A glance at the map of the eastern Mediterranean Sea makes it obvious why this region boils with turmoil.
For millennia it has acted as a funnel for peoples wandering or escaping from the east, and less often, for marauders from the west (the Crusades). Palestinians, both Christian and Muslim, have lived and made their homes in Palestine for thousands of years. But in modern times its borders have been defined by outsiders, usually European powers.
These arbitrary ‘lines in the sand’, such as those resulting from the secret Sykes/Picot agreement between the French and the British in 1916, divided some peoples and forced others together and disrupted delicate relationships. These already tense arrangements were massively intensified when Israel was created in 1948 and immediately attracted large numbers of Jewish immigrants from diverse backgrounds.
The West Bank
The area described as the “West Bank” is the area between the border with Israel and the Jordan River, supposedly under the control of the Palestinian Authority. It is not, however, an autonomous region.
There is no access to the West Bank except through Israel. It is divided into Areas A, B, and C. Area C is officially completely under Palestinian control, though Israel can control all aspects of life through a complex and ever changing system of ‘permits’. Israeli security forces still effectively control the Palestinian population, often brutally. Additionally, the number of Israeli settlements and the area they occupy—often illegally—is increasing.
I visited the West Bank in February to witness what life was like for Palestinians trying to live in this complex and oppressive regime of ‘permits’. I went with the Joint Advocacy Initiative, a Christian Jewish group dedicated to peace that organises various solidarity actions for non-Palestinians as a way to demonstrate their commitment to a solution for the Palestinian people.
Our group was helping plant olive trees for Palestinian farmers. Labouring on steep hillsides and rough ground, we got some insight into the conditions under which Palestinians try to feed their families. Surrounded on all sides by illegal Israeli settlements, the farmers are harassed by the Israeli military and settlers on a regular basis. Our group got a glimpse of this when we were driven off one Palestinian farm and all the olive trees we had planted that day were destroyed by local settlers.
The 1948 mass exile called “Nakba”—or the “disaster”—drove 720,000 Palestinians (85 percent of the population in what is now Israel) from their homes and into exile, mostly to refugee camps in neighboring countries but also to the West Bank and to the Gaza strip.
The Six-Day War in 1967, which massively increased the size of Israeli territory, forced still more Palestinians into exile. Today they constitute the largest refugee and displaced population in the world. The United Nations has estimated there are some five million displaced Palestinians either in exile or in refugee camps.
The 1948 UN Resolution 194, Article 11, resolved that Palestinian refugees should be allowed to return to their homes, provided they wished to ‘live at peace with their neighbours.’ In other words, they should not contest the conditions that the Israeli state imposed on them. However restricted, this resolution does provide a basis for the Palestinian political claim of a “Right of Return,” something that is vitally important to Palestinians both in Palestine and in the diaspora.
In practice, few Palestinians are able to return either to their country or to their home towns. The Israeli state controls all entry points and is firmly against any increase in the Palestinian population – or ‘demographic imbalance,’ as they term it.
Even the most casual visitor to the West Bank cannot avoid the looming presence of the Wall. It strikes the visitor first as puzzling, then as appalling: What can it be like to live in the shadow of such an affront?
Banksy, the renowned British graffiti artist and political activist, has responded with ferociously apt artwork on the wall, and event recently opened a hotel—the Walled Off Hotel—that boasts a view of the Wall from every room. Most visitors leave determined to join the struggle against the Wall and the oppression it signifies.
The Wall is perhaps the most egregious—and certainly, to the outsider, the most obvious—
demonstration of Israeli control and Israeli attitudes towards the Palestinians. Israelis call it a ‘separation barrier,’ while Palestinians call it the ‘Apartheid Wall’.
The Wall is a snaking, complex edifice that will be 708 kilometres on completion, and some 85 percent of which is clearly invasive of Palestinian territory. It is certainly formidable; 30 feet of vertical concrete topped with barbed wire in some places, a mere barbed and electrified fence in others. In many places it is a triple fence, with pyramid shaped stacks of barbed wire on two outer fences, another fence with intrusion detection devices and an anti-vehicle ditch. All this in combination with patrol roads on either side.
Much of the Wall is on Palestinian territory, in places 18 kilometres on the Palestine side of the ‘Green Line’. The Green Line is the demarcation line laid down in 1948, never intended to be a permanent international border but a temporary measure from which negotiations could begin. After the Six-Says War in 1967 the status and importance of the Green Line became uncertain as it was now inside Israeli occupied territory. It is still relevant today, however, as living inside or outside the Line determines citizenship by residence as well as the degree of Israeli military and political presence.
The International Court of Justice found the barrier to be a violation of international law, and the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution that condemned the barrier by an overwhelming vote.
The impact of the Wall on Palestinians is profound. Many Palestinian farmers have to take long detours to reach part of their lands, or are cut off from it entirely. About 25,000 Palestinians are isolated behind the Wall. Families are divided and depend on Israeli permits to visit each other. The farms on which we worked were all dominated by the Wall, and the farmers had to travel long distances and endure arbitrary checkpoints to reach their farms. So did we, giving us one more sense of the conditions under which Palestinians live.
Rule by Permit
Even outside the Wall, Palestinians are severely limited in where they can go, and when.
Palestinian life is governed by a plethora of permits, backed up by checkpoints and random checks, including nighttime raids. Permits are required for almost every human activity: to own land, to farm land, to travel on roads or go between villages, to erect any structure, however humble, to repair a structure, to reach a medical facility, or even to apply for further permits.
Identity cards must be carried at all times, and may be confiscated arbitrarily or for trivial reasons — if the card is bent or frayed, for instance.
Perhaps the most egregious aspect of rule by permit is the Israeli military’s treatment of children. There has been plenty of coverage of children and teenagers throwing stones at Israeli soldiers. These activities maybe unattractive but they arise from a profound frustration with the way in which Palestinians are forced to live. When these children and teens are caught, which they often are, the consequences are disproportionate. Children can be, and are, kept in solitary confinement, without access to either their parents or a lawyer. Children as young as 14 have been sentenced to 10 years in jail for offences that in Canada would not even merit a court appearance.
I saw a placard on a wall in Jerusalem that read “Israel for Israelis Means All of Israel”. It demonstrates the continuing ambition of many Israelis and, more or less explicitly, of the current Israeli government under Benjamin Netanyahu.
One of the mottoes of the new Israeli state was ‘an empty land for a landless people’. But Palestine was not empty, and despite the huge numbers of displaced Palestinians there are still one and a half million Palestinians inside Israel and six million in the Occupied Territories of the West Bank and Gaza.
The Israeli government makes no secret that it would like to empty all the territory of Palestinians, and the insistent establishment of illegal settlements on Palestinian land, with all their accompanying ‘security’, reinforces this. Its claim to be a ‘Jewish’ state emphasizes this racist underpinning to their policy. Total expulsion of all Palestinians is not possible, but the ideology of racial supremacy, with its hideous replication of Nazi ideology, explains much of the oppression the Palestinians endure.
What now for Palestine?
Initiatives like the Joint Advocacy Initiative (JAI), which encourages solidarity actions both inside and outside Palestine, has as its motto: “Keep Hope Alive”.
In the sprawling and deprived refugee camps, mothers struggle to keep their kids from throwing stones. Heavily armed and often trigger-happy Israeli forces patrol day and night. Raids and home invasions are frequent. Schools, health facilities and community resources lag way behind those in Israeli territory. The regime of ‘permits’ dominates every aspect of Palestinian life. Unemployment is high and the time spent simply getting through checkpoints and applying for permits makes employment of any kind difficult.
Just keeping hope alive, rather than accomplishing real change, often seems futile. But, confronted by daily oppression, expressions of hope and solidarity are dignified and effective ways to preserve Palestinian identity and claims to a fair existence.
There is no doubt that awareness of the injustices faced by the Palestinian people in the wider world is growing. Israel can no longer simply win the argument by default or by reference to historical persecutions of the Jewish people.
Solidarity campaigns like the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), or the Freedom Flotilla (to break the seige of Gaza), are spreading — especially among students, but also among Christian faith groups. The greatest obstacle now is the obdurate and unhelpful position of the U.S. government and the complicity of many other western governments, including that of Canada.
As Canadian citizens and as human beings we should be compelled to stand up for the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza and insist on their human rights and their right of return to lives of dignity and peace.
Marilyn Porter has combined academic and political and social activism for many years. She is currently Professor Emerita at Memorial University and Co-Chair of the NL Social Justice Co-operative. She recently returned from a month-long trip to Palestine.