See it and believe it

Blake Morrison, who was in Hebron last week, believes Israel has become a nation of abusers
Click to follow
A FEW days before Robin Cook's diplomatic sortie, I was walking around the roofs of Hebron, trying to see for myself the "facts on the ground". The facts in Hebron are about as bleak as you can get. There are two populations, the one (350 Jewish settlers) with freedom of movement, the other (200,000 Arabs) unable even to visit nearby Jerusalem without special permits. There are two sectors, H1 (Palestinian-controlled) and H2 (Israeli), with checkpoints in between. There are even two places of worship under the one roof: since 1994, when Baruch Goldstein, a Jewish settler, walked in with a machine gun and massacred 29 Muslim worshippers, the Ibrahimi mosque has been partitioned, with heavy steel barriers dividing the Jewish half (actually 55 per cent, I'm told) from the Muslim. Not that you feel much like praying when soldiers frisk you at the entrance and while security cameras monitor your every genuflection. Spiritual calm would be impossible here. Hebron is one of tensest towns on earth.

The roofs I was walking around on belong to a group of Arab houses, currently being restored, and from one of them I was able to look straight down into a Jewish settlement in the heart of the old town. There was a festival on, and children were out playing in the yard. They looked happy enough, but I felt sorry for them living inside coils of barbed wire and I wondered what kind of parent (defying law, sanity and ordinary civility) could suppose this any way to bring up a child.

Given the settlement's provocative location, I knew it would be heavily guarded. Even so the sight of two Israeli soldiers five yards away, on the roof opposite, came as a shock. The soldiers - no more than boys, really - seemed twitchy and perturbed, perhaps because my escort, under her head-scarf, was obviously Muslim. Increasingly anxious, they shouted across to another soldier on a roof behind me. There seemed, suddenly, a lot of guns about. My escort thought it prudent for us to leave. As we did, the youngest soldier called out: "Welcome to Israel. Welcome to the war."

I didn't seriously imagine I'd be shot at. But nor, presumably, did the three Palestinians shot dead at a checkpoint outside Hebron two hours later. "A tragic accident", the Israeli government said, as it surely was, but the kind of tragic accident that only happens in a state that uses an occupying army of boy soldiers to control and often harass dispossessed civilians.

The following day boys with stones were out in Hebron, hurling them at the boys with guns. I wasn't there for that, but watched on television as a soldier firing rubber bullets turned in glee to the cameras with his index finger raised: "Got one." Presumably this wasn't the same rubber bullet that lodged in the forehead of its victim, resulting in brain damage and (some days later) death. The funeral of that boy took place last Tuesday, the day of Robin Cook's visit to Har Homa. I didn't see it reported in the newspapers, but my escort in Hebron faxed me: "I'm sorry to bother you with these horrifying news, but this is our life under Israeli occupation. You can't imagine how dreadful was this boy's pictures yesterday on all TV channels with the big hole digged in his skull and his mother almost losing her mind when she laid over his body to kiss him for the last time."

I went to Hebron - and to Gaza, Nablus, Ramallah and East Jerusalem - not to write about the "situation" but to read poems. But the situation had other ideas. At Bir Zeit University, I lost most of my audience because classes were cancelled for the day, in protest against the Hebron shootings. In Nablus, I planned to visit Joseph's Tomb but was denied access because, with Israeli soldiers camped next to the tomb and small boys venting their anger, there was the danger of being stoned. Wherever I went, the situation followed. I didn't go looking for evidence of oppression, apartheid and injustice, but I couldn't close my eyes.

Take the settlements, for example, the problem of which Robin Cook very properly tried to highlight when he went to Har Homa. "Settlement" might suggest something small, provisional and camp-like. But we're talking whole hillsides here, whole housing estates in stone. I was interested to find Palestinians objecting to the settlements partly on aesthetic grounds: far uglier to look at than anything by Bovis or Wimpy, they ruin the hilltops they stand on. There is no word in Arabic for "landscape", but as every exile, refugee or returnee will tell you there is a profound feeling for scenic beauty, which to a Palestinian means not just almond blossom and olive groves but bare rock and empty skylines. The settler hill forts, with their watchtowers, lookout posts, security cameras, coiled wire and fortification, are an affront to indigenous taste.

The use of Palestinian stoneworkers on low wages to build the settlements is another affront. But the deeper objection to the settlements is, of course, territorial. They encroach on land deemed, by international law, to be Palestinian. When the Oslo accords were signed four years ago, there was an expectation not just that Israeli troops would have withdrawn from the West Bank by now but that the building of new settlements would have stopped. But their number grows inexorably each year. And everywhere you look new settler-only roads are being bulldozered to link them, so that (the ultimate dream) a Jew might live here without ever having to see an Arab.

I was surprised to find that there are also settlements throughout the Gaza Strip: 19 of them, the largest concentration occupying almost half the coastline. Though the settlers are few in number here, they have the benefit not only of space but of water: much of the limited water in Gaza goes to their homes, which creates a problem for the refugee camps, where water is scarce, the population density is among the highest in the world (21,142 people per sq km), and only 35 per cent of homes are connected to sewers.

Because it is now controlled by the Palestinian National Authority, Gaza is much less tense than it was during the intifada, but the camps are little changed - there are still open drains, dirt roads, barefoot children. In one of the Middle Camps, I made an impromptu visit to a school. In the playground veiled girls in jeans and with platform heels were playing basketball. Inside I asked two classes (50 or more pupils in each) about their lessons, and was told by one girl that she was learning English "in order to know the language of the enemy". Then the girls asked me questions: what did I think of the Balfour Declaration? Did people in Britain understand what conditions are like in Palestine? Could I promise to write something when I went back? The girls were 13. They weren't being "political". They were talking about the stuff of their daily lives.

Among the rights denied to people in Gaza is that of being able to leave the strip in order to work, study, get medical treatment or visit relations in the West Bank. For me it was easy to leave, in a diplomatic car belonging to the British Council. But my driver was Palestinian, the car had to be searched and it took an hour. Standing there, among the surly troops with their clanking weaponry and mobile phones, I found the Oslo idea of preserving the "integrity" of Gaza and the West Bank, and of constructing free and "safe passages" between them, laughably remote.

The settlements are like inner colonies, prisons within the prison. If Benjamin Netanyahu shows no sign of discouraging their growth, it's not surprising. The settlements are a useful bargaining tool: thanks to them, he can offer to surrender cards that weren't in his hand in Oslo and up his bid for the ultimate prize: Jerusalem. In the short term, he may even succeed: Yasser Arafat looks so tired and demoralised these days that the unthinkable could happen, with what's left of East Jerusalem ceded in exchange for an independent Palestinian state comprising Gaza and the West Bank. But in the long term, such a solution could bring no peace.

Paranoia is an occupational disease of the Middle East. I remember an Israeli, 12 years ago, describing to me his terror of the Arab nations "driving us into the sea". Last week a Palestinian woman academic told me: "I've been having these dreams of the Israelis driving us into oblivion. I've begun to think that's what they really want."

I don't think it is what they want, certainly not those on the left or in the Peace Now movement. But the Israelis need to be told - and because of the Jewish lobby in the US, it's Mr Cook who has to tell them rather than Bill Clinton - how their country has begun to look to the rest of the world. The abused child of 50 years ago has become an abusive adult. To say this isn't anti-Semitic. It isn't even anti-Zionist. It's the truth you tell a friend who's behaving badly.

In Hebron, Jewish settlers have erected a shrine to Baruch Goldstein, in commemoration of a man they regard not as a mass murderer but as a saint and hero. It is the equivalent of putting up a statue of Thomas Hamilton in Dunblane. How the Palestinians endure this insult, along with all the others, I can't imagine. But the Netanyahu government is apparently happy for it to stand.