The average American finds unfathomable the desperation that drives suicide bombers. Yet Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip is a recipe for violence. It robs Palestinians of their livelihood, their dignity, and their faith in the future.
U.S. acquiescence in Israeli policies that render Palestinians' lives untenable, to force them off their land, makes a mockery of Washington's being an honest broker in this conflict. Across the Arab and Muslim world, suffering in the Occupied Territories provokes bitter hostility. Local groups, such as the Rhode Island Qalqilya Alliance (RIQA, http://www.riqa.info/) are sounding the alarm about gross violations of Palestinian human rights carried out with American connivance, to arouse elected officials to re-think U.S. policy in the region.
The village of Jayyous, in the Qalqilya district, is a microcosm of Israeli policy in the West Bank. It occupies some of the most fertile land and sits atop one of the richest aquifers in the area. Productive and self-sufficient, the residents and their ancestors tilled this soil for hundreds of years before Israeli settlers began to eye these fields.
Curfews, border closings, checkpoints, home demolitions, land seizures, settlement building, and the "security" barrier known as the Wall have conspired to turn a thriving village into one in which half the population has been driven into exile since 1967.
Of the rest, 50 percent depend upon foreign aid for basic survival, and many families cannot afford the equivalent of $10 to $12 per child for annual school fees.
Like the vast majority of Palestinians, Jayyous villagers have struggled valiantly by nonviolent means to stave off Israeli annexation of their land. Abdul-Latif Khaled, a local leader and hydrologist, has argued that "nonviolent protest is the most powerful and humanitarian tool in the struggle for freedom and democracy."
At points near Jayyous, the Wall penetrates as far as four miles into the Palestinian side of the Green Line, or pre-1967 border. The International Court of Justice ruled this summer that this barrier is illegal; the Sharon and Bush administrations sneered. The Wall separates the residents of Jayyous from their relatives, friends, fields, markets, hospitals, schools -- in short, from their normal lives and livelihoods. It snakes across the landscape in a pattern that dispels any notion that its purpose is security.
In fact, it is little more than camouflage for land grabs. As Sharif Omar, a local farmer and community leader, lamented, "The wall is an unwritten order for emigration from Palestine, because people who have no income will have no choice but to leave."
Malnutrition among children is rising, education is falling, despair is simmering. Through fund-raising to subsidize school fees and books and efforts to sell Palestinian goods in Rhode Island, the Rhode Island Qalqilya Alliance has been trying to provide concrete and moral support. But these are stopgaps.
The most recent outrage began late last year, when Israeli bulldozers lumbered into Jayyous and began razing crops, to clear land for expansion of the neighboring Israeli settlement of Zufim. In a single day in December, 117 ancient olive trees were ripped from the ground. The bulldozers reappeared on subsequent days to continue their assault.
On Dec. 29, Steven Erlanger reported in The New York Times that 650 trees, many of them 600 years old, had been uprooted. For the farmers whose livelihood depends on olive, this is a catastrophe.
Thanks to grass-roots contacts among people in the West Bank, Israel, the United States, Western Europe, and Japan, information about the crisis has reached politicians and the international media.
On Dec. 31, hundreds of Israeli and international peace activists joined local residents to plant olive saplings in the fields from which the venerable trees had been torn.
Rhode Islanders mobilized by the Rhode Island Qalqilya Alliance have prodded their representatives. Sen. Lincoln Chafee has written a letter conveying his constituents' concerns to William Burns, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs; Sen. Jack Reed has requested clarification of the situation from Secretary of State Colin Powell; and U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy has made an inquiry.
Yet despite these steps -- and the Israeli courts' having called for a halt to the bulldozing, so that the situation can be adjudicated -- the bulldozers continue their destruction. RIQA is now urgently raising contributions for a legal defense fund for the Jayyous farmers.
American tax dollars help buy the Caterpillar equipment that destroys lives as it uproots trees. The United States belatedly intervened to halt ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, yet in Palestine it acquiesces -- even collaborates -- in policies that drive people from their land. Why the double standard?
The rest of the world will never believe that the United States is trying to nurture democracy in Iraq while it sits idly by as Israel deprives Palestinians of their most basic human rights.
Americans are becoming increasingly aware of what is being done and of how their government and their taxes are facilitating it.
At some point, our sense of fair play should reassert itself -- let's hope before the Palestinian village of Jayyous disappears.
Priscilla Read is a Providence resident and educator.
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