Issue 183 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published February 1995 Copyright © Socialist Review

Dangerous occupation

Sabby Sagall was part of a delegation to Israel to highlight the plight of Mordechai Vanunu, jailed as a traitor for revelations about that country's top secret nuclear bomb. He describes his experiences and tests the mood in Hebron one year after the Palestinian massacre
Controlling the Palestinian population

We arrived, seven of us, to plead for Mordechai Vanunu. The Israeli former nuclear technician committed the heinous crime of confirming to the world that Israel was engaged on a secret nuclear weapons programme.

Vanunu is branded a traitor by Israel's rulers. He was lured to Rome, abducted to Israel and sentenced in a secret trial to 18 years imprisonment. Since October 1986 he has sat alone in a cell three metres by two, allowed two hours exercise a day on his own. Once a fortnight he is permitted human contact, 45 minutes facing members of his family through a grille.

We were taken straight to Ashkelon prison for a picket. The prison authorities summoned the police after press photographs were taken of the jail. They refused to allow us to proceed to our hotel in Jerusalem. The situation was only defused after a phone call to the Ministry of Police who clearly felt they could do without an incident involving a human rights delegation from abroad.

The following day we gathered outside the residence of President Weizmann, in our hands a clemency petition. No one had previously staged such a demonstration of support for Vanunu inside Israel. Word was eventually sent out that he would see us.

In his office he admitted that Vanunu had been kidnapped: 'He's not the only one to have been brought home in a box.' We denied the slanders: as a man of conscience, he had neither asked for, nor received, a penny for his story. The president had no answer to our argument that the background to Vanunu's revelation was Israel's pledge to the world in 1984 that 'Israel would not be the first to introduce atomic weapons into the Middle East.'

Our interview with Weizmann was a springboard for further media coverage. Israel television invited two of our party to appear on a live programme. The actress Susannah York and Jake Ecclestone, deputy general secretary of the National Union of journalists, were kept waiting an hour and finally given four minutes to state our case. 'The Israeli people', a panellist told them, `are the survivors of Auschwitz. Your parents stood by and watched as the Jews were being led into the gas chambers. What right do you European Christians have to come here and tell us how to organise our internal security?'

The two were hardly given time to reply. Jake Ecclestone tried to intervene but the credits were rolling and the panellist was repeating the usual smear to his audience that Vanunu received money.

The visit meant that for the first time the blanket of secrecy smothering the Vanunu case was lifted. As a result Dedi Zucker, chairman of the parliamentary law commission, was recently allowed to visit Vanunu in jail.

Two of us went to the Occupied Territories. Jericho is a sleepy town of 30,000, one of the two centres of the fledgling Palestinian National Authority (PNA). Palestinian police stand idly around, sometimes guiding tourists to the site of old ruins. Hebron is a city under military occupation, protection for a tiny enclave of 300 Jewish settlers. They have taken over Arab property, and their presence in the heart of the ancient city is a permanent provocation to the 300,000 Palestinians surrounding them.

Our guide is Nabil Abu Znaid, public relations director of Hebron University. We pass numerous military checkpoints, witness Palestinians constantly being stopped and harassed. The soldiers are edgy and so are we as we walk through the tiny winding streets, negotiating frequent road blocks, concrete slabs erected to control demonstrations and rioting after shootings of Palestinians by soldiers or settlers.

Nabil escorts us into the Tomb of the Patriarchs, divided into a Jewish and a Muslim section. It was to this shrine that Baruch Goldstein, a fundamentalist settler, slipped in last February with a submachine gun to murder 29 Palestinians at prayer. Killed by the crowd, his tomb carries the inscription:

When the peace accord between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation was signed in 1993, £1.5 billion was promised to the PNA over five years, £400 million from the European Union. By the end of 1994, donors had paid only £140 million, just enough to pay for the PLO police and civil servants.

Asked about the benefits of autonomy so far, Nabil replies: 'We accepted it in order to end the Israeli occupation and to live in peace. We were promised economic support. So far none of these promises have been fulfilled. There have been no benefits, either political or economic. Things have got worse. Gaza has a 50 percent unemployment rate.'

He continued, 'Our towns are often closed, and 5,000 Palestinians are still in Israeli jails. Our people are very disappointed by the peace process. Our culture was built on resistance but since the negotiations began, our young people who have been fighting have not been offered any alternative.'

The PNA's jurisdiction in Gaza and Jericho extends to 48 percent of occupied Palestine, covering items like local policing, health, welfare and education. In the early 1980s, the Israeli government promoted the Islamic fundamentalists, Hamas, as a counterweight to the PLO, subsidising mosques and religious welfare bodies. That rebounded against them. Some 40 percent of Palestinians now support Hamas. Wasn't the peace accord therefore an attempt by the Israelis to use the PLO to break Hamas? Nabil replies:

There is a growing confusion, a loss of confidence, on the part both of Israeli rulers and people. Rabin flounders from prohibiting the settlers of Ephrat from expanding their West Bank settlement in one direction to permitting it in another. More broadly, in the series of five Israeli-Arab wars--1948, 1956, 1967, 1973, 1982--Israel has seen a declining scale of military and political success. Zionist colonisation hinged on the assumption that the Palestinians didn't exist. But since the Intifada erupted in 1987, Israelis have been unable to deny the existence of a Palestinian identity.

There can be no national solution to the problems facing the Middle East peoples. The Israeli working class continues to benefit from the $3 billion of annual US aid to Israel, the highest in the world. Ethnic exclusiveness remains integral to Zionism. The Arab working class has to lead the fight against Zionism, imperialism and the Arab states. In this sense the road to Jerusalem goes through Cairo, centre of the Arab working class, not simply through the Occupied Territories.

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