On being invisible

By EA Ann, Southern West Bank.

Occupation of a country for 48 years has to rely on two strategies – violence, which grabs the headlines, and a more quiet but insidious and systematic process of treating those under occupation as if they simply don’t exist.

Road junctions leading to Palestinian towns have a large red road sign telling Israelis that it is “dangerous to their life” to enter. One town council has erected another large sign right behind it.

Resistance with a road sign: “Welcome to Halhul City” EAPPI/A.Davison

Resistance with a road sign: “Welcome to Halhul City” [Photo: EAPPI/A.Davison]

No signs on the main Israeli roads indicate the existence of Yatta – a Palestinian town with some 100,000 inhabitants.   Yet even the outpost settlements, illegal under Israeli as well as international law, and often housing only a handful of people, merit road signs.

In his book My Promised Land, Ari Shavit describes how early Zionists simply did not see the thriving Palestinian towns and farms in front of their eyes.  From this an entire ideology was created, of a “land without people for a people without a land”.   This is the only historical narrative in Israeli schools.  Many Israeli children don’t know what “occupation” means.  Numerous Israeli activists have told us that “the evil is so banal that it can’t be seen”.

One described the Palestinian builders working in her town as “transparent” to her neighbours – without personal stories or identities. An Israeli human rights organisation of former Israeli soldiers, Breaking the Silence, has said that to Israeli soldiers every Palestinian is either an active terrorist, a potential terrorist (including babies and small children), or possible grandparent of a terrorist.

Breaking the Silence gave a real life example: what to do if a suspicious package is spotted on the street in Hebron? Soldiers have three choices: to shoot at it from a safe distance and see if it explodes (but that’s a waste of ammunition), to call for a bomb disposal team (but that takes time and is costly), or to tell a Palestinian that they must pick it up.  If it explodes that will discourage any future bombs in the street. This option was favoured as being “extremely efficient”.

Israeli infrastructure in the West Bank ignores Palestinians. The numerous modern highways have been built on land owned by Palestinians (with no compensation).   Roads cut through pasture land, separating animals from essential water cisterns.  Construction of new cisterns is illegal for Palestinians in Area C, the area controlled completely by the Israeli authorities.  Consequently there are numerous accidents, including one recently near Yatta in which an Israeli settler killed 11 animals from a flock of 80.  The police arrived because the settler’s car was written off; but no compensation will be paid to the Palestinian shepherd.  Further along the same road a lengthy crash barrier prevents animals from reaching water.

A crash barrier preventing farmers reaching the land they own and their animals reaching water EAPPI/A.Davison

A crash barrier preventing farmers reaching the land they own and their animals reaching water [Photo: EAPPI/A.Davison]

Sheep cannot get over or under the barrier, so flocks of 100 animals must be lead along the main road for 200 metres.  This is (understandably) illegal, so the shepherds risk arrest daily.  They control their animals by throwing small stones nearby, to divert them from walking in the wrong direction; this can easily be misinterpreted as “throwing stones at my car”, leading to jail sentences of up to 20 years.  Any similar scenario in Europe would merit at least a warning road sign, possibly flashing lights (where cows regularly cross a road for milking), or even a bridge or underpass.  Sheep and goats seem to be invisible in Palestine, as well as the shepherds.

Flock of sheep crossing a main road. EAPPI/A.Davison

A flock of sheep crossing a main road [Photo: EAPPI/A.Davison]

The Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz recently published a photograph of the map on the main notice board for the Israeli police headquarters in Kiryat Arba, serving the southern half of the West Bank. It shows only three Palestinian cities: Hebron, Halhul and Bethlehem, and completely ignores the 200 other Palestinian towns and villages in the area (including Yatta with its 100,000 inhabitants).  The populated Palestinian areas are described as “open” as opposed to “built-up”, and the map claims that 99.6% of the population is Jewish.

As a reading quoted by Nomika Zion, a well-known Israeli peace activist, reminds us:  “When you stop seeing others as human beings you eventually stop being human yourself.”