to be a cause of the terror waves than a response to them. The spiralling devastation, isolation and hopelessness has eventually helped extremism trump moderation across much of the Palestinian street, with the current end result seeing Palestinians fragmented economically, geographically and politically.
(Note: it is quite telling that the Google search for "sear the Palestinian consciousness" brings up a Wikipedia page documenting the rather successful CAMERA campaign to "prove" that this Yaalon statement was never made and force any English-language source that quoted it to recant. Of course it was made, Yaalon is quite proud of it and in a 2006 interview he doubled down on it (Hebrew link). Shows you how much the politics of American discourse on I-P have become an exercise in enforced denial of reality.)
But even Israelis, who have trained themselves to put on a brave and defiant face and boast their currently prospering economy (the "prosperity" is still far lower than the late 1990's, and the recovery has been limited to the educated upper-middle class) and their intermittently restored sense of security - even Israelis do not have much to look forward to.
What to do next? Enlist the West for a "clash of civilizations" crusade against our hundreds of millions of neighbors? Finally "educate" Palestinians to put up with their condition and accept whatever crumbs we throw them? Nobody except fools and extremists really believes that; there are more of these around than 10 years ago, but still the majority knows better, if not openly then deep down. Meanwhile, Israel's national and local politics become ever more crass and corrupt, schools become more violent with education quality deteriorating - but any "leftie" suggesting a connection between these developments and the path we've chosen this decade is being angrily kicked out of the conversation. This form of denial has become endemic: the Israeli mind has shut itself off, and with respect to the Palestinians "two Jews, three views" has become "5 million Jews, but only one view allowed".
So Israelis just turn away their gaze, focus on family and friends, enjoy the little things in life and let politicians slog away at "the situation" with no end in sight.
If it wasn't clear yet, for me this cuts deeply personal. Sometime in 2002 I decided to give the country a break, finding the public air too foul and suffocating to breathe. I am no saint, and (usually) don't pretend to be one. But imagine that a person very dear to you has one morning woken up a completely different creature. Horror-movie like. This is what the transformation of Israel has been for me. In this respect, things have only gotten worse. Whether or not I am actually there to bear it and try to counter its effect directly, this pain will never go away.
As my partners in launching this project commented, some of the problems - the Occupation itself, the unresolved tragedies sown in 1948, and so forth - have been around well before fall 2000. And yet, this decade has been different. On the Israeli side, perhaps it is the difference between a nation ignorant of the other's side history and ambiguous towards peace - and a nation that has shut its collective mind and turned its back on its own future. On the Palestinian side, perhaps it is the difference between a situation in which there is rational basis for hope - and a situation in which hopelessness often seems to be the most logical conclusion from reality.
I will return to this diary and add links to the series diaries as they come up. Every diary will include a link to all others.
Salaam - Shalom - Peace.
The Deadly Fires of December 2010: Israel's Katrina?
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