Put to the test
3 September 2002
In the old city of Jerusalem, a Palestinian colleague showed me around beneath the pale winter sunshine. Our first problem was to decide which shrine to visit. Israeli police do not allow non-Muslims inside the mosque. Kids in uniform were instructing visitors to state their faith. They would then decide whether or not the visitors could go in. Souvenir stores advertised posters for sale next to the rebuilt temple that stands on the site of the Al-Aqsa mosque. In the name of history and religion, extremists on both sides justify the use of violence, foreseeing a world made free of their adversaries. The symbolic presence of the prophets in the midst of those ancient stones invites all of us, including foreigners visiting for a few days, to take sides - even if this means erasing from our minds the face of the adversary: his humanity, his rights, and his suffering. This may represent a dangerous prelude to an even more radical form of elimination: expulsion by violence.
The second stop on my visit was the Gaza Strip. My colleagues tried to explain to me the extraordinary geography of this small strip of land. Their words seemed to conceal a concern that I might not understand; that I might not be able to comprehend the injustice and the suffering caused by that geographical reality, to understand who was strong and who was weak; or see clearly which was the right side to take. Then, by way of demonstration, I was taken on a tour that included houses razed to the ground, ravaged strawberry fields, olive trees torn from the ground, blocked roads with figures moving like shadows, watchtowers, assault tanks, small military fortresses made of concrete.
Gaza is like a vast open-air detention center, watched, from land, sea and air, by war machines (planes, helicopters, armored cars, and boats) and their faceless pilots. My Palestinian hosts talked of the individual in the tank guarding the end of the road, of the missile seen wavering between two trajectories... The Israeli soldiers remained at a distance, protected by their armor plating. They do not speak, they just fire.
Sinister dialogue of the deaf
In the West Bank, too, the Palestinians are hemmed in. They cannot travel to Israel and it is extremely difficult to move from one town to another. For these Palestinians, too, the face of the enemy is a pitiless machine, which threatens their lives at every moment.
The hundreds of civilians killed since the beginning of this phase of the conflict offer confirmation that, as the desire to separate grows stronger, each side sees less of the other, and the death toll climbs higher.
Palestinians talked to me of their desperate weariness of being unable to decide their own destinies, and of having to suffer the decrees of the Israeli state. Work, transportation, shopping, security, medical care... everything depends on the will of the Israelis. An entire life composed of harassment imposed by a foreign army. How can they fail to rebel? What is the point of living such a life? Is it worth the trouble? Many ask themselves that question. Some answer no.
Strapping explosives to their bodies, they blow themselves up in public places, killing as many Israelis as possible, and thereby affirming their refusal to live a life that has become unlivable.
The calculations made by those who supply them with the explosives are decidedly more cynical.
In Israel, every daily act is accompanied by the fear of being the victim of an attack or of losing a close relative.
At any moment, terror can wreak havoc upon day-to-day life. Whenever I talked to my Israeli hosts about the reprehensible tactics of the Israeli army in the Territories, their first reaction was often to cite the suicide attacks.
The Palestinians justify such attacks on civilians by saying that there are no civilians in Israel, since every citizen, whether man or woman, had either already performed, would perform, or was performing his or her military or reserve service. It is like some sinister dialogue of the deaf, where a good reason is always found to justify the death of people who share no responsibility for the clashes (provided, of course, that they belong the opposite camp).
In this conflict, the victim mentality - victims of Palestinian terrorism or Israeli settlement policies, depending on which side is talking - occupies a central place in each side's war propaganda, so that two symbolic figures ultimately emerge: the eternal victim and the victim of the eternal victim.
For the relief worker, the victim is more than an individual encountered while providing medical care or relief.
Above all, and with an intensity rarely equaled within the context of other conflicts, the victim has become a symbolic figure, which allows people to forget, or even justify the kinds of violence that are contrary to the principle of humanity, to international law, and to policies that seek to restore peace.
The invitation to join one side or the other is accompanied by an obligation to collude with criminal forms of violence.
Two examples of this are the deadly attacks against Israeli civilians and - less spectacular but ultimately more lethal - the Israeli army's shooting of Palestinian civilians. If humanitarian action is to be effective, it must detach itself from political positions that seek to manipulate people's various origins, their spiritual beliefs, and their suffering; that invite people to deny the humanity of the adversary; and that reduce an entire people to a single figure: whether terrorist or settler.
© Catherine Daubrège/MSF
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An order created by the violence
Usually it is the relief that MSF provides to the wounded, to the starving, and to exiles living in conditions of desperate poverty that occupies our teams in countries at war. Here, displaced people and refugees make up the majority of a people that has lived in exile for decades. The Palestinian people ask for the creation of a state on the remains of the land on which they used to live and where they now are struggling to survive.
They have had time to learn how to care for their wounded and their sick and to establish a public health policy.
They receive considerable support from abroad. On the Israeli side, the resources are there to care for wounded soldiers and bring assistance to civilians who are victims of attacks. A permanent order has been created by the violence. It is the product of a war that is cruel, but of low intensity and spread out over decades. There are those at the top and there are those at the bottom. For example, occupants of the upper floors of homes in the narrow alleyways of the old cities of Jerusalem and Hebron throw their garbage out of their windows onto the heads of neighbors living on the floor below and shout at them to clean up the mess.
Occupants of some of these homes have installed horizontal grills that separate their ground floor apartments from those above. As you look up through the grills, your view of the sky is obstructed by the garbage. It is an astonishing sight at least, to the eyes of a foreigner. In other places whether Palestinians and Israelis come into contact with each other - housing districts bordering settlements or Israeli military positions - the exchanges are not limited to garbage.
Palestinian fighters suddenly appear and fire at soldiers or settlers, and Palestinian civilians are fired on like rabbits in a telescopic sight at the slightest movement deemed suspicious by Israeli soldiers. Their homes are occupied or destroyed as a form of collective punishment for armed actions conducted by others or, more simply, as a part of Israel's security plan. Palestinians in these districts must face constant grief, physical and psychological injury, and arrests, and live in a state of growing destitution caused by the economic blockade.
These are the people with whom we work in the Gaza Strip and Hebron. We bring medical, psychological, and social assistance to their homes, which have been transformed by the fighting into a frontline. The "Palestinian Chronicles" offer a collection of descriptions of this work.
© Philippe Conti
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MSF has been working in the Palestinian Territories for nearly ten years. Every day, our doctors and psychologists witness the profound trauma suffered by the Palestinian people. Even if Médecins Sans Frontières' presence in this crisis is not as great as it is in Angola, Chechnya, or Afghanistan, that does not mean that the suffering of the Palestinian people is any less intense. Assistance to those affected by armed conflict is never a matter of simply providing food and shelter or healing bodies: only the key players involved can determine what can be tolerated, in terms of offense to human dignity.
The Palestinians' response is clear: they do not accept the fate assigned to them, and many are ready to die as a result. Our actions are also limited by the Palestinians' own capacities for mobilization, public expression, and organization.
That could change. Over recent months, very considerable damage has been inflicted on their capacity to resist. The military occupation is becoming more firmly entrenched, as illustrated by Israelis firing at civilians, ambulances, and hospitals, and by the refusal of the Israeli authorities to allow a commission of inquiry on the violence at Jenin. This clear deterioration in the situation, seen in the high toll of civilian dead and injured over a period of a few weeks, does not bode at all well for the future.
Amid mounting violence - Palestinian suicide bombings and bloody acts of collective punishment by the Israelis - caused by the occupation, hopes for a compromise diminish by the day, providing more and more fuel for radicals in both camps. As it attempts to seal off the population of the West Bank into the towns, behind fences, the Israeli government is also trying to pressure humanitarian organizations to become the social workers of an oppressive system designed to imprison an entire people within open-air detention camps.
International humanitarian aid, which until now has played only a peripheral role in this conflict, now risks being cast in the role of prison warden at the heart of a pitiless system of domination and segregation. The Palestinian people's capacity to resist has been sorely tried. Now it is the independence of foreign aid workers that will be put to the test.
Dr. Jean-Hervé Bradol
President of MSF-France
© Philippe Conti
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