By Uri Avnery
Clearing House" -- --
IT WAS murder in broad daylight. Undercover soldiers
disguised as Arabs, accompanied by armored vehicles and
bulldozers and supported by helicopter gunships, invaded
the center of Ramallah. Their aim was to kill or capture
a Fatah militant, Rabee' Hamid. The man was wounded but
managed to escape.
As always, the place was teeming with people. Manara
Square is the heart of Ramallah, full of life, both
walking and driving. When people realized what was going
on, they started to throw stones at the soldiers. These
responded by shooting wildly in all directions. Four
bystanders were killed, more than 30 wounded.
The routinely mendacious army press release announced
that the four had been armed. Indeed? One of them was a
street vendor named Khalil al-Bairouti, who used to sell
hot beverages from a small cart at this place. Another
was Jamal Jweelis from Shuafat near Jerusalem, who had
come to Ramallah to buy new clothes and sweets for the
engagement party of his brother, which was scheduled for
the next day.
Hearing that approaching bulldozers were crushing
vehicles in the street, Jamal ran out of the shop to
remove his car.
That happened nine days ago. A "routine" action, like so
many others that take place in the occupied Palestinian
territories almost daily. But this time it created an
international uproar, because on that very day Ehud
Olmert was due to meet the President of Egypt, Husni
Mubarak in Sharm el Sheikh. The host was deeply
offended. Do the Israelis despise him so much, that they
so lightly put him to shame in the eyes of his people
and the Arab world? At the end of the meeting, he gave
vent to his anger in no uncertain terms, in the presence
of Olmert, who muttered some weak words of apology.
In Israel, the usual game of passing the buck, known as
"covering one's ass", began. Who was responsible? As
usual, someone low down in the hierarchy. The Prime
Ministers's people first suspected that the Minister of
Defense, Amir Peretz, had done it to trip up Olmert.
Peretz denied any prior knowledge of the action, and
passed the buck on to the Chief-of-Staff, who, he
implied, wanted to bring about the downfall of both
Olmert and Peretz. The C-o-S transferred the
responsibility to the Commander of the Central Front,
Ya'ir Naveh, a Kippa-wearing general known as especially
brutal, with extreme right-wing views. In the end it was
decided that some officer lower down had approved the
action, and that all the responsibility was his.
Even if you believe all these denials - and I most
certainly do not - the image is no less disturbing: a
chaotic army, out of control, where every officer can do
as he sees fit (or unfit).
TWO DAYS later, my wife Rachel and I visited the place.
It was early evening. Under an intermittent drizzle,
("lighthouse") Square was again teeming with people.
Traffic jams blocked all the six streets leading to the
Zacharia, the Palestinian friend who was accompanying
us, was clearly worried. He tried to persuade us not to
go there so soon after the incident. But nothing
Posters of Arafat were hanging on the column in the
center of the square and on some walls. In a mini-market
there were photos of Saddam Hussein. One of the walls
carried angry graffiti: "We Don't Need Your Aid!" (You
the Americans? The Europeans? The aid agencies?)
The four lions surrounding the column in the square
looked to me forlorn and helpless. One of them is
wearing a watch on his leg. The designer had added the
watch as a joke and the Chinese who were contracted to
produce the lions according to the plan did precisely
In the end we entered a coffee shop. While we were
sitting and enjoying the coffee, all the lights went
out. Before we could start to worry, people around us
used their cigarette lighters and cellular phones. After
some minutes, the lights went on again.
On the way home to the hotel in a side street, we took a
taxi. The driver, who did not know that we were
Israelis, talked all the way with his brother in Arabic
on his phone.
He ended the conversation with three words: "Yallah.
Lehitraot. Bye." Yallah (something like OK) in Arabic.
Lehitraot ("see you again") in Hebrew. Bye in English.
WHEN WE told our friends in Tel-Aviv that we were off to
a conference in Ramallah, they thought that we had taken
leave of our senses. "To Ramallah? And now of all times,
after what has just happened there?"
The organizers of the conference - Faculty for Israeli-
Palestinian Peace, an international group of academics -
also hesitated. True, the conference was arranged
several weeks ago, but perhaps it would be best to
postpone it for a week or two? Was it wise to bring to
Ramallah dozens of Israelis, less than 24 hours after
In the end, it was decided, quite rightly, that this was
exactly the right time and place to convene the
The representatives of 23 Palestinian, 22 Israeli and 15
international organizations were lodged for three days
in a Ramallah hotel, met, ate together and discussed the
one subject that was on everybody's mind: how to act
together to put an end to the occupation which produces
daily horrors like the Manara Square killing spree?
It was important to hold the conference precisely at
this place for another reason: Since the murder of
Yasser Arafat, the connections between the Israeli and
Palestinian peace forces at the higher level had become
tenuous. Unlike Arafat [incidentally, Uri Dan, Sharon's
confidant, recently put to rest any doubt that the late
Palestinian President was indeed murdered], Mahmoud
Abbas obviously does not think that they are important.
That is one of the reasons - one of many - for the
pessimism that has infected parts of the peace camp.
Therefore, the very fact that such a conference was
taking place was important. Israelis, Palestinians and
international activists mingled and sat together,
proposed actions, stressed the common aim. On the second
day, the conference broke up into smaller workshops,
where participants from Tel-Aviv and Hebron, Nablus and
New York, Barcelona and Kfar-Sava put forward ideas for
There were also some stormy debates, though not between
Israelis and Palestinians, but about differences of
opinion that did not follow national lines. The most
Should the main effort be devoted to action in the
country or abroad?
The representative of an Israeli group argued with much
feeling that there was nothing to be done inside the
country, that all the efforts should be focused on
winning over international public opinion, on the lines
of the world-wide boycott that had been so successful
against South Africa. In response, a Palestinian
activist argued that the only important thing was to
influence public opinion in Israel, which was, after
all, the occupier. I also argued that the main effort
should be directed towards Israel, even if actions
abroad can be useful, too. I vigorously opposed the idea
of a general boycott against Israel, because - among
other things - it would push the public into the arms of
the Right. (However, I do support the idea of a boycott
against specific targets that are clearly identified
with the occupation, such as the settlements, suppliers
of certain military equipment, universities with
branches in the occupied territories etc.)
SOME DAYS later a comparable meeting took place in the
capital of Spain. But there was a difference between the
two conferences - much like the difference between Sun
Square in Madrid and Manara Square in Ramallah.
Madrid saw a congregation of respectable personalities,
Members of the Knesset (including supporters of the
government that is responsible for the bloodshed in
Ramallah, one of them a representative of a neo-Fascist
party) together with some notables from the Palestinian
authority and their colleagues from Arab and other
countries. In Ramallah there came together the veterans
of the fight for peace, people who had stood fast dozens
of times in a cloud of tear gas and against
rubber-coated bullets. One group of Palestinians and
Israelis, who arrived together late on the first day,
came straight from a demonstration in Bil'in, where the
army had used a water cannon, tear gas and also rubber
The guests in Madrid had come by plane. The guests in
Ramallah had a much tougher time getting there. The
Israelis had to squirm through checkpoints on their way
in, and even more on the way back. Israelis (except
settlers) break the law when they travel to the occupied
But for the Palestinians, it was ten times harder to get
to Ramallah. A guest from Nablus told us that he had
left home at 2 AM in order to reach the conference at 11
AM. The guest from Tubas, near Nablus, spent eight hours
on the road and at the checkpoints - much more than the
time needed to get from Tel-Aviv to Madrid.
The Madrid conference was covered extensively in the
Israeli media, day after day. The Ramallah conference
was not mentioned with one single word in any Israeli
newspaper, TV or radio station, except for a single line
in the gossip column in Maariv, which said: "Uri Avnery
has temporarily gone to live in Ramallah".
THE MADRID conference was relevant mainly as proof that
Israeli and Palestinian politicians can sit together,
even after all that has happened. What was the
importance of the meeting in Ramallah?
In the past, I have taken part in many similar
conferences that have borne no fruit. This time, too,
the obstacles are enormous. But more than ever, it is
clear that action must be taken against the occupation,
and that the action must be joint, consistent and well
In five months, the occupation will be 40 years old -
perhaps the longest-lasting military occupation regime
the world has ever seen. At the conference, there was
general agreement that all forces must be concentrated
in a great public campaign to mark this shameful date
and draw attention to the injustices of the occupation,
the harm it does not only to the Palestinians but also
to the Israelis, to bring the Green Line back into the
public consciousness, to act against the roadblocks and
the Annexation Wall, and for the release of the
prisoners of both sides. For this purpose, the
conference decided to set up "an Israeli-
Palestinian-International Coalition to End the
The continuation will depend on the willpower, courage
and devotion of all peace forces, and their ability to
cooperate beyond the roadblocks, walls and fences - one
of whose aims is precisely to obstruct such cooperation.
Time is pressing. Perhaps that is why one of the lions
in Manara Square has a watch.
Uri Avnery is an Israeli author and activist. He is
the head of the Israeli peace movement, "Gush Shalom".