"Yes" I replied.
"Well," he said pointing towards the town "it stinks in there. I smell it every day."
Taken aback, I asked "What do you mean?"
He repeated the comment and waved me through.
The previous day at the al Hamra checkpoint, south of Jenin, I had watched a soldier order people out of their cars. It was 7:00 in the morning and the slopes of the hills down one side of the valley were bathed in soft dawn light. Songbirds flitted from tree to tree and the valley floor was lush and green – the sky pristine blue. An extensive queue of cars taking Palestinians to work had formed already and the soldier was strutting up and down in Chaplinesque fashion, his rifle comically large in proportion to his diminutive frame.
Passengers were shouted instructions to line up in front of him – even local UN personnel – and harangued, while he jabbed his finger repeatedly in their direction. The intention was to humiliate and the process continued until appropriate signs of submission were displayed. Only then were the passengers permitted to continue on their way. The charade took hours and did nothing for security. But that was not the intention.
All Israeli checkpoints are on Palestinian land – under military occupation since 1967 - and incidents like these are commonplace. They are an indication of the racism, which infects the Israeli armed forces. The contrived sloppiness of soldiers in their dealings with Palestinians in these territories is further evidence of their mindset – a young woman conscript blowing bubbles of gum as she questions Palestinians standing in front of her, her stubble chinned male counterparts ostentatiously filling their mouths with food while doing the same thing, others drinking coffee and puffing cigarette smoke nonchalantly into the air while yelling at their victims. These actions are anathema to Palestinians – the women, scarved and tidy, do not eat, drink or smoke in public, the men, generally well educated and cultured, dress as smartly as circumstances allow. Nor is the soldiers' behavior, which is designed to demean and humiliate, confined to the military. The border police and traffic police act in similar fashion.
Israel has recently complained about a perceived rise in European anti-Semitism. It should take a look at its own institutions with regard to racism and be mindful of the fact that, once conscripts have completed their stint of military service, they return to their communities taking their attitudes with them.
A successful military career in Israel is a stepping-stone to success in the political arena and it is not unreasonable to suppose that ex-soldiers carry army inspired prejudices with them when they enter the Knesset. Therein, perhaps, lies a partial explanation for the construction of the apartheid wall – now acknowledged as a ghastly mistake by many politicians. Maybe the idea wouldn't have taken root had those involved not been conditioned during their formative years in uniform and maybe it also explains why the wider Israeli public fails to oppose the project in larger numbers. If Palestinians were not thought of as second grade human beings, would the concept have been given serious consideration? Would it really have been thought acceptable to incarcerate Palestinians in the world's largest ghetto, to pen them in with five hundred kilometers of concrete and razor wire and a swathe of no-mans land on both sides – a barrier which cuts through neighborhoods and divides villagers from their fields and their water and separates whole Palestinian communities from schools and hospitals?
It appears that Ariel Sharon's government did not foresee the negative global implications of the apartheid wall. And the implications could be dire. Watchtowers, machine gun emplacements and blocks of concrete up to nine meters high make uncomfortable viewing and are not images that a public relations campaign can smooth over easily. Furthermore it is likely that the myth of the vaunted security benefits may be rapidly exposed. With tension high and large numbers of Israeli settlers refusing to move and continuing to reside within the perimeter of the wall, violence will continue. It is a question of 'when' not 'if' that violence explodes on the Israeli side of the barrier.
This moment in time is the Palestinian equivalent of the hour before dawn – their darkest hour. It is also a moment when the Jewish state itself is imperiled. Israel displays scant inclination to withdraw to the 1967 borders and seems set on completing the wall without delay. If that is indeed the case, the Palestinians may decide to abandon their aspirations for a two state solution and co-opt instead global anti-Israel sentiments aroused by television images of their plight to mount an anti-apartheid style campaign for a single state - incorporating Jews and Palestinians - from the Jordan river to the sea. The campaign would be hard for Israel to counter, particularly if it is accompanied by demands for democracy. One person one vote is after all President Bush's messianic mantra.
Current demographic trends indicate that within ten years Palestinians will become the majority in a single state. And what would be wrong with that? I have yet to meet a Palestinian unwilling to accept living alongside the Jewish population on equal terms, pooling resources and sharing the potential of the Holy Land. Surely such an arrangement is preferable to the insanity occurring today. Only the colonial concept of Zionism stands in the way.
Nick Pretzlik is a semi-retired businessman living in London, England. He travels frequently to the Middle East. He can be reached at: email@example.com
Other Articles by Nick Pretzlik