The Boil on the Face of Mona Lisa
by Nick Pretzlik in the West Bank
May 13, 2004

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Two weeks ago, 176 dunums of land (176,000 square meters) were stolen from the beautiful hilltop village of Beit Jalla, whose terraced fields, pristine monasteries and pretty winding streets run up to the municipal boundaries of Bethlehem. Five thousand olive trees, together with orchards of apricots and apples, have been confiscated -- trees which provided a livelihood for generations of Beit Jalla families. No compensation has been offered. An Israeli military order was issued and the land has been requisitioned to accommodate the next phase of the apartheid wall soon to encircle the Bethlehem area. The order is final.

Beit Jalla is no different to hundreds of villages across the West Bank, which have lost their land to the wall. It is just the most recent community to be notified of its fate. And in Beit Jalla today only the villagers can be heard crying out in despair. No other voices are raised in support -- not even the Christian church, whose birthplace is just one kilometre away.

We should not be surprised. Events, which in other corners of the globe cause a furore, here in the Holy Land barely raise an eyebrow. They appear as a faint smudge of concern on the world's moral radar. Abuse and torture of Palestinians in Israeli gaols has been common practice for years -- the hooding of prisoners in multiple layers of filthy sacks, brutal beatings, violent shaking, forced stripping, sleep deprivation and sexual abuse are standard procedures, as is the Shabh technique -- seating a prisoner on a small chair with his hands tied behind his back for days. All of these techniques are at the gentler end of the spectrum of the methods employed by prison authorities. Indefinite imprisonment of Palestinians without charge and without the involvement of lawyers is also the norm. Often families are not informed of loved ones' whereabouts. And worse still, as Talab al-Sanai -- a Israeli Knesset member -- recently stated, Israel is indirectly and heavily involved in "the systematic mistreatment of Iraqi people at the hands of American occupation troops". Given the news flowing from Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison, one might have thought that such a pronouncement would merit a few column inches in the pressrooms of The Land of the Free. But it did not get a mention. Why? Because Israel is one of us and Palestine is not. In the words of Naom Chomsky "terrorism is what others do to us and not what we do to them".

The Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation has been morphed into a terrorist activity. The abuser has become the abused and Palestinians are beyond the Pale. Inexorably this land of ancient wells and springs of sparkling water, terraced hillsides and lush fertile valleys, this land of olive and almond trees, thyme and sage, robust tradition and sturdy culture is being submerged under a carapace of Israeli concrete and asphalt and a sea of red roofed houses - houses which would not look out of place in dreary suburban developments across Britain or the North America. Palestine is being ruined in front of our eyes, its people subjected to daily abuse and humiliation, only symbolic fingers of objection are raised by the international community. All this because the West identifies with Israel.

Yesterday in the heart of the Old City of Hebron -- one of the most ancient cities in the world and home of Abraham's tomb (sacred to Muslims and Jews as well as Christians) I was detained for photographing a hideous, concrete, military 'pillbox' standing at the centre of an intersection of alleyways in one the prettiest areas of the town. I was quickly spotted by heavily armed soldiers and told that I was endangering their lives, that a terrorist could make use of my pictures. They refused to accept the explanation that the impulse for snapping a photograph was that of a tourist outraged by the ugliness of the structure, and that the insensitivity of erecting a pillbox there was akin to painting a boil on the face of Mona Lisa.

My explanation neither convinced the soldiers nor did they welcome it and the Border Police were summoned by radio. The Border Police is an unpleasant, para-military organization, which has the power to arrest - a power not possessed by the army. In the end however, after interminable delays, they were diverted elsewhere, and eventually the soldiers bored of my presence. I was allowed to continue with my day.

One of the paradoxes of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is that Palestinians have a better understanding of Israeli-Jews than Israeli-Jews have of Palestinians. The converse would be preferable. For decades, the Jewish population of Israel has absorbed the misinformation and exaggerated threats of danger fed to them by their leaders -- a process designed to enable the state to behave in a manner towards the perceived threat that the population would otherwise find unacceptable. This process, of course, increases the danger and the monster envisaged by the authorities is duly created. Israeli-Jews are now prisoners of excessive anxiety and fear, and - for the majority - Palestinians are devils. The Palestinians, by contrast, see the Israeli-Jews for what they are. They have an understanding of recent Jewish history and a sneaking admiration for Jewish ability and expertise. As a consequence, most Palestinians would be more willing to compromise and live peacefully alongside the Israeli-Jews in a just and equitable society than would the Israeli-Jews. Israeli-Jews - partly because of their paranoia -- find it impossible to relinquish control and, to the detriment of both sides, possess the power to maintain the status quo. This mindset is reinforced by feelings of superiority and the ingrained concept that the Land of Israel is Their Land -- a concept which conflicts with the best interests of the State of Israel and is both a messianic and a nationalistic entity. It carries a great deal of clout, not just amongst the people who live in the state of Israel, but also amongst the Jewish Diaspora.

In spite of decades of Israeli aggression, brutality, occupation and oppression - and with little external support -- Palestinian society continues to weather the storm. It remains intact. Given the lack of a police force in Palestinian areas, there is a remarkable absence of crime. The family unit remains strong and communities continue to function. Malnourished, impoverished and battered though they are, Palestinians still hold their heads high. They love their land with a passion and maintain traditional values. Even in these desperate circumstances, visitors continue to be made welcome and the necessities of life are shared with relatives and neighbours. It is a miracle, a miracle, which the world has yet to notice. And maybe therein lies the rub. Fifty-six years of oppression, fifty-six years of attempted subjugation by the indiscriminate use of arrogant power and still the Palestinian spirit remains unbroken. That surely infuriates Israelis, whose own society is so devoid of internal cohesion.

Nick Pretzlik is a semi-retired businessman living in London, England. He travels frequently to the Middle East. He can be reached via his website: www.nickpretzlik.com.


Other Articles by Nick Pretzlik


* Israeli Myths
* Dangerous Times
* Redemption
* Just Another Day
* The Hour Before Dawn
* Jenin: A Town of Wasted Hopes
* Syrian Truths