Diplomats Pressser Middle East Peace August 2, 200
Transcripts from the Diplomats National Press Club Conference on Middle East Peace
August 2, 2004 12:00
Introduction by Sara Powell, Administrative and Public Relations director for the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.
In May, a number of retired diplomats and government officials signed a letter to President Bush advocating a change in U.S. foreign policy to be truly honest in our dealings with Palestine and Israel for the good of all concerned: Palestinians, Israelis, and Americans. As a result, the signers were invited by the Palestinian American Congress to visit the West Bank.
No joint statement has been issued by the delegation, but individual statements are in your press packets. Unfortunately, one member of the delegation, John Brady Kiesling-the first Foreign Service Officer to resign from his position over the second Gulf war, the attack on Iraq-was not able to provide us with a statement, but his earlier remarks can be made available on request.
I am proud to say that my father was among the signers and would be here today if he could, and I am honored to introduce the members of the delegation. Please welcome Ambassador Andrew Killgore, former Ambassador to Qatar and Publisher of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.
REMARKS BY AMBASSADOR ANDREW I. KILLGORE
On May 4, we held a press conference here at the National Press Club to discuss a letter sent to President George W. Bush by some 60 retired U.S. foreign service officers. The press club kindly opened up another room to accommodate the large number of reporters and cameramen who appeared to cover the event. The international press, particularly in Britain and the Arab world, pounced on the story-relieved, no doubt, to report on an American alternative to Bush's Mideast policy. We were disappointed, however, that, for the most part, the U.S mainstream media ignored the press conference and the opinions of career diplomats and experts critical of current U.S. foreign policy.
There are now almost 90 signatures on that letter urging the president "to reassert American principles of justice and fairness in our relations with all the peoples in the Middle East." The letter, initiated by myself, publisher of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs and former U.S. ambassador to Qatar, and Washington Report executive editor Richard Curtiss, former chief inspector of the U.S. Information Agency, was prompted by President Bush's April 14 endorsement of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's unilateral "disengagement plan."
Through his endorsement, Bush closed the door to negotiations with Palestinians and the possibility of a Palestinian state. His acceptance of the Israeli prime minister's unilateral plan to reject the rights of three million Palestinians, to deny the right of refugees to return to their homeland, and to retain five large illegal settlement blocs in the occupied West Bank astounded the world.
Our letter was signed by retired U.S. diplomats-Republicans and Democrats alike-who care deeply about their country and its foreign policy. It was faxed and express mailed to the White House on May 19, along with a request for a meeting. We received no response. At the beginning of June we sent another request for a meeting, and on June 22 we sent a similar letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell. We have yet to receive an reply, either from the White House or the State Department.
Palestinians both here in the United States and in the occupied territories did respond to our letter, however. The Palestinian American Congress invited a delegation of diplomats and journalists from the Washington Report to visit Palestine and President Yasser Arafat, who remains isolated and besieged in his Ramallah compound. Palestinian representatives from Washington, DC and Ramallah organized a weeklong action-packed trip to the West Bank from July 16 to July 23. The Gaza portion was canceled due to the unstable situation which developed after we arrived. We thank Palestinian Americans Said Hamad and Nabil Zneid of the PLO office in Washington, DC for showing us sights we'll never forget.
Yesterday another American soldier was killed in Iraq, bringing the total to 910 U.S. soldiers killed since March 2003. Also yesterday, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge announced new threats from al-Qaeda on financial institutions in New York City and here in Washington, DC. And, finally, the Israeli newspaper Ma'ariv reported yesterday on Israeli plans to build an additional 600 homes in the West Bank settlement of Ma'ale Adumim, increasing its population by an estimated 2,000, or some 7 percent.
These events are not unrelated. Until there is a fair and just solution to the 56-year-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we submit, Israelis, Palestinians and Americans-not to mention Kenyans, Tanzanians, Spaniards and other victims of al-Qaeda terrorist attacks-will continue to die. We urgently request our government to go beyond the recommendations of the 9/11 commission, which gave scant attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and address the root cause of the problems our country and the world face today.
STATEMENT BY AMBASSADOR EDWARD L. PECK
In May, over 80 former American diplomats wrote President George W. Bush to express their firm belief that his agreement with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was not in the best interests of the U.S., or Israel, or the Palestinians. A delegation of those who signed the letter recently spent a week in the West Bank, at the invitation of the Palestinian American Congress.
All the participants have extensive experience living in and working on the Middle East, and considerable familiarity with the issues generated by 37 years of occupation. Nonetheless, it was a shock to see the extent of land seizures, tight travel restrictions and endless humiliation which the Palestinians are forced to endure. In addition to violating every principle defining democracy, human rights and the rule of law, Israel's policies, strongly supported by the administration, sharply undercut the two-state solution which has been the basis of all reasonable efforts to resolve the problem, and permit all the inhabitants of the region to exist in peace and security.
Delegates had many opportunities to observe portions of the wall, planned to enclose the entire Palestinian population in the world's largest outdoor prisons, and the shattering effect it has already had on people's lives. They also passed through, or were turned back from, several of the many checkpoints which seriously impede commerce as well as everyday existence. The delegation met with Palestinian citizens, educational, religious and municipal government officials, a U.S. consular officer and a member of the Knesset, and senior members of the Palestinian Authority, including President Yasser Arafat.
It was an extremely chilling, deeply disturbing visit, made more compelling by the realization that even Americans reasonably confident of their knowledge of the situation have no idea of the grim, threatening reality of what is happening-and the inevitable results.
Statement by Delinda Hanley (News Editor from the Washington Report Magazine
Remarks To Accompany 21 Photos blown up to poster size by Michael Keating
From July 16 to July 23, we met with numerous Palestinian political leaders, religious figures, lawyers, journalists, professors, students, farmers and others, and toured the West Bank seeing first-hand the devastation caused by Israel's wall, land confiscation, and harsh occupation. We also met with a staff member from the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem for an off-the-record discussion that seemed to focus on Palestinian failures and corruption, ignoring Israel's illegal occupation and corruption. We met with an American NGO representative who astounded us with tales of trying to deliver food to beleaguered Palestinians, and another who is helping them produce their own American-style soap operas.
We tried to meet with Israelis, including a rabbi, a refusenik and others working for peace. We did meet with Israeli Knesset member Azmi Bishara. Due to horrendous communication and travel difficulties that both Americans and Palestinians living in the occupied territories take in their stride, our only face-to-face discussions with other Israelis were with soldiers and settlers, and an Israeli peace activist who monitors border crossings. But we probably met a greater number of Israelis than Americans meet Palestinians on Israeli-sponsored trips.
We asked our hosts to show us Israel's new separation barrier. We discovered that the wall does not separate Israelis from Palestinians. The settlers and soldiers are often on the Palestinian side of the wall. Instead the wall separates Palestinians from other Palestinians, and makes every Palestinian town a jail. Within 5 minutes Israel can cage an entire city. The wall will directly affect more than 500,000 Palestinians.
On July 18 we visited the town of Qalqilya, north of Ramallah. Israel's new wall has surrounded the town and cut it off from the rest of the West Bank as well as Israel. We wandered around fruit stands in the central marketplace with few other customers. These boys hammed it up for the cameras. Everyone asked where we were from-and welcomed us.
Israelis are now forbidden by their government to shop for produce, get haircuts or fix their cars in Qalqilya as they used to. Israel has posted signs saying it is forbidden to even enter Qalqilya. This town will not survive without trade from Israel, and is already dying.
Israel is also cordoning off Qalqilya's fields from its farmers. Farmers can visit their fields outside the wall only when Israeli soldiers open the gates. They open these gates erratically and subject to whim. This farmer, accompanied by his son, clutches his pass to show the soldier-who, today, lets them go to work in their field.
Our guide, who is afraid to let us use her name for fear Israelis will not renew her permit to stay in the West Bank, introduced us to Atta Atta, who until two weeks before this photo had an ornamental plant business with greenhouses on a couple of dozen acres on the edge of Qalqilya. In one night he lost a half-million dollar business he'd worked 14 years to build. His family first lost land in 1948. For 35 years he worked to buy this land, only to see it taken again. He has no way now to support his six daughters and four sons.
Israeli bulldozers destroyed a number of his greenhouses and cut off access to the rest when they built the wall. The water wells are on the Israeli side of the wall. Strings of razor accordion wire and barriers separated Mr. Atta from his land. "You know who owns the land you're standing on?" he asked a soldier who told us to step away from the wall. "I do. It's my land." The soldier turned away. Atta told us, "They don't want the people. Only the land. Every child knows this!"
Next we met Jalal Zaid, a poultry farmer whose chickens are on the wrong side of the wall. When the wall first was built he was not allowed to not pass through, and more than 15,000 chickens starved to death. Finally he obtained a permit, which is now about to expire. He's afraid officials won't renew it because they are now saying the area may be off limits because it is near a new military road. Only landowners can get permits, and only sometimes, Zaid said. His 40 workers do not have land registry papers, so they are not entitled to receive a permit to work in his chicken houses, with the new chickens he took out loans to pay for. The gate opens three times a day, depending on the mood of the soldiers. Egg production has fallen from 1,500 cartons a day to 900.
We met a third farmer, Sharif Omar, whose 40 acres of cultivated farmland in Jayyous is surrounded by settlements. Sometimes 30 families slept in their fields in order to protect them from marauding settlers. Omar has put seven children through college by farming this land and harvesting his fruit trees. The Israelis tried to confiscate his land and water wells in1996, but Omar took his case to court and won five years later. Now rumor has it that the Israeli military has designated his land as a closed military zone. They'd placed military signs around his orchards.
As we waited for Omar to join us, our photographer Michael Keating took some photos of the mysterious signs with some kind of military code that have been placed on Omar's land. Suddenly a settler appeared and claimed to be Shin Bet-Israeli secret police-but who was probably just a settler vigilante, and asked what we were doing in a forbidden area. He told us to leave and not return until after 4 o'clock, for the area was closed now.
We drove away and found Omar, on his old tractor which he called his F-16. Omar didn't know anything about the settler and couldn't understand why we couldn't meet as planned in the coolness of his fruit grove. "This land is my paradise," Sherif said. "It's my Jerusalem. It's my Al-Quds." Some days this vibrant man can't get out of bed he's so depressed. Our guide didn't want to tell him her suspicions that his land may have been turned into a military firing range.
This is Israel's way to try to force Palestinians to leave. It's a quiet deportation. It's causing controlled despair and forcing some people past their limits.
There are 425 settlements in the West Bank, 125 legal and 300 illegal, according to Israel. According to international law, they're all illegal. Road signs advertise new homes for sale in expanding settlements with Old Testament names, offering the temptations of low down payments, as well as tax incentives and government subsidies. These temptations lure 10,000 new settlers a year into occupied territories. Israel has not evacuated a single settlement or outpost as required by the road map for peace. These settlements are foreclosing a two-state solution to the Israeli Palestinian conflict.
We visited Hebron University. President Dr. Khanfar and his professors asked us to tell Americans back home about their suffering under Israeli occupation. Hebron University was closed for 8 months last year. The university has been closed for a total of more than five years since it was established in 1971. They said they could never forget the massacre when Israelis killed three students and injured more than 50 others in July 1982.
A room full of professors and community leaders took the opportunity to tell Americans at long last, face-to-face, about their grievances. They told us that nothing Israel could do would prevent their determination to live. Of the 3.5 million Palestinians living under occupation, every family has had a family member arrested, wounded or killed. Israel's harsh occupation is creating anger against both Israel and the Palestinian Authority that is powerless to protect its people. According to the teachers, 64 percent of Palestinians are youths in school. They are our future, we were told. They will continue the peace process.
They asked us to remind Americans of our country's values of fairness, unbiased and even-handed justice. They said we could spread genuine peace all over the world if we used our power to help implement a peace agreement between Israel and Palestine. They asked us to speak out against the wall that is separating students from their schools. They said most of the people in the room don't want to destroy Israel, but one day if this keeps up, they will get fed up and no one can guess what will happen.
According to the director of education in Hebron, his beloved city is now a city of hatred in which 400 Israeli settlers living in the heart of town have ruined the lives of 550,000 Palestinians. Nearly 3,000 soldiers guard the settlers and have closed off the city center. A physician told us he is the only doctor who hasn't left town. Patients die waiting for ambulances that cannot get through checkpoints. There used to be more than 1,000 shops in Hebron. Most of those in the historic city center are closed now.
As we waited for nearly an hour to enter the old city, we watched ultra-Orthodox settlers stroll leisurely through the boarded up town. We were finally allowed past the razor sharp fence and told to follow a white jeep that led us through town to the Ibrahimi Mosque. As our bus full of white-haired diplomats passed a group of young ultra-Orthodox children, they yelled and gave us the finger.
We visited Al Quds University on July 20. We saw the wall, whose original route nearly cut through the university. It was rerouted to take only half of the university's athletic fields. More professors and community leaders gave us lectures. They asked why Americans believed their democratically elected President Arafat was the problem, and said, "We think he's the solution." They told us it was Palestinians who don't have a peace partner in Sharon.
They reminded us that our forefathers stood for democracy and freedom, yet our president supported occupation. They said Palestinians condemned the September 11 attacks against Americans. Why didn't we condemn Israel's attacks against Palestinians? Why did we help Israelis prevent Palestinians from praying in Jerusalem?
As we walked by Manal Ayyad's house in Abu Dis, she invited us inside her home, with its view of Jerusalem and the Dome of the Rock in the distance. Miss Ayyad is a student who attends Al Quds and lives in hell. She has a Jerusalem ID card, although her next-door-neighbors do not. They never had any problems with Israeli settlers who live nearby, but the wall and soldiers are making life impossible. She said she has problems going anywhere. The Israeli soldiers who have taken over a nearby hotel harass her and sometimes prevent her mother from visiting her sick grandmother. Their cameras overlook their garden so, she cannot even relax outside. Her uncle cannot visit her mother. She and her neighbors went to court to try to stop the wall from cutting across their neighborhood. "No one can stop Israelis," she said told us.
The next day, July 21, we visited the little town of Bethlehem, dying without its tourist industry. Bethlehem is another big prison surrounded by settlements and the Israeli wall. Bethlehem belongs to Christians all over the world, Mayor Hana Nassar told us. As Muslims have a duty to visit their holy places, Christians should visit Jesus' birthplace, he said. The wall is preventing Christians from coming, and the main road into town has been closed because it passes Rachel's Tomb. Even the mayor is sometimes told by an 18-year-old Israeli soldier that he cannot come and go from Bethlehem.
Mayor Nassar recalled the siege of the Church of Nativity, saying it was a miracle that it didn't burn down after Israeli soldiers threw flares in the sky. Nassar said they were all living on their nerves. Nassar, who is Christian, said he was furious that Christians in the United States were backing Israel's occupation of the Holy Land. He noted that President Bush seems to have forgotten his vision for peace in the region. He said he was waiting for a new vision from another president. The Old Testament had a lot of visions, he said, but this time he was hoping for a vision to become a reality.
We visited Jenin, where what what the Palestinians call ground zero is now beginning to return to normal. The United Arab Emirates' Sheikh Zayed is paying to rebuild the homes Israel demolished in its deadly April 2002 invasion. This man tried to help a handicapped man in a wheelchair evacuate his home-but he couldn't get him out before Israelis bulldozed the home with him inside. This is also where the British UN worker Ian Hook was shot by an Israeli soldier on the UN compound when they first started rebuilding Jenin.
Architect Hidaya Nafmi said her home was taken over by Israeli snipers. Her two children are always frightened and have problems sleeping. Her daughter almost died during the siege. She said it's hard to teach children not to hate and not to fear. Like every mother, she explained, she wants her children to live a peaceful life.
We visited President Yasir Arafat in his Ramallah headquarters, which is nearly destroyed. There are no photos of the still spry and charismatic leader on his walls. Instead there is a portrait of International Solidarity Movement volunteers Rachel Corey and Tom Hurndell, killed by Israeli soldiers. Despite an internal upheaval in his government, Arafat took the time to meet with us for two hours and give us lunch. "We are in need of friends," he told us. Arafat has met with every U.S. President except for Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. He met with Bill Clinton 23 times. He still hopes that the American people will help both Palestinians and Israelis achieve the peace of the brave in the Land of Peace. The Holy Land is not for just Israelis or Palestinians, he said, but for the whole world.
Arafat said he and the entire Arab world have accepted the Saudi Arabian Initiative and the Road Map for Peace. It's Sharon who had 14 reservations and now is insisting on his own road map. Now neither Israel nor the United States speaks to Arafat. Arafat leapt to his feet to show us a Christmas candle from the church where President Bush prays.
"You Americans made peace in South Africa. You made a miracle at the Madrid Conference. We gave up 22 percent of our land. You helped Rabin and me sign a peace of the brave. Why are you hesitating today? Why are you supporting this Berlin Wall that is confiscating 58 percent of that 22 percent of our land? It's unbelievable!" the Palestinian leader exclaimed.
"Israel is destroying refugee camps, housing, schools, hospitals, this building around me, our entire infrastructure. Israel is taking not just our land, but our 82 percent of our water and then selling it back to us. Can you believe it? Christians and Muslims alike can't go to Jerusalem to pray." Arafat listed the Christian and Muslim holy places that have been damaged or destroyed by Israel. He said Sharon is looking to transfer Palestinians out of the West Bank and Gaza.
Two weeks ago, Arafat said, he offered his hand to Israelis to make a peace of the brave, and got a good response from Arabs and Israeli peace groups. He said he is ready to hold elections. He asked President Bush to help solve the conflict in Israel and Palestine. Everything else in the Middle East would fall into place from there, he explained.
Statement Also By Delinda Hanley
I'm the daughter of a diplomat, Richard Curtiss, co-founder of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs Magazine. I'm also a former Peace Corps volunteer, who spent decades living in the Middle East, and I'm now the news editor of the Washington Report.
I saw the horror of the wall, the humiliation at the checkpoints and the senselessness of the settlements and the occupation.
I cannot understand why the country I love is supporting all of this. I ask President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry to change their Middle East foreign policy. It's making it very hard for Americans like me to travel, and it is even bringing danger to Americans at home.
Please help us go back to the negotiating table and become an evenhanded peace broker.
Tell Prime Minister Sharon to end this occupation, and tear down this wall.
If he ignores your words as well as the hopes of every peace-loving Jew, Muslim and Christian voter in this country, end U.S. aid to Israel and spend that $3 billion plus dollars a year at home.
The world is watching this election and waiting for a vision for peace in the region. I'm kind of hoping for a Road to Damascus conversion for both candidates. It's high time for a miracle in the Holy Land.
I challenge every journalist, politician, teacher, religious leader and average American citizen in the audience to visit the occupied territories, talk with Palestinians, and see what Israel is doing to its neighbor with our support. Find out the facts for yourself.
I ask every European and Arab in the audience to give this country another chance. Once everyday Americans find out what is happening to average Palestinians, real people trying to make it through the day, like themselves, they'll stop supporting this occupation.
STATEMENT BY AMBASSADOR CARLETON S. COON
I had been generally aware that the settlements and the new wall were having a serious impact on the Palestinians who live in the West Bank, but this visit showed me, in vivid detail, that the situation is far more grave than I had realized.
The 700 checkpoints, the network of modern roads ordinary Palestinians are not allowed to use, the settlements themselves, and now the wall, are confining most Palestinians into small enclaves. It isn't just that they have lost much of their best farmland, The fact that they can no longer circulate within their own territory makes it almost impossible for Palestinians to operate a normal economy, to run a functioning government, to manage a modern educational system, indeed to function as a coherent society. This is a new situation and it is rapidly getting worse as the Sharon administration races to complete the wall and expand the settlements, operating as far as we can tell against some deadline (next November?)
I have been persuaded by what I have seen that when presented with options as to how best to enhance security against suicide bombers, the Sharon administration regularly selects the option most damaging to the fabric and integrity of Palestinian society. But is this in Israel's long-term interest? Will the end result not be a dismembered and fragmented conquered population, forced into ghettos, which will become breeding grounds for future terrorists? If so, I submit that Israel is shooting itself in the foot with its present policies. It is guaranteeing that its terrorist problem will last for another generation, or even longer.
And our government is shooting us in the foot as well, with its supine agreement to anything Sharon wants. The USA is accessory to a cruel and malicious program in the West Bank, and if we do not change, we will also be targets of future terrorists for another generation or more.
REMARKS BY AMBASSADOR COON
The first impression I got on this trip, was that Palestine was more of a functioning modern state than I thought, with an infrastucture and government in place. We were told that it was receiving a lot of financial aid from the European Union, and from Arab countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, and that prior to the second intifada, the economy had been growing at a rate of 9 percent. What I saw led me to believe that Sharon and his followers took the intifada as a signal to destroy the economy, the state, and the society, and that he chose the most destructive way every time.
The ghettoization that has divided the land into tiny fenced enclaves has destroyed the economy. You can't run commerce, you can't run a university, you can't run a government under these conditions-if goods can't get from place to place, and government ministers can't get to a meeting.
The wall is not just a land grab, not just security, but the final nail in the coffin of Palestinian society.
The 3.5 million people in that small area might be workable with lots of aid and goodwill from the outside, and they have that, but not if it is broken up into tiny separate units. The people who can, get out. The people who can't, stay as Delinda said, they-the Israelis-just want the land, not the people, as every kid knows.
Those kids could grow up to be terrorists.
I maintain that Sharon is killing Israel, and I further maintain that the U.S. is shooting itself in the foot, and that Sharon is carrying out the cruel and malicious destruction of the Palestinian entity.
I'd like to add that yes, this is a one-sided view, but it is the other side, the side never seen because the one-sided U.S. media does not tell it.
Remarks by Eugene Bird, Former Foreign Service Officer and President, Council for the National Interest
The West Bank is as dismal as everything that has been described here. You can't expect Arafat to be a partner in peace alone. Sometimes, as our group of white haired American diplomats went along, we were refused passage at checkpoints. Then we circled around to another, where we might be refused again, then to another where finally we would sometimes get through. And we were privileged, not like ordinary Palestinians, and we were just there temporarily. We did not have to live with it every day.
I remember what was told me by a woman my wife brought on a tour to tell Americans here about life there, just to live and let live, and it is the best common sense way to deal with the situation.
When Andy and I were there 50 years ago, there were few checkpoints and no fence, but there were very few Palestinians going into Israel. The wall is a graffiti board. As a result of Oslo, Israel gained the recognition of 68 countries who before had not recognized Israel. They gained much more than Palestine.
Israel is destroying itself. In three major Zogby polls, over 50 percent of Americans said we should recognize a Palestinian state now, over 50 percent said we should hold Israel accountable in the same way we are holding Syria accountable, and over 50 percent said that the John Kerry and John Edwards ticket should come out with a strong statement changing our relations with Israel, along the lines of the Crown Prince Abdullah plan.
We are playing Israel's game in the Middle East and it won't lead us to solutions for Iraq, or terrorism. The Kerry statement that we should reduce troops in Iraq over the next four years is inadequate. It's like Sharon saying he would withdraw from Gaza, then not doing so. We are the Israel, the occupiers, of Iraq.
There is a story that a Palestinian official was talking with a group of Israel-favoring Congressmen, who told the Palestinian that they would help with elections if the Palestinian could assure them that Arafat would not run. The Palestinian official said maybe we can do that if you can assure us that George Bush will not run.
I was talking to a young movie producer who spent time in Tel Aviv, and he said there was a young woman in a nightclub there who said, "We spent 2,000 years in the diaspora, now it is the Palestinians' turn." You heard about the settlers who gave us the finger, another settler said, "I hate Americans." It was totally out of context. It leads to a strong question of what America might do to stop the Israeli attempt to take it all.
But still, Palestinians are building, doing incredible things. I was told that Ramallah was the New York of Palestine, and asked what is the Washington, DC. I did not really get an answer except for a few murmurings of East Jerusalem.
I spoke to a prisoner who had spent seven years in an Israeli jail, been tortured there. I've talked to a number of prisoners who have been tortured. They all have the same look in their eyes, a far away look as they tell you, and he had that look of being far away while talking of his experience. But at the end he said something which surprised me. He said, "I am not pessimistic."
Remarks by Richard H. Curtiss, Former Chief Inspector, USIA and Executive Editor, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs
A Group of Americans Visit Palestine
A group of 9 Americans were invited to participate in a one-week tour of the Palestinian West Bank which ranged from Hebron in the south to Jenin in the north and included Ramallah, the provisional capital of the state of Palestine. The trip of course included Jerusalem and Bethlehem and a lunch with President Yasser Arafat at his Ramallah headquarters.
Members of the group included three retired U.S. ambassadors, Carlton Coon, Andrew Killgore and Edward Peck. The others included Eugene Bird of the Council for the National Interest, and members of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs Richard Curtiss, Janet McMahon and Delinda Hanley. Also included were J. Brady Kiesling who resigned from the U.S. Foreign Service in protest against President Bush's foreign policy and volunteer photographer Michael Keating. Arrangements for the group were provided by the Palestinian American Congress, U.S. citizens of Palestinian origin. All members of the group had visited Palestine at least once before and some, particularly the Foreign Service officers, had been there several times previously.
Conditions were not safe for a planned visit to Gaza at the time of the visit. Some of the travelers had been in Gaza previously. The group saw the dramatic deterioration of living conditions in the places they did see.
The most startling development was the separation wall, or apartheid wall, which was actually under way in many parts of the West Bank. Farmers whose homes have been separated from their orchards and fields were forced to wait for a gate to open once or twice a day. The same problem was encountered by schoolchildren who sometimes missed the brief intervals and then had to travel either at circuitous routes or had to stay for a night with friends or relatives. Situations, ranging from medical appointments to emergency needs such as childbirth, gunshot wounds or other unanticipated ills were simply not dealt with when the apartheid wall was closed. There seemed to be no exceptions of any kind. People have died for lack of emergency medical attention.
Even as members of the group traveled from one place to another there were unanticipated stops. In one case a settler suddenly appeared and eventually forced us to halt and go back with no explanation and for no apparent reason. He was carrying a gun and threatened to use it if we continued. In other places flying roadblocks appeared when Israeli soldiers suddenly halted traffic.
From the day the group arrived Israeli soldiers stopped us. The driver was told to turn around so he took a more circuitous route to another checkpoint where the group was allowed to pass. This happened again the next day but subsequently the group was allowed to pass.
This happened so regularly that it was clear this was routine harassment designed to make life intolerable for all the residents of the West Bank. Sometimes Israeli soldiers created long delays for no discernible reasons. Other times the soldiers would wave people on with virtually no interruptions. The randomness and unpredictability seemed to follow no pattern.
Therefore when people arrived for events and meetings, they were sometimes on time and other times were delayed. The people on the West Bank adapt accordingly. There are 700 checkpoints in the very small area of the West Bank and Gaza, not including flying (unexpected) checkpoints
When the Israelis have torn down buildings they generally insist on leaving the damage untouched and have warned people against cleaning up. Everywhere there was extraordinary property damage.
On one occasion a checkpoint had closed early, leaving travelers stranded. The bus had to go travel to a more distant checkpoint to get back to our hotel. Two other times the bus stopped at a checkpoint and we walked across a so-called no-man's-land to take taxis to get back to our hotel. It was then that we realized that there was no nighttime illumination to help the travelers make their way in the dark. This writer, who is physically impaired as a result of two strokes and a heart attack, had to be helped by other members of the group, while stumbling through bricks, boulders and collapsed walls.
In the dark we could see people in even worse predicaments than any members of our group. They included babies and toddlers and old men and women barely able to walk. It was very clear that the hundreds of people passing in the darkness were accustomed to this extraordinary level of daily hardship.
All members of the group have their own stories. But the common denominator is cruelty, extraordinary cruelty committed daily with apparent malice. What is particularly frustrating is that none of this would be necessary if the Israelis would abide by international agreements.
The Israelis are quite free to do whatever they want on their own side of the separation wall. The Arab states, and particularly the Arab states all around Israel, already have agreed that if Israel abides by international agreements, the Arab states around Israel would enter into diplomatic relations with Israel without any hindrance whatsoever.
Israel's insistence on taking more Arab land is an attempt to keep from solving the problems and leaves the suspicion that the Israeli government wants to keep everything and does not want the two-state solution and that possibly the Israelis hope to eliminate all Palestinians by whatever means possible.
The group originally was scheduled to have one final day for any side trips they might do on their own. However, a Palestinian contractor working for a United Arab Emirates building project offered a visit to Jenin, the most distant part of the West Bank, in United Nations vehicles. Diplomatic vehicles can also be used for the "Israel Only" roads. As a result, this trip was much faster for us than it would have been for Palestinians who are not permitted to use some Israeli roads.
In the major refugee camp in Jenin the Israelis had almost obliterated the market area. The government of the United Arab Emirates had agreed to clear the destroyed areas and help restore the partially damaged areas to make them livable again. The result is a newly-created Jenin. It has been done with remarkable speed and with virtually no publicity.
With the exception of some western European countries, participants on the visit learned that in addition to the U.A.E., only Saudi Arabia routinely provides significant budgetary assistance to the Palestinian Authority. This is a major source of income, given the refusal of the Israeli authorities to turn over tax money owed to the Palestinians. This annual Saudi subsidy has remained constant for a long period of time.
STATEMENT BY JANET MCMAHON, MANAGING EDITOR, WASHINGTON REPORT ON MIDDLE EAST AFFAIRS
As others have noted, the members of our delegation all were experienced in matters of the Middle East and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We were thus all the MORE shocked to discover how shocking the reality of daily life in fact is for every Palestinian we met.
Because we traveled in a small van with a yellow Israeli license plate, we were able to travel on roads barred to Palestinians whose cars had blue or green license plates. Nevertheless, we, too, had to pass through Israeli checkpoints in order to enter or leave Ramallah, Bethlehem, Hebron, or any other West Bank town where we had appointments. Sometimes we were allowed through, at other times soldiers turned us back without explanation.
On one occasion, our vehicle was turned back because one of our guides, an American citizen who was born in Hebron, had a Palestinian identity card. In fact, Israeli officials had marked his U.S. passport to indicate his Palestinian origin. Would our government allow a foreign government to similarly identify Jewish Americans in order to prevent them from traveling freely in its country?
We also met with a Greek Orthodox clergyman who was not allowed to travel to Bethlehem because he did not have the proper identity card. A journalist with a Jerusalem ID was forbidden from living with his wife, who had a West Bank ID and thus was forbidden from entering Jerusalem.
In addition to the many stories we heard, what struck me was the urgency of the situation. Palestinians are in crisis, and many have reached the end of their rope. Their society is disintegrating around them, and parents are worried that their children will grow up hating-but they feel helpless to provide an alternative.
As Americans, we knew that our tax dollars were making these Israeli policies possible. Even though our country did not fund South Africa's apartheid government, Americans universally opposed its racist policies. Today Americans are funding Israeli racism whether they like it or not. It's critical that Americans learn how their tax dollars are being used--for not only are they being used in ways that are diametrically opposed to everything this country stands for, but they are killing Palestinians, Israelis and Americans alike at an ever-increasing rate.
Stay tuned for the Diplomats' next move...Which will most likely be a press conference in front of the State Department.
The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, PO Box 53062, Washington DC 20009. Phone: (202) 939-6050, Fax: (202) 265-4574, Toll Free: (800) 368-5788, www.wrmea.com Published by the American Educational Trust, a non-profit foundation incorporated in Washington, DC to provide the American public with balanced and accurate information concerning U.S. relations with Middle Eastern states. Material from the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs may be printed with out charge with attribution to the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. Subscribe Info ( http://www.mediausa.net/wrmea/subscribe.html)