A few days ago Khalil, the Palestinian taxi driver with whom I often travel in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), was waiting with me at the Kalandia check-point when we were suddenly accosted by an Israeli soldier accompanied by a private security agent. They demanded Khalil’s driving license and the keys of the car.
For some time, there was no further explanation until we were ordered to move on. Apparently they were investigating a car robbery. I didn’t appreciate the treatment, but Khalil swiftly assured me that this was kindness itself “compared to what is often meted out to Palestinians at check-points. They can humiliate, delay and frighten us for hours without any right of appeal.” Recently, he said, a Palestinian who had done absolutely nothing went blind after they had sprayed him in the eyes.
As we drove to Ramallah, de facto capital of the West Bank, I asked him if he thought that something would change in Palestinian daily life were a Palestinian state to be recognized by the United Nations. Khalil said that nothing would change. Israel will continue either with the expansion of the settlements, arguing that the “natural growth” of their populations demanded this, or by creating new outposts and embryos of settlements. (A few days later, Peace Now denounced Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s latest attempts to legalise the existence of several currently illegal outposts).
Israel would still seek to fragment the Palestinian territories, stalling mobility with hundreds of check-points, Khalil continued. And nothing would improve the shambolic conditions together with the minimal services in East Jerusalem, presided over by its mayor and the Israeli government, where taxes are collected but garbage barely so.
On route to Ramallah, one drives along part of the wall that divides the West Bank, marking a potential border between Israel and a hypothetical Palestinian state. The wall has been annexing in an arbitrary and violent way parts of whole Palestinian farms, cities, and villages, dividing children from their schools, peasants from their land and cattle, workers from their factories, families from their families. The argument that this is designed to counter terrorist attacks is today unsustainable, when in coordination with Israel, and under the supervision of the CIA, the Palestinian Authority’s police firmly control the West Bank, while Hamas maintains an implicit truce.
My conversation with Khalil - only one example of the never-ending pieces of evidence that confront one in the Territories - reveals that something is going on which is simply not present in other conflicts. The key term here is occupation: what does this really mean? What it means is that this Orwellian language legitimizes violence in Palestine. A “security barrier” in the Israeli language is in fact a seemingly endless series of administrative rules and military euphemisms institutionalizing Israeli control over the Palestinian population.
The concept of settlements is equally misleading. Some who have never seen the OPT with their own eyes might imagine groups of Jewish idealists bravely installed in some tents in the middle of nowhere in their promised land.
In fact, these settlements are cities with up to 40,000 habitants, outposts with 100 armed settlers or land expropriated by the Israeli government to build up Jewish archaeological historical parks. Once a new settlement project begins, the army deploys forces to protect the settlers who, at the same time, are heavily armed. Last year, I met Hagit Ofran, coordinator of the settlement project at Peace Now, in Jerusalem. Armed with a digital camera, she takes pictures of the settlements and of every new brick that is installed, every new square meter of Palestinian land that is occupied, so that Palestinians might be furnished with whatever arguments they can muster to legally defend their land and rights. She defines herself as the “eyes on the ground”.
The task is not easy: Palestinian lawyers often don’t speak Hebrew, and they cannot fully grasp Israeli legal codes. Israeli lawyers are helping them, but there are not enough of them. Recently Hagit Ofran was harassed by settlers. Of course, she and other Israeli activists, lawyers, artists and experts that struggle for a two-state solution are seen in Israel as ‘self-hating Jews’.
In recent months, the confrontation between the settlers and the Palestinians has been growing, particularly in Area C of the West Bank (where Israel has total control of security). Settlers are angry about the Palestinian Authority’s bid at the UN, and have increased their attacks on Palestinian peasants harvesting olives. This is the olive season, and olive trees are a precious symbol of Palestinian culture. An olive tree needs decades to grow to produce olives that people can use to produce oil. Some settlers burn down the trees down.
The machinery of occupation
“They want us to leave”, says Khalil. “They want us to abandon this land and go to Jordan, to Europe, to any place.” Listening to these words in a Palestinian town which Israeli citizens are forbidden by their own authorities to enter, it is hard for me to believe that 2.3 million people could be expelled from the West Bank. “Of course they can,” Khalil says: “They drove us out in 1948 and occupied our land in 1967.”
The director of an international NGO confirmed his statement: “The Israeli government does whatever it likes: occupy territory, imprison people without a fair trial, expel the people from their houses.” After decades of occupation against a chorus of repeated statements that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East, it is easy to forget that Palestinians are treated as non-citizens (even the ones that have Israeli citizenship are second-class citizens), lack political rights and live under a permanent state of exception.
Recently two Israeli professors and one Arab colleague published an important account of the world’s blindspot in facing up to what could happen in the Occupied Territories if a two-state solution is not reached. For them, the problem is that the military machinery, the thousands of rules, the sophisticated system of domination that makes daily life a mission impossible for the Palestinians, the destruction of East Jerusalem, the check-points, the restrictions of movement, the torture in the Israeli jails – all of these serve to create a new kind of domination.
This domination is not based on the force that is regularly deployed so much as on the processes that are used in the run-up to those moments of force, and in the aftermath, establishing a fear-inducing, repressive system of control both in times of peace and war.
For Adi Phir, Michal Givoni and Sari Hanafi, the “salient features of occupation” are submission without rights, separation, colonization, normalization of a state of exception and the use of humanitarianism as an implicit part of this domination. Looking at every one of these aspects from a legal perspective, one has to agree with Khalil that regardless of what happens to the initiative at the UN, in the daily life of the Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem and the refugee camps, it is most likely that nothing will change. Or if it does, this could be for the worse. We are told that the Netanyahu government may be planning a retaliation to the UN bid, perhaps by closing check-points, legalizing outpost settlements and imposing yet more conditions on the “talks without conditions” that he offers to the Palestinians.
The occupation of the Palestinian territories is not a circumstance but a permanent situation Israel is planning to live alongside in the longer term. The Israelis in favour of a Palestinian state are divided and without political representation; the US government no longer seems to have any leverage over Israel. The EU is divided, and follows Washington on its road-map to nowhere in the Middle East.
Hope is not a word that you hear often in the Territories. At the end of the day, the tension is between Israeli political forces who consider that God and time is on their side, and the capacity of the Palestinians to manage both international and domestic strategies, including the UN bid, the boycott campaign against products manufactured in the settlements, and the increasing campaigns of non-violent resistance groups.
“Perhaps nothing will change”, says a young Palestinian non-violent activist against the occupation, “but having confronted Israel and the US at the UN, now at least things are clear: we know who our enemies are and who our friends.” Turkey and Brazil are emerging as friends of Palestine.
In the meantime, for the international system, and particularly for the more powerful countries that can exert some influence or impose sanctions and pressure on Israel, passivity in front of the occupation of this land and its people is an immoral shame.
Mariano Aguirre is the director of the Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Centre (NOREF). He is writing here in his personal capacity.