Payrolls and Prizes. It’s all about the money.
Goldstone points the finger but no one wants to look because there’s 180,000 on the Palestinian Authority payroll. Israel gets compliance, Blair gets his contract, Obama gets his prize and the rest of us get gassed at the checkpoint.
“Rub this in your eyes.” A small child hands me a chunk of raw onion.
“Behave,” I tell him crashing blindly into a shop front.
“No, no. Is good. Do it. Do it.”
I do it. I take the onion and rub it into my eyes. And he’s right. It does the trick. Something in the onion neutralises the tear gas. As the burning subsides and the spluttering passes I give him a grin and ruffle his hair.
“Is cool,” he says. “Welcome to Palestine.”
We’re outside the Qalandia checkpoint, a pot-holed four lane street that connects (for those with the permits to pass) Ramallah to Jerusalem, and we’ve just been tear gassed for the umpteenth time. Flames lap a hill of tyres and teargas bombs and concussion grenades pour like summer rain from a smoke-black sky. Each volley of gas – some delivered via
high velocity, skull crushing (they have been), steel bullet canisters, is met with a flurry of stones. Small units of Palestinian lads divide the labour – one appears with cinder blocks and smashes them on the ground, others dish out the bits and those with the best forearm action loose them at the soldiers down the street. A few do the slingshot spin – a slow, arms outstretched, double turn with a flick at the end. At one stage, a couple of them start lobbing steel rebar rods. Now and again someone’s kid brother is sent for chocolate bars… or onions, while point-men, mobiles jammed to their ears, call out Israeli troop movements relayed by strategically placed lookouts. And the taxi drivers that careen through the smoke (at no stage during the riot do buses and taxis stop driving to and from the checkpoint) also holler warnings about what the soldiers are up to.
But, it seems a hopeless task. The soldiers are untouchable behind gas masks and body armour and most of the rocks fall short of the line anyway. The odd TV reporter gets one in the leg, but the checkpoint – a giant chicane of three foot steel-reinforced concrete walls and heavily-barred cages is bomb-proof. No damage is done. Well, not to the army. I watch an Israeli sniper reload, sight and drop a kid. They’re firing ‘rubber’ bullets – steel bullets with a rubber coating – but a red crescent ambulance still screeches in to scoop him up. It’s been like this all week, here and in two or three other parts of the city. A mile away, smoke rises from another battle in nearby East Jerusalem. Depending on who you listen to this is the beginning of the third intifada or just another day in J town. And this morning they gave Obama the peace prize.
The anger this week is, ostensibly, due to the Israelis, once again, banning Muslims access to the Al Aqsa Mosque (even Islam’s holiest shrine is held by a compound ringed by Israeli soldiers). But people don’t really need an excuse, waking up in Palestine is enough to make you riot. But this here is some kind of dance. The soldiers fall back, the kids advance, the soldiers hurl in a job lot of tear gas bombs and push the kids back up the street. The soldiers know the kids can’t hurt them and the Palestinians know if they went and grabbed that Kalishnikov out of the cupboard and offed a conscript, Israel would raze the refugee camp and put 100 Palestinian children in the ground. So how can Palestinians fight back?
“No more intifada,” says Wisam. “Intifada too many problems.” It’s two days earlier and we’re sitting in a café in Jenin drinking sugary mint tea. As well as being Palestine’s agricultural heart, Jenin is a tribal town steeped in resistance and unquestioningly loyal to both Islam and the Palestinian Authority. That said, Wisam’s own appetite for street fighting got curbed by a three year stretch in an Israeli jail during the last uprising. He seems happier that he can now travel to Ramallah and only have to pass through only four checkpoints – there were 15 during the intifada. Maybe happy’s not the most appropriate word. Like many, Wisam is jobless and looking for a way out. But travel documents are hard to come by, especially if you’ve been in the cage.
“Si,” says Wisam as we walk through the souk. “Don’t look at the women.” I wasn’t really aware I had been, but it makes him twitchy. Every fifteen meters we meet one of his male buddies and they hug and high five and lark about, but the men of Jenin act as if the women aren’t there – and vice versa. They swerve around each other, eyes fixed in the middle distance. Polar repellent magnets destined not to connect. As we walk Wisam holds my hand and calls me “Habibi” (something like ‘my love’). In Jenin, you get your human contact where you can.
I’m not sure if it was my godless roaming eyes that did it, but a few hours later we’re in Al Yamoun, a suburb of Jenin, and I’m sunken into Abed’s sofa in something that feels like a kangaroo court. Abed, Wisam’s uncle and the local Fateh leader is sat on a plastic chair in front of (and above) me. Beside him sit the head of the municipality and the principal of the Koranic school. Al Jazeera plays in the corner and Arafat watches us all from a frame on the wall.
“Ah, Ibrahim,” says Abed as a stony faced, wiry lad in his early twenties idles in. “Ibrahim is captain in the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade.” I think about promising to never look at another Palestinian woman again – even when they bat their big green eyes at me – but Abu Mazn appears on the TV and we all turn to watch.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, known locally as Abu Mazn, is the head of the Palestinian Authority – Fateh’s leader, and Arafat’s heir. Al Jazeera pundits are discussing Abu Mazn’s shameful buckling to US/Israeli pressure and their backing, last week, for a six month delay on a vote in the UN Human Rights Commission about whether to turn the Goldstone report over to the Security Council for debate – and possible international criminal court action.
UN Human Rights Commissioner Richard Falk appears on the screen and describes the PA’s move as “astonishing”.
“I’m not intelligent enough to understand something as perverse as this,” he says. “The Palestinian [leadership] have betrayed their own people.”
The report was commissioned by the UN and conducted by Richard Goldstone (a South African Jewish judge and self declared Zionist, who surprised many with his damning indictment of Israel, and Hamas too, for “serious war crimes and also possibly crimes against humanity” for the Israeli assault on Gaza in the winter of 2008/9 in which 1400 Palestinians, a quarter of them children, were killed along with thirteen Israelis.
Goldstone slammed Israel for direct breaches of the Geneva Convention and the Declaration on Human Rights including the “deliberate and systematic” destruction of water installations, the use of human shields and the “targeting and arbitrary killing of civilians”. A clear majority of the Human Rights Commission members were ready to back the Palestinian call for action, and then Abu Mazn rolled over.
Any right thinking person would brand Abu Mazn and his cronies traitors. Hamas have called on him to resign and “seek a fair trial”. On the screen we watch pictures of protesters in Gaza slapping Abu Mazn’s face with their shoes.
“What do you think about this then?” I ask Abed – spotting a way to draw the spotlight off me. “Abu Mazn – total twat or what?” I wildly underestimate the pull of the party and the conformity that allows crooks like Abu Mazn to piss all over his people.
“Abu Mazn is our leader,” says Abed affronted. “He is the successor to Arafat, and Arafat is our father.” Oops.
So what manner of ‘pressure’ was brought by the Obama administration and Israel in order to get the Palestinian leadership to shelve their condemnation of Israel, their backing of Goldstone and fail in every aspect to represent the interests of the Palestinian people?
It turns out that on the eve of the decision, the Israelis publicly told the PA that if they don’t back down on Goldstone, Israel will refuse to grant the (Tony Blair brokered Kuwati/Qatari funded) licence for the $700 million Watania cell phone company. Watania is owned by Abu Mazn’s sons Tareq and Yasser Abbas. Middle East Envoy Blair, his Kuwaiti Sheik buddies and the Palestinian Authority leadership all get paid and the children killed in Gaza spin in their graves.
“Gaddafi was right,” says Sayed, an old boy I ran into on a bus to Ramallah a few days earlier. “He said ‘the PA is not an authority it is a bunch of companies. Fateh, Hamas…look at their houses. All the leaders have big companies that get all the contracts. They’re all millionaires. They are thieves.” Though Sayed’s outspokenness is unusual, and he’s careful to keep his voice down (“the PA will jail you for talking like this,” he says), the silent consensus is the PA are gangsters. “180,000 people are employed by the PA,” says Sayed. “They share out the aid money, buy themselves big cars and offices, and what do they do for the people? Nothing.”
As it happens, my journey to Wisam’s began with this trip to Ramallah. I’d gone to Palestine’s major city (since the capital, Jerusalem, is in Israeli hands), for a demonstration against the PA’s buckling on Goldstone. I am expecting an angry mob. I’m severely disappointed. Around 200 assorted intellectuals, human rights workers, communist party members and a single black flag waving, goateed anarchist who looks like he’d just stepped out of a ’68 meeting of the Situationist International, chant their way around Ramallah’s Al Manara square preceded by a 100 strong snap-happy press pack. Local TV later report the demo as a huge success, but it’s feeble.
“Where is everybody?” I ask a burly protester named Wissam Salah. (Names say it all in this part of the world, Muslim, Christian, Jew, where you come from, who you’re connected to.)
“People have no faith that demonstrating will make a difference,” he says. “People just want to live. Who cares what happens in Gaza?”
“Will the PA crack down here?”
“Not unless the Islamists show themselves,” says Wissam.
“Are there Islamists here?”
”Yes. They are lying low. But you can see it in their eyes.”
Under a DFLP, Palestinian communist party, flag I find Hakam Qadri.
“So people don’t care what happens in Gaza?” I say.
“No, that’s not true” he says. “Palestinians are dismayed by Gaza and this decision. But there is no publicity. They don’t know about the demo.”
I call George at the International Middle East Media Centre in Bethlehem (it’s Palestine’s Indymedia.com).
“Most people don’t even know this demonstration is happening,” he says. “It’s okay for the party leaders and the NGO types. But the PA can be brutal. Community activists get got if they take to the streets. People are scared to protest”
“Yala! Yala! Yala!” chant the crowd. “It’s time for the leadership to change!” (It scans better in Arabic). Mustafa Barghouti (the peace activist and critic of the PA who lost the presidential race to Abbas in 2005) speaks. It’s a bit like being in Trafalgar Square listening to Tariq Ali rail against the war – the whole affair shrouded in ineffectiveness. Blah, blah, blah and nothing changes. It’s then I run into the boys from Jenin.
“Come to Jenin,” they say. I don’t see anything in their eyes.
In the end, after three hours in the dock of the sofa, Abed gives me the all clear and me and Ibrahim end the night smoking an agila (hookah) pipe on Wisam’s roof, I show him pictures of Juice and Feather and he shows me the bullet wounds he picked up during the intifada. (It turns out he’s left Al Aqsa Matyrs and become an officer in the Palestinian, PA, police. The doors spin at every level, Blair’s influence is certainly trickling down.) But the Palestinian people don’t get off the hook as easily as me. Fateh members still talk about Arafat in hushed tones, but the truth is the Palestinian leadership, first under Arafat, and now under Abbas has acted like a gang of prison trustees doing the warder’s dirty work. Hamas’ call for a trial for Abu Mazn isn’t just a soundbite. The PA (the intent of the Palestinian ‘leadership’ couldn’t have been clearer when they changed their name from the ‘Liberation Organisation’ (PLO) to the ‘Authority’ (PA)) carry out the commands of the Israeli government and military, their police and troops are trained and armed by Israel. Hamas have compared them to the treacherous Vichy regime that ran France for the Nazis during the second world war. The comparison is not so far fetched. Is it any wonder Richard Falk appears dumbfounded.
“This was the moment of opportunity,” Falk said about Goldstone, “to vindicate the struggle of the Palestinians for their rights under international law.” And the PA blew it out for a pocketful of shekels and pat on the head from Bibi (Netanyahu) and Barak o’B.
Back at the Qalandia riot, crouched behind a barricade I find Sanna who says she is a student and is trying to get home.
“You hear about Obama?” she calls to me, wincing as a tear gas grenade explodes nearby.
“The peace prize?”
“That’s right. Can you taste it?” she says choking back the fumes. “This is the taste of peace.”
The Nobel prize commission, has fallen in with the rest of the world’s establishment, telling the Palestinians that they don’t count. The Palestinian Authority don’t give two hoots about their people and Palestinian community leaders seem content to cling to any scrap of power they can muster. The borders are closed, the land is shrinking. It’s no wonder the kids at the checkpoint are angry. And all they can do is keep throwing stones.