Shining a Light on the Occupation

by Mark Chmiel

A review of Kathleen and Bill Christison, Palestine in Pieces: Graphic Perspectives on the Israeli Occupation (Verso, 2009).

When several of us went to work with the International Solidarity Movement in 2003, my friend Pat Geier observed that her going raised the anxiety level of her friends in Louisville. Because she was headed into a possibly dangerous conflict zone, her friends began to pay more serious attention to what was going on there. That said, I can strongly recommend Kathleen and Bill Christison’s recent book Palestine in Pieces to anyone who has made a first trip to Palestine as well as to those people who’ve had their anxiety and awareness raised by such travelers.

For example, I think of Matt Miller and Nima Sheth who spent a week on the West Bank in 2008 and a day in Gaza in 2009; Kelly McBride who visited the West Bank for three days in 2009; and J’Ann Allen and Sandra Tamari, who just returned from Cairo where they and 1400 other internationals had gathered to march to Gaza. I’m guessing that each of them knows at least a score of people who were made more aware of the injustices the Palestinians face daily.

Years ago, the Christisons were analysts with the Central Intelligence Agency. Their journey into solidarity with the Palestinians’ struggle for freedom has been a long, gradual, and humble one. Having made seven visits to the West Bank and Gaza since 2003, the Christisons bring to this book familiarity on the ground, critical analysis, and passion commensurate with the oppression inflicted on the Palestinians. It’s instructive and intriguing to read how a couple once ensconced in the foreign policy establishment came to such clarity about this asymmetrical conflict.

The title of the book bluntly calls attention to the results of the Israel’s occupation. To see the realities created on the Palestinians’ land by Israel’s settlers and army is to come close to despair about the possibilities of a meaningful two-state settlement. The reason is the occupation has so fractured the Palestinians’ economic, social, cultural, and religious lives that they are living separated from their compatriots and, often, their own means of employment, access to health care centers, and ability to cultivate their agricultural fields.

Several chapters introduce the reader to the interlocking modalities of the occupation’s domination of the Palestinians: carving up their land by establishing Jewish-only settlements (or colonies) and erecting the illegal Separation Wall; proliferating checkpoints and roadblocks that impede Palestinians’ freedom of movement; demolishing people’s homes; and subjecting cities, towns, and villages to the severe measures of curfew, closure, and siege. At the end of most chapters, the authors include several to many photographs that give the reader a visual sense of these oppressive processes endured daily by Palestinian men, women, and children. Some of the photographs reveal as well the dignity, steadfastness, and solidarity of those who find ways to resist Israel’s criminal aggression.

Three representative passages:

Security is not an adequate or an appropriate excuse for wanton killing, for expropriating massive tracts of Palestinian land, for imprisoning millions behind walls and razor wire, for bulldozing thousands of homes belonging to innocent people never charged with or even suspected of terrorism. What exactly is the reason for spilling sewage from Israeli settlements onto the land of neighboring Palestinian villages? What indeed is the security excuse for planting settlements on Palestinian land in the West Bank in the first place? What is the reason for dropping 1,000-pound bombs or lobbing artillery shells onto homes and apartment blocs in the middle of the night when it is a certainty that the vast majority of the casualties will be civilian? The hypocrisy of the demand for sympathy for Israel’s position, when Israel is the human rights violator and the brutal oppressor, is stunning. (p. 20)

At the root of the vast matrix of roads and checkpoints that cripple the Palestinian economy and Palestinian lives is the network of Israeli settlements throughout the West Bank. Without the settlements, there would be no segregated roads, no checkpoints and, most likely, no Separation Wall. The checkpoints protect the roads; the roads protect the settlements; the settlements are a colonial implantation, relentlessly expanding, intended to grab land and keep it for Israel. Like the “critically inferior” Palestinian road system that must pass underneath Israeli roads, all Palestinian interests, all Palestinian security and viability are subordinate to this essential Israeli objective of Jewish expansion across all of Palestine. (p. 86)

There are hardly words to describe the human suffering and degradation deliberately imposed on Palestinians by Israel’s occupation. The Israeli threat to Palestinian lives and livelihood, individually and collectively—indeed to Palestinian national existence—through theft of land and the siege of towns and villages, through walls and roads and blockades that strangle, through the crippling of economic opportunity, through deliberate large-scale killing, together resemble a hunting expedition to cage and ultimately eliminate animals from a natural habitat. Israeli leaders, Israeli settlers, Israeli soldiers treat Palestinians not as a collective of human beiges, but as trapped animals whose fate is of little or no concern. (p.137)

One of the dedicatees of the authors’ book is Rachel Corrie, the U.S. college student who was killed by an IDF soldier in his bulldozer, as she attempted to prevent a Palestinian family’s home from being destroyed. In 2003 she had come to Gaza to work with the International Solidarity Movement. In an email to her family, she confessed, “I’m having a hard time right now. Just feel sick to my stomach from being doted on very sweetly, by people who are facing doom. I know that from the United States it all sounds like hyperbole. A lot of the time the kindness of the people here, coupled with the willful destruction of their lives, makes it seem unreal to me. I can’t believe that something like this can happen in the world without a bigger outcry. It hurts me, again, like it has hurt me in the past, to witness how awful we can allow the world to be.” Like Corrie, the Christisons have experienced such kindness, incredulity, and indignation, and these formative contacts with the Palestinian reality have given birth to their strong political commitment.

Palestine in Pieces is a penetrating work of demystification and conscientization. May something inside this book—a story, a photo, a fact—hurt something inside the reader as she feels arise in her the conviction: This must not be.