Had they been here at sunset on the last Saturday in October, most Israelis would not have believed their eyes. In the middle of Havarah, a small village south of Nablus deep inside Palestinian territory in the West Bank, 63 Israelis - men and women, young and old - were standing together with dozens of Palestinian villagers. Jews and Arabs talked together, drank juice, exchanged addresses and phone numbers. Nobody bore arms. They had spent the day together under the olive trees. A human experience. A political act. A symbolic event.
Since biblical times the olive tree has been the symbol of this country. It has sustained the peasants for many generations - Canaanites, Israelites, Arabs. During the few weeks of harvest, the whole family picks the olives - men and women, old people and children. The olives must be picked in time and then brought to the olive press, where the golden liquid is extracted: olive oil. These are days of rejoicing. A whole family can live now on 10 olive trees. Without them, they cannot exist.
The harsher the occupation becomes, the more the villagers become dependent on the olive trees. The Israeli settlers try to prevent the harvesting, to steal the fruit or to burn the groves. They take possession of the villagers' olive groves without offering payment or alternatives. Or they just shoot. One Palestinian boy was shot and killed by them while picking olives. Hundreds of others were driven out.
On the last Saturday in October, 260 Israelis answered the calls of the various peace organizations. They were divided between the villages that were in the greatest danger. My lot was to come to Havarah, a village lying in a valley between two high mountains. Its olive groves are dispersed on the steep slopes of the mountains, which are covered with rocks and stinging bushes.
The groups that reached the top of the mountain found themselves opposite the settlers of Yitzhar, a well-known nest of fanatics, dressed in their Sabbath clothes - black trousers, white shirts - and holding their guns. They threatened the pickers, shooting into the air and at the ground. The shots echoed between the mountains. Forty minutes later the soldiers appeared and, after hugging the Israeli settlers, demanded that the pickers leave the area. They explained that the settlers were right when they opened fire, because the pickers were endangering the settlement. The pickers continued their work obstinately, defended by the Israeli 'human shield'. But gradually they were pushed down the slope, closely followed by the settlers, with the soldiers in between.
In the other groves, the work continued without such interruption. Cigarettes were exchanged, conversations started, first haltingly, than more vividly, in spite of language difficulties. Before darkness fell, the sheets were gathered and folded, people put the heavy, full sacks on their shoulders or on donkeys and started the descent from the steep slopes, from terrace to terrace. At the foot of the mountain, an emotional farewell: hundreds of Palestinians, men, women and children, waved enthusiastically at the departing Israelis, in the village square, the alleys and from the windows - a whole village. The happy earnings of a day's work.
Uzbek billiards ban
Uzbekistan Billiards Federation suspects the city authorities imposed the ban for purely financial motives. They say clubs will in future require licences and this system may encourage some officials to demand bribes.
The decision comes at a particularly unfortunate time, as the International Olympics Committee has just agreed to include the sport in the next Games. Uzbekistan boasts an excellent track record in the sport. Dmitry Khan won the world championships in 1995 and Rustam Usmanov came third in the same competition six years later. 'Now our players don't have anywhere to train,' complained Bakhrom Sadykov, President of the Billiards Federation. 'If we live in a democracy, why can't we play a game we enjoy?'
The ban has been likened to neighbouring Turkmenistan's bizarre decision to prohibit opera and ballet.
Copying corporate behaviour
* The IMF and World Bank are dictating domestic policy more and more, through conditions attached to their loans. In the 1980s borrowing countries were required to meet between 6 and 10 performance criteria; in the 1990s this rose to 26.
* Although developing countries are deeply affected by IMF and World Bank decisions they have little influence on their decision-making. Nearly half of the voting power rests in the hands of seven countries [Japan, France, Britain, Saudi Arabia, the Russian Federation, Germany and the US].
* The minutes of executive board meetings are not published; votes are not taken and so cannot be recorded or publicized. This means that citizens of member countries (or interested outsiders) cannot hold executive directors or their governments accountable for their policies in the IMF or World Bank.
* The heads of the World Bank and IMF are chosen according to a political convention whereby the US and Europe nominate their candidate for each respectively. 'Other countries and critics,' comments the report, 'rightly brand the process as undemocratic and insufficiently accountable.'
I first became aware of the terrible legacy of asbestos when my grandfather contracted mesothelioma - a fatal form of cancer - from inhaling a few tiny, virtually unseen asbestos fibres that lodged in his lung. While it takes many years for the disease to take hold, the result is agonizing death.
In late 1999 I arrived in Dili, the East Timor capital. It bore the scars of the scorched-earth policy pursued by the Indonesian military and 'militias', whereby houses had been doused with fuel and then burned to the ground. To my horror, I found another killer stalking Dili's streets. The lethal rubble and dust of asbestos cement lay everywhere. People, unaware of the dangers, were shovelling it out of public buildings and their houses into the town's dry and windy streets.
Graham Finny of the Australian military explained that they were aware of it and were mapping contaminated sites in order to minimize exposure and warn the incoming United Nations administration. No mention was made of the indigenous population. Six months later in mid-2000, World Bank-funded street cleaning projects were employing $3-a-day workers to handle this material without being given any idea of the danger. No-one was supplied with the paper masks and overalls required to protect against contamination and the likelihood of contracting asbestos disease.
Meanwhile others employed by the UN were shovelling asbestos debris out of public buildings into front-end loaders to be dumped in the open at the Dili tip, where young kids picked through the rubbish in search of food or saleable goods.
The costs of protection are low, while the costs in death and in compensation to UN workers and locals alike who subsequently contract asbestos diseases are likely to be high. Until its independence as a nation in May this year, the UN had responsibility for administering East Timor. This begs the question: just what price has the UN placed upon the lives of the East Timorese?
When I approached Angus McKay of the UN Environmental Protection Unit about how grossly in breach of health-and-safety laws this system of asbestos disposal would be in my country, he responded: 'This is a Third World country. You can't possibly expect to use Australian standards.' Only after many warnings from organizations like Apheda (the aid agency of Australian trade unions) and the Asbestos Diseases Foundation of Australia, not to mention many concerned individuals, did the UN attempt an ad-hoc clean-up before the independence celebrations of May this year.
'Almost everyone in Dili is likely to have been exposed to asbestos fibres,' says occupational health-and-safety consultant, Andrea Shaw. 'Unless urgent action is taken, the health consequences of exposure to asbestos may cause greater morbidity than the violence inflicted by the militias.'
In the shadows, behind closed doors, from inconspicuous nooks of cafes, the whispers go on. They come from ordinary people - mechanics, clerks, computer operators, and civil servants. They are voicing the dilemma of Iraqis today, caught between the authoritarian regime of Saddam Hussein and what they see as irrational 'American aggression' by a Bush administration determined to invade their country.
'Do you think they will really try to get rid of him?' agonizes Sami, a part-time salesman. 'Who would they put in his place, and how long would they stay here afterwards?' Everyone knows who 'he' is. Few Iraqis will utter the name of Saddam without looking over their shoulders at least twice.
But as the drums of war beat on in distant capitals many in Iraq believe that sometime in the not-so-distant future they may be faced with the hardest choice of their lives: to fight the world's toughest army or sit back and hope for the best. 'If the Americans come here I've already made up my mind to fight them,' says a sociology professor at Baghdad University. In his 60s, he has an old army gun that he insists will be unlocked from its drawer the moment a US military boot is set on Iraqi soil. He is determined to fight out of pride and because he believes - with most Iraqis - that America is up to no good in this arid part of the world. 'Sheer greed' is Bush's motive, he says. And oil is at the bottom of it all.
But the professor has also read history, and he understands the pattern of Western intervention in the Middle East. After the Ottoman Empire fell at the end of World War I, the British occupied Iraq and installed a Hashemite king from Arabia. Decades of rebellion followed, and eventually independence. In the end it was the British who folded their tents, leaving Iraqis with nostalgia for things 'colonial'. Shakespeare, Scotch and democratic government.
But it also left a feeling of betrayal: one that grew worse with a succession of repressive regimes. If democracy was good enough for Britain why is it too good for Iraq? Frightful though Saddam is, the chaos, anarchy and civil war that could follow him would be worse.
Iraq's ruling elite springs from the Sunni Muslim minority, and the 60 per cent of the population who embrace the Shiia form of Islam have been brutally repressed. They hold no important positions of power and their participation in government is negligible. In the north of the country the Kurdish minority are also eyeing a self-ruled state. They now have a small semiautonomous enclave protected from Baghdad by a Western-patrolled no-fly zone, but still vulnerable to Saddam's forces. Although Kurdish leaders, who have fought each other in the past, were persuaded by Washington to declare their rejection of outright separatism if the Iraqi dictator were overthrown, no one can be sure what would happen on the ground.
'I'm afraid there will be a lot of revenge,' says Sami, shaking his head. 'Once the blood starts flowing here, it never stops. Not for generations.'
Unlike Afghanistan - even more fractious than Iraq - there is no benevolent Westernleaning leader who could be counted on to work for unity and democracy. Exiled political groups such as the Washingtonfavored Iraqi National Congress are sneered at within the country as corrupt, out of touch, or incompetent. And within Iraq no one dares to raise his or her hand against Saddam while he is in power. 'This is our sad state of things,' says Sami, pouring another thick, bitter coffee. 'The Americans may come and go, and they'll take our oil with them. As usual, we'll be left behind to deal with the damage.'
© Copyright 2002 New Internationalist
Publications Ltd. All rights reserved.
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7