The disturbing true story of how the UK and US governments conspired to illegally evict thousands of islanders from Diego Garcia in the 1960s to make way for a US military base. With thanks to David Vine and John Pilger for their invaluable source material.
Click on the image to see a larger version.
International Solidarity Movement
This morning, a group of demonstrators in the West Bank village of Ni’lin managed to surprise the Israeli army and, using bolt cutters, cut open one of the gates in the fence built on the village’s lands. Israeli soldiers arrived at the scene and fired rubber-coated steel bullets as well as tear gas canisters at the demonstrators, followed by the use of live ammunition.
Eight people were wounded during the action. Seven demonstrators were injured by rubber-coated steel bullets, and a one and a half year-old baby was evacuated to a Ramallah hospital suffering from tear gas inhalation, caused by soldiers firing a tear gas canister into her house.
Today marks the first time Israeli soldiers invade the residential parts of Ni’lin in an attempt to suppress a demonstration, since Palestinian demonstrator Aqel Sadeq Srour was shot dead by sniper fire approximately six months ago (5 June 2009), during a protest at the village. Srour’s brother was arrested today in the village center.
Today’s response by the Israeli army illustrates the ongoing policy of escalation which the army has been implementing in Ni’ilin for the past three weeks. This policy includes reintroducing the use of 0.22 caliber live ammunition as a means of crowd dispersal – in direct contradiction to the Chief Military Attorney’s orders.
Since June 2008, five Palestinian demonstrators have been killed by soldiers’ fire during protests in Ni’ilin, including two minors – 10 year-old Ahmed Mousa and 17 year-old Yussef Amirah. A further 34 demonstrators have been injured by live ammunition, and 87 have been arrested.
As a result of the separation barrier’s construction, 3,920 dunams of Ni’lin’s lands (30% of all accessible lands) have been de-facto confiscated; this is in addition to the 1,973 dunams on which Israeli settlements have been built since 1967.
International Solidarity Movement
There are currently approximately 11,000 Palestinian prisoners being held captive in Israeli jails across Israel. Whilst their imprisonment is of itself in direct contravention of international law, the whole arrest, judiciary and imprisonment process compromises their basic human rights. In Gaza, the families of prisoners in Israeli jails meet every Monday at the premises of the International Committee of the Red Cross to hold a weekly vigil asking for the release of Palestinian prisoners. The demonstration also takes place at the ICRC building in order to send out a message to the international community, asking it to uphold international law and put pressure on Israel for the release of all prisoners.
Palestinians taken captive are held in one of the 24 prisons across Israel. The Fourth Geneva Convention through Article 76 prohibits an occupying power, in this case Israel, from imprisoning prisoners outside the territory it occupies and Article 47 of the same Convention clearly outlines that convicted prisoners should serve their sentence within the occupied territory.
Since September 2000 Palestinian citizens living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip require special permits to travel within the 1967 borders of Israel, yet these permits are very hard to come by. For these last three years all permits have stopped being issued and Palestinians from West Bank and Gaza are prohibited from entering 1948 land1.
The use of telephone is controlled and only in rare exceptions are Palestinian prisoners allowed to call their families. Without family visits and telephone calls the only ways of communicating is through letters and greetings families send through radio stations. Letters are received sparingly by both sides, months after they were written and sent2.
Hazem Shubair was imprisoned in an Israeli jail in 1993. His brother Tayseer has been denied the permit to visit his brother for the past 15 years. Hazem’ parents were allowed to visit him until 2002 and for the last 7 years they were forbidden access. All forms of communication between Hazem and his family have been severed. Hazem was sentenced to life imprisonment and the prospects of him being released in the near future are bleak. “I just want to see him, to have the opportunity of talking with him once more and to know how he is doing. These 17 years have been horrible” Tayseer states. Hazem has another 6 siblings anxiously awaiting his news and to be able of seeing him.
In terms of the judiciary system, Palestinians are tried within Israeli military courts located within Israeli military centers. These military tribunals are conducted by a panel of three judges appointed by the military, two of whom often do not have any legal training or background. This juxtaposes the impartiality and reliability of the legal apparatus since the judges are also soldiers who work on orders they receive from their supervisors and are dependent on the latter for promotion.3 These tribunals rarely fall within the required international standards of a fair trial.
Many Palestinian prisoners are either wounded or ill. Many prisoners were taken captive after having been shot at with live ammunition. According to Addameer Centre for Human Rights based in Gaza, “prison clinics tend to offer aspirin as a remedy for all health treatments and physicians within the clinics are all soldiers. Health examinations are conducted through a fence, and any necessary surgery or transfer to hospital for additional medical treatment is usually postponed for long periods of time”.
In 1999 the Israeli High Court of Justice ruled that it does not forbid the use of torture but rather allows interrogation methods deemed as torture to be used in situations of national defense. The victim of torture can only submit a complaint in that case that torture can be clearly proven. Israel interrogators are able to use methods of torture without impunity. Legalized torture includes sleep deprivation, denial of food and water, denial of access to toilets and shackling4. A Palestinian detainee can be interrogated for up to 180 days, during which access to a lawyer may be denied for 60 days.
Many prisoners receive administrative detention where charges are based on secret evidence. In this case both the lawyer and the detainee are not aware of the reason for arrest and cannot practice their right of defense. The detainee and lawyer are also not informed about the date of release. In administrative detention the army hands over the detainee to the Israeli Security Agency (ISA) who interrogates the prisoner. After interrogation, ISA can either file for indictment or release detainee. If none of these two paths are chosen the military commander can choose administrative detention. Administrative detention can be extended indefinitely. This usage of administrative detention as a tool to imprison civilians violates International Law and Human Rights Charters but is legal according to Israeli legislation5.
Nayef Abu Azra, a 23 year old from Beit Hannoun, was arrested in 2007. Since then he has never been brought before a court. To Nayef’ mother there is no consolation. Asia Abu Azra stated “A group of Israeli infantry soldiers invaded our home and took Nayef. We do not know why he was arrested or when he shall be released. Nobody is giving us any information. Nayef was hard working and well respected in the community. My only hope is to see him again”.
Nowhere can the discriminatory laws within Israeli judiciary be clearer than in terms of Palestinian imprisonment which is reminiscent of apartheid South Africa. A Palestinian can be held in custody for 18 days before being brought before a judge. An Israeli citizen, however, can be held in custody for only a maximum of 48 hours before being brought before a judge. A Palestinian can be held without charge, by order of a judge for a period from one to 6 months. An Israeli citizen can be held without indictment for 15 days and can only be extended to 15 days. Lawyer visits can be prohibited for up to 3 months for a Palestinian detainee. The meeting between an Israeli detainee and his attorney can be delayed for 15 days6. In addition, when Palestinian detainees are arrested, the army is not obliged to inform the detainee’s family of their arrest or the location of their detention.
38 year old Ashraf Al-Balouji from Al-Sahaba area in Gaza was detained in Ramallah on December 14, 1990. He was ordained in the Israel military court and sentenced to 320 years imprisonment. His father Hassan Al-Balouji states “there is a different policy for Palestinians and Israelis in Israel. If my son were Israeli then his sentence would be very different. We all know that. Three years ago my wife passed away and Ashraf was not allowed to visit her or attend her funeral. His 7 children are also prohibited from visiting him.”
These discriminatory laws also affect children. There are now 337 Palestinian children in Israeli jails.7 Like the majority of other Palestinian prisoners, Palestinian child prisoners routinely face violations of their human rights during arrest, interrogation and imprisonment. They are exposed to physical and psychological abuse, amounting to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, and sometimes torture. They are denied prompt access to a lawyer and often denied contact with their families and the outside world. This is a clear breach of international law, which makes special provisions for the prisoners, specifically forbidding the use of physical and psychological torture8.
Nedal Mohammed Al-Soufi was just 17 years old when he was arrested. In 2007 during an army incursion, Israeli soldiers entered their home in Rafah and took him. Jana Al-Soufi, Nedal’ mother does not know the reason for his arrest. Nedal was sentenced to 9 years. The lack of communication sources between Nedal and his family concerns his mother. “I worry for his health and mental state. I have not received his news for many months”.
The imprisonment of Palestinians has been used routinely by Israeli authorities as one of the main tools to enforce the apartheid regime and ensure the ongoing success of the occupation. Israel has violated and is still violating a number of basic human rights in the way it kidnaps Palestinians, holds them captive without access to a lawyer and eventually tries them in a mock court which itself falls short of internationally agreed upon minimum standards. The injustices being perpetuated upon the 11,000 Palestinians prisoners must not be overlooked.
Bianca Zammit is a human rights activist and a member of the International Solidarity Movement “ISM” in Gaza.
Fadi N. Skaik is a BDS activist and an independent author based in Gaza
 Amnesty International (2009) Israel and Occupied Palestinian Territories
 Addameer – http://www.addameer.org/index_eng.html
 UN Human Rights Committee (2007) Article 14: Right to equality before courts and tribunals and to a fair trial, UN Doc: CCPR/C/GC/32, 23 August 2007, page 6, paragraph 22.
 Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (2008) No Defense: Soldier Violence against Palestinian Detainees, page 3 – http://www.stoptorture.org.il/en/node/1136
 Hamoked and B’Tselem (2009) Without Trial -Administrative detention of Palestinians by Israel and the Internment of Unlawful Combatants Law, page 9.
 Addameer – http://www.addameer.org/index_eng.html
 Save the Children (2009) Fact Sheet – Palestinian Child Detainees at http://mena.savethechildren.se/Documents/Resources/Fact%20Sheet_oPt_detainees.pdf
Defense for Children International (2009) Palestinian Child Prisoners- The systematic and institutionalized ill-treatment and torture of Palestinian children by Israeli authorities, DCI Palestine: Jerusalem.
Venezuela plans to open an embassy in Palestinian territories and upgrade its ties to ambassadorial level, President Hugo Chavez said on Friday, to support Palestinians in their struggle against Israel.
"We have decided to designate an ambassador and open an embassy in Palestine," Chavez said after talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
"We now have a charge d'affaires; we will name an ambassador in coming days as part of accords to boost our bilateral relations," he said.
Among aid agreements signed Friday were scholarships for 20 Palestinians to study medicine in Venezuela. Chavez said he saw Venezuela offering many more educational grants.
"We must tell the Palestine people how many scholarships we will give to Palestinian youth so they come and study what they need," he said. "They can be short and long, pre-graduate or post-graduate, technical and training studies."
In January, Venezuela cut diplomatic relations with Israel over the Israeli offensive in Gaza of nearly a year ago, which Chavez then called a Palestinian "holocaust."
On Friday, he again cast the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in near-apocalyptic terms. He said:
"We ... are on the side of the Palestinian people's memorable struggle ... against the genocidal state of Israel that knocks down, kills and aims to terminate the Palestinian people."
Chavez ordered his education minister to circulate maps Abbas gave him to illustrate the small dimensions of the Gaza Strip, where he said 1.5 million people lived in "concentration camp" like conditions, their movements to the outside world virtually blocked by Israel.
"We (Venezuelans) should devote the entire force of our hearts and souls towards the creation of a Palestinian state," he said. "Venezuela is Palestine; Palestine is Venezuela, we have a common struggle."
THOMAS FRIEDMAN, the New York Times columnist, has an idea. That happens to him quite often. One might almost say - too often.
It goes like this: The US will turn its back on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The entire world will follow. Everybody is fed up with this conflict. Let the Israelis and the Palestinians sort out their problems by themselves.
Sounds sensible. Why must the world be bothered with these two unruly children? Let them kick each other as much as they like. The adults should not interfere.
But in reality this is an outrageous suggestion. Because these two children are not of equal strength. When an adult sees a 14-year old mercilessly mistreating a 6-year old, can he just look on?
Israel is materially a hundredfold, indeed a thousandfold, stronger than the Palestinians. The fourth strongest army in the world (by its own estimate) dominates the life of a helpless people. The Israeli economy, with some of the most advanced technologies in the world, dominates a people whose resources are next to nil. A 42-year old occupation dominates every single corner of occupied Palestine.
This did not come about by a miracle. The huge gap between the strength of the two peoples has also been created by the support of the US for Israel. Israel would not be where it is today without this political, economic and military underpinning. Billions of dollars in annual aid, access to the most advanced weaponry in the world, the political immunity assured by the US veto in the Security Council and all the other forms of assistance have helped successive Israeli governments to maintain and intensify the occupation.
Friedman does not propose ending this support, which itself is a massive intervention in this conflict, and is given to the stronger side. When he suggests that the US withdraw from the conflict, he is actually saying: let the Israeli government do what it is doing – continue the occupation, set up new settlements, withdraw the land from under the feet of the Palestinian people, go on with the murderous blockade that denies the 1.5 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip – men, women and children –almost all the necessities of life.
This is a monstrous suggestion.
True, the prophet Isaiah (11:6) describes a situation where the wolf shall dwell with the lamb. (Israeli humor comments: No problem, provided a new lamb is brought in every day.) Now the prophet Thomas proposes to let the wolf and the lamb sort out their relationship between themselves.
BINYAMIN NETANYAHU could not wish for more in his wildest dreams. In the meantime he is satisfied with something less: President Obama’s acceptance of his latest trick.
And thus Netanyahu confronted the nation with a tortured face and told us about his inhumanly difficult decision: to suspend the building activities in the settlements.
The entire world applauded. How wonderful of Netanyahu to sacrifice his most sacred principles on the altar of peace. He has taken a stupendous step. Now it’s up to the Palestinians in their turn to respond with a grand gesture.
But something is wrong in this picture and needs explaining.
To return to the great Sherlock Holmes, who spoke about the curious incident of the dog in the night-time: “But the dog did nothing in the night-time!” he was told. “That was the curious incident,” the detective answered.
It could have been assumed that after such a dramatic announcement by the Likud leader, the settlers would let out a deafening roar. Riots in the streets of all the towns. Blocking of all roads in the occupied territories. A rebellion of the settlers in the cabinet and the Knesset.
But the dog did not bark. Not even a growl, just a token yelp. Culture Minister Limor Livnat opened her big mouth and declared that the Obama administration was “terrible”. That’s more or less all. The settler-minister Avigdor Lieberman even voted for the decision in the cabinet, and so did the ultra-extreme Likud minister Benny Begin, son of the late Prime Minister.
Begin even explained his curious behavior on TV: he had no reason to vote against. After all, it was only a gesture to appease Obama. It has no real content. Building “public structures” will go on (about 300 new ones were approved just this week). Building will be continued in housing projects whose foundations have already been laid (at least 3000 apartments in the West Bank). And, most importantly: there will be absolutely no limitation to Jewish building activity in East Jerusalem, where building continues frantically in half a dozen locations in the heart of the Arab part of the city. And, besides, the suspension will last only for 10 months. Then, Begin promised, construction will be resumed in full swing.
That would not have appeased the settlers, if they did not know what every Israeli knows: that it is all phony. Building will continue everywhere, with the officials cooperating on the quiet and the army closing its eyes. It will be claimed that building permits had already been issued, that the foundations had already been laid. (In many places extra foundations have indeed been laid, just in case.) That’s the way it was in the past, under the governments of Labor and Kadima, and that’s the way it will continue now. This week it became known that in the whole of the West Bank, just 14 (fourteen!) government inspectors are supervising all building activity.
In the same TV program, Yossi Beilin was sitting next to Begin. It might have been expected that he at least would expose the fraud, but no. Beilin lauded Netanyahu for his brave act and saw in it a promising new beginning. This way he rendered important assistance in winning over world public opinion and setting the mind of Israeli innocents at rest. It would be difficult to imagine a sadder example of the collapse of the “Zionist Left”. The Geneva Initiative has turned into the Jerusalem Deception.
The largest opposition party, too, joined the chorus. Tzipi Livni, who bears the impressive official title of “Leader of the Opposition”, mumbled something unintelligible and went back to sleep.
AND OBAMA? He capitulated again. After giving up his original demand for a total freeze of building in the settlements, he had no choice but to give in again. He reacted to Netanyahu’s shabby performance as if it were high drama.
Obama is in need of an achievement. It is being said that he has not achieved a single objective in the international arena. So here is an achievement. Netanyahu is freezing – sorry, restraining – sorry, suspending - settlement activity.
My father taught me in my youth that one must never give in to a blackmailer. After giving in once, one is condemned to giving in again and again, while the demands of the blackmailer grow and grow. After giving in to the pro-Israel lobby once, Obama will have to give in again and again.
One could almost pity him and his assistants. Such an impressive, such a tough, such an experienced group – and they are returning from Jerusalem like Napoleon’s army from Moscow.
We saw poor George Mitchell. The man who brokered peace between the murderous factions in Ireland came to Jerusalem. Came again and again and again. Came as the representative of the world’s one remaining superpower to tell Israelis and Palestinians what they have to do. He was tough. He dictated terms.
Israeli officials laughed at him behind his back. They are used to the likes of him. They have eaten them for breakfast. Remember William Rogers, Nixon’s Secretary of State and his peace plan? And the great Henry Kissinger? And even James Baker, who tried to impose economic sanctions on us? And Bill Clinton’s “Guidelines”? And the “vision” of George Bush? The political graveyard is full of American politicians who tried to impose limits on Israel, without being able or willing to use the necessary force. Welcome, George. Nice to see you, Hillary.
What is so pathetic is that Netanyahu is not even deceiving Obama. The American president knows full well that this is all play acting. He is very intelligent. He is not very courageous. For the mess of pottage of a pretended achievement he has sold his political birthright. Even George Bush managed to extract from Ariel Sharon an undertaking to dismantle all settlements set up after March 2001 (needless to say, not a single one was dismantled).
This is a great victory for Netanyahu, his second over Obama. Not yet the decisive victory, but a victory that bodes ill for the chances of peace in the near future.
NETANYAHU DID NOT even try to deceive the Palestinians either. He knew that this is impossible.
Every Palestinian understands Netanyahu’s announcement only too well. He has only to look out of his window to see what is happening. After all, Israel would not invest billions in new building if it had any intention of dismantling the settlements for peace within a year or two.
There is hardly a place in the West Bank where one cannot see a settlement on a hilltop, near or far. In some places, one can see two or three. If one approaches closer, one can see the building activity in full swing, the overt and the covert, the “legal” and the “illegal”.
And, most importantly: there is no Palestinian leader who could possibly agree to the continued building in East Jerusalem. The construction of Jewish housing projects goes on while Palestinian homes are being destroyed, “archeological” digs continue as well as all the other activities designed to “judaize” Jerusalem. To put it more bluntly: making Jerusalem “Arab-free”.
When Obama capitulates to Netanyahu, there is nothing Mahmoud Abbas can do. When the Americans demand that the Palestinians answer Netanyahu’s “important” step with an important step of their own, it is nothing but a sad joke. The Americans help Netanyahu to put the ball into the Palestinian court, and with a pious rolling of their eyes ask why, after such a momentous Israeli gesture, the Palestinian do not agree to resuming the “peace process”.
But Abbas cannot start negotiations without a total freeze of the settlements, especially in Jerusalem. The only dialog between Israelis and Palestinians that is taking place now is with Hamas. The prisoner exchange deal is nearing the point of decision. The main remaining bone of contention is the freeing of the Fatah leader, Marwan Barghouti, who was sentenced to five life terms.
If the deal is clinched and Barghouti freed, it will be another humiliation for Abbas: it will be said that Hamas, not he, has achieved the liberation of the Fatah leader. The freed Barghouti will act to mend the split between Fatah and Hamas and will be a credible candidate for the presidency of the Palestinian Authority. Then, a new chapter of the conflict will begin.
IT IS worth reading the full text of Isaiah’s prophecy: “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.”
The role of the little child, so it seems, falls to Obama. If he accepts, God forbid, Friedman’s advice and leaves the picture, the vision will turn into a nightmare. The Israeli government will increase the oppression, the Palestinians will turn to unbridled terrorism, the entire world will be dragged into bloody chaos.
Israeli settlers have annexed a further 40 dunums of what remains of the endangered Palestinian village of Yanoun, east of Nablus. Settlers from the illegal settlement Itamar were witnessed ploughing the land in question yesterday, effectively laying claim to it and furthering their annexation of Yanoun’s land, already entirely encircled by outposts of Itamar.
Two settlers were sighted driving their plough on to land that had previously remained accessible to Yanoun farmers yesterday morning. Noticing the audience they had gained, one settler approached Rashid, mayor of Yanoun, and villagers and the activists assembled to inform them that he had legal claim to the land as it had not been worked by farmers from the village in over five years (despite the 40 dunums in question having been used by Yanoun farmers as recently as 2 years ago). Land that stands unused for this time period becomes property of the state by Israeli law, the means by which settlers have managed to claim much of Yanoun’s land, under the continued campaign of intimidation and harassment wrecked on farmers that stray too close to the settlement and its outposts. An argument ensued between the settler and villagers over who had rights to the land, which was effectively ended as a second settler arrived on the scene brandishing an M-16 rifle.
Activists were told of how just the day before, the same settler had led a tour group of 60 Israeli settlers through the village itself, frightening the villagers and forcing them to withdraw to a state of effective curfew inside their houses, an all-too-common event in Yanoun. Settlers proceeded to strip naked and bathe in two of Yanoun’s wells (few of which have not been taken by the settlement), contaminating their drinking water.
Residents of Yanoun have suffered many years of terrifying violence at the hands of Itamar settlements – the murder of villagers, slaughter of their livestock, desecration of crops, property destruction and daily invasions and intimidation by armed settlers. The increasing brutality climaxed in 2002, as settlers rampaged the village, cutting down over 1000 olive trees, killing dozens of sheep, beating Palestinians in their home with rifle butts and gouging out one man’s eye. The settlers left promising to return the following Saturday, with the threat to spare no witnesses next time. Unable to stand the fear – and indeed reality – of terrorism any longer, the entire village evacuated, most families fleeing to the nearby village of Aqraba.
An international and Israeli activist campaign was launched immediately to allow the residents of Yanoun to return to their lands. A permanent international presence was established in the village by EAPPI which has assisted in encouraging people of Yanoun to return home, and has remained instrumental in what little peace of mind Yanounis have salvaged since they were uprooted from their land and one by one, have boldly returned to.
Over the 2002-06 period the entirety of the village’s families eventually came back to their homes and attempted to start their life over in the shadow of Itamar’s ever-increasing outposts, that dot the hills surrounding the village. This number has once again begun to dwindle however, as the younger generations of Yanounis mature and seek a life of career, education, urbanisation – a life outside of daily harassment and torment at the hands of those who have stolen their land, and what, in a more peaceful Palestine, could be a means of livelihood for them. Approximately 100 people remain in the village – 40 in “lower Yanoun” in the valley, and 60 in “upper Yanoun”, whose houses ascend the hill to where just a few hundred meters away lie dozens of settlement houses and agricultural complexes.
Although the entire village is located in Area C – under full Israeli civilian and military control – and stands at risk of being slated for demolition, residents believe that the settlement’s – and Israeli government’s – strategy is what may already be underway – a gradual exodus of families and individuals as they are confined to an ever-shrinking amount of land, engulfed by the expanding settlement and its violent inhabitants.
There are some who remain though, who are determined to stay – many families steadfastly refusing to relinquish the connection to the land that is rightfully theirs. The very existence of Yanoun today bespeaks its fighting spirit, one that will hopefully continue despite the
collective punishment waged on the village.
Israeli Occupation Forces closed Huwara checkpoint for over 2 hours last night and established a flying checkpoint nearby as settlers stormed the area. Israeli military and police made little effort to contain settlers as they amassed at the checkpoint, harassing Palestinian vehicles as families waited in vain to be allowed passage to visit relatives on eve of Eid al-Adha, the holy Muslim holiday. The attack occurs amidst an atmosphere of settler outrage at Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s announcement of a partial 10-month freeze of settlement construction in the West Bank, which can be expected to trigger more outbursts of violence in the area.
Huwara checkpoint, located on Road 60 between Huwara village and Nablus, was shut down entirely at approximately 6pm last night, as soldiers positioned a line of jeeps across the road to block oncoming traffic from Nablus. Narrow roads became congested as an influx of cars traveling north to south were forced to re-route through Awarta checkpoint, which had also tightened its restrictions, stopping many cars to search and question their passengers.
As cars backed up Road 60 a third checkpoint was established 500 metres south between Huwara checkpoint and the village itself, allowing a small amount of Palestinian vehicles to proceed only to be turned away later and forced to return the way they came, effectively blocking all Palestinian traffic.
International activists arrived at the scene to witness soldiers aggressively shouting at Palestinian drivers to return to their cars and leave the area, pointing their guns at those who argued with them and ignoring the full-scale traffic jam developing as confused and angry drivers tried to proceed or turn around. When asked why the checkpoint had been closed, soldiers replied that a demonstration was occurring and it was necessary to impede traffic until it had ended.
Managing to pass the first checkpoint activists proceeded further north to Huwara checkpoint where approximately 20 settler youth had gathered on the road, screaming at soldiers as they attempted to contain them. A skirmish occurred as young female settlers grew hysterical, attacking the few Palestinian cars that gained access to the checkpoint (then forced to turn around), and IDF soldiers tried half-heartedly to keep them at bay. Israeli Police arrived shortly thereafter but permitted the settler youths to remain as they continued to run amuck on the roads, kicking and spitting on Palestinian cars as they passed.
By 9pm the military dismantled the flying checkpoint and allowed the flow of traffic to pass Huwara. Several military jeeps and police cars departed as the settlers turned their attention on the activists present, at first verbally, then physically harassing them. Eventually the settler youth left – not under military or police instruction, but of their own volition – obtaining rides from passing cars from the nearby settlement of Bracha.
It was later alleged that the mob of settler youth had been attempting to gain access to Nablus to visit the religious site of Joseph’s Tomb, located south of the city-centre close to Balata Refugee Camp and believed by some Jews to be the final resting place of the biblical patriarch, and thus a holy site not only for Jews but Muslims, Christians and Samaritans alike. The issue has been distorted over the years as settler councils have called for renewed visitation rights, ostensibly on purely religious grounds but can hardly be seen as apolitical, considering the site’s history and location. Similar contention exists regarding Jacob’s Well, another holy site in Nablus where a priest was murdered by zionist extremists in 1979 during a campaign for the site, a Christian church since 384 AD, to be reconstructed as a synagogue. The settler organisation of Gar’in Shchem has recently re-launched its campaign for unregulated Jewish access to the tomb, erecting a protest tent outside the IDF Samaria Division headquarters and announced a demonstration march from outside Nablus for this coming Thursday, 3 December.
Another contributing factor may well be Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s announcement this week of a 10-month partial freeze on settlement construction inside the West Bank. The declaration angered almost all parties across the Israeli political spectrum, most notably Yesha and municipal settlement councils across the West Bank, who have declared they will “continue to build, if necessary” – outside of government restrictions. Backlashes to what is viewed in settler communities as Netanyahu’s political ‘weakness’ frequently occur on the ground in the form of a ‘price tag campaign’ – a co-ordinated outbreak of settler aggression across the West Bank in response to the state’s feeble attempts to restrict settlement expansion and further annexation of Palestinian land.
The settlement ‘freeze’, whilst heralded by some international and Israeli media as a positive contribution to the peace process, can be expected to achieve no such thing on the ground. The freeze does not apply to public buildings – the construction of which a further 28 have just been given approval – or projects already under way. Nor does it apply to East Jerusalem, where over 1500 Palestinian homes have demolition orders, and the construction of a further 900 new apartments were announced this week in the settlement of Gilo. Construction in Palestinian villages in the West Bank has been effectively frozen since the implementation of the Oslo Accords zoning laws, wherein residents of Areas B and C (partial and full Israeli control, respectively) must apply for permits to build or extend homes or public buildings. Buildings in Area C, and even B, are frequently slated for demolition.
If you want clean towels, you’ve got to leave them on the floor like a peasant
We journalists are collectors. Facts (preferably true), gossip (often untrue), predictions (always, of course, correct), old newspaper clippings, photos and press handouts and – in my case – propaganda leaflets (in hopelessly ungrammatical Arabic) dropped by Israeli planes over Lebanon.
Why, I still have my reporter's notebook covered in oil spots from Kuwait, after Saddam had set the oil fields afire in 1991. Then there's the small packet in which visitors to the Fisk Memorial Library will one day find a Havana cigar ring marked "The first cigar Mohamed Heikal gave me after 29 years of friendship!" I know Mohamed, Egypt's worthiest journalist and writer, reads this column – and will appreciate the above. Long life to him.
Recently, however, I've been collecting the most irritating load of old humbug I've come across in a long time, ever more frequently, alas, and doomed to be a constant part of our lives in this most hypocritical of ages. It's one thing to pick up the glossy advertising kits of arms manufacturers – "All for One and One for All" is the motto for the Boeing's Hellfire air-to-ground missile, without apologies to Dumas – or the codswallop from the oil conglomerates about how they are saving the earth. But the latest tomfoolery to come my way – all travelling readers will have come across the same nonsense – is the little card that lies upon my hotel pillow, exhorting me to spare the relevant spa, hostelry or caravanserai the cost and bother of cleaning my sheets, pillowcases or towels. This epidemic of cant comes in all colours and continents. I've got the message in Los Angeles, Cairo, Istanbul, Ottawa, Limerick, wherever hotel managements have started to think green – green as in dollars, I mean.
So let's kick off with the friendly old Hyatt. The very word "Conserve" is literally imprinted on their little card. And here goes the script: "As part of Hyatt's commitment to conserve the environment, we will change bed linens and towels as necessary or upon request. If you wish to have your linens and towels replaced daily, please contact the hotel operator." Note that wonderful word "commitment". Like "mission statement" (another piece of twaddle), it reeks of gravitas and seriousness of purpose. And what does "as necessary" mean? When the sheets or towels have reached such a deplorable, smelly state that even the room-maid cannot stand them? And note how you have to work to maintain daily cleanliness at the Hyatt... It is you who have to call the operator if you decline to accept this lovely "green" idea.
Across the channel now to that pinnacle of sixth arrondissement luxury, the Hotel Lutetia. "YOU DECIDE," it says at the top of the English-language pillow card. "Kindly be informed that only towels left in the bathtub or on the floor will be changed by your housekeeper. Thanking you for helping us to act for the environment." This really is great stuff. Firstly, there's the legalistic "kindly be informed" – it's not in the French version – which is a command that totally negates the "you decide" buffoonery at the top. Then there's the grubby suggestion that if you want to have clean towels, you've got to chuck them in the bath or leave them all over the floor like a peasant. And all this, please note, so that the Lutetia can "act for the environment". Like, er, was it actually given a special mandate to act on behalf of the world, a master (or mistress) of morality and honour?
So down to Cairo for some more flummery in a country where three words are always better than one – or, in the case of the Marriott Hotel on Gezira Island – where 108 are better than none. There's the usual stuff about commitment to "practices that preserve our natural resources"; it's followed by the weird suggestion that "while it is our practice (sic again) to change your bed linens (sic) every day, we are supportive of our guests' desire to help protect the environment and accordingly to change your bed linens after every third night of your stay." This is imperishable. The Marriott wants to clean our bed linen every day, yet it knows that we – the paying guests – want it to stay dirty. And so they will, unless you request otherwise. Then – and remember that Cairo is one of the dirtiest, most polluted, garbage-soaked cities in the world – there is this fantastical ending: "Working together, we can conserve millions of litres of water ... and minimise the release of detergents into the environment." Even in smog-filled LA, the Hilton thanked me for "helping us to conserve the earth's vital resources".
Off to tough-minded Turkey then, where the best airport hotel in Istanbul informs me: "You surely know that tons of detergent and water are being consumed day by day to wash towels that have been used for a short period only." Like the Marriott in Cairo, I have to leave the stuff on the floor if I want clean towels. "Thanks,' the Turkish pillow card concludes "for your contruibution (sic) to the (sic) nature." All "sics" go, you surely know!
But what a glow seizes the heart of Lord Fisk when shown to his suite at the Castletroy Park Hotel in Limerick. "Future generations will be thankful to you" – I kid thee not, O Reader – "for helping them to have a greener environment." Future generations, ye gods. And they're actually going to be grateful to little ol' me if I leave the towels on the bathroom rail for reuse. But cross the Atlantic with me, to the Fairmont Chateau Laurier Hotel in Ottawa which is, of course, "committed to conserving our natural resources", etc etc. So I have to put their itsy-bitsy card out if I want my bed clothes changed. Did Churchill do this when he stayed there? "Thank you for helping us to be environmentally conscious."
None of this, you understand, has anything to do with saving the costs of cleaning and detergents. Oh no, indeed. It is we – who pay the bills – who are helping them, the five-star hotels, to look after the environment. Of course, if they really cared about all that green stuff, they'd hang a notice above the bathroom saying "Use Less Bloody Water!" But then again, I suspect that water charges are a fixed price – and the environment can be thrown out with the bath water.
An encounter with an unexploded RAF bomb changed Maité Roël's life for ever. Robert Fisk finds out what the Great War means to her
Maité Roël is just 26 and she is the youngest victim of the First World War. And when she walks to meet me past the old churchyard in her village of Bovekerke, she limps, ever so slightly, on her left leg, the living ghost of all those mutilated, long-dead men whose memory the world honoured on Armistice Day earlier this month. She even holds a First World War veteran's card – "mutilée dans la guerre" – and when she shows it to the local railway ticket inspectors for reduced fare train trips, they suspect her – with awful inevitability – of stealing it from dead grandfather or great-grandfather.
But it's all true. After shaking off – so far – a 10-year addiction to the morphine which Belgian doctors gave her during 29 excruciatingly painful operations on her leg, Maité is now a young mother with a year and a half old baby and, incredibly, a total disinterest in the war that almost killed her. Only an hour before I met Maité, I was listening to the "Last Post" at the Menin Gate, 15 miles away in Ypres. "I know nothing about it," she says to me with indifference. "I've read nothing about it. This month was the first time they ever took me to show me the preserved trenches of the war."
They are all around her. Bovekerke was in German-occupied Belgium during the First World War, on the very edge of the Allied-held Ypres salient, and so was the military camp at Wetteren near Ghent when a bomber of the newly created RAF, successor to the Royal Flying Corps, dropped a bomb there in 1918. The Germans were already in retreat across France and Belgium, abandoning the terrible battlefields of Ypres and the Somme, pursued by British, French, Empire and newly-arrived American troops, harried by RAF bi-plane fighters and bombers. Those critical last months of the "War to End All Wars" almost did for Maité 17 years ago.
"We went on a scout camping expedition to Wetteren and I remember now that it was an old military camp," Maité recalls very slowly. She has tiny dreadlocks that hang down her slim face and a silver ring in her nose – not the usual face of a First World War victim. "It was July 6th, 1992. I knew nothing about war. I remember we all built a fire using bricks round the outside and the other kids starting throwing logs on it. I was tired and so I went a few metres from the fire so I could sleep. Then there was a sudden explosion – I woke up and saw sparks from the explosion. Everyone was running and shouting and I tried to get up and I couldn't. Everyone was looking at me and I looked down – and I saw that my left leg was hanging by a piece of skin."
A million British soldiers had experienced this same terror in this same land more than 60 years earlier. But Maité could not understand. She was rushed to the local hospital at Wetteren where there were no specialist surgeons and she had to be rushed by air to Ghent University Hospital. For three hours, she wept and cried in pain before doctors could give her a sedative because the doctors were not sure which medication to administer. "I only started feeling the pain when I saw my leg – and then it never stopped," she said.
Nor has it stopped now. The doctors took skin and muscles and arteries from thighs and back and ribs to reconstruct her left leg – and saved it after 29 operations in which Maité spent two years in hospital, all of them on morphine. For the next 10 years she was addicted, desperate to detoxicate but still finding the pain unbearable. Maité now has only one artery in each leg. The birth of her child, Damon, and the love of his father, Kurt, helped her, she says, admitting with a smile that she still needs cannabis and alcohol to survive the pain but has been without morphine for a year and five months.
She is now cared for by the Belgian Institute for Veterans' Affairs and War Victims. The Institute, along with doctors and police officials, quickly realised that the scouts must have picked up the cylindrical RAF bomb, thinking it was a mouldy log – and thrown it on the fire. The explosion blasted the bricks into pieces, one of which almost severed Maité's left leg. Belgian explosives officers later identified the fragments as those of an RAF bomb – typical of many found over battlefields in the decades that followed the 1918 Armistice – manufactured in 1918 and used during the German retreat. The Wetteren camp was used by the Reichswehr during this period because the town was a major rail centre for German military traffic to the front.
With one of those bitter ironies that war alone can produce, the RAF's youngest victim – long after both the pilot and his intended targets must have died – turns out to be partly British. Maité's grandmother, Janette Matthieson, is Scottish and now lives in Ostend, making Maité's French-speaking mother half-British. Maité now lives on £700 a month, a stipend available to her since she was 16. When she was so grievously hurt, not a single newspaper outside Belgium mentioned her fate.
Belgian authorities are still paying monthly allowances to much older victims of First World War munitions as well as survivors of the Second World War – including Belgian Jewish survivors of the Holocaust – and newly-arrived wounded from Afghanistan. Maité wants to go on a clothes-making course and open a boutique – "I don't want to work for a boss," she says as cheerfully as any 1914-18 British soldier with a "Blighty" wound, though she may be more successful than the men who came home in 1918 and found that theirs was not a land fit for heroes.
"I have an '051'-coded card from the First World War veterans' department and when I buy train tickets, they often question me about it," Maité says. "They think I've taken it from an ancestor but it's completely real. I'm just the youngest victim of that war."
I ask her why she shows no interest in this terrible period of history which struck her so mercilessly – and so literally – when she was younger. She shrugs her shoulders. So much for the Somme and Verdun and Gallipoli and the nine million military dead of the Great War and the Last Post just down the road in Ypres. But I rather suspect Maité is right. Her boutique and her home-made clothes sound a far better future than an examination of the awful mud upon which her village of Bovekerke was rebuilt after the War to End All Wars.
On Sunday about 90 demonstrators gathered in the village of Salim near Nablus to show support of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 and to protest the occupation and its consequences for Palestinian villages such as Salim. UNSC Resolution 1325 addresses the impact of conflict on girls and women, and calls for extra protection of women in conflict areas.
The demonstration began at the center of the villages and from here the demonstrators walked out to some of the houses near road 557 that have received demolition orders. Here speeches were given by local politicians, representatives from women groups in the area, family members of martyrs and a representative of the present international groups.
The settler-only road 557 near the village of Salim leads to the settlement Elon Moreh and cuts up the village’s land, and in addition to this, the army has built a long earth mound through the nearby fields to prevent vehicles such as tractors to approach the road. During the olive harvest, the army use check points along the road to prevent Salim families from going to their land to harvest their olives.
The New Statesman
Kevin Rudd's apology to the Aborigines has changed little. White Australia must offer its first people universal land rights and a proper share of resources
I remember the boys dressed in army surplus, the girls in hessian, silhouettes framed in beach shanties, staring across an abyss. You were not meant to talk about them. They were not counted in the census, unlike the sheep, and anyway were dirty and feckless and dying off.
You were not meant to disturb the surface of our great southern idyll, sun-kissed and God-blessed, in circumstances that might raise questions of race. At high school, I studied a celebrated historian, Russel Ward, who wrote: "We are civilised and they are not." They were the first Australians. At least he mentioned them. Other textbooks simply left them out.
Today, almost everything has changed and has not changed. For many Aboriginal people, who value healing, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's apology last year was important. They and their white allies had worked tirelessly for the mere word to be uttered. The resistance was formidable; white supremacist politicians, journalists and academics damned the "black armband version of our history". And when Rudd finally said it, the Sydney Morning Herald described the apology as "a piece of political wreckage" that the "government has moved quickly to clear away . . . in a way that responds to some of its supporters' emotional needs".
There is to be no compensation for those thousands of Aborigines wrenched from their families as children, known as the stolen generation. And the previous, openly racist government's "intervention" into Aboriginal lands in the Northern Territory is being consolidated. In 2007, on the pretext that Aboriginal children were being sexually abused in "unthinkable numbers", the government of John Howard suspended the Racial Discrimination Act and sent the army and "business managers" to take over black communities.
Within a year, barely reported statistics proved how bogus it all was. Out of 7,433 children examined by doctors, at most four possible cases of sexual abuse were identified. The Australian Crimes Commission found no evidence of paedophile rings. What it found, it already knew: poverty and sickness on the scale of Africa and India.
Since Rudd's apology, Aboriginal poverty indicators have gone backwards. His "Closing the Gap" programme is a grim joke, having produced not a single new housing project.
An undeclared agenda comes straight from Australia's colonial past: a land-grab combined with an almost prurient need to control, harass and blame a people who have refused to die off, whose genius is their understanding of an ancient land that still perplexes and threatens white authority. Whenever Canberra's politicians want to look "tough", they give the Aborigines a good kicking: it is a ritual as sacred as Don Bradman worship or Anzac Day.
The indigenous affairs minister, Jenny Macklin, has decreed that unless certain communities hand over their precious freehold leases, they will be denied basic services. The Northern Territory contains abundant mineral wealth, such as uranium, and has long been eyed by multinationals as a lucrative radioactive waste dump. The blacks are in the way, yet again: so it is time for the usual feigned innocence. Rudd has said his government "doesn't have a clear idea of what's happening on the ground" in Aboriginal Australia. What? The learned studies pour forth as if the sorcerer's apprentice is loose.
One example: the rate of incarceration of black Australians is five times that of black South Africans during apartheid. Western Australia imprisons Aboriginal men at eight times the apartheid figure, an Aussie world record.
On 16 November, a 12-year-old Aboriginal boy appeared in court charged with receiving a Freddo Frog chocolate bar from a friend who had allegedly taken it from a supermarket. Only the international headlines forced the police to drop the case. Two-thirds of Aboriginal children who have contact with the police are jailed; two-thirds of white children are cautioned. A young Aboriginal man was jailed for a year for stealing £12 worth of biscuits and soft drink.
A mattress in the desert
In my lifetime, Australia has become one of the most culturally diverse places on earth, and it has happened peacefully, by and large. This proud achievement fades when you drive into a country town and pass the funerals of native people, many of them young, who take their own lives. The whispering in Antipodean hearts is race. The navy is sent against leaking boats filled with refugees, Tamils and Afghans, and if they cannot be dumped behind razor wire somewhere in Indonesia, they are isolated on Christmas Island, which, for the purpose, has been "excised" from the Australian map by a legal sleight of hand. How clever.
While I have been in Australia, Irene Khan, Amnesty's secretary general, has been travelling through the vast outback region known as Utopia. The roads are dirt; water often trickles from a single standpipe. She saw children, their eyes streaming and coughs hacking. She met Elsie, who sleeps on a mattress in the desert, yet pays rent to the government. Shocking, she says.
There is currently a liberal clarion call for a bill of rights, and the republican movement is stirring again. These debates are meaningless until white Australia summons the moral and political imagination to offer its first people a genuine treaty, as well as universal land rights and a proper share of resources. And respect. Only then will this fortunate society earn the respect it so often craves by other means.
On 4 November, John Pilger received the Sydney Peace Prize, Australia's international human rights award. "A Secret Country", his history of Australia, published 20 years ago, remains in print (Vintage, £10.99)
Japanese rider fractured skull after riding into rope
Police in Tokyo could soon arrest four American teenagers after a Japanese woman riding a motorbike fractured a skull when she rode into a rope stretched across the road.
The four youths, aged between 15 and 18, are reportedly suspected of being responsible for her injuries.
ALl four come from US military families living in Japan and the arrests could exacerbate rising tensions about American bases in the country.
The motorcycle accident happened near Yokota Air Base in Tokyo in August.
The city's police force today denied to comment on media claims the four could soon be arrested.
And Mitsuru Takahashi, a spokesman for Yokota Air Base, said the four had not been arrested nor identified as suspects.
He added: "The US military has heard from the Metropolitan Police Department that such an incident had taken place.
"We hope that the victim will recover as soon as possible."
The alliance between the two countries has been jolted before by military accidents and crimes, including the 1995 rape of a 12-year-old girl by US soldiers based in Okinawa that prompted huge anti-base protests.
Japanese police have also questioned a US soldier about a fatal hit-and-run accident on the southern island of Okinawa.
Under an agreement between the two governments, US forces based in Japan are not obliged to hand over personnel suspected of a crime outside the base unless they are charged, though they have sometimes done so in serious criminal cases.
The Japanese government, led by new prime minister Yukio Hatoyama, is already arguing with Washington over the relocation of a US Marine air base on Okinawa, which is home to about half of 47,000 US troops stationed in Japan.
Even Gaddafi has been airbrushed from the body-recovery story - after all he is now our friend
It's amazing what a body can do. Back in 1986, after Alec Collett's corpse was videoed swinging from a noose – we had to assume this gruesome piece of cinema showed him, for his face was covered – the Lebanese concluded that the British freelance journalist was killed in revenge for Margaret Thatcher's decision to allow Ronald Reagan to air-raid Libya from airbases in the UK. That's what his killers had told us. Three other hostages – an American librarian and two British teachers – met similar fates shortly after the American aircraft had attacked Tripoli and Benghazi, killing scores of civilians including Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's adopted daughter.
But this week, with the help of British intelligence agents – and why they should have been involved, no one, of course, has explained – Collett's body has been recovered in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. And praise has been heaped upon the British as well as the Lebanese government by UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon. So one British Government lets the Americans use British bases to kill Libyans – and another British Government laps up the gratitude of the UN for digging up the victim's body.
The details of Collett's original 1985 kidnapping were almost mundane. He was writing about the suffering of Palestinian refugees in UN camps and was returning to Beirut one March afternoon when he was stopped by armed men close to a checkpoint of the Shia Muslim Amal movement (whose boss is now, quite by chance, the speaker of the Lebanese parliament). Collett's sin appears to have been simple: he was carrying two passports, in one of which was an Israeli stamp – because he had also been visiting refugee camps in the occupied territories.
But how has the narrative changed! No talk this week of just why poor Alec Collett was so cruelly done to death. No mention of the Thatcher decision or the US raids or of the reason for those attacks – because Gaddafi had supposedly organised the bombing of a Berlin nightclub, killing a US serviceman. Indeed, even Gaddafi has been airbrushed from the body-recovery story – after all, he is now our friend, described as "statesmanlike" by our very own Jack Straw for supposedly (a word you always have to use about the loony of Libya) giving up his nuclear ambitions.
Even more painful – and thus even more in need of deletion from the story – is the fact that the first two claims of responsibility for Collett's kidnapping came from the Iraqi Shia Dawa party, demanding the release of prisoners in Kuwait. This is the same Dawa which now forms a foundation of the democratic, US-supported government in Iraq – but who were "terrorists" in 1986, fighting against the US-supported government of Saddam in Iraq.
In other words, Alec Collett, whose second wife lives in New York and who had three children, may now be laid to rest. The British authorities, basking in their good deed of digging up his remains, will fervently hope that the matter is no longer open for discussion. The other bones found alongside Collett's near the town of Ait el-Foukhar in the Bekaa Valley can be chucked back into the soil – as were others in recent years which did not prove to be Collett's – as unidentified. British intelligence clearly wasn't interested in them – but why then, it might be asked, were they so interested in Alec Collett? As a woman intimately involved in the events that led to Collett's murder might have said, it's a funny old world.
Amid the growing media fever over a possible prisoner swap involving the release of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier held by Hamas, another young captive has a less visible public profile – but personifies Israel’s chokehold on Palestinian self-expression.
Mohammad Othman, 33, from the West Bank town of Jayyous, and an activist with the grassroots Palestinian organisation Stop the Wall, was arrested on September 22 at the Allenby Bridge crossing on the Jordanian border. He was on his way home after a meeting in Norway with supporters of the global movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions on Israel (BDS). Adameer (Arabic for “conscience”), the Palestinian prisoners’ support and human rights organisation, contends that his arrest is a result of “his successful human rights advocacy and community activism”.
Mohammad was interrogated for two months at the Kishon detention centre in northern Israel. His lawyer told me he was repeatedly asked about his meetings, contacts and political activities in Europe. He alleges that Mohammad was kept in isolation, deprived of sleep, questioned round the clock, and threatened with death.
On Monday, Mohammad was formally placed in Israeli administrative detention for three months. He is the latest of more than 335 Palestinians held in this way, a practice based on a 1945 emergency British Mandate law and highlighted in a report last month by the Israeli human rights groups B’Tselem and HaMoked.
I first met Mohammad Othman in Jayyous a year ago, during a protest against the annexation of the towns’s farmland to build Israel’s wall. Residents had just had their permits to cross the wall to their farms revoked, and had rekindled their earlier campaign of resistance. He led me down an alley as soldiers began retaking the main street with tear gas and rubber bullets, forcing young boys to retreat from the barricades that were blocking the military jeeps from driving through the town. “We constantly worry about army raids and arrests, all the local activists do,” he told me after we were out of the line of fire.
On Sunday, almost exactly a year after that in Jayyous, I watched Mohammad stand in front of a military tribunal housed in a barracks that looked like an oversized chicken-coop inside Israel’s Ofer prison in the West Bank. His lawyers were appealing against his prolonged detention without charge.
Outside the court, family members of other detained Palestinians clung to the fence, waiting for news about their loved ones. British and German consular officials and representatives from Israeli and international NGOs filled the small courtroom. Shackled at the legs, and having only a fraction of the proceedings against him translated, Mohammad raised his fist twice to the gallery in a gesture of strength and resistance.
Across the West Bank, just as in that courtroom, Israel is trying to tighten its grip on expressions of Palestinian self-determination. The border village of Bil’in has captured the international eye with a forceful and well-documented resistance campaign against the dispossession caused by Israel’s wall. It is precisely such international calls from Palestinian society that Israel is targeting with a systematic campaign of violence and incarceration inside its controlled territory.
This summer a committee of representatives from Bil’in visited Canada to support a lawsuit against two Israeli settlement construction companies registered in Montreal. When they returned, their leader, Mohammad Khatib, was arrested by the Israeli army. And while those two companies continued to build illegal homes on the farmland of Bil’in, the military conducted systematic raids into the village for three months.
When I last spoke to Mohammad Khatib in September, he was exhausted from a combination of the Ramadan fast and constant night-time army invasions. He told me that young people arrested in Bil’in were severely beaten by the army on the way to interrogation, and then had confessions beaten out of them.
Last Thursday, pressure on the town again escalated again when undercover Israeli soldiers beat and arrested a 19-year-old village activist, Mohammed Yasin. Gaby Lasky, the lawyer for the Bil’in detainees, says she has been told by the military prosecution that the army intends to put an end to the village’s anti-wall demonstrations by using the full force of the law against protesters.
And that is the strategy of Benjamin Netanyau: hit all pressure points. On the diplomatic stage he is demanding acquiescence from the Palestinians’ official representatives, but that policy is not limited to a public-relations dance with a Palestinian Authority that a growing number of people are calling to be dissolved. The aim is to turn the Palestinians’ internationally heard call for solidarity into a cry for Israeli mercy. It is being expressed in military raids on Palestinian homes, and in political prisoners held without trial in Israeli jails and tied to chairs in interrogation rooms.
Jesse Rosenfeld is a Canadian freelance journalist working in Israel and the Occupied Territories since 2007, and currently based in Jaffa
Next month thousands of young Burmese Muslims, persecuted in their own land, will attempt to voyage across the sea to a better life – but a sinister fate awaits them.
Here's a formula for making a killing in times of crisis. Go to the south-eastern tip of Bangladesh, on the border with Burma, and buy an old fishing boat. It'll cost 100,000 taka, or about £900. Then budget 450 pounds, for rice and drinking water, and maybe another £450 for bribes. Then head off and trawl for clients among the most destitute communities in Bangladesh – a country so densely populated country and so poor that for Britain to be on similar economic terms it would have to have a population of 200 million with an average income around four per cent of what a Briton's is today,
But the target market we are looking at here is several times more impoverished than that. We are talking about quite possibly the most neglected people in Asia, or anywhere else. They call themselves Rohingyas, a Muslim minority from Burma, 30,000 of whom have been so cruelly persecuted by their country's military junta, in large measure because of their religion, that they have chosen to flee over the border to live in a refugee camp that they themselves built, without the help of the United Nations or anybody else. It is on a little hillside that is so hot, cramped, stinking, hungry and disease-ridden that, by contrast, the neighbouring string of squalid Bangladeshi fishing villages feels like the Costa del Sol.
Of the 30,000 people living in the Kutupalong refugee camp, a third are children under 10. They laughed and horsed around when I visited them accompanied by a photographer and an aid worker. They would not have laughed had they had any sense of the possible destiny awaiting them, just around the corner. When the mothers get desperate, when no other possibility of survival exists, they sell their children off, usually to become slaves; sex slaves, if they are little girls.
But these are not the clients that the region's investors-in-people most are interested in. What they look for is young men, typically between 16 and 25 years old, who dare to dream of a future brighter than the best that Bangladesh has to offer them – which is to pedal day and night as rickshaw drivers, earning just enough crumbs to allow their bodies to keep pedalling the day and night after that.
For these young men, the promised land is Malaysia, an Asian Tiger of shimmering skyscrapers, vast bridges and smooth motorways that is 1,000 miles south of Bangladesh but felt – when I arrived there on a Malaysian airlines Airbus 330 – like another world, in another century. There is no Airbus option for the Rohingyas, who do not have passports, not being considered citizens in their own land.
This is where the fishing boats, the rice, drinking water and the bribes come in. The canny entrepreneur, who regards himself as a sort of travel agent, offers these ambitious young men a sea trip to Malaysia for a fee the equivalent of £180 a head. The boat, about 60ft long, would usually hold a dozen fishermen. But for this kind of voyage the aim is to carry up to 100 people. That means an income of £18,000 on an outlay of £1,800: a profit approaching 1,000 per cent.
One limitation of the business is that it is only feasible at year's end. December is the time to set sail, when the storms in south-east Asian waters abate, and the currents and the winds are favourable for Malaysia. As I write, boats are being bought and packages sold – as they were a year ago when more than 1,000 Rohingya refugees set off from the Bangladeshi coast.
I spoke separately to half a dozen of these sea-faring adventurers; the stories of three of them are recorded here. Storms, starvation, disease, thirst, beatings, jail was what befell them. At several steps along the way they lived with what seemed then the certain knowledge that they were to die slow and terrible deaths.
Another type of slow death was what they had fled from in Burma. The travellers' stories of life in their home country matched those I heard from a group of Rohingya elders at the Kutupalong camp, painting a picture that suggested images of the slave era in the Americas during the 18th and 19th centuries.
The Rohingyas live in north-west Burma, in a state called Arakan, a name that sounds like a beautiful fairyland in a C.S. Lewis Narnia story, but in this case one ruled without respite by a regime almost as darkly impenetrable as North Korea's. Since its government refused to accept the results of the last democratic elections in 1990, Burma has been a country closed to foreign journalists. Talking to the Rohingyas, one can understand why. They are discriminated against because they are Muslims in a Buddhist country; because they tend to have darker skin than most Burmese (a senior Burmese diplomat described them recently as "dark brown" and "ugly as ogres"), and because of a complex history of resistance to central control (they sided with the British in the Second World War instead of the Japanese, whom the majority of Burmese favoured). They find themselves stateless slaves in the country where they were born. They cannot move from one village to another without permission from the local military authorities; they cannot marry or have children without permission; they are helpless to resist as their land is confiscated bit by bit and given to Buddhist settlers brought in from the cities; they are forced to work the land that has been stolen from them, without pay; they are forced to do all the menial labour that the military might require, from building roads to cutting grass; and they are not allowed to worship freely. After nightfall, when their religion demands that they go to the mosque and pray, they are not allowed to leave their homes. And there is a policy clearly aimed at the erosion of Islam in Arakan state: anyone who is caught performing any repairs on a mosque, from fixing a roof to painting a wall, is punished with jail and a fine.
"They tell us it is their country, not ours," said one of the Rohingya boat people I spoke to, a gentle, devoutly religious boy of 19 called Mohammed. The eldest of eight siblings, his father marked him out as the family's saviour. His his mission was to set off for Malaysia, find a job and send money back home. "My father was terribly sad but he said I was the only hope the family had."
Made aware, through a relative in Bangladesh, of the going rate for the trip to Malaysia, Mohammed's father sold two bullocks and half an acre of land for the equivalent of the £180 that the supposed ticket to paradise cost. The boy tramped over the mountains to Bangladesh where, before boarding a boat in December along with 82 other Rohingya men and boys – the youngest 12, the oldest 60, most about 18 – he made a call on his relative's mobile phone to his family. "I had a feeling that I was leaving my family forever, that I would never see them again."
Salim – thin, small, neat, reedy-voiced – is the second of the travellers in this story. Seventeen when he left Arakan last year, he has four brothers and four sisters. "My elder brothers were forced to cut the lawns of the soldiers, collect firewood for them, clean their houses. They were like slaves," he explained to me "I saw that my future was dark and I decided to leave and find another life." He made it to Bangladesh, found some human-smugglers, as he calls them, and contacted his family to tell them how much money he needed. "They sold their paddyfields: all the land they owned."
Moniur, older than the other two at 23, had left Arakan 10 years earlier and had worked as a rickshaw driver, one of thousands you see swarming the roads of south-eastern Bangladesh. He had the gaunt, grim-set face of all the rickshaw drivers, men forced to push the boundaries of the physically possible, with minimal food.
The three set off on separate boats along what was supposed to have been the same scheduled route: south down the Bay of Bengal to the Sea of Andaman, skirting the west coast of Thailand; then on to the Straits of Molucca, passing Indonesia to the west, before finally making landfall somewhere in the northern Malaysian province of Penang. The voyage was 1,500 kilometres long; the quantity of food provided and the conditions on the boats responded in each case to one simple purpose: maximising the traffickers' profits.
They were not shackled, they were there of their own will, but their plight recalled that of the Africans transported across the Atlantic on the slave-traders' ships. The measure of the despair driving them to seek better lives was that they did not flee for home on seeing and smelling the vessels they had been allotted. Take the case of Salim, crammed along with 107 others into the reeking hold of a fishing boat – the place the fish were usually stored before the boat headed for shore during the long years of the wooden vessel's working life. The men were packed in so tightly that they could not budge an inch. Some were seasick and vomited; all had to urinate and defecate, where they sat.
Mohammed, Salim and Moniur knew they were taking a gamble, but they had no idea just how loaded the dice were against them. On Mohammed's and Salim's boats, the food and water ran out after 10 days; on Moniur's, after eight. In each case they were still some 500 kilometres short of Malaysia, and for two days they sailed without anything to eat or drink. Reaching their destination ceased to have any significance; survival was all that mattered. "All we saw was water and more water", said Mohammed, "but none that we could drink."
Moniur's boat ran into some Thai fishermen, who gave them water but then handed them over to the Thai navy, who took them to shore and arrested them; Mohammed's and Salim's boats made it to shore in Thailand, but they and all their fellow passengers were immediately arrested. All of them were transported to a town called Ranong by road; in Moniur's case, crammed into a garbage truck. They had lost whatever minimal control they might have managed to retain over their lives.
Mohammed told his story vividly, giving free vent to his sorrow and despair; Moniur, older and toughened by the life of the urban rickshaw driver, had an extraordinary memory for detail, but remained stiffly detached, like a police detective describing a crime scene; Salim, the youngest of the three, was contained and precise, but struggled to maintain his poise during the more harrowing parts of his narrative. None of them, in the six hours I spent with them overall, ever smiled. What happened to them, happened to hundreds of other Rohingyas.
According to the only organisation in the world that takes a sustained interest in documenting the plight of the Rohingyas – a one-woman NGO called the Arakan Project run by a Belgian woman, Chris Lewa – at least 1,195 of the refugees left Bangladesh bound purportedly for Malaysia on at least 10 boats in December 2008. Of those, 859 are today accounted for; the rest, more than 300 people, are missing, presumed dead, from drowning, or starvation and thirst on the high seas. The stories of Mohammed, Moniur and Salim, whose survival was in each case providential, offer vivid insights into the probable circumstances of those who remain unaccounted for.
Moniur and Mohammed were taken by the Thai army from Ranong to Koh Sai Dang, which is also known as Red Sand Island – "a hill on the sea", as Moniur described it.
"What struck us first was the number of shoes we saw lying on the beach – hundreds of them," said Mohammed. "Since they were the type that our people wear we feared the owners had been killed and that that would be our fate too."
The Thai military kept the Rohingya men on the island for 15 days, routinely beating them. "There were many more of us than the soldiers, so it must have been to intimidate, to control," explained Mohammed. Then a military boat and a ferry arrived, and took them back to four of the the same boats they had come ashore in. "We found when we got on that they had taken out the engines. Then they connected the four boats with ropes and one of the military boats towed us all out to sea. They told us they were taking us to Malaysian waters. But after a day and half they cut the ropes and abandoned us, drifting in the high seas".
"It was then," continued Mohammed, "that we understood that the promise of Malaysia had been false and we all began to cry. The four boats were taken by the currents in different directions, until ours was alone. We were certain we would die." Moniur, on another of the four boats, had an identical tale to tell.
Their stories have been corroborated by Chris Lewa's exhaustive research, and the Thai government has even owned up. Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, was forced to admit that in "some instances" such events had taken place. Though, as far as anybody knows, no official inquiry has taken place.
Should there be such an official investigation, the upshot would probably have to be charges of murder and attempted murder on a massive scale. There were 575 people on the four drifting boats. On Moniur's, the largest, there were 152. After 10 days of lacerating tropical sun and 10 nights of darkest despair, people began to die. "We had no food or water; 19 people died," said Moniur, in his staccato manner. "We threw the bodies overboard. All the rest of us could do was wait for our turn to die too."
Mohammed's boat was luckier, at first. It took just five days for rough seas to sweep them towards some Thai fishermen, who fed them and led them to shore, where the Thai military again arrested them, then handcuffed them, blindfolded and interrogated them. They had drifted far south, to near Bangkok, but were loaded onto lorries and then a military boat which delivered them once more to Red Sand Island.
He and 200 others ("lots of the people there had sores on their backs from sitting crammed on the boats") were kept on the island for a month. "Then they loaded us onto a big barge and towed us out to sea, this time with food – seven sacks of rice and two drums of water. But they took our engine out again," Mohammed said, "and after two days and one night, again, they cut us loose and left us.
"We drifted for 14 days. Many of us got sick, many lost consciousness. I had no doubts I would die. There was no hope of land or rescue. We had no energy even to talk any more." But then it rained, they gathered the water in the plastic sheeting, and hope returned. On the 16th day they saw land, and at dawn the next day they awoke to discover they were surrounded by fishing boats. They were not Thais this time. The fishermen took them ashore to their home, a place called Idi, in northern Indonesia.
Moniur meanwhile reached land after 14 days adrift. "We found water to drink, wild fruit to eat," he recalled, "and we walked, stumbling through the bush, from nightfall to dawn. We saw some markings on a tree, which told us, to our joy, that this was a deserted island. We kept walking, with new energy now, and found some villagers who gave us tea and bananas... This was India. The Andaman Islands." The former rickshaw driver spent the next nine months in an Indian detention centre.
Mohammed did make it to Malaysia, to Penang province, where I interviewed him. Following his rescue by Indonesian fishermen he awoke, after two days unconscious, in an Indonesian hospital bed. Then he met an Indonesian policeman who, instead of beating him, took him home and, together with his wife, nursed and fed him back to health. Two weeks later he moved to a refugee camp, where he stayed for six months.
Every Friday he was allowed out to visit the policeman and his family, until one day the policeman helped him realise his dream, giving him the money and the means to cross illegally, but safely ,through the Straits of Molucca into Malaysia.
Salim was not set adrift on an engineless boat. After spending 21 days in the immigration detention centre in Ranong in Thailand he was put on a fully-functioning boat that, he was told, would take him up the coast to Burma.
He was landed, instead, on the Thai coast and handed over by the Thai immigration authorities to Thai traffickers – one of numerous examples I came across during my interviews with Rohingyas, and confirmed as pattern by Lewa, of collusion between people-smugglers and Thai officials. "They packed 10 of us into a hidden compartment underneath a van and drove us to a rubber plantation," recalled Salim. "They took us to a long house there, where there were lots of other people like me, who had tried to get from Bangladesh to Malaysia. They asked us for the phone numbers of friends or relatives in Malaysia. They said that if we gave them the numbers they would phone and ask for the price of getting us over the border into Malaysia."
"I had no friends or relatives in Malaysia, and I said as much," Salim continued. "But they did not want to believe me. They beat me with a cane, every day for 10 days." At which point the traffickers conceded defeat. The frail boy, 18 years old now and hardly bigger than an average 13-year-old in Europe, had been the pride and hope of his family in Burma, but that was the extent of his worldly connections. So the traffickers put into action their 'Plan B': they delivered Salim and nine other Rohingyas to a Thai fishing harbour and handed them over to a trawler.
"At first I was happy. It was very hard work. Just three days off in the month. We left for sea at five in the afternoon and worked till 10 next morning, casting the nets, pulling in the fish, cleaning the nets, cleaning the boat. We slept from 10 in the morning till four in the afternoon."
He paid less than £1 a day for his expenses and he awaited eagerly his pay packet at the end of the month.But then he saw, when the end of the month came, that the Thai fishermen on the boat got paid and he did not; that they went off to shore to see their families but he was not allowed off the boat.
"When I asked for my wages I was told, 'No, you are not like the rest of the crew. Your wages are paid elsewhere'. They said I had been sold, that my boss took all my money. I asked who my boss was and they told me the name of the Thai trafficker who ran the rubber plantation with the Sikhs." What did he feel at that moment? "I suddenly felt the whole sky fall on my head: I could not move for a long time. They told me nothing more. I thought I was sold for the rest of my life. I believed I was sold forever. I cannot remember a day for the rest of the time I was there that I did not weep silently."
There was no prospect of escape, he said. "I heard stories of others like me who had been thrown overboard because they tried to get away." Nine months into his captivity on the boat, to his utter surprise, some people came in a van, employees of the trafficker who "owned" him and took him on a long journey over the border into Malaysia. "They are cruel people, they beat people, they buy and sell people, they are killers, but with me they were true to their word. My nine months of work had paid the money it would have cost to get me over the border if I had had relatives to pay."
It was a peculiar case of honour among thieves. They dropped him off at a mosque inside Malaysia's Penang province, where once it was revealed that for all the callousness in the world there is also kindness. Salim, whose life had been held to ransom, met an elderly man at the Malaysian mosque who took him under his wing. "He gave me a phone to call my family; he gave me some work to do, and paid me some wages, then he gave me some money to go on a bus south to Georgetown – a big city where I hoped to find steady work, which I soon did."
He succeeded where Moniur, older and tougher, failed. Back in Bangladesh where I interviewed Moniur just a month after his return from India, he allowed himself just one moment of weakness, when I asked him if he would contemplate setting sail for Malaysia again?
"Look," he said, "many times, many times I thought I would die. Many times. So, no. No, no. I will not try again. I will stay now and always in Bangladesh. Life is hard here, but it is life."
The Kutupalong refugee camp itself is life too. It is a pretty bright and cheery sort of life after you've emerged out of the dark places that Moniur, Mohammed and Salim descended into. Almost bright and cheery, if you hold your nose and shut out your eyes to the misery all around – to the open hillside gutters and the baking-hot shacks with mud floors and black plastic roofs – and if all you do is look at the smiles on the faces of the 10,000 children there.
They mob us foreign visitors, whose every gesture they find hilarious. One girl, of maybe 11, wearing violet-blue glass earrings, struck us as strikingly beautiful. We took photographs of her, for which she posed with confidence, but as we left the camp, we feared for what the future might hold for her. The thought passed through one's mind that if sex traffickers were as active here as the people-smugglers, which we were told was the case, then what hope for this girl?
And even if she were lucky and escaped the clutches of evil men – who reportedly sell Rohingya girls to places as far away as China – what kind of a future could she hope to have?
The children's smiles and laughter were little different to those of children with access to soap and water and food and education and Nintendos in the greenest suburbs of Surrey. But fast-forward a decade in your imagination and the little girl with the violet-blue earrings transforms into Nur Ayesha, a woman of 23 I met inside a sweltering shack.
Nur, a woman of delicate features in a hard face, told me she had left Arakan four years ago to get married, as she and the man she loved lacked the marriage licence money that the Burmese military demanded of them (assuming they would have been lucky enough to have secure official permission to marry).
But after a year of life in Kutupalong, her husband decided to set off alone in search of a better life for them both. She did not know, or would not tell, whether he had gone on a boat to Malaysia or tried to get there overland, as some also did. But the fact was that he never returned.
She assumed he had died, leaving her with a two-year-old child for whom she could not care. "I was sick and so was the child. I had no money for treatment. I was hungry and had no money to buy food," she told me, bringing to mind an image I had seen at a nearby port of another young woman, waist deep in water with a child in her arm, begging for fish from an arriving boat.
So Nur took the option of last resort. "I was told that there were people who bought little children. I sold my two-year-old boy to some people who said they were from the city."
Nur tells herself that the people who bought the child will rear him well; that they bought him because they were unable to have children themselves. Workers for NGO's who know Bangladesh well say this is unfortunately unlikely to be true; that the mother is either deceiving herself or lying. The child, they assured me, is condemned to a life of slavery, possibly even sex slavery. I asked Nur how much she had sold her child for. She replied, registering no horror or sense of injustice, as if the price had been fair one, that she had sold him for 500 taka – about £4.
"I am sad, I will always be sad, but what could I do?" She might have avoided the need to do that had her husband made it to Malaysia and sent money back to her in the refugee camp. But, was life really better for the Rohingyas in Malaysia? Was the pursuit of that dream worth the cost and the sacrifice and the risk?
Mohammed and Salim, having made it there, seemed to think that, on balance, the answer was yes. Mohammed had found some occasional work on a building-site, and has met up with a small Rohingya community and found a little mosque where he can pray in peace, whenever he wants. His regret is that he has not managed to live up to his family's hopes yet, and has not been able to send any money home.
Salim, who has found a job in a tea shop, has sent money home, only to discover that a third of it is immediately lifted in "tax" by the local Burmese military who exercise such close Big Brother control over the Rohingya population that they can detect, through phone-tapping and spies, when a family acquires new money.
Did he consider himself, nonetheless, fortunate? Salim thought long and hard before answering. "I consider myself fortunate that I was let go from the boat and brought here, and that many died and I survived. But my greatest fear is that I will be arrested here and end up working as a slave on a fishing boat again, and that then I may not be so lucky, that I might have to do that forever."
I asked him if he would ever return to Burma. "I would like to see my family again," said small, neat, deliberate Salim, a bright boy with dark sad eyes who at 18 has already lived a thousand lives. "But how? No, it is not possible. This is my life now."
It is his life now, just at it is the life of some 25,000 Rohingyas who have found a precarious home in Malaysia.
I went to a school in Penang province, or rather a little house, where a dozen or so Rohingya children spent their days doing what the children at Kutupalong wished they could do: learning writing, maths, English, the Koran. On a wall there was a chart with the flags of all the countries of the world on it. I asked a teacher to point out to me his flag. I asked a child. I asked all the children. Each silently and without hesitation placed their finger on the flag of Burma, a country from which they have fled, that does not want them and that humiliated and exploited them every day of their lives.