The hatred that grows in an occupied land

The occupation is not only evil, it is insane; if the road-map fails, there'll be thousands more suicide bombers
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All my life, the images of the occupation of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank have flickered on television screens in the corner of my living room, mostly unwatched and unnoticed. Like most people, I guess, I can't remember a time when I honestly felt shocked by them, even when they showed some nameless, bullet-pierced child. They have always seemed, I'm ashamed to say, a bit like the weather forecast: predictable, dull, a cue to zap to another channel. So when this week, for the first time, I visited the Occupied Territories - no, to hell with the angry e-mailers, Palestine - I didn't expect to feel like I had been kicked in the stomach by the Israeli Defence Force.

All my life, the images of the occupation of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank have flickered on television screens in the corner of my living room, mostly unwatched and unnoticed. Like most people, I guess, I can't remember a time when I honestly felt shocked by them, even when they showed some nameless, bullet-pierced child. They have always seemed, I'm ashamed to say, a bit like the weather forecast: predictable, dull, a cue to zap to another channel. So when this week, for the first time, I visited the Occupied Territories - no, to hell with the angry e-mailers, Palestine - I didn't expect to feel like I had been kicked in the stomach by the Israeli Defence Force.

Even though I had piously written in defence of a Palestinian state alongside Israel and against the settlers, I had long ago turned the Palestinian people in my mind into faceless lumps of suffering putty, an amorphous, bleeding blob on which to confer occasional pity. So as I was driven towards the huge, snaking queue of battered cars that waits tetchily in front of the Qalandia road-block, the first thing I noticed - stupid, I know - was how familiar they looked.

There is an old lady being pushed in a wheelchair past our car along a bumpy dust-track. The Israeli soldiers leave the sick waiting for so long at the checkpoints in hot ambulances that have no air conditioning that the doctors have no choice but to simply carry, push or drag them to the nearest medical centre. She looks, it strikes me suddenly, quite a lot like my granny.

These road-blocks and these queues pock and slice the Palestinian lands, dividing families - most Palestinians are forbidden to move between areas - and crushing the local economy; each one of them is full of people who look like your friends and mine. It suddenly seemed obvious, waiting in that hellish queue, that on some subconscious level, even as I nodded along to my Edward Said essays and Amos Oz novels, I had never really thought about the Palestinians as individuals who cry and who laugh, like we do. I know that all but my most liberal Israeli friends cannot afford to think of them in that way.

In the sitcom Drop the Dead Donkey, the war correspondent Damien would invariably file an image of a blood-stained teddy-bear lying in a gutter - a guaranteed tear-jerker. I knew I shouldn't have visited any of the 103 summer camps across the Occupied Territories run by the Palestinian Medical Relief Committee for fear of doing a Damien. And yet...

As a little five-year-old girl throws a big green ball at my head before scampering away mischievously, Nasif Aldech, the director of the centre I visit, explains, "It's not a rare thing for one of the children here to be seriously traumatised - it's the norm. They are often extremely stressed, extremely angry. They have seen their families harassed, their homes raided, and they have lived through lockdowns that can last weeks, where they are effectively imprisoned in their own homes. Most of our 10-year-olds are bed-wetters. I have one kid who saw his father being assassinated. About 5 per cent of the children are disabled as a result of Israeli actions."

And, as the UN Agency for Palestinian Refugees found last year, 22 per cent of Palestinian children are suffering from malnutrition. If I deliberately wanted to create suicide bombers, I would raise children in this way.

There are, undeniably, two peoples who have legitimate claims to this tiny patch of land, this Israel, this Palestine, and neither one is going to leave. So I ask what these children - who will forever live alongside Israelis - what they think when they hear the word "Israel". "Terrorists!" one girl calls. "The only Israeli goal is to send us all away from here and claim Palestine for themselves," says her little friend. I ask their names. "No, I will not say. I do not want to go to prison." She will reveal that she is 12 years old.

Some of my Israeli friends will take this as regrettable evidence that the Palestinians are inherently rejectionist; that they need to be fenced away or they will destroy all of Israel. I understand their fears. Another little girl, Maram, would confirm their every anxiety: "All Israelis have weapons. There are no innocent Israelis... Peace will only happen when the Jews go back where they came from," she says in a thin, reedy voice. But, frightening though her sentiments are, the only Israelis Maram has ever met are soldiers and settlers - what is she supposed to think?

There is a possibility - perhaps slim - that a generation of children growing up in a secure, peaceful Palestinian state will come in time to meet and like their Israeli neighbours. In contrast, it is a certainty that every child growing up under Israeli occupation will grow a violent hatred of Israel, just as surely as they grow hair and teeth. I would not be surprised to see Maram's picture on that long-ignored flickering TV screen in five years' time, in a CNN report explaining that she has blown herself up in Tel Aviv.

Why have Israeli governments for 35 years chosen a route that is doomed to failure? This occupation is not only evil, it is insane; and if the road-map ends up going the same way as the Oslo peace process and fails to create a Palestinian state, then there will be a thousand more Marams in the generations to come.

j.hari@independent.co.uk

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