Palestine’s deepening occupation

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The anger of young Palestinians, most of them from the post-Oslo accord generation, over deepening Israeli occupation in West Bank, Jerusalem and recent actions is understandable. They learn their lessons from history, which tells Palestinians that unless they rise against theoccupation, the status quo won’t be ruptured

Israel being criticised by a serving American diplomat for its treatment of Palestinians is not very common. Usually, American leaders and diplomats defend Israel’s “right to fight terror” or at times express “deep concerns” about Tel Aviv’s excessiveness. But on January 18, while speaking at a security conference in Tel Aviv, Dan Shapiro, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, said that “at times it seems Israel” employs two standards of law in the occupied West Bank, one for Israelis and the other for Palestinians. [Though he apologised later for the timing of his critical comments], Mr. Shapiro was not alone. On the same day, the European Union (EU) foreign affairs council unanimously adopted a resolution, stating that EU agreements with Israel applied only to the State of Israel within the pre-1967 border, not to Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territories. A week later, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon joined them. He said the continued settlement activity in the West Bank was “an affront to the Palestinian people and to the international community”.

The spark

These criticisms, even from unlikely quarters, demonstrate the growing levels of frustration in the international community with the freeze in the peace process and the way Israel is treating Palestinians. Jerusalem and the West Bank are on the verge of an explosion. A new wave of violence has been sweeping through the occupied territories for months. Since last October, at least 25 Israelis and more than 150 Palestinians were killed in attacks, counter-attacks and clashes with security forces. Israel’s response to this crisis has been typical — security crackdown and provocation. It blames the Palestinian leadership for inciting violence. The security forces shoot dead the Palestinian attackers, mostly teenaged boys and girls. The attackers’ family members are punished and houses demolished. The Israeli government has also deployed more troops in Jerusalem and checkpoints in the West Bank, invited even civilians to volunteer with firearms and further restricted the movement of Palestinians. At the same time, Israel decided to go ahead with an earlier decision to expand the settlements in the West Bank and seize more Palestinian land, in an apparent provocation.

These responses are hardly surprising. Israel has historically shown less regard for international public opinion and has, even amid violent crises, consistently expanded the settlements in the occupied territories. This is the 49th year of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Had Israel been sensitive to international criticisms and the suffering of the Palestinian people, the occupation wouldn’t have still been in place. By deciding to build new settlement houses south of Jerusalem and grab some 380 acres more of fertile land in the Jordan Valley, at a time when tensions between the settlers and Palestinians are running high, Israel has just lived up to its own reputation. But the consequences could prove to be fatal, for both people.

What makes the latest spell of violence dangerous is that, contrary to Israel’s claims, it’s not controlled by anybody. If the Palestinian political leadership was directly or indirectly associated with the first and second intifadas, the series of assaults started last year are largely “lone wolf” acts, carried out by young Palestinians on their own.

In fact, the Palestinian Authority (PA) has repeatedly urged for calm. Recently, Nablus Television revealed that the PA had even arrested attackers and handed them over to Israel. To be sure, the immediate trigger of the latest crisis was tension at Haram al-Sharif (or Temple Mount, according to Jews), Jerusalem’s most contested religious site. Clashes erupted in mid-September when Palestinians’ access to the compound was restricted. Provocations such as visits to the mount by Jewish leaders, even ministers in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet and talk about building the third Jewish temple have exacerbated the crisis. But the Temple Mount issue was just a spark. It’s the underlying reality of the social and political life of an average Palestinian that has spread the violence across the occupied territories.

Growing frustration

Take the case of Jerusalem where clashes first broke out. Ever since Israel has occupied East Jerusalem in 1967, Jewish settlements in the city have mushroomed while Palestinians have been forced to live in their historical neighbourhoods. In East Jerusalem where Palestinians predominantly reside, Israel has set aside 52 per cent of land as unavailable for development and 35 per cent for Jewish settlements. The Palestinian population in the city, over 300,000, was left with only 13 per cent. About 75.3 per cent of the city’s residents — and 82.2 per cent of children — lived below the poverty line in 2012. The separation wall Israel has built has effectively cut off the Palestinian population in the city from the West Bank. More than 100,000 Palestinian residents of Jerusalem live beyond the separation wall, drastically affecting their freedom of movement and economic livelihood.

East Jerusalem’s Palestinians can apply for Israeli citizenship. But for that, they should have some acquaintance with Hebrew, renounce their existing citizenships and declare loyalty to the state of Israel. Most Palestinians refuse to seek citizenship as they see such a move legitimising Israel’s occupation and annexation of the city. Israel issues them permanent residency blue IDs. Permanent residents can vote in the municipal elections (and should pay municipal taxes), not in Israel’s national polls. Israel also has the authority to revoke permanent residencies. Between 1967 and 2013, Israel revoked the Jerusalem residency of 14,309 Palestinian residents (an average of six a week), according to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.

The situation in the West Bank is worse. Over the last five decades, Israeli settlements have become an industry in themselves, while the separation wall and the growing number of security checkpoints have capsuled Palestinian towns and villages. There are more than 350,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank. In addition to commercial centres inside the settlements, there are 20 Israeli-administered industrial zones in the West Bank covering about 1,365 hectares, according to a recent Human Rights Watch report. Israeli settlers oversee the cultivation of 9,300 hectares of agricultural land. In Area C of the West Bank, where Israel has full control, 26 per cent of the land has been allocated for Jewish settlements and 70 per cent for settlement regional councils. In contrast, Israel approved building plans for Palestinians only on 1 per cent of Area C. According to the finance ministry, in 2013, Israel exported more than $600 million worth of industrial goods manufactured in the settlements. On the other side, a World Bank report says restrictions in Area C cost the Palestinian economy $3.4 billion a year.

The anger of young Palestinians over this deepening occupation is understandable. They don’t share the burden of the Oslo accord, like the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) does. For them, mostly the post-Oslo generation, the PLO leadership has failed in advancing the Palestinian cause. They grew up seeing expanding settlements, rising walls, growing number of checkpoints, a drying up of opportunities, systemic discrimination and a corrupt provisional administration that lacks either the capacity or the will to fight the occupying force. Put another way, in the post-Oslo years, Israel has multiplied the exploitation of the occupied territories, while there was practically no improvement in the peace process towards the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, leaving the post-Oslo generation to look for alternatives to get out of the status quo.

Stifling status quo

The Israeli government says there won’t be peace as long as violence continues. But from the Palestinian perspective, whatever concessions they have got from Israel, came only through uprisings. It was after the first intifada that Israel agreed to allow at least limited autonomy in the Palestinian territories. Mr. Netanyahu met the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in 1997 and reached an agreement on Israel’s pullout from 80 per cent of Hebron, only after deadly Palestinian riots in the previous year. Ariel Sharon announced his Gaza disengagement plan after the second intifada.

Unsurprisingly, most Palestinians support armed uprisings. According to a survey conducted in Gaza and the West Bank in December by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, 66 per cent of Palestinians believe an armed intifada would serve their national interests better than negotiations. Only less than half of the respondents support the two-state solution. This is an alarming scenario. But they learn their lessons from history, and unfortunately, history tells Palestinians that unless they rise against the occupation, the status quo won’t be ruptured. And for years, they are being stifled by the cruelty of the status quo. This is perhaps what Mr. Ban Ki-moon meant when he said last month: “Palestinian frustration is growing under the weight of a half-century of occupation and the paralysis of the peace process.”

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