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Palestinians under siege in the West Bank

6 June 2007

For the fortieth anniversary of Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories as a result of the six-day war of June 1967, the international secretariat of Amnesty International has compiled a hauntingly illustrated and scrupulously documented audit of the human-rights violations arising from the hundreds of checkpoints, closures and blockades, the 700-kilometre wall and the burgeoning settlements or "Israeli colonies" that now pervade the West Bank.
Also in openDemocracy on the predicament of the Palestinians:

Eyal Weizman, "The politics of verticality" (April-May 2002) - an eleven-part project mapping Israel's three-dimensional control of the West Bank

Eyal Weizman, "Ariel Sharon and the geometry of occupation" (September 2003) - a three-part series on the architecture of power embodied in the separation barrier

Stephen Howe, "The death of Arafat and the end of national liberation" (18 November 2004)

Eyad Sarraj, "The campaign that should never stop" (13 November 2006)

Mary Kaldor & Mient Jan Faber, "Palestine's human insecurity: a Gaza report" (21 May 2007

While the Israeli authorities contend that this regime is necessary to prevent Palestinians from entering Israel to carry out suicide-bombings and other attacks, the report - Enduring Occupation: Palestinians Under Seige in the West Bank - emphasises that "virtually all the checkpoints, gates, blocked roads and most of the fence/wall are located inside the West Bank - not between Israel and the West Bank" (Amnesty italics). In a section cogently entitled "Israeli settlements: the reason for the restrictions", the authors stress that the only conceivable logic behind so much of what Eyal Weizman calls "Israel's architecture of occupation" is "to create territorial contiguity of these settlements with Israel" while ensuring that "there is no territorial contiguity between Palestinian communities in different areas of the West Bank."

These restrictions are imposed "not, as Israel claims, to prevent Palestinians from entering Israel" - but "in fact ... to bring about long-term demographic changes": "For four decades ... so-called 'temporary' measures... have had the effect of establishing or increasing the Israeli presence and appropriation of land in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, while at the same time reducing or removing the presence of Palestinians in these areas."

A state of punishment

The report chronicles the results and their impact on individual lives: the curtailment or prevention of movement between Palestinian towns and villages, "splitting and isolating Palestinian communities, separating Palestinians from their agricultural land, hampering access to work, schools, health facilities and relatives, and destroying the Palestinian economy." Chapter headings offer themes familiar to openDemocracy readers - "Reduced to rubble: demolition of Palestinian homes", "Impunity for settlers", "Human rights defenders under attack", "Economy destroyed, growing poverty" - while sectional and box titles complete the stark, human story: "bullets greet anti-wall protesters", "blocked at every turn", "destruction of hope".

Enduring Occupation concludes: "The stringent restrictions on movement imposed for years by the Israeli authorities on more than two million Palestinians who live in the West Bank are unlawful as they are disproportionate, discriminatory and violate the right to freedom of movement. The restrictions are imposed on all Palestinians because (Amnesty italics) they are Palestinians and in order to benefit the Israeli settlers whose presence in the occupied West Bank violates international law. They should be lifted now."

Among openDemocracy's many articles on the wider Israel-Palestine conflict: David Mepham, "Hamas and political reform in the middle east" (1 February 2006) Jim Lederman, "Palestine and Israel: clan vs nation, tribe vs state" (11 July 2006) Khaled Hroub, "Hamas's path to reinvention" (10 October 2006) Richard Youngs, "The European Union and Palestine: a new engagement" (29 March 2007) Laurence Louër, "Arabs in Israel: on the move" (20 April 2007) Fred Halliday, "Palestinians and Israelis: a political impasse" (4 June 2007) Tony Klug, "Israel-Palestine: how peace broke out" (5 June Beginning with the "unlawful" land grab secured by the "fence/wall... located as it is inside occupied territory" according to the opinion given by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in July 2004, Amnesty International comprehensively explains how all this violates international laws, before making their recommendations to the Israeli government, Palestinian armed groups, the Palestinian Authority and the international community. Amid repeated statements that Amnesty International recognises Israel's "legitimate security concerns" and "every right to defend its citizens from armed attack", the report takes Israel to task for its "massive programme of collective punishment... at the expense of innocent Palestinians", calling on the international community to deploy an ongoing, "effective international human rights monitoring mechanism across Israel and the (occupied Palestinian territories)".

The anti-terror blowback

The human-rights organisation has carefully calibrated its message, emphasising that it takes no sides over the Israel-Palestinian conflict or the occupation itself, and calling on Palestinian armed groups to end their targeting of Israeli civilians, both in Israel and in the occupied Palestinian territories. That they need to take care seems to be borne out by a reading of the report itself, which suggests that it is not just Palestinians and Israeli and international human-rights defenders who are under attack and under siege in the West Bank, but that human-rights discourse as enshrined in international law is itself at stake.

Whether you look at the stillborn state of the "register of damage" in Vienna, proposed by the ICJ to "serve as a comprehensive record, in documentary form, of the damage caused... as a result of the construction of the wall by Israel"; the precarious contribution of the European monitors in Rafah to alleviating restrictions that have devastated Gaza's trading opportunities; or the banking sanctions and cuts in aid by major international donors exacerbating the "Palestinians' already fragile conditions of life and work" after Hamas's success in free and fair elections - human-rights and human-security issues are clearly up against a powerful counter-discourse.

Mary Kaldor & Mient Jan Faber, faced by very similar findings in their Gaza report, identify what this is: "a top-down geopolitical framework ... initiated by the United States, in which the notion of a 'global war on terror' is central", which explains why "rockets and suicide-bombers are regarded as the primary impediment to peace and the occupation is treated primarily as a method of ensuring Israel's security". Hence, they argue, the impasse between Israeli "state security" concerns on the one hand, and Palestinian "human security" concerns on the other (see "Palestine's human insecurity: a Gaza report", 21 May 2007).

Rosemary Bechler is a writer and consultant, and former international editor of openDemocracy. Among her work: "All our (Gothic) yesterdays - the really special relationship" (25 April 2002) "Stafford Beer: the man who could have run the world" (7 November 2002) "Being counted" (20 February 2003) "Reinventing Islam in Europe: a profile of Tariq Ramadan" (6 July 2004) "Nation as trauma, Zionism as question: Jacqueline Rose interviewed" (18 August 2005 Unbounded Freedom, a guide and blog for creative-commons thinking for cultural institutio

The "war on terror" is one of those paradigmatic phrases that is supposed to stop all further inquiry in its tracks. However, as one flips over the pages of forced evictions and house demolitions, premature deaths, lost farmlands, everyday humiliations and new levels of "food insecurity" in Enduring Occupation, two questions stubbornly remain. First, what concept of state security is truly at work here? Second, how can Israel's allies and well-wishers, let alone the putative international community, stand by while such a perverse logic is played out in the occupied territories and in its surrounding ripple-effects?

It is hard to imagine a more incendiary cauldron of oppressions than the broad brushstrokes and fine-print humiliations recorded in these pages. They are calculated, one might well think, to construct precisely the "very formidable terrorist machine" that those members of the Israeli foreign ministry arguing for heavier restrictions on the Rafah crossing say they are concerned at all costs to prevent.

Yet amazingly, Amnesty records that as recently as 2005, "killings and attacks by both sides decreased significantly, after an informal truce was declared by Palestinian armed groups early that year", and that even though killings of Palestinians by Israeli forces increased threefold in 2006, "killings of Israelis by Palestinian armed groups decreased further, to half the previous year's figure, and reached the lowest level since the beginning of the intifada."

While Kaldor & Jan Faber's recommendation that the European Union should be "talking to the [Palestinian] government as a whole, not selectively to those members of the government of which they approve" may have been temporarily derailed by the Israeli Defence Forces' roundup of the Palestinian minister of education and other government ministers, nevertheless it is well-nigh miraculous that they can still urge support for "an active intelligentsia and civil society whose members are more likely to press for democratisation and internal security... despite the fragmentation and brutalisation of Palestinian society."

As long as this is the case, we should resist the temptation held out by a fortieth anniversary to judge the situation historically inexorable. But neither should we delude ourselves: human rights in Palestine are running out of time.

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