Magazine article New Internationalist

These Prison Walls. Stephanie Nolen Meditates on a Year of Promise and Pain for Palestinians

Magazine article New Internationalist

These Prison Walls. Stephanie Nolen Meditates on a Year of Promise and Pain for Palestinians

Article excerpt

These prison walls

Stephanie Nolen meditates on a year of promise and pain for Palestinians.

A year ago I stood outside Ramallah Prison, part of a jubilant crowd. The Israeli Army had just pulled its troops out of the city after more than 28 years of military occupation, and jeeploads of grinning young Palestinian police had poured in.

I was swept along with the crowd into the prison. It was the elderly women who rushed forward and tore down the walls, wrenching open the gates where day after day they had come to plead for word of sons and husbands arrested in the night. Inside, fathers were taking their children on a macabre trip down memory lane, to see the cells where they had lived for years. I watched, stunned at this testimony to human resilience, as the men wandered between cells now thrown open, reminding one another of a particularly kind Israeli soldier or an especially nasty form of torture. Misunderstanding my confusion, one young man stepped forward obligingly to show me how the manacles held you just above the floor.

Everyone knew, that night, that the Israelis had only withdrawn to the edges of Ramallah and four other West Bank cities and that, if we looked hard, their guns were still visible in the surrounding hills. But just then, none of it mattered - the enemy had driven away and the long - illegal Palestinian flag flew above the hated prison. Three weeks later, the first Palestinian elections were held in the West Bank and Gaza. Yasser Arafat the outlaw revolutionary became President Arafat and a legislature was elected. From a people who expect no better than to endure, there was cautious hope.

But the fruit, shiny and ripe in the bowl, has proved bitter to taste.

It started in February, while the euphoria of redeployment and elections was still vaguely tangible. Seeking to derail the peace process and swing the results of the Israeli national election, two groups of Palestinian Islamic militants carried out four suicide bombings inside Israel, killing a total of 59 Israelis. Immediately, Israel slapped a total closure on the Palestinian territories, separating all the West Bank towns and villages from each other, locking the population into Gaza, and keeping everyone out of Jerusalem.

With the movement of both goods and people frozen, the Palestinian economy reeled and started a steady decline that continues today. The closure - whichhas at times been eased but never lifted - costs the Palestinian economy six million dollars a day. Unemployment is now 60 per cent in Gaza and about 30 per cent in the West Bank. In November, the top UN body here found that the average income in the territories had declined by 23 per cent in the peace - process era, and that the average worker can now cover only 59 per cent of household needs with his or her wages. The UN placed the blame for the drop in living standards squarely on Israel's closure policy.

The Hamas bombing campaign had the predicted consequences: the right - wing Likud party won the Israeli elections, and defiant hardliner Binyamin Netanyahu was installed as Prime Minister. In the days after the elections, there was bravado on the streets of Ramallah. In coffee shops, the men told me: 'They are two sides of the same coin, Netanyahu or Shimon Peres.' Any Israeli government had the same agenda for expansion onto Palestinian land, they said; recalling Menachem Begin and Egypt, Palestinians speculated that a strong Likud government might be brave enough to make a real peace. …

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