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Appalling equation

By Gideon Levy

Ha'aretz, Op Ed, 4 March 2001

The Palestinians' cemeteries will be filled with visitors tomorrow. Every year the Palestinians visit the graves of their loved ones on the morning of the Feast of the Sacrifice, Id al Adha; tomorrow they will be visiting more than 300 fresh graves, of which 87 hold the remains of children. Then they will return to their homes for the festive meals.This year, though, few families will be partaking of sheep's meat, the traditional food of this holiday, but will be eating chicken instead, because of the price. And many children will not be wearing new holiday clothes, as is the custom, because their parents don't have the money to buy them. There will also be fewer than the usual number of guests - some relatives won't be able to attend because of the closure imposed in the territories.

It has been a long time - since their calamity in 1948 - that the Palestinians have endured such a hard Feast of the Sacrifice. Just an hour's drive from Jerusalem, a cruel drama has been under way for the past five months the likes of which have not been seen since the early period of the Israeli occupation, but the majority of Israelis are taking absolutely no interest in it. The iron grip of the closure in its new format is increasingly strangling a population of 2.8 million people, yet no one is saying a word, not around the cabinet table of the outgoing government - the peace government - not among those who are going to serve in the new government, and not in the opposition of the Zionist left.

It has to be said starkly and simply: There has never been a closure like this there, in the land of the barriers and the closures. In the worst of the times of the previous Intifada, when the IDF was in every corner and curfew reigned supreme, there was not a situation in which a whole people was jailed without a trial and without the right of appeal. Appeal? If in the past the fate of a woman about to give birth, or of a sick person who was about to die, depended on the humanity of the young soldier who was manning the roadblock, and who either let them pass or not, now the Palestinians can only dream about a good soldier who once might perhaps have raised the barrier: Israel has split the West Bank by means of hundreds of trenches, dirt ramparts and concrete cubes which have been placed at the entrance to most of the towns and villages.

No one enters and no one leaves, not those who are pregnant and not those who are dying. There isn't even a soldier with whom one can plead and beg. The village, the refugee camp or the town are besieged and their residents are imprisoned. A schoolchild cannot get safely to his school, or a student to her college, or an adult to his work.

A network of bizarre Burma roads that break through the encirclement are sending an entire people along muddy, rocky routes, with the situation aggravated by a substantial risk of getting caught or getting shot by soldiers who often open fire on the desperate travelers trying, somehow, to cling to the routine of their lives. Only those who travel on the roads of the West Bank can grasp the full extent of the atrocity.

This mass jailing of an entire people, with its monstrously inhumane dimension, entails also a mortal economic blow. According to data of the United Nations envoy Terje Roed-Larsen, the credibility of which there is no reason to doubt, the Palestinians are losing $6.8 million a day because of the present closure, and to date their losses total more than a billion dollars. For an economy that was shaky to begin with, that is a death blow. A quarter of a million unemployed, a million people living beneath the Palestinian poverty line - $2.10 a day - and a 50 percent decline in the gross national product: These are nightmarish statistics not only for the Palestinians but for the Israelis as well.

Never before has there been distress and suffering on this scale among the Palestinians in the territories. They will engender unprecedented despair and ultimately they will spark violence more cruel and painful than anything seen so far. Already now, 84 percent of the Palestinians, who are generally steeled against adversity, say that they are suffering from "psychological hardship," according to an up-to-date survey conducted by Bir Zeit University. The number increases day by day.

Their hardship will be transformed into more and more terrorist attacks. This is the point: the horrific distress of the Palestinians because of the present closure will quickly turn into the distress of the Israelis. If their Feast of the Sacrifice looks the way it does, then our Purim will not bring with it much happiness either. Simple as it is, no one is taking into account the gravity of this appalling equation. Even those who have in their hearts considerations based on a humanitarian or moral approach, should have long since calculated the profit and loss balance for Israel.

The present closure is totally unrelated to security considerations. Anyone who doubts this is invited to go to the barriers and roadblocks and see thousands of pedestrians and vehicles managing, despite everything, to sneak into Israel under the nose of the soldiers. Those who are willing to take the risk of doing this in order to work, will certainly also do it in order to perpetrate a terrorist attack. The true purpose of the closure is to please the frightened settlers and perhaps also, the suspicion arises, to destroy the Palestinian Authority, for reasons which are difficult to comprehend.

The current siege, a shamefully appalling operation, must be lifted quickly. This must not be made conditional on the cessation of the violence, because the siege itself is the most effective spur of violence. We are not even talking any longer about entering Israel, but about free entry to Nablus.

There is no measure that the prime minister-elect, Ariel Sharon, can take that would contribute more to effecting a dramatic change in the situation than to remove, immediately and unconditionally, the trenches and the earth ramparts from the already difficult life of the Palestinians. That will be not only a humane action but an intelligent one.

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