What Did We Do to Deserve This? Palestinian Life Under Occupation in the Westbank. Mark Howell. Garnett Publishing Limited, Reading, UK. 2007.
by Jim Miles
A different and realistic view of Palestinian life is presented in What Did We Do to Deserve This?, an original concept by Mark Howell. The Palestinian people present themselves as a compassionate and caring people, for themselves, their land, and were it possible, for their neighbours. The photography of violence and destruction, of maimed bodies and twisted wreckage, could have been shown, but instead what comes through in the portraits and landscapes, which constitute an important segment of the book, is a “quiet dignity of suffering”, perhaps not the best words to match the situation, but the phrase that first comes to mind from the photos. Other words could be attributed to the visual images – resignation, friendliness, fear, happiness, and resilience. In essence, the people of Palestine are presented as a very representative group of humanity, with the added complexity of existing under a severely controlling occupation.
The photographs are a major part of the book, accompanying anecdotes and quotations from civilians leading the harsh daily realities of life in the occupied Westbank. The text beginning each section combines the author’s anecdotal experiences along with an essentials summary of the various themes and topics presented. Along with various websites, Howell has used many of the standard ‘revisionist’ histories of the Palestine/Israeli conflict in support of his own impressions concerning the subjugation of a people by a military force operating in the Westbank acting as an authority unto itself. The three formats combined – photography, anecdotes and stories, current research – make the work an excellent entry source for people wishing to understand more fully the situation in the Middle East in general and in Palestine/Israel in particular.
As has become more common in recent works critical of the Israeli-American liaison, the media receives much criticism. With his initial visit to Palestine, Howell expressed shock “by the great difference between media reporting and the reality on the ground,” leading him “to address the void between mainstream media coverage of the conflict,” and that newly perceived reality. He posits three main causes of the strength of this bias: first that the “Israeli government has developed a formidable PR machine;” secondly, knowing what its actions are going to be (in most cases) it “can also plan in advance” to get its own message out; and finally, the news sources “recruit Jewish spokespeople” as the target audience has “more affinity with a white Israeli with a British accent than with a Palestinian Arab.” As always, the media carries its own corporate interests foremost, which should limit the “trust…often given to journalistic reports.”
The media story is that of inverse victimization, of Palestinian terrorists attacking the vulnerable and peacefully democratic peoples of Israel. The testimony attested to here shows the reality, “the substance of Palestinian society whose voice is rarely heard,” the day to day subjugation of an occupied people by a variety of methods - a people that nevertheless remain resilient and determined.
Alongside the photographs are a series of maps, clearly and neatly presented showing the decline of Palestinian territory since 1948. One not so clear map, probably purposefully so, is one used to delineate the various areas of Jewish settlements and the designation of Palestinian (PLO and Fatah) control to varying degrees according to Israeli definitions. Later, another map shows how the ‘wall’ winds and twists around the Jewish and Palestinian settlements in and near East Jerusalem, isolating Palestinian populations from each other and enabling communication and further settlement of Jewish communities on confiscated land.
Howell uses his historical sources well, and the beginning of each section provides clearly presented information from what is becoming a standard set of references into the reality that exists, yet is not presented in or on current mass-market media. He identifies the reality behind the 1948 ‘nakba’, with Israel’s “secret agreement with Jordan….The small number and lack of organization” of the Arab forces such that they “posed no threat,” and further with “their leadership structure destroyed,” the Palestinians could not organize a military response. To this day, in spite of the violent portrayals in western media, “The overwhelming desire of Palestinians in the West Bank is to be treated fairly, to share Palestine’s resourced on an equal basis with Israeli Jews.”
The identity of the Palestinian people is continually challenged, with Palestinians identified as Arabs, giving them an “advantage linguistically of dislocating Palestinians from the geographical area” allowing the belief on the Israeli part “That Palestinians should, and eventually will, transition to other states.” The Palestinian identity is further restricted by “dividing the Westbank into enclaves [restricting] the flow of national consciousness,” restricting university access, confiscating land, and using “a model of separation akin to apartheid.”
These restrictions are fully evident in the “conquest of Jerusalem.” New settlements and the twisting contours of the wall have separated families, friends, business clients, students, property, and access to all kinds of services. Property is confiscated under absentee landlord laws and the complicity of the Israeli courts, and residency is continually narrowed with restrictive ID card usage for residency rights. Residents of the Palestinian sector identify the inevitable results, “when you do that we explode. I now see that [violence] doesn’t work but the Israelis don’t;” and “even if they win they don’t want peace. They don’t want to give back the land they occupied in 1967 or to let Palestinians have their own state. So there will be war.”
The restrictions serve the broader area as well, with an “illegal permit system” accompanied with “a highly restrictive network of checkpoints.” One of the major results of the checkpoints is fear, not fear “of the unusual – it is the fear of everyday reality.” These barriers, some mobile, some permanent, some heavily garrisoned, others light and intermittent, create problems with Palestinian “access to their land, make the transaction of business costly, prevent the sale of agricultural products beyond local markets, makes access to universities and medical care more difficult and inhibit social and cultural activities.”
As supported in other texts, “The Palestinians have never constituted a united, coherent military force” and despite depictions to the contrary “the Palestinian leadership has moved steadily towards a politically-based approach” while even the recently maligned Hamas has “entered the democratic process and maintained long periods of abstention from violence.”
In contrast to that the “Israeli military machine” is identified in its role of “ethnic cleanser, policeman, jailer and executioner” while the courts “primary role has been to legitimize the military’s actions in the Occupied Territories and to manipulate the legal landscape to achieve this end.” Both the military and the courts have perpetrated “the great land grab”, allowing the 450,000 Westbank settlers to “act with impunity” and giving them “considerable influence within Israeli politics.” The author visited Qawawis, a small hamlet made of four or five houses separated by a fence from its fields. The IDF destroyed all the houses shortly afterwards (February 14, 2007), “a demonstration of how quickly Israel’s policy of dispossession and ethnic cleansing is being implemented.”
Life becomes almost insufferable, yet persists. Business and agriculture is restricted; unemployment, poverty, and health problems are endemic; childhood, as a time of freedom and play, and education, are non-existent. A nurse in Birzeit fears “for the future of our children. They have no space to grow….They are frightened at checkpoints.” In general, the Palestinians are “not asking for much – we just want to live like human beings,” says Nadim Khoury, proprietor of Taybeh Brewery. “We want to be able to take our kids to school easily and not for it to take all day. We want to send our father and mother for medical treatment, not for them to die at checkpoints. It is all a deliberate attempt to make people leave the country. They treat us like animals.”
In the broader picture, the future is controlled by the Israelis and the acquiescence of western countries, leading to a conjuncture at some point where “Israel’s status as a democratic country will be challenged and its apartheid regime exposed on the international stage” leading to either the enfranchisement of Palestinians or their forced expulsion. Having been denied the western democratic process of an elected government that under the circumstances has acted with remarkable constraint (Hamas), and “as the prison doors close around the Palestinians…new generations…will be radicalized by their faiths.”
Howell does not see a viable two state system, but rather the answer is that “peace comes with equality, justice and freedom.” Peace will only come when a “genuinely viable, democratic state” is established. While “Israel’s expansionist, militarized establishment continually works to unite its people behind fear and loathing of Palestinians,” it can only continue as a “modern, democratic country if it comes to terms with the existence of the Palestinian people and their rights as human beings.”
As an introductory view of the Palestinian situation, “What Did We Do to Deserve This?” is an excellent starting point. Hard-hitting, gritty, realistic, yet also compassionate and humanistic and ultimately, in spite of the negatives, hopeful. The hope is narrowing, the love of family, land, and culture remains. It becomes increasingly important that people in the west speak and act against the Israeli apartheid system and against American collusion, otherwise an increasingly radicalized Middle East continues to grow.
First published in Palestine Chronicle, June 10, 2007. Visit Jim Miles’ site at http://www.jim.secretcove.ca/index.publications.html