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A Different Image of Israel

18 April 2002

As Israeli tanks and bulldozers pull back from their "incursions" into West Bank towns and refugee camps and humanitarian aid workers take their place, Americans are gradually seeing the other side of an Israel most have never imagined existed. The sight is not pretty.

For Americans schooled in film and worship for democracy, Israel has been the land of Exodus and kibbutzes, of dedicated and hard-working people who look like us and speak our language.

Now television images evoke entirely different images. Israeli troops have cleared some of the bodies (which army commanders wanted to bury in a mass grave until the Israeli parliament objected), but plenty of horror remains. And Americans are discovering the "camps."

Americans who go to the Holy Land see what we and our hosts want us to see. Jews see their high holy places in Jerusalem, visit a kibbutz and enjoy lively intellectual life and entertainment in Tel Aviv. They might see a Jewish settlement in the West Bank, but only if they have family there. Christians see Jerusalem and Bethlehem and visit their high holy places. Only Palestinian Americans might find their way to what we call a refugee camp.

Now, other Americans are seeing what they never saw before.

In 1982, on assignment for King Broadcasting, I was in camps in Lebanon, Jordan and the West Bank. It was an eye-opening experience, even 20 years ago.

The word "camps" is a misnomer. Some of these "camps" in the West Bank have been there since the establishment of Israel in 1947 and the subsequent Arab-Israeli war of 1948. Some 300,000 Arabs fled Israel and settled in camps in the West Bank. They are still there, or their descendants are, and they have developed small cities around the original camps.

But despite the permanence of their settlements, they consider themselves refugees, because they are stateless. These camps are not for tourists. They are cramped, crowded, often deficient in sanitary and health facilities, and full of people who are angry, humiliated and desperate. Unemployment and birth rates are high, and the result is a population with few good reasons to live and plenty of good reasons to die for a cause.

Camp children are educated in schools without a fraction of the resources of the excellent Israeli schools. Schools are filled with heroic images of Palestinian "martyrs," fighters who have died for the cause of a Palestinian state.

In these camp-towns, Palestinians who cannot escape to cities or go abroad live their lives. Descendants of farmers and laborers, poor people who lived in the area before the creation of Israel in 1947, are the people of the camps. They have businesses, services, schools, mosques and churches.

But because these settlements were originally built to be temporary, streets are as narrow as alleys, housing is concrete block at best, and public utilities are crude and easily disrupted. One is assailed by the sounds, sights and smells of a vibrant people in conditions we would call slums, making a life as best they can.

Masses of people, a majority very old or very young, live huddled together with no safe refuge from military force. Imagine a huge tank or bulldozer in the alley behind your home, crushing everything in its way and you can imagine these behemoths in a Palestinian camp such as Jenin.

Israel may be the world's first nation to use the bulldozer as a primary weapon; the devastation it can cause is staggering. The camps breed foot soldiers of the intifada, those who carry the bombs on their belts, because there is so little hope in life that a glorious death at least honors their family. Camps have the large families associated with poverty, and the raw emotions and anger associated with lack of education.

The camps, particularly Jenin, have proved to be a nastier assignment for the Israelis than anticipated. Palestinians in the cities backed off when the tanks rolled in; the camps fought back. The resistance is not entirely based on the presence of Palestinian fighters. It is also based on knowledge, engrained in every Palestinian, of what happened in the Sabra and Shatila camps in Beirut when the Israelis invaded in 1982.

Ariel Sharon, then the Israeli commander in charge, ordered his troops to stand aside while brutal Lebanese Phalangists cleaned out the camps. Some 3,000 died before Sharon "discovered" a massacre had taken place. He was disciplined by the Israeli parliament; today he is in charge, and no Palestinian is unaware of the meaning of that.

American journalists entering the besieged camps are not yet calling Jenin a massacre, although the scale of the killing will surely be in the hundreds. European journalists, not as cautious in their language, may be expected to use the term. As for the Arab media, the pictures will be fodder for more anti-American actions.

Americans after Sept. 11 are no longer as shocked by the images of death, but the images we are beginning to see from what we call "camps" will forever change our image of Israel and, for both Israel and the United States, things will never be quite the same again.

Floyd McKay
Published in the Seattle Times © 2002 The Seattle Times Company

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