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Crisis compounded by multiple sieges

The siege of Gaza is only one kind of siege that is currently in operation in Israel and the Palestinian territories. Gaza, of course, represents one of the gravest humanitarian crises in the world. During my recent stay in Israel, conversations with a number of persons brought home the many ways in which it has been reduced to a slum - even water sources smell of ammunition! In effect, Israel's actions against Gaza have created a wave of sympathy in world opinion overturning the initial revulsion to Hamas violence and this includes its particularly vicious bombing known as Operation Cast Lead and the subsequent siege that it has enforced along with Egypt. Later this month, 4, 000 persons will be on aboard Freedom Flotilla no 2, representing an international coalition of 32 countries and will once again defy the siege.

Ironically, the siege is being enforced by a selfproclaimed Jewish democracy to protect Israeli Jews, who of all people in the world should know best what the experience of a siege is. President Nasser closed Israel's own access to the Suez Canal in 1956 and in 1967 once again blocked Israel's Red Sea port of Eilat denying its ships access to the Straits of Tiran. But there are older accounts in Jewish history and memory of Roman sieges.

The Roman Empire's siege and fall of Jerusalem between 66 and 74 BCE is one of the most painful episodes of Jewish history. Jewish collective suicide at Masada is recounted by Josephus Flavius following the siege of the Romans and the breaching of the hitherto impregnable rock fortress. Josephus also tells the story of the siege of Jotpata, a city in the Galilee in which 40 notables had taken refuge in a cave till a woman gave them away to the Romans. He and another woman were the only survivors following collective death of the rest.

Masada has become iconic for contemporary Jewish nationalism, yet the Israeli state fails to comprehend that it is reproducing for Palestinians the imperialism of Rome multiplied manifold by modern technologies of violence. A series of sieges are identifiable in its post-1967 occupation policy.

The work of colonialism and nationalism thrives on boundaries and Israel is caught in the tragic-drama of its own line drawing exercise. Jerusalem, which is possibly the central issue in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is being suffocated as never before in its history and by a state for which Jerusalem is a founding myth. Studies conducted by the International Peace and Cooperation Center show the creation of a belt of settlements around Jerusalem, the coming to an end of the Moroccon Quarter, dispossession in the Muslim Quarter while the Jewish Quarter has been expanded sixfold from 20 dunums to 120 dunums. Since the mid-80 s Sharon had begun the policy of Judaising Muslim and Christian Quarters and began supporting the movement of extremist groups into these areas to fulfill the Zionist vision of the Old City.

The newer boundaries not only encircle but also build over. This is manifested in the way in which Jews have been given rights to build on the roofs of Palestinian homes both in Jaffa (the old city of Tel Aviv) and in the Muslim Quarter in Jerusalem. As always, the new Jewish settlers work through Palestinian collaborator-tenants.

There is even a messianic hope to build a Third Temple over the Muslim holy site of Haram al-Sharif, where the Prophet Muhammad's Ascension on the horse Burraq is said to have taken place. Archaeological excavations continue unabated and have led to countless protests but to no effect.

Jerusalem has been for the last 500 years a multi-ethnic, multi-religious city conserved by its Turko-Arab character. The mosaic character typifies the Muslim city and was a product of organic growth. State planning and housing have now become the twin instruments of sovereignty, added to which is the Judaicisation of the names of streets and neighbourhoods.

Even as Jerusalem is seemingly "united" under Israeli sovereignty, it has become the paradigmatic divided city, ethnically and nationally. In effect, international civil society became complicit in this by its endorsement of the Oslo Agreement of 1993 that was to have given autonomy to Palestinians in West Bank and Gaza Strip but excluded the Palestinian National Authority from East Jerusalem that had been the political centre both for the Jordanian State in the West Bank and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. Since 1967, Israel has confiscated 25, 000 dunns of Arab lands for Jewish settlements, prohibiting any Palestinian settlements in West Jerusalem.

East Jerusalem has been cut off from the West Bank, yet another siege symbolised by a regime of checkpoints and permits. A 700-km wall built in violation of international law according to the International Court of Justice extends Israeli sovereignty and severs Palestinians from Israeli Arabs. As observers point out, the wall had been planned prior to the suicide bombings that were later used to justify it and came about when fears were expressed of a growing Palestinian population.

The very suburbs of Jerusalem have been wrenched from it. My drive to the Al Quds campus at Abu Dis now takes almost half an hour instead of the 5-10 minutes it would normally take from the German Colony in Jerusalem. Like many other suburbs, it has been separated from East Jerusalem. Indeed, all three Palestinian universities, including those of Bir Zeit and Bethlehem, have been affected (in the case of Al Quds, the wall was to go through its football field until its President, Sari Nusseibeh, interceded with Condoleeza Rice) as students from East Jerusalem are no longer able to access these institutions.

And then there are the less visible lines - the ways in which an invisible boundary has been drawn around Gaza and farmers have been forced out of the buffer zone surrounding it. The Al Jahaleen Bedouins who have been uprooted from their environment in Abu Dis and resettled along the outer wall.

The Israelis have to understand that Israel was the gift of the Arabs to them. No western country would have allowed the creation of a Jewish state on its territory. Unknowingly the Arabs abetted in its making by selling them their land. What is going to be Israel's gift to the Arabs? Surely not imperialism's gift of lines, borders and sieges.

The writer is Senior Fellow, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies

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