MAR 2001


Sara Flounders, International Action Center
interviewed by Aaron Stark

AGENDA: You visited Palestine and Israel in October, 2000. Where did you travel to specifically?

SARA FLOUNDERS: The entire visit, except for landing at Tel Aviv airport, was in the West Bank and in Gaza. We didn’t have any chance to be within the [19]48 borders of Israel. Although we would like to, and that’s a later trip. We went the very first night from Ben Gurion Airport to East Jerusalem, and from there we went to Bethlehem and the nearby Deheisheh refugee camp, to the smaller towns of Beit Sahour and Beit Jala, the larger towns of Ramallah and Nablus, and all through Gaza down to the southernmost point, to where the border of Egypt is. Among other aims, we carried medicines to doctors all over and now carry back their testimony about the condition of the people.

AGENDA: What was your impression of East Jerusalem, which has been occupied by Israel since the 1967 war?

FLOUNDERS: Here’s one experience. We went to the marketplace in East Jerusalem, a completely Palestinian neighborhood, where General Sharon [now Prime-Minister-elect] and other right-wing Israelis have bought apartments. They don’t live there …

AGENDA: It’s just a show of power?

FLOUNDERS: Exactly. But they also could not live there without the full support of the state of Israel. There’s a whole battalion that protects General Sharon’s apartment and they’re a very visible presence in the marketplace. And we also saw these armed settlers who just swagger through the marketplace armed with Uzi submachine guns, clip in, hand on the trigger, in an area where Palestinians cannot be armed, at all.

AGENDA: What was the attitude of the Palestinians you met towards East Jerusalem?

FLOUNDERS: The question of the importance of East Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian state was really clear to us. It’s the largest concentration of the Palestinian population. It’s the cultural and religious center. There’s no other area or city that is possible really as the capital, as the center of Palestine.

AGENDA: In the mainstream media, one sees much condemnation of the Palestinians for allegedly sending their children out to fight the Israeli army. What did you see when you were there?

FLOUNDERS: Now that isn’t true for people anywhere in the world, ordering their children into the front line to be used as cannon fodder. It’s been the struggle of the Palestinian people to protect their children. But, in an upheaval of the whole people, the youth—and they don’t have far to go, it’s only a question of going down the street, they’re not going miles and an ocean away, they’re not enlisting in a foreign army, they’re not being drafted to fight—they’re going down the street. And if it’s a question of protecting the young then the tanks should be withdrawn.

However the settlers do endanger their children recklessly, because those settlers have all their children within these settlements completely surrounded and in a hostile environment. What are they doing with their children there? And they’re moved from place to place. There’s endless Israeli propaganda. There was a landline that an armored column hit. Now that wasn’t in appearance a little yellow school bus riding down the road, this was a military convoy that was hit, and it’s unfortunate [the mine] hit a vehicle that had children. But it shows what happens in war, that there’re casualties, they’re completely innocent people, and young people, and children on both sides. Far, far more Palestinian children have been killed. So we need to stand up to some of the myths that are being created.

I should add that both in Nablus and in Ramallah we went to clash points where there were struggles going on. In Ramallah a line of Israeli tanks pulls up at a point of the city and youth come from all over to throw stones, to challenge, burning tires, burn some vehicles that create a kind of shield. Now the real question—and the Israelis say "How can they throw stones at us?"—the real issue is why is there a line of tanks there? They could just pull the line of tanks back. But they set up a line of tanks and in the building directly behind this line of tanks—I remember it was called the City Inn Hotel, about a 12-story building—on every balcony was a sniper gun nest who were firing live ammunition down on the people gathering to stone these tanks.

AGENDA: Another claim one hears a lot is that Prime Minister Arafat, or the Palestinian Authority, is directing the fighting, and that it could be stopped at any moment if these leaders willed it. How does this claim match with what you experienced?

FLOUNDERS: This is an uprising, it’s a revolutionary upheaval of the whole population. It isn’t something that’s decided, that’s organized, by Arafat, that he can pull back even if he wanted to. It is in the classical sense a revolution in that the whole population seeing no other alternative is pulled into and determined to take great risks, is refusing to accept any more the established order. And they become their own authority, their own power. It is a situation that Israel can only respond to with more and more guns and firepower—I mean that seems to be their only solution—that or leave. And it’s that kind of power that will actually drive the Israelis out. I truly believe that. Even though there are far fewer casualties on the side of the Israelis, they’re far less able to sustain them. And the question of morale in the struggle is really fundamental and key. I think those two points are extremely important politically. It was clear to us this is an uprising of the entire people, and it’s not over any time soon, and that the morale, the spirit of resistance is very high.

AGENDA: From the outside, it seems so demoralizing—how can you tell?

FLOUNDERS: We went one night to the Deheisheh refugee camp, outside of Bethlehem. We stayed there at a guest house. And the Israeli military had demanded that the refugee camp be evacuated. The entire population said we have been driven out and driven out, send in the rockets, we’re not moving. A very strong statement and it was a mood of defiance. The same thing in Beit Sahour and Beit Jala—the idea of the random bombings to try to drive the population out, get them to leave the area, and people were refusing to leave. And as a matter-of-fact what the Palestinians were urging people to do in every home is to keep a light on, show that you’re there, you haven’t been driven out. And even that is an act of defiance.

AGENDA: Did you witness any Israeli attacks?

FLOUNDERS: In Ramallah, we went home for dinner with this family—it was late at night by then—and we heard a helicopter directly overhead, it seemed, so we went up to the rooftop to see what was going on. It was an Apache attack helicopter and they were firing, rocketing, an area not far away. So we immediately went there because we had a video camera and other cameras. It was a small Fatah office, not much larger than literally this room, I mean a one story, one room office. That does show the pinpoint accuracy that the Israelis have, they had blasted that room. But all the surrounding apartment houses—the windows were blasted out, the fronts off, people traumatized.

And that was where this woman came out of her house and said "Come, I want to show you what they did." Now she is a Palestinian-American, a U.S. citizen, she’d lived in Birmingham, Alabama for a number of years, raised her children there. They had come back to live on the West Bank so that they would also live in their own culture. And I remember her picking up this piece of shrapnel—I think I described this at the meeting—and saying "I pay taxes in the U.S. Those tax dollars just landed on my living room rug." She was outraged. Her seven-year-old son made a very strong statement and her thirteen-year-old daughter who was shaking, crying, just traumatized by this, nevertheless said "We won’t leave, this is not gonna terrify us away."

Right after this rocketing, it turned out we heard immediately on the news that in eight cities or towns in Palestine, simultaneously, there had been attacks—this was a coordinated attack. And there was an immediate call for protests and demonstrations at the site of these offices. Now it was almost midnight, it was after 11:00, this announcement came on the news and really in minutes thousands of people were out in the streets marching toward this and it was quite an impressive nighttime demonstration. The purpose of it was for people to say "We’re not going to be intimidated."

AGENDA: Settlements, closures, and curfews have been important Palestinian grievances for decades. What did you witness?

FLOUNDERS: We went to the site called Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus. Now this was what a Jewish religious group claimed was the tomb of Joseph of the Bible. Earlier it had been actually a Druze holy site—a different Joseph—but at any rate that’s not the point. The point was it was in downtown Nablus and saying that it was a religious site and that they were building a synagogue and a settlement there meant that right within Nablus as they’d done in Hebron they were attempting to create a presence that then had been backed up by Israeli soldiers. And it was an actual occupation of Nablus. The threat of that, you could see the absolute outrage and why, when Israeli soldiers evacuated this site people rushed in to destroy it.

Now the Palestinian Authority, who very much state that they will be and are the protectors of religious sites, they’re rebuilding the religious site, not the military site that it had become, because this very small little one-room tomb had been by the Israelis ringed with barbed wire, with fencing, it had become a military outpost. That was torn down, destroyed, but the small damage to the tomb was being repaired.

Now, driving back the next day we drove through the town of Dawarra [spelling unclear—ed]. This is a town where because there’s a settlement of 150 settlers, the entire town of Dawarra is under a hermetic curfew. A hermetic curfew means that you cannot step foot out of your house virtually twenty four hours a day seven days a week. Anyone doing so is shot on sight. This is also true for Hebron where 40,000 people are under hermetic curfew because there’s 250 settlers. When we saw that, the reason for the rage about Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus becoming a settlement is clear. You can see why this was an enormous threat to the entire city, that they also, to protect some small group of settlers, would be under a total, absolute, for months at a time—in Hebron and in Dawarra it’s gone on for two months, everybody locked up in very small homes, large families, terrible conditions.

AGENDA: What were the impact of settlements in the occupied Gaza Strip?

FLOUNDERS: When we went to Gaza—Gaza is the poorest, Gaza is seven times poorer than theWest Bank, a small, thin, sandy strip of land with one million people, one of the highest population densities [in the world]. There the settlements—there are 7000 settlers, a million Palestinians—these settlements take up an enormous amount of space, a great deal of the water, they’re on the best land. But they’re built in a way that they and their access roads divide, literally, the camps—divide Gaza City from Khan Yunus, for example, one area from another. It’s the greatest source of anger. And the most militant struggles, historically and now, are in Gaza. The anger is great.

And also the military presence. It just seemed everywhere that we looked—where there were small cinderblock houses, corrugated roofs, very little infrastructure in terms of roads and sewage and all of that—and just over not even the hill, just like sometimes close enough to see, were tanks, a constant presence everywhere. Everyone we talked to would point to the front of their home and show us big chunks that were out, where they had just been sprayed by machine-gun fire. Maybe not demonstrations, nothing going on, just firing into homes. Or people who had been killed in their living rooms and so on.

Of course at the border with Egypt it’s Palestinian and then there’s this whole Israeli presence, very very large, and constant firing going on there.

AGENDA: The Israeli military has faced some international criticism for restricting Palestinians’ ability to move freely within the West Bank. Did you find it difficult to travel from place to place?

FLOUNDERS: Extremely difficult. From East Jerusalem we went to Bethlehem. Now Bethlehem is extremely close, ordinarily this would be a drive of 20 minutes to a half-hour. Because of all the roadblocks it took us hours and we tried from all different angles, different roads, hoping we could go around. Not possible. And they wouldn’t let us through the roadblock, so finally we had to unpack the car—and we had big cases of medicines and so on—and hand carry them through the checkpoint and down this road a distance, and a car met us on the other side. Lucky for cell phones in these days, this was easier to arrange—at another time this would have been really hard!

When we went to Nablus—now again maybe that would take under two hours under normal conditions and it took us really the day, because of getting through the checkpoints, and so on.

AGENDA: You spoke earlier against the claim that Palestinian parents send their children off to be killed. What about the reason that many give to support Israeli military violence against Palestinian villages—that the Israelis are simply responding to shooting from Palestinians?

FLOUNDERS: Right, the other myth that is very important is that the Palestinians are drawing this on themselves by firing from villages and the Israelis just have to respond and bomb these towns and villages from the air because rifle fire came from the vicinity of the town. If the settlements weren’t there, again, this wouldn’t be an issue. And the immediate solution is to get the settlements out.

The settlements become a reason not only for taking the whole high ground, for building a military presence. Right while we were there there were new seizures of land for checkpoints, for road clearance, going on. Always it’s an effort also to destroy the economic base. The uprooting of olive trees—it takes 20-25 years, in other words a whole generation, for an olive tree to first bear fruit. Some of these olive trees, many of them are very, very old—hundreds of years. The uprooting of these trees is an attempt to destroy the economic base of those Palestinians that are still based on the land, to make them rootless, to drive them into the cities and even into the rest of the Arab world. It’s a very conscious plan. The building of the bypass roads, which are like superhighways, it’s not just a road, they clear all the trees off on both sides for all the miles that road stretches, like an interstate highway in the United States. The settlements—it’s not just a hilltop, it’s a whole area around it so you can’t approach it from any direction, and another reason to uproot the trees, to make any form of agricultural nonviable. We were there during the olive picking, which is a week and a half time, the olives have to be picked in that time. The roadblocks meant people couldn’t get to the trees or they couldn’t bring their harvest into the town, that was being consciously stopped. And individual Palestinians or families who go out to the hills to harvest their trees—’cause everyone knows where their trees are, and what trees, it’s held in the family. They’re the target of settlers, and there were quite a number of people who had been attacked by these armed settler groups that prey on isolated people. And it was another part of this attempt to destroy—it’s very conscious by the settlers—to do everything they can to destroy the Palestinian economy. The olive trees are part of it. The way that the IMF and World Bank loans are structured is another very important part of it. It’s all how to build a dependence of the Palestinian economy on the much, much stronger, multibillion-dollar Israeli economy.

AGENDA: In the past month the founder of Rabbis for Human Rights spoke in Ann Arbor. Although his organization has done a lot of good, humanitarian service, I was really surprised and disturbed at his answer to a question on this point. At the end of the talk, an Arab-American student asked him what he thought about the destruction of olive trees. And he replied, the army does this because the Palestinians are hiding in the olive trees and there’s people shooting from the olive trees. He had served in the Israeli military in the invasion of Lebanon, and said this is like the same thing in Lebanon; we were forced to shoot them and we did so very reluctantly. The speaker had also mentioned that, before he emigrated to Israel from the U.S., he had protested against the Vietnam War, and I couldn’t help but think that this the same exact argument they were making to destroy villages in Vietnam—the guerrillas were hiding there, we had to shoot them.

FLOUNDERS: That’s exactly the same. You know, just on that same line, in Gaza the settlers there had just called for the clearing of all oive trees and citrus—there are citrus groves planted in Gaza—for two miles on each side of all roads. Now Gaza is such a thin strip, that that is an absolutely outrageous demand. But you’re right, it becomes a reason we have to distroy the economy, lay waste the land, uproot the very villages, in order to protect ourselves and in order to settle and claim this land.

And that is what it’s about. Even more destructive than the uprooting of the trees is the conscious theft of the water. Water is the resource, and the settlements, because their pumps are much stronger, go deeper, the lush lawns, swimming pools. 60 Minutes did a program on the settlements. They showed this settlement in Gaza that was farming using hydroponic—water—farming to grow tomatoes for export. In Gaza! You just can’t imagine a worse, more unbalanced, ecologically dangerous, destructive policy. What it means, in a number of West Bank villages, is that there’s water in the dry months, in the summer months, for only an hour a day. And sometimes there isn’t water. The water is very bad quality. This is true also in Gaza [City]—people get sick, it’s bad for the bones, it’s bad for their stomach, people are aging faster because the quality of the water is so bad, it’s very saline and so on. So stealing the water is really also one of those crimes.

During the Intifada, too it’s a conscious Israeli policy to do everything to shut down every aspect of the Palestinian economy, to stop any goods from coming in. That means that the small shops that are the mainstay for many people, and all forms of employment, are down. And of course Palestinians who had formerly worked as day workers, or who held jobs in Israel can’t go to their jobs. So it’s to create, consciously, economic hardship in order to impose their will.

AGENDA: Speaking of the health effects of this enforced poverty, you mentioned that you gathered testimony from many doctors. What did you find out from them?

FLOUNDERS: There’s a lot to tell. One of the men who met us in East Jerusalem—who is Jewish, who’s Israeli, who is a strong anti-Zionist Israeli who works in solidarity with the Palestinian movement—described what is happening in Jerusalem, in East Jerusalem and in the border, the areas where the Israeli neighborhoods are right up against the Palestinian neighborhoods. He described individual Palestinians that were constantly being attacked, beaten, grabbed literally by mobs or gangs that were out. And so he and both an Israeli and a Palestinian group had set up something called "Ambulances for Human Rights". And they were like intervention units, people in cars going around and literally saving people who were being bashed or who were being targeted.

We met also with one of the main organizers in the Deheisheh refugee camp, and a group of doctors from the United Health Workers Committee who have a center in Beit Sahour. These doctors described the nightly shellings that they were undergoing, they described the stress it was creating, the injuries, and also their view of the peace process, how little had been resolved, how the occupation was continuing, the disaster of the economy—it was a very important exchange.

We had an opportunity to go to Ramallah Hospital, to a rehabilitation center where a lot of young people were convalescing from wounds. The meetings with the doctors in every area, both there and in Beit Sahour, they described the training of first aid teams. This is a part of the higher level of organization—11,000 first aid workers have been trained, and these first-aid teams will go right down into the fire, into the clash points.

In Nablus the first site we went to was the site that had been bombed there the night before, in the simultaneous helicopter attacks. And again we met with doctors, had a discussion of the clinics, the number of people injured, some of the medicine that we brought was for there also.

And we really could see the high level of organization. We went to Ramallah and in Ramallah there were again meetings with doctors, and a meeting with a very important internet group who has a web site called Addameer [] for political prisoners but they have a listing of what is happening every single day in every town and village on the West Bank and Gaza. It’s quite a compilation—tune in to any day and read the clashes, who was injured, what happened. Maintaining that web site is a new step forward in organization.

AGENDA: Often the conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis is portrayed as a strictly ethnic conflict, as if this has been fighting that has been going on for hundreds of years, which is not actually true, and that it will never end. In your experience do you see ethnic dimensions to the fighting, or do you see it strictly as a case of institutional oppression? Do you think the ethnic questions are mixed in with that?

FLOUNDERS: The Palestinians would go out of their way, again and again, to use either the term "Zionist" or "Israeli" rather than "Jews". Now that doesn’t mean that the average person doesn’t sometimes get confused, because the Star of David is a religious symbol and it’s also the Israeli flag. And the Israelis use this all the time to say that Israel represents the Jewish people and that there is no difference. Whereas anti-Zionist Israelis and of course the Palestinians do make the distinction—there has been from the very earliest days of the Palestine National Council Jewish members on it, both from the religious Orthodox group Naturai Karta and from another Jewish religious sect. Of course there are Christian Palestinians. But from the very beginning the Palestinian struggle has made the point that they’re not against all Jewish people, they’re for the right of everyone to live in the land now called Israel, that had been Palestine.

The more you read in the U.S. press the more confused you are. And actually there’s been studies done of this. Anyone who follows this issue thoroughly and bases himself only on the U.S. press has less and less idea of what’s going on and they can only talk about the insanity of religious conflict. That is intended. Although religions are used to mobilize people for hate. Israel today as a religious theocracy where, even for the Jewish population, it’s run by a very orthodox conservative religious grouping who can even decide who can be married and who can’t, where you can pray and where you can’t, who can pray—in terms of women vs. men—and who can’t. Actually an archaic theocracy, not at all a democratic state. There’s of course a voting procedure for Israelis but it’s not really a question of full rights for everyone. And demand for a secular state where every religious group has rights is an important element of this.

For many years what was put forth was a demand for a democratic and secular state within the entire area. It’s not a democratic state if one entire group has absolutely no rights and the other has all of the privileges, it’s a state built on military occupation. It is a situation that only benefits, though, a very small group and not the average Israeli who spends whole parts of their life in military service.

They’re being used, really for the greater aims of US corporations. The U.S. government needs a destabilizing force. The last thing in the world this government wants is peace in the middle east. As long as there’s war there’s an endless, endless, endless sale of weapons. What’s the largest export from the United States today? It’s weapons, high-tech weapons, the number one export is military weapons. The greatest, the most profitable area of the U.S. economy, is also the military contractors, weapons. And as long as there’s instability in the Middle East, whether the weapons are being sold to Saudi Arabia or Kuwait or the emirates or Israel or Egypt, it’s very profitable here for a very small group.

Also when millions of our tax dollars are used for this war—now that’s not the money from the corporations, they reap the benefits but we pay the taxes—so ten to fifteen million dollars a day, every day, to Israel, every day, and fifty billion dollars or a billion dollars a week to keep a U.S. military presence in the Gulf supposedly to enforce sanctions—the aircraft carriers, cruise missiles, satellite reconnaissance, the stopping and ceasing of goods from 12,000 ships in the Gulf supposedly to inspect, supposedly for sanctions enforcement. It’s part of the war of the whole region.

And the way it’s presented in the media all the time is the "peace process". Clinton is never, ever mentioned in a news article, nor are US aims mentioned, without in almost every sentence the word "peace" being used, to drum home the point that the United States wants peace. That’s not what they want. And any time the Israelis are mentioned it’s in terms of peace—how to restart the peace process, how they want to sign a peace agreement. The Palestinians on the other hand are always posed as the terrorists, those who are violent, those who are ending the peace, those who won’t sign, the threat to peace. Now that’s very important to see, the role of propaganda in this whole issue, and to confront that they’re not about making peace. They did want the Palestinians to submit, accept a colonial setup. They would have the right to use a flag, an airport, stamps, be able to do garbage collection, run the health service, and so on. But in return they had to crack down on anyone who wanted to resist, and accept a totally subservient economy. The Palestinian economy has been ripped apart during this peace process. So all of that is really a factor.

So there’s a lot of myths that allow this war to continue, that play a role—propaganda is a real weapon. A more powerful weapon than the tanks and the helicopter gunships or even the nuclear weapons—Israel’s a nuclear power. And it’s also a question of whether they’re using radioactive depleted uranium weapons which they’re also armed with—they’re one of the few armies in the world whose conventional weapons also are made with this radioactive waste, depleted uranium. The tanks are armored in it, so we actually saw A-1 Abrams tanks with this armor on it so we know that they’re using radioactive materials there.

But there are myths used to justify the war that are more powerful than these weapons.

AGENDA: I’ve also read that through certain private foundations like the Jewish National Fund which own the majority of land in Israel proper—within the 1948 boundaries—this land is reserved for Jews only.

FLOUNDERS: That’s right. That’s absolutely right. It’s over 90%, it may be as high as 98%, that can’t be owned by Palestinians.

AGENDA: In the past year there was a court case in Israel that decided against this discrimination, but I’m not sure how far the implementation has gone.

FLOUNDERS: There’s a very important book on this called Israel: The Apartheid State that really talked about the question of land ownership and the landlessness of the Palestinians that work the land like migrant workers here do in the United States, land that previously had been theirs.

AGENDA: Who is in control of the land in the West Bank? How is it divided up?

FLOUNDERS: All of the West Bank and of course Gaza is divided into sectors A B and C: A being that small 20 percent of the land that’s under Palestinian Authority control. B is supposedly mixed—the Palestinians have the right to pick up the garbage but the Israelis are in charge of security—so it’s really Israeli control. And C—total Israeli control. So sectors B and C there is the Israeli military dividing line which is often clash points during the day and areas where Israeli settlers would come to fire. Palestinian police and militia units were guarding this whole area.

AGENDA: What is your hope for the future in Palestine and Israel? How do you think peace with justice could come to the region?

FLOUNDERS: It’s very important that here in the United States a movement in solidarity and support of the Palestinians’ just demands be built, the demands of the right to Palestinian sovereignty, a right to their own state with a capital at Jerusalem, and the right of all the Palestinian refugees, more than five-and-a-half million all over the world, the right to return. Ultimately the whole question and character of the Israeli state, in order for these demands to be met, this state as it exists now is unwilling and unable to grant any of these demands, to grant independence, to grant sovereignty, to grant economic viability to the Palestinian state.

It will take a fundamental change in the entire structure, also, of Israel, and for the one million Palestinians who live in Israel, a separate Palestinian state is not a solution for them. They need full, complete, equal rights and full right to participate. That is a change in Israel, and it would no longer be a Zionist state. It would be a state where both Jews and Palestinians both have rights, full rights, equal rights, and that is not a theocracy where there is only one religious group that has rights. That will be a longer struggle and yet is a most essential one. But for right now, the demands of the last few years have been for the right for there to be a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza. The inability of this to be granted by Israel and by the U.S., the very fact that this was distorted and subverted, may reraise the whole question of even the state of Israel. Because why should the Palestinians recognize Israel and its right to exist if in turn their right to exist and have their own state isn’t recognized?



Signed Elements © Individual Authors
Unsigned Elements © Agenda Publications, LLC