Gaza And Hebron
Picking up paintings from a Palestinian General and paying a visit to a battered Hebron to find the ashes of 3126 ancient books, Ewa Jasiewicz has just arrived on the West Bank and sent the first of her on-the-spot dispatches back to SQUALL...
30th August 2002
Wednesday saw myself and Artists Without Borders' activists Meg and Flo go to Gaza City. Meg and Flo are community centre co-ordinators from Minneapolis gathering work from people creating in conflict situations.
The idea is to show the creative resourcefulness of people living in 'rogue states', trapped in dictatorships, double dictated to by being defined as spools in the 'axis of evil'. The project aims to represent positive achievements and activity rather than recycle the usual narratives of war victims eternally victimised and brutalised with no hope or culture. Iraqi and Palestinian artists have contributed so far - both 'unknowns' in refugee camps and established heavy-weights such as PLO General Dr Abadal Rahman Al Mozayen - the subject of our trip to Gaza. We were hoping to acquire art from both him and his daughter Reema, an accomplished artist in her own right, producing mixed media expressionist paintings, most recently about the cultural significance of the Palm Tree for Palestinians as a key multi-use-value resource and symbol of protection.
Abadal Rahman is a no-nonsense, slightly permanently disgruntled, and up-front individual. His art strikes us as soon as we step into the living room of his wide, airy seafront apartment. A 4ft by 2ft painting depicting Canaanite dancers in rich marigold, saffron, amber and green hangs above a rich tapestry woven sofa.
The Canaanite civilisation (The name Canaan means "Land of Purple" - taken from the purple dye extracted from murex shellfish found near the shores of ancient Palestine) flourished around 1400 BC. The culture developed a full 500 years before coming into contact with nomadic Israelite culture.
The dancers are symmetrically poised mid-dance-step. Their clothing is richly patterned and their faces bear the distinctive Canaanite straight noses, black almond eyes and firm, slightly dipped mouths.
I flick through a magazine on the coffee table - it appears to be all about Arafat. Arafat signing some sort of deal, semi-automatic resting beside him; Arafat flanked by diplomats and internationals, all smiling; Arafat in a meeting - gun on the side; Arafat walking down the street, people giving him respect; Arafat Arafat Aaraft. I soon cotton on to the Arafat connection. Dr Abadal was, and still is, a key player in the Palestinian Authority (PA).
Throughout the past three decades he's held a variety of departmental positions in the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organisation - the precursor to today's Palestinian Authority)- Chairman of the Palestinian Association for History and Antiquities; Commissioner of Artistic and Cultural Development in Political and Moral Commisarial - Public Security; General Political Commissioner of Palestinian Police; and Deputy General Political Commissioner. Art-wise, he founded the General Union of Palestinian Plastic Artists, the Revolution Artists Studio, the Al-Ard Artists Group and supervised a Palestinian Cultural and Artistic programme in Africa. His artwork hangs in all 216 PLO offices throughout the world. "I am the chief of all Palestinian artists. The Chief", he tells us, at least 5 times. Massive ego or not, his work is strikingly beautiful. His latest collection again, borrows heavily from Canaanite culture, illustrating female goddesses (his muse is Anat - Goddess of War and Beauty) poised with rocks in their hands, arms arched in unified symmetry, ancient resurgent intifada fighters.
Others show Black African empresses and Canaanite sisters intertwined, swirling skirts decorated with the ruins of bulldozed refugee camps, an early hammer and solid old rock in each hand respectively. Underneath is a caption about shaking off the chains of oppression together. "This is about the shared Palestinian and Black African struggle, the historical struggle against slavery and oppression", booms Abadal. He shows us more, this time it's a book of 100 'pictures of peace', using the canonic dove decorated with, again, Canaanite scripture, patterns, and hieroglyphic-like icons. Some of the doves carry the branch of the olive tree - the Palestinian National symbol - in their beaks. Others fly with axes, rocks and sticks.
The tools of the intifada pepper each piece, all reclaiming the roots of Palestinian heritage; reminding and remembering that there was a Palestine, there was a culture and there still is, albeit pathologised as one of constant conflict and nothing else, bloodshed, confusion, martyrs and death.
"Art is the universal language", continues Abadal, "Everyone can understand what peace means, what it means to have peace. He turns the pages to reveal dove after dove, swooping this way and that, ever-changing black ink patterns woven to look like movement, like excitement.
After taking a different, older batch of brightly coloured paintings from Abadal plus some textured (sand and palm leaves) works from Reema, we attend a junior school graduation ceremony and art exhibition just a block away from where the IDF dropped a one tonne bomb on a house earlier this month, killing 16 people. The kids are ecstatic. All aged about 8-14, they all tussle like crazy to get down the stairs into their exhibition and then mob me as I try to take photos. "I did this!!" is the common cry as they all point to the same one picture. "I did this!!!". There are at least 5 gold-topped Al Aqsa Mosques, one or two street battle scenes complete with oozy red bodies and mid-flight bullets, plus a few fuzzy green tanks on the prowl, but for the most part its 'normal' stuff; underwater sea scenes, a cat, home, bananas and mangoes, and Gaza beach.
Hebron, 37km south of Bethlehem is an eye-opener for all of us. The town is home to the Tomb of the Patriarchs- Abraham's Tomb, The holiest site in Israel for Jewish people and the heartland of militant zionism. The Jewish settlement of Qiryat Arba thrives in H2 - Hebron 2.
The sprawling town is divided into two sections - 80% is in H1 (Hebron 1) under the control of the PA, while the remainder, H2 is under the jurisdiction of the IDF. Moving from H1 into H2 is like stepping into a ghost town. It's hard to believe it's not under curfew.
From the manic market area and jewellery shops riddled with gunshot holes we walk, quite suddenly, alone, through silent, boarded up, barren streets. Bottles of piss litter the wire mesh canopy above us. Stars of David are graffitied on nearly every slammed-up shopfront, some have fists of resistance in their centres. A few kids play in the sand with a couple of scrawny cats. It's dead. We're being lead through these streets by Mussa, a Palestinian field worker with Bet Selem, an Israeli human rights watch organisation.
Bet Selem documents settler and IDF abuses against Palestinians according to international human rights law, and issues press releases to both national and international media about the violations. The group aims to counteract IDF and media misinformation and raise awareness, however slowly, of the reality of soldier assaults and settler crimes - all ignored and unpunished. One of their co-ordinators, Maya, a tiny, sharp as a knuckleduster, Israeli-Canadian woman has set this visit up for us.
She recalls a recent case of the IDF using 'Neighbour Procedure'. A suspected militant was hiding in his home from a tank assault in Gaza. Soldiers managed to get the rest of the inhabitants to leave but the suspect wasn't budging. Firing countless rounds of ammunition into the place wasn't working. So they deployed Neighbour Procedure. This involves forcing, at gunpoint, a neighbour, to go into houses harbouring suspected suicide bombers or other militants. Shots were fired over the man's head and at his feet to coerce him into entering.
He found the man sat motionless with a grenade in his hand. Upon coming out and explaining the situation to the soldiers he was forced yet again to re-enter the house. The man, despite threats and gunshot intimidation was unable to bring himself to re-enter. He collapsed on the pavement outside in shock. He needed psychiatric treatment after the incident. The IDF story was clear-cut. The man volunteered of his own free will to enter the house and help them seek out this terrorist.
Maya sighs deeply and shudders all at once after telling the story. "People here will accept anything when they're told it's in the interest of security". The Wall (Sharon is building an electrified concrete and barbed wire wall 6km beyond The Green Line - the dividing line between Israel and the West Bank and Gaza Strip - although East Jerusalem, Golan and Latrun are regarded, by Israel, as part of Israel), the curfews, the stopping of ambulances, bulldozing Palestinian houses - a violation of the Geneva Convention Article 33 - forbidding collective punishment for individual crimes, etc. etc. All these 'measures', they just accept it, they look no further'.
She continues, "we try to argue along utilitarian lines - It isn't working, these policies are not working - although in any case everything that's happening is totally wrong, morally and politically". On the endless journey here, up and down through what, at one point, seemed like a limestone quarry(!), all in the struggle to evade checkpoints, she too talked of her fears of attack if found out to be Israeli. Recently two Israeli men were beaten to death after having a meal in a Hebron restaurant. And Mussa was calling her every five minutes to check she's okay.
We are being taken to a Palestinian home in H2 which was attacked by settlers last month. The famous US author of The Holocaust Industry - Norman?? Finkelstein is with us. He's making a documentary with some Kiwi film-makers. At first, what with his polished tan and effortless confidence I think he's some sorta pop smoothie amateur commentator - wooo! shows how much I know! When we get to the house we all go a bit agog. This was no ordinary home. It was also a museum filled with over 3000 Palestinian books dating back centuries, priceless cultural artefacts, an important surviving collection of Palestinian heritage.
The men of the house are sitting on chairs in the inner courtyard when we enter. They are smoking cigarettes. I guess they're waiting for us or something. The atmosphere is kind of 'lost'. As we move in, 'Salaam Aliekums' aside, we see the damage. The place has been smashed to pieces. Broken glass crunches under foot, crockery fragments litter the floor, tables and cabinets lie upturned. Mussa explains.
July 28th saw a mass mobilisation of settlers in the town, 10,000 converged from all over Israel. Qiryat Arba has just 400 inhabitants. The settlers went on the rampage looting and smashing shops, beating people - from Palestinian children to IDF soldiers, noone stood in their way, they just completely overran the place. A 14-year-old girl peeked out through her kitchen window to see what gwaan only to be shot in the face. Dead. A teenage boy was stabbed in the back. He lived. It was during this riot that the settlers broke into the museum/house and destroyed all they could. They burned all of the ancient books. The home owner, a defiant man who refuses to leave this graveyard of a place despite regular attacks, exclaims, through Mussa, that he would rather have lost a son than those books.
The grandfather of the house was present throughout the attack. He sat, screwed up in utter silence, in darkness, and luckily escaped detection. Had he been found, he would not have been able to fight back. He most certainly would have been killed. Four settlers were arrested that day. All released without charge after a few hours. And the IDF got a kicking too.
So why no reprisals? Okay, Palestinian life is cheap, next to worthless, that's something I've come to understand here very quickly but IDF? The boys in Khaki guarding the holy land from the terrorists? - surely attacks on them would warrant massive reprisals, you can't beat the crap out of the guardian force, the glue that holds the Israeli occupation together.
"The settlers here are the most ideological in the whole of Israel", explains Mussa,"and they can do what they want. I think that Sharon, he likes what they do". Living next to Abraham's tomb, the Father's tomb, in the promised land, the settlers here feel like they are literally guarding the very foundations for their faith. And they in turn are guarding themselves with uzi's, AK's, rifles, you name it. Many are ex-army, and got to keep their guns. Many have also come from the US, infused and enthused with militia-culture tactics and the politics of Zion. All this is safeguarded by the IDF. The place is a war zone, checkpoints everywhere, imposing metal detectors screen everybody bound for the sacred tomb, noone is walking these streets. The odd space-cruiser of skullcap and ringlet-wearing kids driven by a be-hatted mother drives by, edgily. Stickers on lamposts read 'UN NOBODIES OUT - NOBODY WANTS YOU HERE!' Little settler boys play with the soldiers, clamber about the checkpoint ramparts.
The land around is dry, but vast Star of David adorned water tanks resembling rockets keep the settlers hydrated, visible from the parched roof garden on top of the museum house. But it's a war zone, why would anybody want to live here? It's unbelievable, literally, what faith based on nationalism and terrorism promises.
The father of the house explains further about the daily exploits of the settlers. Settler women regularly overturn market tables, steal clothing, tear down material for sale, and nothing can be done. Attacks happen daily. 33 Palestinians have been killed by settlers since the second intifada broke out (September 2000). None, aside from the 4 rioters, have ever been arrested let alone charged. Internationals have been battered by settlers here too. There's no dice with the white skin western privilege here. A photographer I met last night from New York, 23-years-old, had his shoulder broken, suffered internal bruising, spent a week in hospital and had all his equipment destroyed by settlers while filming a funeral. "A funeral?" I'd said, brows raised.
"They knew I was going to be there, Id been with them for days", he replied.
"They do what they want. They are doing a better job than the IDF" says Mussa. It gets late. After waiting with Mussa for as long as we can at a checkpoint ("You check me every day, every day, a few times a day sometimes, so why you check me again like this, you know me," he said to the soldiers, two slack-jawed 17-year-olds).
We make our way to the only mode of transport back to Jerusalem from Hebron at this time of day - The Settler Bus. Maya is afraid for us. I'm afraid for us. After all we'd heard and seen and her fears on top of it all, "I have never got the settler bus," she states adamantly. "I couldn''t". It's looking like a genuinely scary option. What if we get caught in some kind of ambush or get shot at? Maya reassures us, "It's bulletproof". And air-conditioned, and takes all the safe, smooth roads, no checkpoints, no soldiers, no getting out and waiting in a long queue to show your passport, and it's only 8 shekels (!!) we paid 30 to get to Hebron (aaaarrgh - sorry guys, really want to finish but the internet caf is closing, wont have chance for a while to write again, gotta go )
VIDEO VANTAGE POINTS - 7th June 2002
INSIDE THE CHURCH OF THE NATIVITY - Bethlehem - May 2002