The Israeli far-right é always the best indicator of Israel’s true intentions é is quite outspoken: its aim is to make Palestinian life unbearable to a point that they would rather get up and go. Asked about his conception of “voluntary transfer” of Palestinians, Minister of Tourism (Rabbi) Benny Eylon compared the “voluntary” element to that of a Jewish husband who refused a rabbinical order to divorce his wife. Since rabbinical court cannot undo the marriage without the husband’s consent, it should use force é excommunicate the obstinate husband, slash him, jail him etc. é until he “voluntarily” agrees to divorce. This is how the Palestinians should be “voluntarily” made to leave. And obviously, as long as they do not leave é because they cannot or will not é they should be struggling to survive rather than resist their oppression.
A New Draconian Measure
Analysing the Israeli oppression is a like playing chess with the devil: the evil minds behind the occupation are always two steps ahead of you. What was the real aim of “Operation Defence Shield”?
The official pretext é “dismantling the infrastructure of terrorism” é cannot be taken too seriously. Now that resumed suicide bombings have to be explained, military experts suddenly claim that the simple equipment of the suicide bombers hardly needs any infrastructure at all. The further expansion of the settlements, mentioned in my previous column, is always an aim; “Defence Shield” has undoubtedly given it a great push, with Palestinians too weak and too frightened by the extent of Israeli terror to resist their on-going dispossession.
But Ha’aretz journalist Amira Hass has now reported a new draconian measure imposed on West Bank Palestinians, which may be a real break-through that “Defence Shield” was aiming at:
“The Israeli army has been tightening its grip on movement of Palestinians in cities and towns in the West Bank by insisting that they obtain new freedom-of-movement permits from the regional administration to travel from one city to another. […] Pedestrians, as well as drivers, have been left with one entrance into the area é which can be crossed only after receiving the proper freedom-of-movement permit. […] [T]he new measures have divided up the area into eight population regions, effectively isolated from one another, with traffic and movement control exercised by the Israel Defence Forces. The eight regions are Jenin, Nablus, Tul Karm, Qalqilya, Ramallah, Jericho, Bethlehem and Hebron.”
East Jerusalem, once the economic heart of the West Bank, annexed by Israel and cut off from the rest of the West Bank, can be added as a ninth sealed-off enclave. And whoever believes Gaza is the tenth enclave, is too optimistic: the Strip itself has also been split in two, with the 200.000 residents of Raffah ordered to get a permit to go north.
From Closure to Siege
Curtailing Palestinian freedom of movement has been a central feature of Israeli occupation during the last decade. “Terrorism” has always served as a good excuse for this premeditated policy (and was served by it in turn). Up to 1991, Palestinians were free to move both within the occupied territories and to Israel; in fact, they formed the basis, in terms of cheap labour force, of Israeli economy. It was during the Gulf War that Israel for the first time closed its territory to Palestinians. The 1990’s, especially the Oslo period since 1994, saw a gradual routinisation of this measure, for which the euphemistic term “closure” was introduced. At the same time, massive import of cheap labour force from Asia, Eastern Europe and Africa replaced Palestinian workers. In 1996, the notorious “internal closure” was introduced, later known by the Hebrew euphemism “keter” (original meaning: “crown”!), correctly translated as “siege”: cutting Palestinian towns and villages from each other. Since October 2000, Palestinians are no longer given permits to enter Israel, and the closure policy has turned into a strangling siege.
Thus, step by step, Palestinians have been dispossessed and surrounded by settlements, military camps, by-pass roads and checkpoints, squeezed into sealed-off enclaves. Palestinian towns are besieged by tanks and armed vehicles blocking all access roads. West Bank villages too are surrounded by road blocks, preventing the movement of vehicles in and out: three successive mounds of rubble and earth, approximately 6 feet high, with 100 metre gaps between them. All residents wishing to move in an out of the village é old or young, sick or well, pregnant or not é have to climb over the slippery mounds.
At present, this policy seems to have been perfected to an extent that it can be further institutionalised by long-term bureaucracy: a permit system, considerably worse than the “pass laws” imposed on blacks in Apartheid South Africa.
The severity with which the restrictions on movement are imposed was demonstrated again this week, when, in two different incidents, Israeli soldiers shot dead innocent Palestinians in the vicinity of road blocks. Since both Palestinians were Israeli citizens, the army “regretted” their killing; otherwise the incidents might have been dismissed as “self defence” or whatever. But the army made its point: movement in the occupied territories is an exclusive privilege of Jewish settlers. All other people é the local residents and their visitors é may pay for it with their lives. “Regret” or not, Israeli terror prevails.
Impoverishing the Palestinians
The damage to the Palestinians as a nation is obvious. Nation building often means political unification of territory: think of Italy or Germany. Israel is imposing on the Palestinians the very reversed process, hoping to reduce them into numerous separate groups with no collective interests, consciousness and institutions. The human catastrophy too is not hard to imagine: any movement outside your enclave becomes a tedious project, to say the least: going to school or university in a neighbouring town, moving patients or medical staff, not to mention “luxuries” like visiting friends or family.
But the economic side is just as essential. While travelling thousands of miles in the United States and in united Europe is free, Israel is putting towns and villages individually under siege, dividing the West Bank into nine separate “cantons” (Swiss tranquillity aside). The entire West Bank is about 130 km long, never more than 50 km wide, its eastern third a desert. Jenin is just 25 km away from Nablus; Tul Karm is 15km away from Qalqilya; and Bethlehem is just a few hundred metres away from East-Jerusalem. The Gaza Strip is about 50 km long and just a few km wide, and has been cut in two. The Israeli travel permits are valid from 5:00 A.M. until 7:00 P.M., and must be renewed every month.
Amira Hass adds:
“Under the new system, goods can be transported within the territories only using a ‘back-to-back system’ in which a truck goes to a certain location where goods are unloaded to another awaiting truck, which then carries the merchandise further.“
Imagine doing business (or just providing for a village) under such circumstances. There are reports of big price differences between towns: one town is flooded with cheap vegetables, in the other town vegetables are rare and expensive.
Real income pro capita in the occupied territories has been proved inversely proportional to the number of closure days. Compared to 1994, income per capita was dropping 15% up to 1996, while closure periods were rising towards 80 days a year. In the relatively quiet Netanyahu years, 1996-1999, days of closure were declining towards zero in 1999, with income per capita on the rise, almost reaching the 1994-level. With Barak elected in 1999 and provoking the Intifada a year later, the tide turned once again. 2001 saw a record of 210 days of closure; Palestinian income level now lost 30% on its 1994-level. 2002 will be worse.
In September 2000, 600.000 of about 3 million Palestinians were defined as poor, living on less than $2 a day. At the end of 2001, the number of poor reached 1.5 million é half the population. After “Operation Defence Shield”, it is estimated that 75% of the Palestinians have reached poverty.
So the main measure to subjugate Palestinians is not war, but closure and siege. This is why Israel is so anxious to institutionalise it. World Bank experts estimate the damage caused to Palestinian economy by Israeli military attacks at $305 million in the first 15 months of the present Intifada (up to “Defence Shield”). The damage caused by closure and siege during the same time is estimated at $2,4 billion. (Ha’aretz, 19.5.02.)
To Sum Up
Having pushed the Palestinians out of its labour market, Israel is now institutionalising their long-term seal-off in besieged enclaves by a system of “permits”. It counts on the world community é “the donor states” é to finance the intentionally impoverished people through the Palestinian Authority. This dirty game must be exposed. As the “permit system” demonstratees, Israel is clearly the effective force ruling the occupied territories, and thus solely responsible for their welfare. It must stop the systematic destruction of Palestinian economy and society. Freedom of movement is a basic right; due to its disastrous human, political and economic implications, Israel’s policy of curtailing this freedom should be fought against at top priority.
Ran HaCohen was born in the Netherlands in 1964 and has grown up in Israel. He has B.A. in Computer Science, M.A. in Comparative Literature and he presently works on his PhD thesis. He lives in Tel-Aviv, teaches in the Department of Comparative Literature in Tel-Aviv University. He also works as literary translator (from German, English and Dutch), and as a literary critic for the Israeli daily Yedioth Achronoth. His work has been published widely in Israel. His column appears monthly at Antiwar.com.