Palestine at the Crossroads
“Some of my students are walking time bombs” said Reem Al-Shareef, principal of Qurtuba school in the West Bank town of Hebron. She was explaining the psychological and physical torment of life under occupation for the young people under her care. Hebron was part of a busy and wide-ranging itinerary for a 22 strong delegation from the island of Ireland to the West Bank to assess the human rights situation for Palestinians living under occupation. The closed physical environment of Qurtuba school with its raised perimeter walls designed to repel missiles from two adjacent Israeli settlements captured in microcosm the anger, frustration, dangers and limitations of life in the occupied territories.
A quarter of Qurtuba’s 132 students have to pass through Israeli Defence Force (IDF) checkpoint 56 to get to school and regularly run a gauntlet of abuse from a settlement at the foot of a hill beneath the school. The students have to suppress their emotions and lack the safe physical space to assemble and play. The settlement opposite their school has 400 inhabitants with its own garrison of 2,000 Israeli soldiers. Many of these settlers are ideologically fundamentalist and openly hostile toward their neighbours. They have the freedom to arm themselves and operate within a wide latitude of legal impunity.
If students retaliate to settler provocation they could face up to six months imprisonment (for 12 year olds) rising to a year for 14-15 year olds. According to the non-governmental organisation (NGO), Defence for Children International, a total of 350 Palestinian children are currently serving sentences in Israeli prisons with Israel designating a Palestinian child as up to 16 years rather than the United Nations (UN) recommendation (and Israeli practice for their own children) of 18 years.
Our delegation was based in Bethlehem and from there visited Beit Sahour, Bil’in, East Jerusalem, Hebron, Nablus and Ramallah. We met with human rights activists and NGOs based in Palestine and Israel and the recurring issues that surfaced in these discussions were the notorious security wall that is devouring Palestinian land, the expanding settlements that ‘create new facts on the ground’, the checkpoints that disrupt everyday life for Palestinians, and the arbitrary imprisonment of men, women and children.
According to prisoner support organisation Addameer, over 650,000 Palestinians have been detained by Israel since the 1967 occupation of the Palestinian Territories. There are currently 7,300 Palestinians defined as ‘security prisoners’ including women and children. Addameer estimates that over 120 women have been imprisoned by Israel since 2004, 17 of them mothers, with two women giving birth while in Israeli custody. Women have not been spared the mental and physical torture applied to Palestinian prisoners including ritual humiliation, sexual harassment and beatings. The prison regime of poor food, lack of sunlight and limited physical exercise creates severe health problems including joint pain, asthma, skin complaints and anaemia.
Since 2000, some of the women prisoners have undertaken hunger strikes to improve their conditions and gained concessions on recreation time, library access, and opportunities in higher education. However, many of their demands remain unaddressed such as family visits and gender-sensitive health care. Also because of their smaller number, women prisoners tend to be more isolated and less well organised than their male counterparts.
Internment by another name
The arbitrary imprisonment of Palestinians is mostly carried out under the legal auspices of Administrative Detention, whereby detainees are held without charge or trial for a period of up to six months. The period of detention is frequently renewed and this process can continue indefinitely. This is internment by another name, the form of detention disastrously used by the British government in the north of Ireland in the 1970s. Indeed, the legal basis for Administrative Detention is emergency legislation enacted under the British Mandate of 194; similar procedures have been introduced by the apartheid regime in South Africa and more recently by the United States government in Guantanamo Bay. At the end of 2008, there were 700 administrative detainees in Israeli prisons and detention centres including 5 women and 13 children under 18 years. Addameer believes Administrative Detention to be used by Israel in a ‘highly arbitrary manner’...that ‘leads to other, grave human rights violations, such as degrading and inhuman treatment and torture’.
It was encouraging for our group to meet with Israeli human rights groups similarly critical of Administrative Detention and wider human rights abuses. For example, B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights, states that Israel has ‘made a charade out of the entire system of procedural safeguards in both domestic and international law regarding the right to liberty and due process’. It is clearly important that groups like B’Tselem create pressure within the state of Israel for reform and respect for human rights and provide the intellectual framework for the increasing level of activism in Israeli civil society.
This activism includes the courageous women of Machsom Watch who monitor IDF checkpoints for human rights abuses on a daily basis and post their reports on the internet (www.machsomwatch.org).
Our group met with a 64 year old woman activist from Machsom monitoring the Bethlehem checkpoint. She stands at checkpoints every day at 6am and 2pm keeping a careful eye on the treatment of Palestinians. The presence of these women can prevent serious abuses and shines a light on the daily grind and humiliation created by the checkpoints.
We spent an early morning going through the Bethlehem checkpoint and saw hundreds of men queuing patiently, some of them there from 3.30am to start work at 6.00am. They can spend one to two hours waiting to enter the checkpoint and then need to show a pass with a magnetic strip that is swiped followed by a fingerprint and work permit check. With security resembling that of an airport terminal, permanent checkpoints like Bethlehem also have an x-ray machine to check bags and possessions and those who make it through to the other side are the fortunate ones – they have a permit to work somewhere in the West Bank.
Navigating the checkpoints adds several hours to an ordinary working day and undoubtedly pummels the resistance of the Palestinians and their capacity to mobilise for change. The political context could hardly be more depressing with feuding between the two main Palestinian movements Hamas and Fatah resulting in the former assuming control of Gaza and being forced out of the West Bank. This followed Hamas’s election victory in early 2006 which has never been accepted by the European Union and United States who have served to bolster a discredited Fatah movement mired in corruption and devoid of leadership. While the divisions sparked by the chauvinism of the West may appear to strengthen Israel’s hand in the region it further delays the possibility of meaningful negotiations.
A major Palestinian pre-condition for the initiation of negotiations is a halt to the construction of settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem. We received a tour of settlements in East Jerusalem and Palestinian homes taken over by settlers following forced evictions. Some of our group visited a Palestinian family living in a tent opposite their home now occupied by a settler family. Israel is intent on annexing East Jerusalem and scuppering any possibility of a shared capital as part of a Palestinian state. The Israeli strategy is simplicity itself amid the complexities of land disputes, border demarcations and the region’s history – talk up negotiations to the world’s media proclaiming democratic credentials and good intentions while flooding the West Bank and East Jerusalem with so many settlements and settlers that make a Palestinian state infeasible.
There are 135 settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and 450,000 settlers who are refused entry by their state to Palestinian run areas (17 per cent of the West Bank). Settlement construction means loss of homes and possessions, livelihoods and income for Palestinians. The United Nations estimated poverty to extend to 65 per cent of the Occupied Territories in 2005 with one million citizens considered ‘subsistence poor’. The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD), an advocacy and human rights group based in Jerusalem, resists demolitions and helps to rebuild homes ‘as an act of resistance and solidarity’. ICAHD estimates that 24,145 homes have been demolished in the Occupied Territories since 1967 with 4,247 alone destroyed in the Gaza Strip during Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s three week military bombardment in the winter of 2008-09 which killed 1,400 Gazans.
The traditional Israeli standby for its punitive judicial apparatus and network of checkpoints and barriers in the West Bank is security. Security is also the rationale for the variously named ‘separation barrier’, ‘security fence’ or ‘apartheid wall’ allegedly under construction to prevent attacks in Israeli territory. The wall is approximately 700km long (60 per cent completed) and up to eight metres high and has, on average, a 60 metre wide exclusion area. Around 1.5million trees were uprooted to clear a path for the wall that only 20 per cent of which runs along the recognised border, the Green Line.
If Israel’s primary reason for constructing the wall is security then it would adhere to the existing border between Palestine and Israel, and ensure that the entire Palestinian population was on one side of the wall. In fact the wall deviates substantially from the Green Line to make major incursions into Palestinian land and annexes large tracts of fertile farming land. Many Palestinian farmers have lost their livelihoods, dispossessed of a generational source of work and income, and forced to live in open prison-like conditions surrounded by the wall. In 2004, the International Court of Justice gave an advisory opinion that stated that the construction of the wall is ‘contrary to international law’ and called for it to be removed.
The wall not only restricts freedom of movement, but limits commercial activity, the right to worship, and access to work. It is one of the means used by Israel to restrict Palestinian water supply as the fragmentation of the West Bank into isolated enclaves impedes the development of efficient water and sanitation infrastructure. A recent Amnesty International report states that ‘Palestinian water consumption barely reaches 70 litres a day per person’ which is well below the recommended World Health Organisation intake of 100 litres per day. It adds that ‘Israel controls and restricts Palestinian access to water in the Occupied Palestinian Territories to a level that neither meets their needs nor constitutes a fair distribution of shared water resources’. The report found that Israel uses 80 per cent of the Mountain Aquifer, the Palestinians’ sole remaining water resource, and that Israeli settlers use 20 times more water per capita than their Palestinian neighbours.
The wall has become the focus of a sustained and courageous non-violent resistance campaign in Bil’in, a small village 12 km west of Ramallah. It is an agricultural village, 988 acres in size with a population of 1,780. More than half of Bil’in’s agricultural land has been declared ‘State Land’ by Israel and confiscated for the construction of a settlement bloc, Modi'in Illit occupied by over 42,000 residents. When Israel began constructing the separation wall on Bil'in's land, the village was cut in half to ensure that Modi'in Illit and its future growth would be on the ‘Israeli side’ of the wall.
In March 2005, the residents of Bil’in began organising direct actions and demonstrations against the construction of the wall which pushed this small village into the cockpit of resistance against Israel. Bil’in has become an internationally recognised and supported popular movement with large numbers of foreign nationals joining residents in their weekly protest against the wall. Our group participated in the demonstration which coincided with the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall. With the imagination and creativity that has characterised the Bil’in protests, the villagers created their own mock Berlin wall that contrasted the collapse and failure of one failed means of separation and division with the continued construction of another.
Since the protests started, the Israeli forces have used sound and shock grenades, water cannon, rubber-coated steel bullets, tear gas grenades, tear gas canisters and 0.22 calibre live ammunition against protesters. On 17 April 2009, local activist Bassem Abu Rahma was shot and killed by the Israeli military during a Bil’in protest when hit in the chest by a high-velocity tear gas projectile. The non-violent actions during the protests aim to dismantle the fence and protestors regular suffer tear gas inhalation, as was the case with our group. But the importance of the protests resonates beyond the local struggle in Bil’in. They maintain the international profile of the Palestinian struggle and highlight the injustice of the wall, the settlements and land annexations with Bil’in encapsulating the struggle of wider Palestine.
In addition to the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall, our visit also coincided with another significant date from history, the Balfour Declaration of 2nd November 1917 in which the British Foreign Secretary announced that the government viewed with favour ‘the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people’. The Declaration was subsequently put into effect by the 1922 ‘British Mandate for Palestine’ which created new boundaries for the ‘two new states’ and paved the way for the 1948 ‘Nakbah’ or cataclysm that resulted in the uprooting and dispossession of 750,000 Palestinians from their homes and villages.
Despite Britain’s complicity in the events that unfolded after the Balfour Declaration which led to the creation of a Jewish state and forced over 700,000 Palestinians (now 4 million) into exile and a permanent refugee status, it has failed to meaningfully address the outcomes of its actions. Britain and its partners in the EU have largely followed Washington’s line of supporting Israeli ‘democracy’ against Palestinian ‘insurgency’ and ‘terrorism’; language which falls neatly into the post-September 11 (2001) ‘us and them’ paradigm of the Bush presidency. Bush’s successor, Barack Obama, has thus far failed to manifest any significant divergence from the previous administration on the Palestinian question. His insistence on a freeze of settlement construction to assist negotiations has been blithely batted away by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. At the end of October 2009, Obama’s Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, praised Netanyahu’s ‘unprecedented concessions’ on West Bank settlement construction toward supporting peace talks. This almost comical statement showed how far the US position has yet to travel toward meaningful engagement with the Middle East conflict.
In the course of our discussions with human rights activists, the power of the Israeli lobby in Washington repeatedly raised itself as a major obstacle to peace negotiations. Why, for example, does Palestine not step up its own lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill? A persuasive answer to this question came from Mazin Qumsiyeh, an activist and academic, who suggested that the Israeli lobby was an abuse upon the US political system that led to wrongheaded policies on the Middle East and resulted in disastrous outcomes for Americans as well as Palestinians. To mirror the activities of the Israeli lobby in Washington would weaken rather than strengthen democracy. Moreover, addressing the impact of the Jewish lobby was a matter for American civil society rather than the Palestinians.
Nonetheless, the Israeli political lobby and US aid to Israel (amounting to $3 billion per annum) are major stumbling blocks to negotiations and justice for the Palestinians. So, how do we begin to create the conditions necessary for dialogue between all relevant parties and an agreement that will hold? Well, there have been indications of late that international pressure is beginning to mount. Israel was genuinely stung by the findings of the Goldstone Report based on investigations into the Israeli military’s conduct of Operation Cast Lead. The report is unequivocal in stating that the military campaign was ‘carefully planned’ and ‘designed to punish, humiliate and terrorise a civilian population, radically diminish its local economic capacity both to work and to provide for itself, and to force upon it an ever increasing sense of dependency and vulnerability’. It adds that ‘Responsibility lies in the first place with those who designed, planned, ordered and oversaw the operations’.
One of those responsible, Israel’s former foreign minister Tzipi Livni was the subject of an arrest warrant issued in December 2009 by a London magistrates court for war crimes at the request of lawyers acting for victims of the Gazan bombardment. The warrant was subsequently withdrawn when Livni cancelled her planned trip to Britain. Similar legal moves have been made toward Ehud Barak, Israel’s defence minister at the time of the Gaza operations and, in 2005, a retired Israeli general Doron Almog, returned to Israel after landing in London having been warned about a warrant for his arrest for overseeing a separate bombing incident in Gaza.
Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions
The scandal of Israel’s blockade of Gaza which preceded Operation Cast Lead has prevented the reconstruction of Gaza since it ended. Israel has thwarted effective aid efforts to tackle the effects of the bombardment which targeted factories, schools, wells, hospitals and other public buildings. What Goldstone describes as the ‘collective punishment’ of Gaza demands that Israeli ministers should be made legally accountable for their actions. But we need to go further in implementing a wide-ranging Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) strategy toward isolating Israel academically, culturally, politically and economically to ensure its compliance with international law and human rights conventions.
Students should follow the example of Sussex University’s Student Union to boycott Israeli goods following a referendum and we should all use our power as consumers to boycott Israeli produce and positively promote Palestinian alternatives. Divestment means encouraging financial institutions and companies to shed their investments in Israel, particularly those companies complicit in the construction of settlements and the security wall. In regard to sanctions, the Global BDS Movement believes that Israel’s dependency on global markets, particularly in research and technology, make this arguably the most effective method for exerting real pressure on the Israeli economy. Campaigners and activists need to use all methods at their disposal from consumer boycotts to political lobbying and public education to extend solidarity to Palestine and spur on efforts toward reconciliation.
The Irish delegation’s visit to the West Bank saw Palestine at a crossroads which could lead toward another intifada or result in the completion of the Zionist programme toward the erosion of any possibility of a coherent Palestinian society. The political vacuum in the West Bank and divided Palestinian resistance, combined with the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and a complicit EU and US, make the activism of supporters around the world a paramount factor in the struggle for an end to injustice in Palestine. Only the accelerated isolation of Israel through diplomatic, economic and cultural sanctions and pressure can make it become a serious participant in negotiations worth their name.
Administrative Detention in the Occupied Palestinian Territory: A Legal Analysis Report, Addameer: Palestinian Prisoner’s Support and Human Rights Association, Ramallah, November 2008, www.addameer.info
Amnesty International, ‘Thirsting for Justice: Palestinian Access to Water Restricted’, Index: MDE 15/028/2009, October 2009, www.amnesty.org
B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, visit www.btselem.org for statistics on the use of Administrative Detention
Checkpoint Watch, www.machsomwatch.org
Defence for Children International – Palestine, Jerusalem, www.dci-pal.org
Global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement, www.bdsmovement.net
Halper, Jeff, Johnson, Jimmy and Schaeffer, Emily, ‘Counter-Rhetoric: Challenging “Conventional Wisdom” and Reframing the Conflict’, ICAHD, Jerusalem, 2009
Human Rights in the Occupied Territories’, B’tselem Annual Report 2008, Jerusalem,
‘In Need of Protection: Palestinian Female Prisoners in Israeli Detention’, Addameer: Palestinian Prisoner’s Support and Human Rights Association, Ramallah, November 2008, www.addameer.info
International Court of Justice, ‘Legal Consequences of the Construction of a Wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory’, 9 July 2004, General List no. 131. The Court decided that the wall was contrary to international law and should be dismantled. Visit www.icj-cij.org
Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign – the web site has details of Israeli goods that can be boycotted by consumers. www.ipsc.ie/campaigns_consumer_boycott.php
‘Israel putting forth “unprecedented” concessions’, Washington Post, 1 November 2009, www.washingtonpost.com
Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, www.icahd.org
‘So what should we do? ICADH’s Advocacy Packet on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict’, Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICADH-Israel), Jerusalem, July 2009
‘The Impunity of Israel and its allies will carry a price’, Seumas Milne, Guardian, 17 December 2009
‘The most effective stick to use with Israel’, Michael Jansen, 21 May 2009, www.alarabiya.net
‘Tzipi Livni arrest warrant prompts Israeli government travel “ban” ‘, Guardian, 15 December 2009
Trocaire, www.trocaire.org, an Irish aid agency working in Palestine
‘United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict’, the Mission was led by Justice Richard Goldstone, www2.ohchr.org/English/bodies/hrcouncil/specialsession/9/FactFindingMission.htm
United Nations Human Development Report 2005, United Nations Development Programme, New York, 2005, http://hdr.undp.org/en/reports/global/hdr2005
Stephen McCloskey is the Director of the Centre for Global Education, a non-governmental development organisation based in Belfast that uses education as a means of challenging the causes of poverty and inequality in local and global contexts. He is editor (with Gerard McCann) of From the Local to the Global: Key issues in Development Studies, Pluto Press, London and New York, 2009.