So in my last post I tried to give a bit of an introduction to the history of the area and then to share some of my impressions from my first couple of days in Israel and Palestine. How successfully I managed that, I’m not sure, but in this post I hope I might have the time and space to talk a bit more properly about life in Palestine under the occupation. (Quick review- Israel has been occupying the West Bank since the 1967 war.) I want to say again in opening this post that I’m very much just telling what I’ve seen – I’m not having a go at individual Israelis at all (one of the things I really wish I’d gathered from the trip is what the balance of opinion in Israel is, and how much people know about what’s happening – but I really have no idea.) Hopefully I can tell the stories I’ve heard in a way that does at least a little justice to the complexity of the situation, but we’ll see!
What occupation means in practice for the people of Palestine is complicated and varied. Fundamentally it means that most governance decisions in the West Bank are controlled by the Israelis to a greater or lesser extent: they control who can go where with 700 or so military checkpoints on the roads and at the borders (in an area approximately half the size of Yorkshire) and there are lots of Israeli soldiers about. This plays out in a number of really upsetting ways for different people in different places in Palestine. We spoke to a variety of people on our trip and some of what they said was common to nearly everyone we spoke to, while other things were totally unique to a particular area. I’m going to make an attempt at summarising ten days worth of stories into a sensible size post so I’m going to kind of jump around between places to try to give relevant examples for the different things I’m talking about.
The first thing that most people in Palestine will talk to you about when discussing the occupation are issues around land. This isn’t a surprise, really, since the whole conflict with Israel is based around land ownership – Did the UN have the right to give away Palestinian farmers’ land? And did Palestinians give up their rights to their land by fleeing conflict? I have to say it’s a pretty strong no from me on that (to be clear, not that Jews shouldn’t be allowed to live in Palestine- just that I don’t think the UN had a right to create a Jewish state where people were already living). Almost everything comes back to land ownership, and a lot of the day to day conflict in the West Bank is fundamentally linked to real or symbolic land rights. For example, the olive tree has become a real symbol of the Palestinian people’s right to their land, as many of them are thousands of years old and have been tended by the same families for generations. Israel has repeatedly uprooted these trees in the West Bank, saying it is (Israeli) ‘state land’ . Often this makes way for new settlements or military bases, both of which are illegal on the West Bank under international law. This is all explained by Israel as being security-related actions, though what security threat olive trees pose is unclear. I have to say that I find these images really upsetting- it’s a very symbolic uprooting of families from their homes.
The Nakba (the catastrophe) of 1948 was the mass removal of Palestinian people from their land in the new state of Israel. Some people fled to neighbouring states to avoid the conflict, while some were victims of massacres by Jewish extremist groups and Israeli soldiers. Israeli citizens have since moved into the the homes of these Palestinian refugees. Palestine in 1948, and to quite a large extent today, is an agricultural economy. Palestinian families had been cultivating the same (sometimes thousand year old) olive trees on their family lands for generations and generations. Many refugees still have the keys to their family homes – these families, when you ask where they’re from, do not say the refugee camp they live in (even though many of them were born there) but the village or town where their family lived and farmed for generations, and where their livelihood would be if they returned. Although the UN has repeatedly confirmed these refugees’ right to return to their homes, this is a key sticking point in peace negotiations that Israel has tended to be pretty immovable on (partly because if the refugees returned, they would outnumber Jewish Israelis and a democratic Israel would cease to be a Jewish state).
When people fled their homes in 1948 they settled in refugee camps in Gaza, the West Bank and neighbouring countries. There are just under 5 million refugees in neighbouring countries and about 700,000 ‘internally displaced’ refugees (who were the people we met). We were staying in Tulkarem refugee camp, which has been built up bit by bit as the camp became more permanent. There are quite a lot of very beautifully painted walls and the place feels loved in a lot of ways. On the other hand, space and public services are seriously lacking. Palestinians are only allowed by Israel to build on about 18% of the West Bank, in little chunks- so settlements like Tulkarem can only really expand vertically rather than spreading outwards. As refugees have had families and children the population has significantly increased. This means overcrowding is a real problem, with over 12,000 refugees in a space of only 0.18km² (something like 2 football fields.) Roads are very narrow and buildings sort of lean towards each other in the upper storeys. Access to the top floors is often up very narrow staircases which would make it about as difficult to get an elderly relative out of their home as it would be to get a fridge or a sofa in.
Another significant issue related to contested land rights in Palestine is the wall that runs (in theory) along the borders of the West Bank agreed in 1967. Apart from the deeply troubling aspect of building a wall along a border in the first place (America, looking at you), it has been built in a way that seems to have been more about land-grabbing than about security. The wall runs along the agreed border where there are Palestinian towns and cities, but where there’s ’empty’ (generally agricultural) land the wall illegally scoops in up to 18km into Palestinian land to maximise Israeli territory. One place where this is particularly striking is in Qalqilia. Here, the town was surrounded by agricultural land to the north and south, so the wall swoops right in around the town, creating a bizarre bottleneck effect that leaves only one road in and out of the town. This inevitably means a very tense and difficult social situation inside the town. Overcrowding is a serious problem, and the wall (which extends 2 metres under the ground) creates annual floods as rainwater is unable to drain off the land. Israeli sluice gates can quite easily let this water escape, but they generally only open them after flood waters have built up. The land-grabbing entailed in the wall is particularly clear here, when you compare the two lines on the map below.
One man we met had had the bizarre experience of his home being sandwiched in no-man’s land, between the two border fences/walls. This effectively imprisoned him in his home – he had to book a time to cross into Palestine with the border guards on the gate. He managed to get quite a lot of international attention, which has meant he now has a small gate which he is able to use to come and go as he pleases, but for ten years he had no freedom to leave his own home.
In some of these border areas where Palestinians are able to prove that they have private ownership of agricultural land beyond the wall (quite a feat in itself) they have to use a checkpoint to access their land. Having stood in one of the shelters the Palestinians have to queue in, I can confirm that they’re deeply unpleasant places to wait (extremely hot, apart from everything else). The man I mentioned above, who was sandwiched between walls, now has to travel 5 hours to get to his land, which should be a 15 minute walk away. There’s all sorts of nonsense associated with the Israeli administration of these checkpoints. They are closed for several days at a time during Jewish festivals. If this coincides with a time of year when daily watering or similar is essential, the crops will just die. Many Palestinian towns have serious economic problems associated with either the loss of land outright to Israel or with the lack of access to their agricultural land. One farmer told a story of how he crossed the checkpoint to tend his trees all year and then when it came to harvest time he tried to cross with a donkey and cart in order to collect his olives. At the checkpoint he was told that although he had a permit to work his land, his donkey did not (another security risk?) As a result, his harvest rotted in the fields.
The wall in Qalqilia, as elsewhere, is a real flashpoint for conflict with Israeli soldiers. We went to one section of wall and while the governor was talking to us about the impact of the closure of that particular road out of the city (to its agricultural land, now on the Israeli side), there were a few people collecting up the tear gas canisters, grenades, sound bombs, and bullets that absolutely litter the ground along the wall in that section. Violence is really very much part of the routine in these places.
Another significant land-grabbing problem in the West Bank is the illegal building of Zionist settlements on Palestinian land. In the Oslo (II) Accords of 1995 the West Bank was zoned into 3 areas, A, B and C, for a transitional period of 3 years (which has never ended). Zone C is entirely controlled by Israeli forces and in a number of places ‘settlers’ (meaning Israeli citizens who illegally set up camp in the West Bank) have created settlements. Zone C land is still Palestinian owned, and is usually agricultural (often olive trees) but because it is Israeli controlled, there isn’t a lot Palestinians can do about it when the land is seized in this way. The map below shows Zone C (the darker orange) and Israeli settlements (the blue dots). The map is from 2010 so it’s a bit out of date (we passed several very new settlements when we were there) – there are currently something like 150 settlements in the West Bank (not including another 100 or so ‘outposts’ which I think are essentially baby settlements). You might also notice a huge patch of Zone C to the east of the map- this is the area along the river Jordan, where the water makes the land very fertile. Israeli farming settlements (including the kibbutzes) dominate here, and many have become large scale agricultural businesses. Again, this profitable farmland all belonged to Palestinians before the West Bank was occupied, but it now forms a significant part of Israel’s agricultural economy.
There are a number of issues associated with settlements apart from the loss of agricultural land. One is that the inhabitants of these settlements want the protection of the Israeli state, so a settlement is always accompanied by a significant military presence. When these settlements are close to Palestinian villages and towns this can result in significant violence against Palestinians. One young man we met was 12 when he was shot and paralyzed by Israeli soldiers. His mate chucked his bag over the school wall (into the settlement) and because it was exam season our young man asked the soldiers for it back. They told him to come back later and left his bag where it was. When he came back he was shot twice in the back by two soldiers hidden behind a bush and using a silencer on their guns. The reason they gave for this was that he was holding a suspicious item (a can of cola.) Now, I think some violence towards Palestinians comes from a kind of ‘itchy trigger finger’ phenomenon- very young soldiers sent to the middle of nowhere to guard a civilian population against people they’re told are all terrorists. It doesn’t excuse it in the slightest, but I can at least see how that happens. This (seemingly planned?) sniper shot on a child, though, I really have no framework for understanding. This lad was lovely, as well (not that that really matters)- he had wanted to be a vet but with his injury couldn’t do that. Instead, he keeps birds (what a gentle passion to have) and wants to study law so that he can defend the rights of others. I am full of admiration for his steadfastness but I found his story deeply upsetting. Particularly because he is only one example among many, many children. The refugee camp he lives in, Jalazone, is right up against a settlement (and the school is the closest building to the border) and as a result there are tens of children who have been arrested or shot . There are faces spray-painted all over the walls of the camp in remembrance of children locked up or killed.
Settlements come with all sorts of problems other than violence, as well. We visited one valley where the settlement at the top of the hill had siphoned raw sewage into the river that ran through four Palestinian villages and a lot of farmland, poisoning the olive trees there (bizarre thing to do in your holy land if you ask me.) Another serious problem associated with settlements is water rights- the Israeli authorities control Palestinian access to the aquifers (underground lakes) of the West Bank and the settlements effectively get first dibs. The Palestinian authority has to buy this water back off the Israelis. In addition to all these immediate problems, there’s a more long-term political issue: peace negotiations have pretty much always worked on a two-state solution (peace between two separate states of Israel and Palestine). In any future negotiations, the borders and land-rights of Palestine could become very confused by what Israel refers to as ‘facts on the ground’, meaning the claim to Palestinian land created by the Israeli settlements there.
This brings me round to a topic that I’ve found quite difficult to get my head around, which is the mindset that results in these kinds of injustices. I’ve been very struck that every single official person we’ve spoken to in Palestine has been very clear that they have no quarrel with Jews. They’re all very clear that what they have an issue with is Zionism (the position that the land around the Jordan belongs to the Jewish people as their Promised Land). This is an important distinction, because Zionism is a particular ideology based around the land conflict in the Middle East, not an entire faith. Not all Jews are Zionists (and many who do identify as Zionist are strongly opposed to the policies of the current state of Israel – for example.) I’m sure there will be racist people in Palestine, just as anywhere else, but the people we met were very specific that this is a political issue, not one of religion and race.
Some really important background to the development of modern Zionism is the centrality of the land of Israel to Jewish history. If you look at the Jewish Scriptures in the Torah (the same stories as in the Old Testament), the whole thing is about the Israelites travelling to the Promised Land around the Jordan River. The Jewish population of this area was violently expelled under the Christian Roman and then Byzantine Empires in the 3rd and 4th centuries. In the consequent migrations of the Jewish people, they faced terrible persecution in most areas of Europe (so badly that a massacre of Jewish people got its own name, a pogrom.) Obviously the most well-known massacre of Jewish people is the Holocaust of the 20th century, but this was a modern expression of centuries-old persecution. The upshot of all that is that by the middle of the 20th century when the modern state of Israel was established, Jewish people had been a persecuted ethnic minority in most of Europe for hundreds of years, with a collective memory of their expulsion from their spiritual homeland. In that context, a desire to return to the historical land of Israel makes quite a lot of sense to me and I can see why there was increasing immigration there during the 20th century. If only this desire had been enacted peacefully, I’d probably have a lot of sympathy for it (as with other refugee groups.)
Jewish refugees in Liverpool in 1882 following pogroms in Russia
Having said all that, I want to be clear that I think the aggressive and expansionist expression of Zionism in the state of Israel is all kinds of immoral – but it’s important to acknowledge the history of trauma and pain and real loss that this is all rooted in. I think it helps to make sense of some of the land-grabbing phenomena like settlements and the wall, which must be fundamentally fuelled by fear. There is a fiercely held belief among some (probably a minority of?) Israelis that all the land of Palestine by rights belongs to the Jewish people of Israel and therefore it is morally right to stake that claim in all the ways available (i.e. the wall, settlement building, preventing Palestinian towns expanding.) Israel’s former prime minister, Ariel Sharon, is quoted as saying “We’ll make a pastrami sandwich out of them . . . We’ll insert a strip of Jewish settlements in between the Palestinians, and then another strip of Jewish settlements right across the West Bank, so that in 25 years’ time neither the United Nations nor the United States, nobody, will be able to tear it apart.” This pretty effectively summarises why these settlements are such a divisive issue – for some Israelis they’re a part of staking a claim to a land they feel entitled to, but (apart from the fact that they’re universally recognised as illegal under international law) they completely shatter the Palestinians’ rights to even the land they were left with after the 1967 war.
I’m now getting onto some linked subjects which I find it really difficult to say what I mean about – that is, Palestinian armed resistance to the occupation. As I’ve already said a couple of times, I’m a pacifist, so I’m generally opposed to violence as a solution to things. We don’t generally think violence is an acceptable way for individuals to sort out their problems (‘well we were fighting over who should get this bit of land and then I punched him out so now its mine’ wouldn’t stand up in any court I know), so I don’t really know why we think it’s an inevitability between states. I tend to think that violence breeds violence. If you’re an Israeli whose little sister is killed by a Palestinian rocket, you’re unlikely to care that for every one of your little sister, there are eight dead children in Palestine (which would be roughly true.) And as a Palestinian with a dead child and another in jail, you probably aren’t thinking about Israeli casualties at all. So then the whole thing goes round and round with everyone killing everyone else, which is just really really sad. So, I struggle with the idea of armed resistance. But I think that there are some very important things to say about the way armed resistance is framed, because it isn’t neutral at all.
One of the main justifications that Israel gives for most of its oppressive measures is security against ‘terrorism’. Meanwhile, its own deeply violent regime on the West Bank is a ‘security force’. On the West Bank, pretty much all the organised armed resistance I’m aware of has targeted soldiers (and actually, there hasn’t been much violence originating from Palestinians at all on the West Bank since 2004 that I’m aware of, although I don’t know as much about the situation in Gaza.) I might not agree with it, but I don’t think I’d describe it as terrorism. If you think about the USA, with its culture around guns and self defence, I can’t imagine the civilian population there would quietly agree to be occupied, and I don’t imagine they’d conceive of themselves as terrorists if they tried to resist the occupying army. In fact, Great Britain bombed a bunch of civilian targets during WW2 and we don’t think of ourselves as terrorists (although, please don’t think I would defend attacks civilians, I would not.) On the other hand, Israeli sniper shots on children doesn’t sound much like security. I don’t say any of this to defend violence, because it’s really not my jam, and I know that there have been some attacks I absolutely would describe as terrorism on both sides. But I do think it’s important to acknowledge that the way violence is talked about is highly political – one person’s security force is another’s oppressor, one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter and the way Israel talks about ‘terrorism’ can include children throwing rocks at a wall or drinking a coke. Which, frankly, is stupid.
This brings me quite neatly onto the issue of prisoners in Palestine (because this same wide definition of terrorism results in lots of children being imprisoned.) Young men in Palestine are the most imprisoned population in the world. Palestinian prisoners might have committed a range of offenses- some were part of the armed resistance, some were part of a non-violent resistance (for example reciting poetry without a permit (?!)), some are children who threw rocks at a wall. Alarm bells ring for me when we get to banned poetry and children in jail. There are some particular issues affecting Palestinian prisoners and their families. Almost all trials are held in military courts, which are often conducted solely in Hebrew and seem to have fairly predetermined outcomes. For some crimes the Israeli army will go and demolish your home in addition to imprisoning you, obviously leaving your family in an impossible situation. Finally, the prisons are all in Israel, where the Palestinian families of prisoners need a special permit to go. This, combined with the sheer numbers of Palestinian people in prison, means that prisoners and prisoners’ families are a significant issue for the Palestinian Authority. There are organisations that provide significant aid to these families, but if your house has been demolished and out of your large family only your 12 year old daughter has been given a permit to visit her father (true story), then there’s only so much good limited financial help can do.
This post is, again, getting very long at this point, so I’m going to stop writing about the occupation because there’s just no way I can do justice to a week or more’s worth of listening to people’s experiences in a single post. I will, however, talk very briefly about my experience leaving Israel, because it was so bizarre. On our way back from the West Bank (where you are allowed to be), we were held at the border for two hours (and our Muslim friends were taken off the bus to have their luggage searched.) This, combined with a bit of traffic, meant we were running really quite late for our plane. We got to the airport with just about enough time to check in and board but then were questioned for 40 minutes before they even let us into bag check (why were we on the West Bank, were the Muslim students unsupervised at all during the trip, why didn’t we just visit Israeli universities, etc.). At this point, obviously, we’re very late, and after telling us pretty convincingly that we can’t get on the plane at all, they decide that we can fly, but not with our luggage (hopefully, I’ll be reunited with my bag today.) The security process was the slowest, most invasive and most intimidating I’ve ever gone through. A couple of people were strip searched, and every one of us had some kind of rather hands-on body check. In the end, about half of our bags were on the flight, some without Palestinian souvenirs like bracelets and scarves.
I hoped I might write a bit in this post about the Palestinian culture and people more generally, because it’s easy to forget that aside from the occupation and conflict, there’s a really rich culture and beautiful country that would be worth visiting and talking about anyway. That’s going to make this an extremely long post so I think maybe I’ll write a third post about cool things in Palestine along a more tourist-y line for anyone who’d like to read about such things – which I recommend not on the strength of my writing, but because it’s a fascinating, beautiful and really warm place (both in terms of hospitality and weather!)
However! What I will finish up with is a short list of ways you can do something to help the Palestinian people’s cause for freedom and peace. (Important side-note- you don’t have to know exactly how you feel all aspects of this issue to take a stand against the occupation. It’s a really complex issue so you can just have an opinion about the bits you can make sense of!) I want to say again that I absolutely don’t have anything against ordinary Israeli people – people often don’t have much power over their governments. However, I do think that the international community has a responsibility to put pressure on Israel’s government to sort their shit out. So here are some ideas!
- The BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement calls on people to boycott buying Israeli goods (some of which are grown illegally on the West Bank) and buying from companies that support Israel’s more dubious activities. The idea is that it sends a strong message from the international community condemning its actions in Palestine. You can actively buy Palestinian goods instead or as well, if boycott isn’t your thing.
- Write to your representatives in your council and parliament and tell them the international community needs to hold Israel to account. Trump’s America is in the midst of cutting all support for Palestine and just closed the Palestinian office in Washington to show its opposition to Palestine taking Israel to the International Criminal Court to answer for its breaches of International Law. You could ask that the UK condemns this sort of nonsense. Or you can remind them that the International Court of Justice ruled that governments have a responsibility to ensure the demolition of the partition wall.
- Talk to people about the occupation. It’s really important that this issue doesn’t become old news.
- Visit Palestine! I felt very safe in Palestine and it’s an incredibly beautiful country that really benefits from tourist money. It also means more people can hear the stories from the occupation. Don’t let our security experience put you off- you just need to leave a stupid amount of time to spare! Or enter via Jordan, also.
- Become active in your local Palestinian solidarity movement, like Friends of Palestine.