Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Palestine now: the situation and mood in the West Bank

14 July 2014. A World to Win News Service. The following are edited notes of a conversation with three feminist academics who have just returned from a visit to occupied Palestine.

We arrived two days after the bodies of the three kidnapped settler youth were found. The Israeli authorities had been blockading Palestinian communities and arresting people before that, with the excuse that they were looking for the three, but after that it got worse. What we saw was collective punishment on a mass scale, resulting in the arrest of at least 700 people, many of whom had been in prison before. The security forces had lists of people they were looking for. These raids were a way of creating an atmosphere of terror.

Our first night was in East Jerusalem. Israeli settlers, in this case often recent immigrants from the U.S., as well Russia and Eastern Europe, are moving into Palestinian neighbourhoods and forcing the inhabitant out. Local Palestinians identified many of the settlers in the Old City as yeshiva (Jewish religious school) students. There are also whole families with young children. The women are in a "permanent state of pregnancy", with multiple young children in many families.

Settlers appropriate land often by using fraudulent documents showing that they or their family owns the property, and the police evict the Palestinians living there. Sometimes it's a building or a whole floor of a building, sometimes just an apartment or even a single room. Once they move in they make life intolerable for the Palestinians around them. They bring their guards, and they and their children harass the Palestinians constantly to make them leave.

This process may appear similar to what would be called "gentrification" in North America, but in East Jerusalem and Hebron, it's a violent process. It's ethnic cleansing.

For example, in the Old City of Jerusalem, in one apartment complex, there is only a single Palestinian family left. They can't use the main stairs because settlers harass them. Instead, they have to take an old, dangerous staircase to go in or out.

Walking through East Jerusalem we saw a highway where, we were told, settlers in their cars often try to run down Palestinian children walking there. One of our hosts is known in the community and speaks Hebrew, so people come to her for help. Children come to her and say, "Help we're being chased by settlers." This is daily life.

Settlers are now moving into an Armenian (Christian) community next to the Jewish quarter in the old city in Jerusalem. The settler youth constantly spray slogans like "Jesus is a son of a bitch" on the walls to let people know they have to leave. The slogans are put up and then cleaned off and then put up again constantly.

It took us two hours to drive from Ramallah to Hebron in the West Bank, which is about 50 kilometres, in order to go around the checkpoints.

The Israeli military had closed down Hebron a few days before we got there. They blocked off the Palestinian area, not letting anyone in or out overnight. Then after that they wouldn't allow males under 25 to come or go.
There are less than a thousand Israeli settlers in the old city of Hebron, but in the name of protecting them the entire Palestinian population is subject to daily denigration and violence. Their lives are deliberately made miserable. In the old city about 12 kilometres of a main street are closed off to Palestinians. The Palestinians who live there can't have ordinary visitors and need special permission even for family members to come. The roofs of people's homes are on the street level and the living areas are below that. The people who live there aren't allowed on their own roofs.

We met a family who told us about an unusual snowstorm. The snow piled up on the roof and water was leaking into the rooms below. The father had to apply for permission to go up and clean off the roof. He was given ten minutes to do that, and it was hard for him because he was partially disabled from once having been shot in the leg. Meanwhile, Israeli kids were playing on the roof as they liked, making snowmen and so on.

The same man told us how he was sitting in his living room one day when he heard water running. He looked out and saw settler youth standing on his roof and peeing down on his doorstep.

There are a pair of Palestinian primary schools, one for girls and the other for boys, in the area of Hebron that is closed off to Palestinians. The children have to go through checkpoints to get there, and on the way they are often harassed by settler youth. Sometimes it's verbal; sometimes they throw rocks or bottles of urine. The settler kids go to their parents and complain about the Palestinian kids, and their parents come and get the school closed down. But Palestinian parents aren't allowed to come to the school.

On Jewish religious holidays the checkpoints are closed and so the road is too. Since the buildings are all connected, the children can go from roof to roof until they reach the school. The IDF (Israeli army) spray-painted insults on the walls of the home of a lady who lives next to the school, and they harass her for allowing children to pass through her house to get to school.

Hebron is a Palestinian city, but the settlements are under control of the IDF and the Palestinian police in the old town are not allowed to protect Palestinians from the settlers.

Israeli security forces control the checkpoints in and out of the old town. Palestinians have to wait in line to show their identity cards, sometimes for hours. This makes daily life impossible. The soldiers are particularly hard on Palestinian male youth. They are supposed to inspect ID cards and then give them back, but sometimes they just put the card in their pocket and make the owner wait in the sun for three or four hours. Since you can't move around without an ID card, you have no choice but to just stand there. They deliberately provoke people. The night before we got there, a kid who had been made to wait a long time started to get excited and they shot him in the leg.

The checkpoints are a mechanism of punishment as well as control. They are a constant source of humiliation.

On the Jewish side of one settlement in Hebron, there is a big sign in Hebrew and English declaring, "You are now leaving free Israel." The settlers complain about restrictions on their movements through Hebron because it is under Palestinian control. The settlers consider it part of their own country where they should be allowed to do whatever they want.

When you cross into the West Bank from Israel, the landscape changes. There is dust and debris everywhere, it's not neat and clean like the Israeli side. The Bedouin villages in the occupied territory are in a very bad state. They are desperately poor. People might have a small garden. They graze animals. The shelters in the villages are made of corrugated sheet metal. In contrast, the settlers have built suburban communities, which resemble gated communities in Florida.

When you enter Ramallah itself, the landscape changes yet again. There are new buildings, some for Western companies like HSBC, others for UN organizations and the Palestinian Authority's administration offices as well as extensive housing development, much of which is unoccupied.

Israeli settlements are not allowed in Ramallah itself. Because it's a Palestinian administrative centre, and a place where Palestinians are allowed to build, Ramallah is where foreign money goes. Bahrain, Kuwait and other Gulf countries fund university facilities. Money from the Palestinian diaspora also ends up here.

That's one factor in the political mood in Ramallah, a former centre of Palestinian activism that was very, very quiet when we were there. The PA will not allow protests. They attacked a pro-Hamas demonstration. People we talked to were extremely contemptuous of the PA, and Fatah and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine that are connected to the PA. You can recognize PA officials' cars by their license plates, and they drive luxury models.

Ramallah used to be known as a secular city, but that has changed over the last few years. Now many of the young women and even little girls, maybe the majority, cover their heads. This is especially the case in the universities, and not so much in the areas with cafes and restaurants and businesses. We met many people who expressed support for Hamas, Hezbollah and the Iranian regime because they supposedly stand up to Israel. Religion has also become a big part of daily life, much more than when some of us were there in 2005.

There were many demonstrations against the Israeli lynching of the young Palestinian boy while we were in Palestine, and against the attacks on Gaza. Many took place in Palestinian towns and neighbourhoods in Israel itself, not the West Bank. One such demonstration was in Nazareth, where 20 protesters were arrested by the IDF after use of tear gas and sound grenades. Repression is one factor preventing protests in the PA-controlled cities, but there has also been a strong depoliticalization. Many people turn inward, or to NGO-type activities instead of resistance. Many people tend to focus on micro-identities – my region, my town. A belief that Palestinians are different than other Arabs and people in the Middle East. Some intellectuals rationalize that Islamism is once again giving expression to national identity. There is no women's movement. There is an extremely strong atmosphere of political backlash against the revolutionary movements of the 1960s and '70s and up until the Oslo Accords that created the PA in 1993. We haven't seen that so strongly anywhere else in the Middle East.

There are pockets of resistance, but largely functioning through the mechanisms of NGOs and human rights groups. Palestinian youth in Ramallah go to Qalandiya (a refugee camp surrounded by the Israeli "separation" wall, with a major Israeli military presence) to thrown stones at the Israeli security forces. They want to confront the Israeli army.

People have mixed sentiments about what to do, depending on where you are and who you talk to. It's complicated. PA President Mahmoud Abbas has no credibility. People say he is Netanyahu's spokesman in the West Bank.

There's a general disillusionment with the traditional Palestinian left like the PLO and PFLP, especially among youth. Hamas is the only organization with much popular support. Some people talk about launching a third Intifada (the Palestinian uprisings against the occupation in 1987-1993 and 2002-2005). The youth and other people want to be able to express their rage and frustration. It's not clear what that would mean. In Ramallah, it would definitely include targeting the PA.

Can you imagine Gaza has had one of the largest concentrations of refugee camps in the world? Palestinians there are refugees in their own country, and Palestinians from the West Bank aren't allowed to go there. Only humanitarian groups, journalists, and UN are allowed to enter Gaza, but with much difficulty and delay.

Every time Hamas shoots off one of their rockets, they recruit. So does Islamic Jihad.

This whole situation, the Israeli bombardment of Gaza and the Hamas rockets, actually helps Israel. It's not clear who killed the three settler youth, or for what purpose. No one has claimed responsibility. But it's allowed Netanyahu to link Hamas and Da'ash (ISIS or "the Islamic state" in Iraq and Syria) and put Israel's "security" at the centre of what's happening in the region, in competition with Iran. This also allows Israel to attack the unity government between Hamas and the PA.

Years ago it was difficult to talk about the one-state solution. Now there is much popular discussion of a one-state solution, including graffiti and t-shirts saying "48+67=1", meaning the land Israelis occupied in the 1948 war plus the land they occupied after the Six Day War in 1967 equals one nation. However, many argue there is already a one-state solution: an apartheid state.

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