Jerusalem - My Palestinian tour guide tells me that whenever he threads through a turnstile at one of the Israel Defense Forces checkpoints that dot the West Bank, it feels like going through a "ma'ata," the Arabic word for the machine used to pluck chickens after slaughter. [rssbreak]
I consider the metaphor as 14 of us pack into a minivan that's been criss-?crossing Israel and Palestine. We're on an alternative political tour sponsored by the Toronto-?based United Jewish People's Order and organized by Sam Blatt and Ronnee Jaeger, Jewish retirees who now spend half the year in Jerusalem. Jaeger doesn't apologize for the exhausting (if it's Tuesday, this must be Ramallah) pace of our "solidarity" tour.
It's a hot, lazy day. Heading into the West Bank, we spot the suburban kitsch of Jewish settlements on the tops of these beautiful rolling hills. The newly constructed homes lord it over the far less affluent Palestinian Arab villages.
There's tension in the air on Shuhada street in central Hebron, where wire mesh protects the remaining vendors and shoppers in a once bustling Palestinian market from garbage thrown down at them by religious Jewish settlers living in the row of flats above. I buy bars of olive oil soap for gifts back home.
In East Jerusalem, our van halts in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in front of a house festooned with Israeli flags; the evicted Palestinian family who once lived here are relegated to a tent across the road where, once a week, Jewish and Palestinian activists hold a protest vigil.
A major theme of this admittedly biased tour is that Palestinian territories as well as Arab towns like Jaffa and Akko (Acre) in Israel proper are experiencing an unprecedented burst of Jewish colonization and gentrification at the expense of local inhabitants. The latest wrinkle is the movement of more than 200,000 Jewish settlers into Arab East Jerusalem.
We stop at a new City of David archeological theme park (yes, the Biblical King David) in the southeastern Arab suburb of Silwan. Relaxation muzak fills the air at the stone entrance where foreign tourists line up to buy tickets to hear about the exclusive Jewish claim to Jerusalem, based on settler-?financed archaeological digs.
Later, we're ushered into the office of dissident Jerusalem city councillor Meir Margalit, one of the few local politicians who oppose the demolition of Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem. A small man who speaks English with a Spanish accent (Margalit is Jewish and Argentina-?born) he estimates that 1,000 Palestinians construct houses annually, and that some 10 per cent are ordered demolished because they didn't obtain the necessary municipal permits.
Margalit, author of Seizing Control Of Space In East Jerusalem, explains that successive Israeli governments along with Jewish settler orgs have applied subtle and not so subtle measures in planning, transportation and security to isolate existing Arab neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem and ramp up the number of local Jewish residents.
These "facts on the ground" contravene international law, but that is no help, he laments. "The settlers are trying to alter the demographics," says Margalit, who, along with two others in the smallish Zionist left party Meretz, was elected because of his appeal to beleaguered secular Jewish voters.
Later, in Canada, overwhelmed by the seeming intractability of the occupation, I contact the Canada-?Israel Committee for another view. "It's important to remember," says CEO Shimon Fogel, "that Israel's holding territory taken legally in self-?defence  is not an impediment to peace agreements. As the dovish Abba Eban pointed out, UN Security Council Resolution 242/338 legitimized Israel's holding territory pending peace and security guarantees."
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he says, "has called for a return to direct bilateral talks where all final-?status issues, including settlements and the status of Jerusalem, can be negotiated. It's the Palestinians who throw up roadblocks."
In previous negotiations, Fogel says, "Israel made generous offers for Palestinian statehood that were turned down because the Palestinian Authority was not prepared to accept Jewish claims to Jerusalem and insisted on the ‘right of return' of Palestinian refugees - a prescription for the end of Israel as a Jewish state."
A less understood perspective is revealed as our van pulls into the Balata Palestinian refugee camp near Nablus in the West Bank. Here, schoolgirls dressed in blue-?and-?white striped shirts greet us with smiles. The 25,000 residents of this crowded, gritty square kilometre are descendants of the original 5,000 refugees who fled or were forced out in 1948.
Camp spokesperson Mahmoud Subuh, who worked for 10 years as a computer analyst in the U.S., says that although the IDF occasionally conducts night raids on the homes of suspected militants, much of the violence here takes place among the camp's inhabitants.
It's the result of joblessness for the 70 per cent of the population here under 18, he says. "There are psychological problems created by the occupation. When you think violently, you don't really think. You are totally irrational and very emotional. If you are involved in a peaceful resistance, you have a clearer mind."
Right now, the emphasis in Palestinian human rights circles is on the five-?year-?old Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign (BDS) against Israel. Elvis Costello's recent decision not to perform in Israel is welcome news for Muhammad Jaradat of the Hebron-?based BADIL ("alternative").
He says a new effort by the Palestinian Authority to focus solely on boycotting products from the illegal Jewish settlements "is not very wise. You cannot separate goods produced in the Occupied Territories from goods produced in Tel Aviv."
Among Israeli Jews, even among some peaceniks like Rabbi Arik Ascherman, the director of Rabbis for Peace, the boycott strategy is anathema. Tall and gangly, this ex-?American has paid his dues, getting arrested and physically mauled at rallies defending Palestinian homes. He would prefer "selective divestment" against companies engaged in the occupation rather than an outright targeting of Israel.
The divestment campaign, he says "reinforces the feeling [in Israel] that the world that didn't lift a finger to help Jews during the Holocaust is again proving that it hates us, and that we should therefore ignore what the outside world is saying."
But Shir Hever, an economist at the Jerusalem-?based Alternative Information Center and a boycott supporter, argues that the recent revelation that Israeli exporters experienced a 10 per cent loss in overseas sales last year means the campaign has traction. "I think the Israeli economy is very vulnerable," he says.