A year has passed since the killing of 12 Palestinians after Ariel Sharon’s infamous visit to the Haram Al-Sharif. These 12 short months have sufficed to bring about the loss of seven years’ work, and the destruction of Palestinian life on every level.
It is essential, when reviewing the events since last September, that we clarify precisely the cause of this second “Intifada.” On the day following Ariel Sharon’s provocative visit to the Haram on 28 September last year, the Israeli army opened fire on Palestinians peacefully demonstrating to be allowed to pray at the Muslim holy site. The Israeli army used excessive and unwarranted force, killing 12 demonstrators in two days.
These severe reactions came at a time of profound Palestinian disillusionment with seven years of a long-awaited peace process that had borne very little fruit. The second Intifada was a move to resume resistance against the ongoing Israeli occupation and oppression of the Palestinian territories and people. The severity of Israeli actions during a non-violent demonstration, in other words, was the provocation that sparked this second Intifada.
Such severity was also the template for Israel’s actions throughout the following months. In the last year, the Israeli government has continually used extreme and excessive force in the Palestinian territories, in the process revealing a systematic preconceived plan. The foundations for this plan were laid long ago, built into the physical structure of the settlements developed by Israeli governments throughout the years of the Oslo peace process. Successive Israeli governments created “facts on the ground” even while nominally participating in negotiations — both an indication that Israel was not prepared to consider negotiations for a viable Palestinian state, and a fundamental preparatory step allowing it to destroy with extreme speed and efficiency all the Palestinians had worked for in the past few years. The proof of this lies in the fact that the post-Oslo period witnessed a 52 per cent expansion in the population and size of Israeli settlements, and the construction of 46 new colonies.
The Israeli government’s violations of international law over the past year have wreaked widespread destruction, physically, demographically and symbolically, through the use of shells, missiles and gunfire in military attacks, raids by extremist settlers and the demolition of civilians’ homes.
In one year, the combined efforts of the Israeli military and settlers have destroyed over 3,500 Palestinian homes, over 108 water wells, and 50 places of worship. Approximately 700 of the Palestinian homes demolished were brought down on the pretext that they were built without permits: a harsh irony, when juxtaposed with the ongoing expansion throughout the territories of Israeli settlements, which are illegal under international law.
Settler attacks destroyed many of the other homes. An unwritten partnership between Israeli settlers and the Israeli army has also effectively brought about the destruction of Palestinian agricultural livelihoods: over 42,000 dunums of Palestinian land have been destroyed, with 25,000 olive and fruit trees uprooted. These include personal tracts of land, on which Palestinians grow crops for their families as well as sales produce.
Not all agricultural land has been razed to the ground. However, the picture is as bleak for those farmers who have still been able to harvest crops. The Israeli military closure isolates Palestinian towns and villages, and prevents, among other things, the transport of produce to markets. Thousands of kilos of fruit and vegetables lie rotting in one village, while families cannot obtain supplies in the next.
But the impact of closure on agriculture is symptomatic of its design: to devastate Palestinian life as a whole. There are over 77 Israeli military checkpoints throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which, together with road blockades and trenches, divide the Palestinian territories into 220 separate clusters.
This bantustanisation of the Palestinian territories is made possible by the Israeli settlements and the “settler roads” that connect them. With the checkpoints and road blocks, these allow Israel to implement a clear policy of isolationism, unilaterally separating each and every Palestinian community, and creating areas within the West Bank and Gaza Strip that Israel closes off to Palestinians altogether.
These measures also allow the Israeli military to control the movement of people and goods, both internally and externally, and thus to paralyse the economy comprehensively. Israel currently prevents over 125,000 Palestinians from going to work, causing a daily income loss of $6,250,000, and a 51 per cent drop in GNP. Unemployment has risen to 50 per cent, with 82 per cent of Palestinians living below the poverty line, on less than $2 per day.
Such extreme restrictions on freedom of movement are destroying the Palestinian infrastructure — in particular the health and education systems — on every level: employees cannot reach their workplaces, supplies and materials required for systems to operate do not arrive, and shelling or gunfire cause physical damage to vital institutions.
On the first day of classes this September, in Hebron, Israeli soldiers prevented 300 six- to 12-year-old girls from entering their school. Such restrictions are not new: in Gaza, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) reported that, since last November, 40 per cent of their staff have been unable to reach school because of closures. Attempting to avoid the same problem this year, the Ministry of Education has had to relocate 5,000 teachers to schools closer to their homes. The Israeli army currently occupies three schools, and last year ordered the closure of six in Bethlehem and Nablus. It has also made it impossible for others to function: since last September, Israeli forces entered 23 schools and shelled 95, forcing the evacuation of 50.
The attack on the medical sector has been equally harsh. Closure threatens to paralyse long-term health care, and has seriously impeded emergency medical treatment. There have been over 164 reported instances of denial of access to Palestinian Red Crescent Society (PRCS) and Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committee (UPMRC) ambulances at checkpoints. More seriously, Israeli soldiers and settlers have physically attacked, in over 140 separate incidents, 73 per cent of the PRCS’s ambulances, killed five doctors and nurses, and injured 154 PRCS and UPMRC emergency medical technicians and first aid workers. The Israeli army has also opened fire several times on six hospitals, wounding staff and patients, and has cut off electricity supplies. Such attacks are in themselves shocking; they are furthermore grave violations of international law, since the Fourth Geneva Convention expressly protects medical services in times of war: articles 16 and 17 state that “the parties to the conflict shall endeavor to conclude local agreements for the removal from besieged and encircled areas, of wounded, sick, infirm and aged persons, children and maternity cases, and for the passages of the ministers of all religions, medical personnel and medical equipment on their way to such areas.”
The Israeli military closure severely violates this provision, often with fatal consequences: 25 Palestinians died this year when road blocks or Israeli soldiers at checkpoints prevented them from receiving medical treatment, and at least six women have given birth at checkpoints. Such violations, combined with other Israeli policies such as house demolition, indicate a sustained process which it would be no exaggeration to call a form of ethnic cleansing.
The loss of life in the past year has been great, with 696 Palestinians killed. The number of Palestinians injured has reached approximately 23,000 — nearly one per cent of the Palestinian population living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In proportion to population size, the Palestinian death toll is equivalent to nine times the number killed in the terrorist attack in the United States.
A closer look at these figures lends weight to the argument that the Israeli government is engaged in a process of ethnic cleansing. Since the third month of the Intifada, over 58 per cent of Palestinians killed were not involved in clashes at the time. This figure rose to 90 per cent in the fourth month, and has remained above 60 per cent. This means that an overwhelming majority of these Palestinians were killed when going about their daily business: at home, at work, at school, walking the streets, in their cars.
These figures alone indicate that the Israeli government combines various methods to cause the greatest possible number of Palestinian fatalities. A disturbing analysis is drawn from the pattern of injuries to Palestinians: only 29.9 per cent of injuries were to lower body parts — that is, over two thirds of Palestinians injured were hit in the upper half of the body, indicating at the very least, a shoot-to-maim policy. Of Palestinians killed by live ammunition, 96.4 per cent were shot in the upper part of the body, which confirms that the Israeli army is operating on a shoot-to-kill policy. Shots to the upper half of the body, on civilians going about their normal lives, do not constitute reasonable acts of “self defence.”
These statistics speak for themselves, and are far louder than the hollow words of the Israeli government. They demonstrate clearly an Israeli policy of human destruction, to complement the physical destruction of house demolition, land levelling and uprooting of trees. A shocking proportion — 87 per cent — of Palestinians killed have been civilians. Furthermore, the monthly death toll is rising steadily, and continues to affect all age groups of Palestinians. Children, however, are a favourite target: on average every month 30 per cent of those killed were under the age of 18.
Two of the younger victims so far died as a result of the Israeli government’s illegal policy of assassination. Bilal and Ashraf Khalil, aged five and seven, from Nablus, were killed while waiting for their mother outside a health clinic in Nablus by Israeli helicopters that fired missiles at the offices of two Islamic political leaders. Assassination attacks, masquerading under the benign Israeli phrase “targeted killings,” killed Bilal and Ashraf, together with four other Palestinians who were not the intended “targets.”
Such attacks have increased sharply in frequency in the last few months: Israel has killed a total of 56 Palestinians in extrajudicial assassinations; 38 of them died in attacks from April onwards. On 27 August, Israel killed Abu Ali Mustafa, firing two missiles from helicopter gunships at his office in Al-Bireh. Abu Ali Mustafa was a high-profile political figure who dared to speak out against the illegal Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. His death demonstrated that every political leader is now a potential target in Israel’s illegal extrajudicial killings. This assassination policy is part of a wider Israeli policy of destruction aimed at annihilating the potential for a viable Palestinian state. With the destruction of land and infrastructure — the physical base of the state — the assassination policy demonstrates that Israel will not stop short of eradicating the leadership of a potential future state.
These are some of the tangible effects of the Israeli government’s policy of destruction in the past year. They are the physical results of methods which have now destroyed the Oslo peace process, and symbolise the permanent destruction of the Oslo agreement itself. Seven years’ work and development — in terms of peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine, and of internal Palestinian development and state building — have been destroyed in 12 months. This includes the destruction of vital projects built by European and international donations such as the Gaza seaport. The map on which the Oslo accords was built was fundamental to the speed with which this destruction occurred. The map itself allowed for the development of Israeli-controlled roads and settlements between Palestinian areas, and thus drew, in the foundations of a peace process, the structure by which to destroy its very goal. Without this infrastructure, the Israeli government would not have had in place the structure necessary to strangle and isolate Palestinian communities.
Twelve months have passed, the Oslo accords lie in tatters, and the situation has reached its nadir. The Palestinian people have been oppressed to a point far beyond anyone’s imagination a year ago. The resistance to the occupation has been strong, however, and it is a resistance demonstrative of the Palestinians’ knowledge of their rights: their right to a viable state, comprehensive borders, liberty from the illegal Israeli occupation. The resistance should itself be indicative of the need for just negotiations, which do not attempt to deny a people basic rights guaranteed under international law. Negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians must recommence on the basis of the Madrid conference and on United Nations resolutions, in particular those upholding the right of Palestinians to a state and the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their land, as well as those ordering the dismantling of illegal Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories and the withdrawal of Israeli forces to the pre-1967 borders. This time, negotiations must address principal issues, learning from the mistakes made from the inception of the Oslo peace process.
The Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip has had a devastating impact on Palestinian infrastructure, causing widespread ruin and huge loss of life. However, the occupation and the attacks of the last year have failed, and will continue to fail, to kill the Palestinian spirit. The resistance to occupation remains strong: the Palestinian people will continue to strive for independence.
Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi is President of the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees.