Michael Ratner is President of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) in New York. He has taught at Yale Law School, lectured at Columbia Law School, and was President of the National Lawyers Guild.
NOTE: Mr. Ratner speaks on his own behalf and not for any organization with which he is affiliat
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Paul Jay in New York City, and joining us now is Michael Ratner. He's the president for the Center for Constitutional Rights. Thanks for joining us, Michael.
MICHAEL RATNER, PRESIDENT, CENTER FOR CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS: Good to be with you, Paul.
JAY: So you just got back from the Middle East. You were part of the Gaza Freedom March delegation. Tell us about your experiences.
RATNER: Well, we went on roughly Christmas Day. We flew to Cairo. We had hoped to get into Gaza, which, as is well known, I think, to everyone, is under a siege right now, a blockade. We spent five days in Cairo really demonstrating with 1,400 other people in an attempt to push the Egyptian government and who's ever behind the blockade, the Israelis and the United States, to let the 1,400 of us into Gaza. We didn't make it. I was there with my wife and my two children, and we decided, well, we're not going to be able to go to Gaza, to see Gaza. Why don't we go to the occupied territories of the West Bank? And so that's what we did. We flew to Tel Aviv, took a car into East Jerusalem, and then began a series of visits to East Jerusalem, Hebron, Jenin, and the West Bank.
JAY: Now, who'd you go with?
RATNER: I went with my wife and my two children, who are 19 and 21. None of us had been to the Middle East.
JAY: On your own.
RATNER: Right. We went on our own.
JAY: Okay, now, a family of American Jews in the West Bank—was there any issue? Did you ever feel uncomfortable?
RATNER: We generally had a Palestinian with us who was a guide, and that worked out quite well. I mean, I think Jenin is a place that was probably in many ways where you just didn't see anybody else who was not a Palestinian. I mean, Jenin is completely controlled by the Palestinian Authority. Jenin is where, of course, the well-known refugee camp is where the US decimated much of it, you know, a few years ago. But we didn't feel uncomfortable at all. We went through checkpoints—because, obviously, there's Israeli checkpoints—not obviously, but there are, everywhere you go in the West Bank—leaving Jerusalem, going into the various towns. In the towns there's checkpoints. Jenin is one place where there are no checkpoints inside. Getting into Jenin, yes, there is.
JAY: So what did you see and how did it affect you?
RATNER: We were appalled by what we saw, and it was much worse than I expected. I mean, I had been, you know, very sympathetic to the plight of Palestinians, to what I've heard about how they're treated, to what—the term "apartheid" is thrown around a lot, and, sadly, what I saw was much worse than I expected. You can begin with, really, in East Jerusalem. You go to East Jerusalem, which, of course was captured in 1967 by Israel, and slowly, ever so slowly, and maybe more rapidly, Palestinians are being pushed out of East Jerusalem. Their houses are being demolished. We visited the houses of people who had—we visited the homes of people who had had their houses demolished. They were rebuilt, demolished again and again. That goes on in East Jerusalem. We then went to what's, quote, a "settlement". It's called Ma'ale Adumim, which is about 2 or 3 kilometers to the east. You look across from the hill in East Jerusalem to the settlement. "Settlement" is a strange word. It's one you see in the media all the time. This is not a settlement. This was a suburb of 50,000 people, what they call a "dormitory community", what we would call in the US a "bedroom community", completely green and utterly parched land with a swimming pool as big as I've ever seen being constructed. This is a settlement. And, of course, no Palestinians can live in that settlement. And when you realize what's going on in East Jerusalem, they're not only clearing East Jerusalem of many Palestinians; they're going out many kilometers, building these settlements, and then they're going to incorporate them into what they call the "Jerusalem envelope"—completely illegal, of course. It's an occupied territory. You're not allowed [to do that] under the Geneva Conventions. But, of course, look what it's doing to Palestinians. So my children and I and my wife saw it; we just couldn't believe it. I mean, it's unclear to me how anybody can accept this going on in the world today, that you occupy territory, push people out, and then increase your own territory at the expense of the occupants. So that was just the beginning. We then went—again, a similar experience in Hebron, but really, really moving and tense and difficult. Hebron is a place of 160,000 Palestinians. Six hundred or so settler Israelis have moved into the middle of Hebron and various places. There's more outside of it, but in the middle. And what they've done is they've gone into a block in Hebron, 100, let's say, at a time. They've taken over an area that's 30 blocks wide, filled with Palestinians. They're living right in the middle of that in a couple of apartment houses. As a result, there are guard points, Israeli guards all around that 40 blocks, not just around the settlers. And for a Palestinian to get in, they have to walk in and take groceries on their back or they have to take a mule or donkey [inaudible]
JAY: 'Cause they are not allowed [inaudible] car there.
RATNER: No Palestinians can drive into their entire 20-square-block, lets say, area. And you go in there where the Israelis are living in the middle of that village, and they have cars. They drive in. We saw them drive in. They have an ambulance, given by somebody from Palm Beach with a Magen David, a Jewish star on it, and that ambulance can only take the settlers in and out of the village; it can't touch the Palestinians.
JAY: So what happens if there's a Palestinian that needs an ambulance?
RATNER: They have to get a special permission from various authorities, including, of course, obviously, the guards that they show their permission to, and that can take one, two, three days. In fact, when we were in another city in the West Bank, in Jenin, the director of the place we were seeing was trying to get an ambulance to get a kid into a good hospital, and that was taking him time. It was a nine-month-old kid that was going to die unless they got him. So Hebron was really intense, I mean, in the sense that what you saw was happening to Palestinians was terrible. And what you also saw was the teaching of hate and the empowerment, sadly, of small Jewish kids, when one occasion we were on the roof of a Palestinian house overlooking some of the settlement, and these young kids felt empowered to throw stones at us, which is remarkable. And our host actually had a number of scars on top of his head where he had stones thrown at him.
JAY: What's the presence of the army in this situation?
RATNER: Well, the army's everywhere in Hebron. The army is on every corner. It doesn't stop people from throwing stones.
JAY: Is that part of the empowerment [inaudible]
RATNER: Yes, that is. And there is an army sort of—you wouldn't call it a "base", 'cause it's much too small, but a army contingent within each of these little settlements. This one maybe had 12 or 20 all behind, like, that wire mesh and everything, watching everything that goes on. And to go into these communities, the Palestinians not only can't drive; they have to go through checkpoints to get in. So this is—I mean, you just can't believe. Hebron. And then, of course, there's an entire street in Hebron that on both sides of the street was part of the old market metal doors, which had been sealed shut by the Israelis with metal bars. They've closed the market entirely, because there's settlers living in and around that market. And on each of those market doors a Jewish star has been painted, as if to say this is now Jewish property, Jews own this. And so you see that in that market. Another part of the market that's under where the settlers live is covered with wire mesh, and the top of the market is roofed by wire mesh, and it's filled with bottles and garbage because settlers throw that stuff down onto the market. So Hebron was a place that—if you want to talk about a system of apartheid (and past systems) that reflects really what many have said South Africa was like, if not worse, go to Hebron.
JAY: Where'd you go after Hebron?
RATNER: Then we went to the northern part of what you call the occupied territories of the West Bank. One of those northern cities is Jenin. Jenin was the site of the famous US incursion into the Jenin refugee camp. And I should say there are refugee camps everywhere, and those refugees that we've met, many of them were pushed out of Israel in '47-'48 during the first war, and then, after the second war in '67, had to be pushed out again into different camps. So we met Palestinians who've been displaced twice and are still living in refugee camps. Jenin is run by the Palestinian Authority. In Jenin we went to a place called the Jenin Freedom Theater, which is a really special place. It's run by someone who's working with Palestinians, young people from the camps, who have so much tremendous anger over seeing what has happened in their town, which is the Israeli incursions, their fathers or their parents injured, killed, or jailed. Thousands were jailed during the second intifada. And it deals with them to try and bring that out during acting in plays. And it also is very critical of the Palestinian Authority; it's not just critical of the Israelis; it's critical of, really, the fact that the Palestinian Authority is seen by many people in the West Bank as a corrupt group. So our overall impression of the West Bank was that Israel's—first, it's grabbing as much land as it can. It's creating a series of roads that will only go from one sort of Palestinian area to another Palestinian area, with the settlers surrounding them in different areas. The roads we saw were—a lot of them were divided roads in two ways. One is some roads only Palestinians can drive on, and only Israelis on a different road. And other roads actually have a division down the middle, where Palestinians drive on one side, or Israelis drive on the other. So here's what you have. You have villages and areas that Palestinians can't live in. You have guards and security where Palestinians, to go through, need various colored passes. Some from East Jerusalem have a certain kind; some from Israel have another kind; some from the West Bank have another kind. Similarly with license plates. Then you have a set of roads, some for Palestinians, some for Israelis. When you hear the word "apartheid", it's not misused about the West Bank and Israel or about Israel itself.
JAY: Well, in the next segment of our interview, let's talk about the Geneva conventions and international law, 'cause you said this is a violation of international law. So what, if anything, is being done about it, and what are the consequences of this on US policy? So please join us for the next segment our interview with Michael Ratner.
Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee complete accuracy.