Sunday, June 26, 2005

It Could Be So Much Worse, eh?

So here's the story behind the kvetching about my job(s). I used to sew a lot, both for myself and semi-professionally, making specialized costumes for dancers. The kids were finally old enough, and I was venturing into the regular business world. Costumes are fun, but they don't pay the bills. Sewing for neurotic, damanding clients who have no idea the value they were receiving (because they DON'T sew) was just too stressful. Working in a fabric store seemed a natural. It was great fun, and I could leave the job at the store, as opposed to obsessing about commissions 24/7. Things were going well. I was even promoted to supervisor, learning to handle the cash and inventory. I'd have been at this place a year in April (yes! raise coming!) I added the office temping as a backup to support my sweetie's new business venture.

What happened? Apparently though on the surface all was well, this company had had serious cash flow problems for years. We got the "don't worry" letter in January. "We're restructuring. We're closing two stores in town, but the other three will be fine, and you will have the opportunity to switch to one of the remaining locations, blah, blah". Okaaay . . . . . .

Fortunately, I work at the head office location, so regardless, I knew that store would be fine. Three stores could easily absorb the staff of the ones that were closing. Everything seemed to be moving along right up to the end of April. The Bank pulled the plug that Friday. The Receiver's letter came on Sunday, posted in the staffroom. What a masterpiece of insult. No obligations contracted by the company to any salaried employees were in effect anymore, i.e. my lovely manager's severance agreement was gone, reduction in benefits to wage folk, and "we are pleased to retain you at your present salary, paid bi-weekly, until we terminate your position." And by the way, we only have to give you 24 hours notice. "Thank you for your cooperation in this time of transition."


But the worst was the practically instantaneous change in the character of the customers. As I live and breathe, I never thought I would see such behaviour from "civilized" and may I add well-off (the store is in a fairly affluent part of town) people.

All of the sudden, it's perfectly ok to leave bolts of silk drapery unravelled all over the floor. To pull bolts from all over, and dump them whereever you happen to get distracted. To switch discount tags ("I"m sorry madam, but the heavy cream chenille upholstery you have there, just doesn't sell for $9.99. Did you notice the roll it's on says grey organza?") Or just outright steal the material. We find empty bolts tucked everywhere. But the hardest thing is how rude and demanding people are being, because they are being inconvenienced.

They were mad for the first week because there weren't any more special orders. The second week because the lines were so long, they had to wait. The third week because there wasn't enough of the perfect thing they found and we aren't (can't, really) doing any more interstore checks. Or phone checks to see if we have the exact colour and length of zipper ("I'm sorry ma'am but I have 16 people in line for cash. I really can't go look". Huffs and hangs up). They still want all the consultation help they used to get. ("Well, I'm not really sure how big my windows are and I don't know what kind of rod I have, but I want to make drapes. How much do I need?") And so on. And for every person who says "I'm so sorry, I hope you all will be able to find work.", there are ten who whine "But, where are we going to shop??" and "will there be any more discounts before you close?" It's like a lake of pirhanas.

I think of how tired I am at the end of a full shift. The average bold of fleece weighs about 8lbs, and you handle an average of 60 bolts a shift. That's JUST fleece, nevermind the quilting cottons or drapery and vinyl, etc. . Or how difficult it is to hold my tongue when some woman (and it's ALWAYS a woman) tells me some variation on how "our attitude and customer service has dropped shamefully, since we started to close." That "She is never coming back again". Oh honey, do you ever listen to what you are actually saying? We are in the seventh week of an After Christmas-type sale. We are all exhausted and we are all losing our jobs. Sometimes we're just not feeling perky! And by the way, GOOD. We've got more than enough to deal with, without you too.

But when I think about all that, I still can't feel badly. I have a great life. I am blessed beyond measure and nothing, nothing I have to deal with is an inconvenience. What if I had to live the life of the poor women and men who are trapped in the ever-shrinking Isreali-created ghetto that is the Occupied Territories? These are people who are stronger and braver than any of us could dream. That they must be strong and brave, because their situation is being ignored, is the shame of the entire Western World.

Blue Ibis

Signs June 18, 2005

Ran HaCohen: The Quiet Occupation

Friday, June 17 2005
By Ran HaCohen

(ANTIWAR.COM) - What is the first picture the term "occupation" raises in our mind? Probably some kind of extreme violence among civilians: lethal fire in the middle of town, terrified kids in pajamas watching heavily armed soldiers searching a house, a helicopter firing a missile in the midst of Gaza. All these violent scenes do happen, but they do not give an adequate picture of what the occupation really looks like.

Very few people realize that Israel has turned life in the occupied territories (Israeli settlers excluded) into complete misery without any need to fire a single bullet. A unique, invaluable glance into the mechanisms that constitute this "quiet" occupation, usually hidden behind the literal smokescreen of violence, is given by the first annual report of the Israeli human rights group Machsom Watch, presented in a press conference in Tel Aviv last week.

West Bank Checkpoints: The Basics

Machsom – "roadblock" in Hebrew - stands for a whole arsenal of obstacles spread throughout the occupied territories: temporary or permanent roadblocks, manned checkpoints or roads closed off by heavy cement blocks, gates in the Wall, earth mounds, trenches, observation towers. The least known but most significant fact about these various physical obstacles is that almost all of them are NOT "border checkpoints" located between Israel and the occupied territories; almost all of them are placed WITHIN the occupied territories, hampering the movement from one Palestinian town or village to another.

Within the last four years - signs were clear enough in early 2002 - Israel made every movement of every Palestinian dependent on Israeli permit. Incredible, but true: a Palestinian wishing to get out of (or reenter) his or her immediate surrounding - a town, a village, a neighborhood, or just an arbitrarily cut-off part of a village - has to get a permit from Israel in advance and show it at every Israeli-manned checkpoint. You cannot just go to work, to do some shopping or business, to school, to visit family or friends, to a hospital - you have to go through one or several Israeli checkpoints first.

The numbers are horrifying. The UN's Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs (OCHA) counted in November 2004 not less than 719 (!) physical obstacles throughout the West Bank. Machsom Watch reports that less than 70 of them were removed in the recent "calm" period, some only to be replaced by the rapidly progressing Wall. An army general reported that the 25 central checkpoints under his command required 1,000 soldiers, and up to 5,000 soldiers are employed on special alerts (Ha'aretz, July 22, 2003); no wonder the checkpoints are consistently undermanned, resulting in endless queues.

None of the more than 2 million Palestinians in the West Bank thus live more than a couple of miles away from a roadblock or checkpoint. A short route through the West Bank would inevitably take you through several Israeli checkpoints, some of them five minutes' ride from each other. Lucky to have gone through one checkpoint? The next one is just a few minutes ahead, where you'll have to start all over again.

Checkpoints are closed on Israeli, Jewish, Muslim, and other holidays and public occasions, paralyzing Palestinian economic and social life. Machsom Watch reports that

"From March to May [2004], a closure was imposed that included full encirclement in many areas of the West Bank. The closure started for the Passover holiday, continued uninterrupted until Israeli Independence Day (several weeks later) and from then to the Likud party's referendum, and it was finally lifted after the Final Four playoff games."

A Personal Aside

When I was 18, I had my basic training with an Israeli infantry unit notorious for its ferocity. The most difficult aspect of the 100 days I spent there, in early 1983, was not the physical hardship: it was bad enough, but a piece of cake compared to the permanent stress caused by the intentional, systematic policy of keeping the new recruits under complete uncertainty. We had no idea what might happen a few minutes later - would we be taken to a lecture, a physical exercise, a meal, or moved to a remote base? We were sent to bed late at night only to be awakened half an hour later; a weekend off at home would be announced and withdrawn several times till Friday afternoon; and individual soldiers would be punished for no clear reason. As my officer later told us, the idea was to "break us down as civilians in order to rebuild us as soldiers." At least the first part was accomplished successfully: The unbearable stress caused many of us severe mental damage, like shock, identification with the aggressor, or post-traumatic syndromes.

Through the Checkpoint

Machsom Watch activists say they have seen the idea behind the checkpoints policy actually written in a military document: Keeping the Palestinian population under permanent uncertainty. Precisely the same principle, then, used to "break down" recruits during basic training, is applied to an entire population, children and adults, women and men, sick and elderly. The checkpoints are at the heart of this policy.

The moment you start a journey through the West Bank, you are no longer master of your time. You do not know whether you'll be able to make it at all, nor even roughly how long it will take. Due to "surprise checkpoints" and checkpoints manned only during certain hours, you cannot even tell how many checkpoints you'll have to go through. Any checkpoint can be closed at any time, without prior notice nor any indication whether and when it will reopen. You can pass three checkpoints on your way, only to be stopped at the fourth. Crossing a checkpoint can take minutes or hours, due to unpredictable queues. The army may also suddenly impose the notorious "Stop All Life Procedure" - a total freeze on movement that lasts for hours at a time.


Even when a checkpoint is open, individuals are exposed to extreme arbitrariness and uncertainty. Having a permit is a necessary condition to pass through the checkpoint, but not a sufficient one. With a hardly noticeable gesture of his or her finger, a 19-year-old soldier may decide your document needs "inspection" and detain you. Such a detention can take 20 minutes; but it can also take several hours, during which you have to wait in the unroofed Jora ("hole" in Arabic, "sewage hole" in Hebrew), where you may be ordered to remain standing, or to sit on the ground facing the wall. If you are a bus driver, all your passengers will have to wait with you. Your document may be sent for inspection immediately; but it may have to wait until 20 or 30 other documents are accumulated and sent together. When it returns with an OK, you may proceed; but some documents often get lost in the process.

Who is detained? Here are some answers Machsom Watch activists got from checkpoint soldiers: "Anyone who looks stressed" (under these circumstances, who wouldn't?); "Every ninth man"; "Everyone called Mohammed"; "Everyone who wants to go through my checkpoint." Arbitrariness incarnate. Many soldiers refer to detention at checkpoints as a kind of punishment or "educational measure," and even order those in charge: "Detain this guy for a long time."

English Weather

Behind this system are myriads of human beings with sometimes heartbreaking stories – the arrested kidney patient, the beaten student. Some of these stories clearly fall under abuse. Israel's efficiency in turning Palestinian life into hell disappears when complaints are to be processed: out of 100 complaints sent by Machsom Watch in 2004 to several state and army offices, 87 percent were ignored or insufficiently answered. Two years ago, the army admitted that out of 1,200 "inquiries" into checkpoint complaints, only 18 had led to military police investigations; the rest - 98.5 percent – had been shelved (Ha'aretz, July 22, 2003).

But it is important not to let the cases of abuse distract from the "normal" routine: Palestinian daily life is unbearable even on what Machsom Watch activists call "an English weather," i.e., a usual day without any exceptional event. If the roots of Palestinian frustration, despair, and violence - "terrorism," if you like - are to be sought, the checkpoint system is an excellent place to start.

Comment: It is clear that Israeli government oppression of Palestinians has little to do with security concerns and everything to do with harassing and often murdering Palestinian civilians and leaders in order to prevent them from establishing themselves as a independent people with a sovereign voice on the world stage.

Central to this goal is the continued portrayal of any Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation as "terrorism" when, in reality, resistance (including armed) to an occupying power is a fundamental right laid down in the article four of the third Geneva Convention.

However, according to humanitarian law, in order to lawfully use force in a conflict you must first be designated a lawful 'combatant'. To be a 'combatant', you have to belong to an 'armed resistance group' and that group must belong to a 'party' to the conflict. It is in this fact that we find one of the chief reasons why Israel will NEVER willingly allow the creation of a Palestinian state.

As long as Palestine does not have official state status, any Palestinian resistance group cannot claim to be a party in the conflict and must remain a simple independent resistance group, or a "terrorist" group in modern parlance.

Not only did the developed world oversee the theft of Palestinian land in order to create the state of Israel in 1948, but in continuing to refuse to lobby for an independent Palestinian state, they ensure that any Palestinian resistance to Israeli aggression is delegitimised in advance.

The day that Palestine is recognised as an independent state by the world (don't hold your breath) is the day that Israel will no longer be able to bulldoze Palestinian homes or execute Palestinian school children and claim that they are "fighting terrorism". On that day, Palestinian resistance will be legitismised and the actions of the IDF recognised for the war crimes that they are.

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