50 Years of Israeli Occupation, Told Through the Eyes of an Author

Irish author Colm Toibin toured the West Bank last week to collect material for his contribution to an a 2017 anthology.

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Colm Toibin visits the West Bank village Susiya, where some Palestinians live near ruins that were declared an archaeological site in the mid-1980s, forcing them to leave.
Colm Toibin visits the West Bank village Susiya, where some Palestinians live near ruins that were declared an archaeological site in the mid-1980s, forcing them to leave. Credit: Nasser Nasser, AP

AP — Notebook in hand, acclaimed Irish author Colm Toibin walks into Hebron to observe Israeli military rule in its rawest form.

In the heart of the West Bank's largest Palestinian city, several hundred combat troops guard an equal number of militant Jewish settlers, enforcing a separation system that lets settlers move freely at the expense of Palestinians and has turned a once vibrant market into a ghost district.

Moments after Toibin reaches a small plaza in downtown Hebron, the quiet of largely deserted streets gives way to violence.

Two Israelis sitting at a cafe table spot Toibin's escort, Israeli peace activist Yehuda Shaul, and begin cursing him. Shaul turns and stares at the pair, but says nothing. The two jump up and walk toward him. Suddenly, one of them attacks a videographer in Toibin's group who was filming the scene, breaking the camera with a kick. Israeli troops who witness the assault refuse to detain the attackers, who eventually slip away.

Toibin, 61, stands back and takes notes on what Shaul later describes as routine settler lawlessness in Hebron.

The troubled city is the last stop on Toibin's weeklong visit to Israel and the West Bank. He's collecting material for an essay, his contribution to an anthology on Israeli occupation that will be published at the 50-year mark in June 2017. The book will include essays from 20 international writers, including Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners, and six local authors.

Each tackles a different subject, from Israel's military court system to grieving Jewish and Arab families who lost loved ones to violence. The work is based on observations during tours similar to Toibin's.

Toibin, who last visited in 1992, said he was struck most by the elaborate system of Israeli control over Palestinians, including roadblocks and fences, and the energy spent on maintaining it.

"All of us have been surprised by the amount of architecture and engineering required to make sure one side is locked in and the other side is free to move," said Toibin, who has won several literary awards and whose novel "Brooklyn" about an Irish immigrant was adapted into a movie last year.

The anthology is meant to introduce a wider audience to this reality through the power of story-telling, said those involved in the project.

"I want to get to people who would normally avoid at all costs thinking about this issue because it makes them uncomfortable," said Israeli-American writer Ayelet Waldman, one of the book's editors.

Toibin's millions of readers, for example, might not be interested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, "but they might read an essay by a writer like Colm Toibin and then they might think of the place in a new way," the U.S.-based Waldman said in a phone interview.

The occupation began with Israel's swift capture of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast war - lands the U.N. General Assembly recognizes as making up a state of Palestine, though Israel says future borders must be negotiated.

Over the past five decades, Israel, citing security needs, established a military bureaucracy that enforces movement restrictions on Palestinians through a complex permit system. Successive governments have moved nearly 600,000 Israelis, or 10 percent of the country's Jewish population, to settlements on occupied land, a multi-billion-dollar enterprise the international community overwhelmingly considers illegitimate.

Israel has also fragmented the territory of what is meant to be Palestine.

Israel annexed east Jerusalem in 1967, withdrew from Gaza in 2005 but then sealed the territory after the 2007 takeover of the territory by the Islamic militant group Hamas. Under interim peace deals reached in the 1990s, it directly controls 62 percent of the West Bank, known as Area C, home to settlers and largely off-limits to Palestinian development. Palestinians led by Hamas' rival, Western-backed President Mahmoud Abbas, have some autonomy in the rest of the West Bank.

Israel says it has been willing to negotiate an end to occupation, but that Palestinians rejected or responded with violence to generous Israeli offers in 2000 and 2008. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he remains open to talks, but he has shown little faith in Abbas. Talks have been at a standstill since Netanyahu took office in 2009.

Palestinians say a systematic colonization of east Jerusalem and the West Bank belies Israel's claims that it is serious about ending occupation. Many members of Netanyahu's government oppose Palestinian statehood, and several advocate annexing large parts of the West Bank.

The anthology, to be published in English, Hebrew, Arabic and several other languages, was conceived by Shaul and Waldman, who say they are Israeli patriots and want to contribute to ending occupation by helping shift public opinion at home and abroad.

"It is on our shoulders to stop the occupation and save Israel," said Shaul, 32, who spent part of his military service in Hebron and a decade ago founded "Breaking The Silence," a veterans' group that collects soldiers' testimony about abusive practices in the West Bank.

Netanyahu's office did not respond to a request for comment on the book project.

Last week, Shaul accompanied Toibin to the Palestinian hamlet of Susiya, home to several dozen families. The village is flanked by a Jewish settlement and the ruins of a centuries-old Jewish town of the same name.

Palestinians lived in the area of the ruins until it was declared an archaeological site and they were forced to leave in the mid-1980s. Some moved to other Palestinian communities, while others settled a few hundred yards away, on land they say they own.

Israel refused to recognize the community or hook it up to electricity and water grids, while providing such services to the settlement of Susiya and unauthorized Jewish outposts in the area. Israel has also threatened to demolish the Palestinian village of tents and shacks.

In his essay, Toibin said he will tell the story of some of the displaced, including Nasser Nawaja, who now has to pay $7 to visit his birthplace at the archaeological site. Even then, Nawaja said, settlers only let him enter the site when he is accompanied by Israelis or foreigners.

On a hot summer day, Toibin toured the park with Nawaja, including a cave where the 34-year-old Palestinian said he was born and that is now used to screen a short film about ancient Susiya for visitors. The novelist, dressed in a crisp white shirt and gray linen pants, and the villager sat in the dark as they listened to a Jewish version of local history.

In writing about his experience, Toibin said he will avoid words like "occupation" and "''settlements" that he believes convey little meaning. "What I want to use are the smaller words to let people actually see what it is like on the (given) day for people who are humans under the same sky," he said.