Sunday, July 27, 2008

Phyllis Bennis writes from the West Bank

Phyllis Bennis writes from the West Bank

The End of History: With a Period, Not a Question Mark

Letter from Abu Dis, Occupied West Bank

By Phyllis Bennis

The Nation - July 22, 2008

Beginning around 100 BC, the fabled Silk Road brought

goods and travelers from China and Central Asia ,

through the lands of Persia and Mesopotamia , and over

to Palmyra in Syria . One branch of the road then turned

south, crossing through Bethany, the biblical village

on the outskirts of Jerusalem , as it headed west from

Jerusalem to Yoppa (today's Jaffa ) and the Mediterranean Sea .

Today the town of Bethany is known as Abu Dis. It is

still on the outskirts of Jerusalem . And the ancient

road is still there. Dusty and pothole-filled, it winds

through the center of the Palestinian town, with auto-

parts yards and small dingy shops selling vegetables

and furniture lining both sides. The road then comes to

an abrupt stop, blocked by the towering, graffiti-

covered cement slabs of Israel 's separation wall.

Today, the Silk Road stops in Abu Dis. The road no

longer goes through Jerusalem , and can no longer reach

the sea. That grimy, garbage-strewn dead end marks the

end of 2,202 years of history.

When Israel first occupied the Palestinian territories

in June 1967, Abu Dis was a small, crowded West Bank

town outside of Jerusalem . After the war, Israel

expanded the municipal borders, and soon expropriated

and annexed huge swathes of West Bank Palestinian land

into what quickly became known as "Greater Jerusalem ."

The heavily populated Palestinian areas were excluded

so Israel could insure a 70-30 percent Jewish majority

in the city. Most of Abu Dis remained outside.

The Palestinians had long insisted on their right to

establish the capital of their future state in Israeli-

occupied Arab East Jerusalem . In 2000, in the run-up to

the Camp David talks that year, then-Prime Minister

Ehud Barak held out what he appeared to believe was a

generous offer. Instead of a capital in Jerusalem ("al-

Quds" in Arabic), Israel would allow Yasir Arafat to

establish the Palestinian capital in Abu Dis. Barak

added, as if it were a gift, that Israel would allow

the Palestinians raising their flag over the fetid,

arid town to "call it al-Quds." It was as if, in

negotiations over New York City , one side offered

Newark, and said "we'll even let you call it New York ."

As the New York Times reported at the time, "Abu Dis

looks like a village and, with raw sewage flowing

roadside, it smells like a village. No Palestinian will

ever mistake Abu Dis for Jerusalem itself. If the

Israelis intend it as an alternative capital for the

Palestinians state, which is what Mr. Barak seemed to

be saying last week, Palestinians find this an insult,

a joke and a deal-breaker."

When Israel began construction of the separation wall

in 2002, one of the first sections was built in Abu

Dis. Not between Abu Dis and Jerusalem , but within Abu

Dis, dividing the town in two. Suddenly students and

teachers could not get to school, patients could not

get to clinics, no one could go to pray in the mosques

of Jerusalem . At first the wall was only eight feet

high; just where the road ends today was an unofficial

crossing point, where international television crews

filmed old women in thobes, or traditional embroidered

dresses, being half helped/half hoisted over and across

the wall. Today the wall in Abu Dis, as in all of the

cities of the West Bank where it snakes through

Palestinian land, is eight meters--twenty-four feet--

high, and no one climbs over.

In the overall scheme of Palestinian life under

occupation, things in Abu Dis could certainly be worse.

After all, unemployment across the West Bank is only 49

percent; in the besieged Gaza Strip it tops 79 percent.

After all, people in Abu Dis can still move around

inside their town (even if they can't cross the

municipal border into Jerusalem ), while the 5,000 or so

Palestinians of Ni'lin, near Ramallah, recently endured

four days and nights of closure and curfew imposed by

the Israeli military during nonviolent protests against

the separation wall. After all, most people in Abu Dis

can at least leave their town most of the time;

Qalqilya, a city of 40,000 in the northern West Bank,

has been completely encircled by the wall for several

years--surrounded, with only one gate.

It could be worse. But residents of Abu Dis were

prescient. The separation wall only began construction

in 2002. Two years before that, when Israel handed

official control of Abu Dis over to the Palestinian

Authority, the move "even raised fears among residents

that a border fence would be built to separate them

from Jerusalem , and that they and the Palestinian

people would be left with their noses pressed against

the slats--so close and so far away," as the Times put

it. "'We are today closer than ever to Jerusalem ,' said

Abdul Rahman al-Shamali, the muezzin who calls Muslims

to prayer at one of five mosques in the conservative,

religious town. 'But to be frank, I am sad. I fear that

it will end here. I fear that my heart is going to be

divided. Jerusalem is my heart.'"

They were right. The Palestinians of Abu Dis, or

Bethany, are no closer to Jerusalem, despite being able

to see al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock from

high points within their city.

And dusty, tired Abu Dis is the place where history at

last, at least the fabled Silk Road part of history, comes to its end.


[Phyllis Bennis is a fellow at the Institute for Policy

Studies. Her most recent books include Understanding

the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer and

Challenging Empire: How People, Governments and the UN

Defy U.S. Power, as well as the forthcoming

Understanding the US-Iran Crisis: A Primer (Interlink

Publishing --]

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