Deir Yassin Remembered

Israel: beyond hope


Lea Tsemel is an Israeli lawyer working in Jerusalem. This is an edited version of her talk on childhood and human rights at the Giorgio Cini Foundation in Venice.

MY PARENTS left Europe just before the Holocaust and they lost most of their family members in it. They came to that part of the world which today is called Israel, and used to be called Palestine, to promise me a better life and the security of a state of our own. After almost 60 years I cannot say that they succeeded; on the contrary. It seems that my parents and others who wanted to build the state of Israel did not understand that it is impossible to build a new future on the relics of oppression.

I've been defending Palestinians in Israeli courts for some 30 years and despite my efforts have still not succeeded in making judges, whether in military tribunals or the Supreme Court of Justice, understand this basic truth. The situation deteriorates and last year, as in all of the past 25 years, I took two or three steps backwards for every one forwards.

The well-known Israeli author David Grossman has written about the laundering of language by the Israeli occupation. "Occupation" became in Hebrew "release" or "salvation". "Colonising" became "peaceful settling". "Killing" became "targeting". The Palestinians responded to these euphemisms by radicalising their language. My clients used to come to my office in Jerusalem and talk about soldiers or settlers; today they talk about al-yahud - the Jews. "The Jews took my ID card", "the Jews hit me", "the Jews destroyed this or that". This terrifies me. If the state of Israel becomes identified with all the Jews in the world and all the Jews in the world are seen as soldiers and settlers, we need to be very careful.

A Palestinian child who today says al-yahud, meaning the Jews, meaning the people in uniform, will become a fanatic and develop a nationalist fanaticism alongside youthful religious fanaticism. But a similar, perhaps worse, religious fanaticism is emerging on the Jewish side. The young generation of Jews in Israel want to banish Arabs. We see Hebrew slogans on the walls of Israeli cities saying "Arabs out of the country" or "Death to the Arabs". We are reaching the stage where the Israeli government openly debates what to do with Yasser Arafat, the elected president of the Palestinians: shall we kill him? deport him? call for the election of another, more convenient president for Palestinians, weak enough to give us whatever we want?

The main victims of occupation and oppression are children. In Israel the old British Mandate laws, dating from before independence, are still in force. These are laws of oppression enabling any occupying power to impose collect ive punishments. Recently I lost a case. I had tried to prevent the destruction of the house of a young man, a Palestinian suicide bomber who had killed himself and eight others near a military camp outside Tel Aviv. According to British Mandate law, the home of the perpetrator of a terrorist attack should be destroyed. When I called the family to tell them I'd lost, the bomber's mother said: "I knew I had no hope. We have already evacuated the house."

Only rarely do we even have time to go to court in such cases. Demolitions usually punish not the offender but their family. Very often they are carried out without warning. " You have five minutes to get out of the house!" is all the time given. The demolishers smash everything - clothes, furniture. I often ask families what they grab in those five minutes and they answer "the children's school certificates first". Their optimism is wonderful.

The children of fighters, of "Palestinian terrorists", will be marked for life. Under the military occupation they will not be allowed to leave the country, to move cities, to study elsewhere. They cannot visit their parents in prison.

The latest punishment for "terrorist" families is to force them to move. Since the beginning of the latest intifada, there has been a total curfew in every Palestinian town and village in the occupied territories, while Israeli tanks enter and leave as they please. It is a sport for Palestinian children to climb hills, mountains and the fences and obstacles that Israel puts up to prevent the movements between villages and towns.

Now Sharon is building a fence - no, a wall - between Israel and Palestine. This fence is not a border; it does not run along the 1967 borders. It is a wall intended to establish apartheid between the Jewish and the Palestinian popu lations and to deprive the Palestinians of any small amount of arable land not already taken by Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, and to bring that land into the Israeli state.

Sometimes you see funny or touching scenes, mothers climbing concrete walls or fences. More often you hear sad stories, like that about the young Israeli soldiers who refused to allow through a Palestinian woman on her way to have a baby. The child died.

The oppression and the humiliation are heavy burdens. To see a doctor in a city hospital, a child from near Ramallah may have to walk hours with his father, only to encounter a roadblock. The father's culture has taught him that he should be a patriarch, and it seriously humiliates him in front of his son to have to beg and plead with soldiers to be let through. What kind of image of their parents do these children develop?

Then there is the murder of children. Recently a 10-year-old threw a stone at a soldier near a roadblock outside Jerusalem and was shot. A one-ton bomb dropped by an Israeli plane on Gaza City, the most densely populated town in the world, killed 16 children. Mohammad Dura, the child who died in his father's arms at the beginning of the intifada three years ago, is more than a symbol: he is an everyday reality.

Part of this huge tragedy stems from the simil arity between the Palestinians and the Israelis. A European friend said to me once, "I don't understand; everyone is so similar. How do the soldiers identify who is Arab and who is Jewish?" and I told him what I heard: "The soldier stares into the eyes of a person, and if they have Jewish eyes, they're bound to be an Arab."

The other day, on the border between East and West Jerusalem, I saw 150 older Palestinian men in a park. They were all from the West Bank and the police would not let them into the city -- either they didn't have permits or the police refused to recognise the permits they had. I went over, with my usual optimism, thinking I'm a woman, I'm white, I'm Jewish, I'm a lawyer, I can solve everything, and tried to talk to the soldiers and the police. The men just stood there quietly. They had been forced to take the batteries out of their mobile phones and ordered not to speak. I felt stupid. They had understood their situation much better than I had. They knew they would pay a price if they answered me; they knew already that my intervention was useless. The arbitrary powers of soldiers and policemen are much greater than any legal system I represent. I thought: how would Primo Levi have felt if he saw this moment when other people are being oppressed by Jews?

The former Israeli prime minister Golda Meir said she had nightmares because the Palestinians were multiplying so quickly: 20 years ago her remarks provoked a scandal. But on 29 August 2003 the Israeli Knesset passed a law: "In case of marriage between an Israeli and a Palestinian from the occupied territories, the spouse will not be allowed to come into Israel, and any child from such a marriage will not be listed in the Israeli register unless it is registered within a year of its birth." We are trying hard to fight this policy, which I can only call racist.

The Palestinian children, the fruit of this war, provide the suicide bombers. I represent those who failed to die and I know about those who died, so I speak with authority. They do not die for the 70 virgins promised them when they become shahid (martyrs) and they are not forced or brainwashed. These youngsters, from all sections of society, volunteer to die because of despair. They feel they have little to lose and perhaps glory to gain. It is terrible when a society produces children willing to die; it is terrible when our Jewish Israeli society produces, as has now been revealed, settlers who left a car packed with powerful explosives outside a Palestinian girls' school in Jerusalem. The police found it only by accident.

Killing children has become an obsession. From the last intifada until today 700 Palestinian and 100 Jewish children under 16 have died. In the past three years 382 Palestinian children have been killed by the army or settlers, and 79 Israeli children have died. It's a nightmare to be an Israeli child - afraid to go on the bus, to the market, to the shop. In every doorway there are guards who open your bags and search you.

The memory of the Holocaust -- "the world hates the Jews; we have always been victims" -- has blurred into the new Israeli victimology -- "we are victims because the Palestinians kill us". This comparison is unacceptable. It is not true. We were victims but now we victimise others. After 35 years of occupation, there is a second generation of settlers who invoke the Bible when they say "how can you uproot us from our homeland?" After 1967 a young generation of Israeli soldiers questioned what they were doing and asked do we have the right to conquer another people's land? Now there are hardly any questions. The 18-year-old soldiers are all tainted by the army: they have all stood at a roadblock, all knocked on the door of a house in the middle of the night and woken up the family to arrest someone. There is a small minority, slowly growing, who refuse to serve in the occupied territories. A small but increasing number of Israelis say they are unwilling to get involved.

Hope comes from heroic Palestinian parents who still, despite the occupation, do not bring their children up to hate, do not allow their children to see all Israelis as demons, who speak about differences of opinion between Israelis; those who teach the children to judge people according to what they do and not according to what they are or where they come from.

I would like to tell such Palestinian parents to be patient, be optimistic. Mutual recognition is possible -- we got the PLO recognised in the end. And today, unlike 35 years ago, there is a consensus all over the world that there will be a Palestinian state. Prepare the next generation because there is promise in the future.

I would like to remind Israeli parents fighting for peace that they have already won one war. Israeli mothers fighting in an organisation called The Four Mothers, after Biblical figures, helped to get the Israeli army withdrawn from Lebanon. Another organisation, Women in Black, has demonstrated against the occupation every week for 20 years. I tell them: they will win. Another group of women watch over roadblocks where atrocities have been committed. They say to soldiers and Palestinians: "We have no part in this racism; we are against it."

Nourit Peled, whose father was a general in the Israeli army, is a peace activist. Her teenage daughter died when a Palestinian youth blew himself up in Jerusalem. Choosing peace over hatred, Peled joined with other parents to set up an organisation bringing together Israeli and Palestinian victims of terror in support of anyone who fights for peace. When she received a Sakharov prize in the European Parliament in 2001, she gave a moving speech about Abraham, father of Isaac and Ismail (symbols of the two nations of Judaism and Islam). Abraham wanted to sacrifice Isaac to show God how much he trusted God, and God forbade him to do so; he provided a ram to sacrifice instead. She said: "We don't want our planet to become a realm of dead children. We have to raise our voices, the voices of mothers, and silence all other voices. We have to make everyone hear the voice of God saying to Abraham 'Lay not thy hand upon the child'."

Deir Yassin Remembered

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