TEL AVIV – Every day in the last two weeks, someone in a cab or a coffee shop or in a bus has asked, “Where are you from? Aren’t you afraid to be here?” As a visitor to these troubled lands it is not fear but a great sadness when you witness the daily struggles of the people for a future of peace and to make a decent living for themselves and their families. There are many seemingly insurmountable obstacles standing in the way of the two peoples, Israeli and Palestinian, to live peacefully in two states side by side.

I saw weddings in Jaffa, Israel, and in Ramallah, Palestine. I saw school children making their way to school in the streets of Tel Aviv and through military checkpoints to Bethlehem. It is difficult to describe how people are trying to live while their futures hang in the balance. Their uncertainty has been dramatically escalated by the Bush administration’s war drive. The right-wing Sharon government continues to balance its continued siege and occupation of the West Bank and Gaza on the backs of working families and children.

People here have been talking about the “Roadmap for Peace,” the Bush administration’s proposal for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. Both Israelis and Palestinians say that Bush’s main concern is to wage war in Iraq. They say his concern is not about peace but rather about gaining support for his war, which they will pay for with their lives. Like the other Bush administration initiatives, the “roadmap” doesn’t provide the framework for establishing a Palestinian state. Without international intervention to end the Israeli occupation and allow the Palestinian Authority and NGO’s to resume full functioning with freedom of movement there cannot be real negotiations.

The illegal occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is taking its toll on both peoples. The crisis of the military seizures, shutdowns and encirclements of the West Bank is in the news every day. The statistics for unemployment, the numbers of those now living under the poverty line, the lack of running water and the near-total destruction of the Palestinian Authority infrastructure are all well documented.

In Israel, the awareness of the damage that the occupation is doing to the people of Palestine and to the people of Israel, both morally and economically, is growing.

I was in Tel Aviv during the 7th anniversary of the assassination of Yitzak Rabin by a right-wing nationalist. At the site of the assassination, I saw school children laying wreathes to his memory, many too young to remember the effect of the signing of the Oslo Accords, the beginning of a peace process. But they are coming of age in a time of the largest military action ever by the Israeli Army.

Tamar Gozansky, a member of the Knesset from Hadash, the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality, initiated by the Communist Party of Israel, told me at the anniversary service in Jerusalem, “The assassination of Rabin was an assassination of his ideas. The aim of the killer was to kill the peace movement.”

She also said that the peace movement now is challenged by the increasing threats to democracy and the possibility of the right becoming much stronger in the next elections. She said, “We [the left and Communists] must wage a very active campaign including ideological and political issues, among the Jewish population because it is not only important when there are elections but now! Our work is daily!”

Just across the street from the cemetery that day, a peace tent was set up by high school students for a dialogue on the meaning of Rabin’s life. I spoke with one of the organizers, Igal Abrahami, who said that the purpose was to discuss the problems of Israel today. Bringing religious and secular Jewish youth together to dialogue and hear speakers, including an Arab academic, created a stir. “Rabin was the Prime Minister of all the people,” he said. “This day is for the whole people, Arab and Jewish. We must sit and talk about how we move forward from this point.”

The costs of the occupation are tearing at living conditions. Histadrut, the Israeli labor federation, called a strike of 150,000 municipal workers on Oct. 12 for cost-of-living increases for public and private workers and against national budget cuts. The left in the Histadrut is struggling to make the connection between the costs of war and the cuts in human services and the downslide of the living standards of working people. The reality for working people is that there has been a 12 percent decrease in wages due to inflation, budget and benefit cuts in insurance and pensions to fund the military.

I went to the national headquarters of Histadrut on the third day of the strike. The “situation” or “emergency” room is the nerve center of the mobilization of strikes and national actions of the labor federation, which is headed by Jehad Akel, a member of the executive council of Histadrut, representing Hadash.

The office was just like a union headquarters at home, phones ringing off the hook and posters and leaflets stacked in every corner. Akel told me, “Workers don’t feel safe even when they have worked for 7 or 12 years in the public or private sector. This strike is a struggle to save the unions. Not only to get more pay but for the future of all union workers.”

They are negotiating with the right-wing Sharon government and the Manufacturers Association, who have been refusing to meet the agreement signed with Histadrut for cost-of-living increases. The excuse has been that they must provide a “good business environment” while unemployment officially is at 11 percent, with the threat of privatizing government jobs.

A great debate has unfolded in the Knesset on the national budget. Cuts in health care, pensions and student aid have already been implemented. Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, leader of the Labour Party, has threatened to resign from the government unless $145 million earmarked to subsidize the illegal settlements in the territories is returned and used to replace the cuts in human services. Some are criticizing it as a campaign ploy. Nevertheless, it brings home the longterm cost of the occupation on the Israeli economy.

Majority public opinion continues to support the ending of the settlements because they are a flashpoint for violence. In the last week, violent clashes have occurred between the Israeli army and settlers who were removed from trailers on the West Bank. Reporters were attacked and the fanatical ultraright rose to defend their violence.

The government’s support of the illegal settlements has stirred new action by Jewish-Arab Israeli peace groups in the past two weeks with the opening of the olive harvest season. Peace groups in Israel have mobilized to defend the right of Palestinian farmers in the West Bank to harvest their crops.

Violent clashes have erupted as settlers shoot, harass and try to intimidate the farmers into leaving their groves. The pressure by Israeli peace groups and the debate in the media about these attacks have pressured the government to provide protection, but the shootings and violent attacks have continued. There has been a stormy debate in the media about the price the society pays for the destruction of the peace process and the continued occupation.

In Palestine this week, President Yasir Arafat announced the nominees for the new Palestinian Authority Cabinet approved by the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), despite the fact that the Israeli government stopped 13 legislators from attending the meeting in Ramallah on the West Bank.

With an incredible reservoir of struggle, Arafat, when announcing the results of the PLC vote, said, “We seek to reach the concept of joint security not only for our children or your children, but also for the whole region and for the whole world. We recognize your state established on the land of Palestine, and why do you prevent us from establishing our state?”

“Here we are giving you our hand for reconciliation and for peace,” Arafat said. He reiterated the Palestinian leadership’s position that they are against all kinds of actions that hurt and target either Palestinian or Israeli civilians. “Everybody has the right to live – Israelis have the right to live and Palestinians also have the right to live.”

The author has just returned from Israel and Palestine and can be reached at jleblanc@pww.org

PDF version of ‘Reporter’s Journal from Israel and Palestine:The struggle for peace and a decent life’

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