My name is Asher, and before I start I’ll just give you a little background on myself in relation to the film we just saw. I’m Jewish, born and bred in Wellington, grandchild of a man who escaped from Poland only just before the Nazi invasion. In 2003 I went to Israel. At the time, I was a Zionist, a believer in the concept of Israel as a Jewish state, but by the time I came back to Aotearoa / New Zealand in 2004, I had become an anti-Zionist – 13 months of living there, learning more about the history of the conflict and talking to people, both Israelis and Palestinians, changed my perspective forever. In the very near future, I’ll be going back for a couple of months to do research and interviews for a book on Israeli Jews who struggle in a variety of ways against the occupation of Palestine, including some of those featured in Occupation 101.
Tonight’s film will have shown many of you a very different picture from that which comes through in much of the media. It told some of the stories of people who live under the Israeli military occupation, but still, many stories from the conflict remain untold.
The stories of the thousands of Palestinians jailed indefinitely without trial, including many under the age of 18. The stories of the one million Palestinians who are citizens of Israel, but are still subject to systemic discrimination in every facet of their lives. The stories of Palestinians, Israelis and internationals, who week after week, year after year, march against the building of the wall through the West Bank and dismantle roadblocks to allow freedom of movement. The stories of over 1500 Israelis who have openly stated their refusal to be conscripted into an occupying army, many of whom have served weeks or months in military jails, not to mention the thousands more who escape conscription in other ways, such as leaving the country or faking medical conditions.
Each and every day, Palestinians resist the occupation in ways that are never reported, never mentioned. Whether it is rebuilding a house demolished by the Israeli army, taking a back way out of a village to avoid a roadblock in order to get to school or work or a million other ways, Palestinians live and breath resistance in order to survive.
Palestinians and their Israeli allies have learnt time and time again that the so-called peace process is nothing but a sham, and the associated ceasefires never result in any real improvement in conditions for those living under a brutal occupation.
In the 1990s, during the Oslo peace process, many Palestinians had faith that the leopard, in the shape of then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin, a man who instituted a policy of breaking the bones of Palestinian demonstrators, often non-violent, during the first intifada, had indeed changed its spots. Over the next few years, during which time settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank increased dramatically, they were to learn that they were sorely mistaken.
In the mid to late 1990s, political pressure increased somewhat, and it began to look like Israel might indeed have to begin to make some real concessions. Prime Minister Ehud Barak in 2000 was to come up with a solution, the effects of which are still felt today – the false idea that there was “no partner for peace” with which to negotiate. The Israeli PR machine, and its supporters in the US and beyond, proclaimed to all who would listen that Barak had offered it all to Palestinian Authority leader Yassir Arafat, and he had declined in favour of violence.
The reality, of course, was starkly different. As Jeff Halper, director of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions and one of the interviewees in the film, states in his excellent article The Matrix Of Control, it is possible to completely control the entire West Bank and its resources, especially water, with under 10% of the land – a couple of settlement blocs and the associated roads and military facilities is all it takes to divide the West Bank into isolated segments, that would essentially become prisons for those left inside. Even in the last couple of days, Israel has made a similar offer, of 93% of the West Bank, to the Palestinian Authority, safe in the knowledge that it would be enough to make any Palestinian state completely economically, and therefore politically, dependant on Israel.
It is no coincidence that the largest single settlement in the West Bank, the town of Ariel, is situated on top of the largest underground aquifier in the West Bank – in the dry middle east, water is perhaps the most vital commodity.
Then, as we passed the new millenium, we saw the emergence of a new peace plan – the Road Map, or as noted Israeli political commentator Tanya Reinhardt calls it in her book of the same name, The Road Map To Nowhere. This is a plan that was flawed from the start, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, most of the deadlines it set have long since passed, without their demands being met. At the time, Israel trumpeted its acceptance of the road map to the world – it had agreed entirely with the plan who’s culmination would be a Palestinian state side by side with Israel. Less known, however, was that Israel’s agreement came with 17 so-called reservations – statements of policy that would negate the entire road map before it even began, gutting it until it was devoid of all meaning.
Israel’s complete failure to even pretend to comply with its obligations led, once again, to an increase in political pressure. This time, relief from that pressure would come with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s disengagement plan, which saw the Israeli settlements in Gaza evacuated. This was touted as a major concession by Israel, but, once again, the reality was different. The Gazan settlers only numbered 7000, but, including the roading and military infrastructure there to protect them, they took up around 20% of Gaza. The one million Palestinians living there were left to survive in an area smaller than Canterbury, with a border wall locking them in on all sides. The Israeli evacuation, however, was not made out of goodwill to the Palestinians. The Gazan settlers were deeply unpopular within Israel and indeed within the politically powerful Israeli military for the amount of money and soldiers lives that it cost to keep them secure. With the illusion of a big concession, Israel gained in international standing, and George Bush came to an agreement with Sharon that in any future peace deal, the major settlement blocs in the West Bank would remain in Israeli hands. Of course, this agreement was never discussed with the Palestinians themselves.
Today, the situation has changed little. It is a given in Israel that no major deal can be made in the buildup to a presidential election in the United States, and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert may soon be indicted for corruption. Gaza is under siege, the West Bank is strangled, and Fatah and Hamas, the two major players on the Palestinian side, are at each others throats.
Still, on the ground, some small victories are being won. After two and a half years of weekly protests in the West Bank village of Bili’in, often brutally dispersed with bullets and gas by the Israeli Army, the villagers and their allies, a group of Israeli anarchists and international activists, won a case in the Israeli High Court for a change in the route of the Israeli wall, which was originally to cut the village off from what little remained of their lands. Unfortunately, like so often happens, even this victory was accompanied by a defeat, as the High Court also ruled that an Israeli settlement that had already stolen much of Bili’in’s land could remain.
Today, in the West Bank and Gaza, 4 million Palestinians struggle for both survival and for a future with genuine self-determination. In the surrounding countries, millions more still live in refugee camps, 60 years after being kicked out of their homes by the founding of Israel, often abandoned by Arab states that claim to champion their cause.
On that depressing note, I’d like to open it up to any questions or comments from the audience.