Walling in the Palestinians

Israel's strangling of the West Bank

by Ida Audeh

International Socialist Review, May-June 2004


During its spring 2002 offensive to reoccupy Palestinian territories and destroy Palestinian civil infrastructure (under the guise of destroying the "terrorist infrastructure")-and as most of the West Bank was under round-the-clock curfew-Israel confiscated thousands of dunums' of Palestinian land to build a wall. The idea of building a wall was not a new idea in 2002, when construction first began, and it was not triggered by the suicide bombings of the 1990s (which became frequent only since 2000), although suicide bombings certainly breathed life into an old idea. Former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin may have had something similar in mind in 1992 with his slogan "Us Here, Them There." Initially, Likud was cool to the idea of a wall that would concede any territory, no matter how small, to the Palestinians until it saw how a wall combined with checkpoints and access roads could destroy Palestinian society and continue to consolidate "greater Israel."

A wall or a fence? Land grab or security?

Israel's policy of enclosing Palestinians within walls began in Gaza in 1994, before the rash of suicide bombings. One-third of the Gaza Strip, a 365-square-kilometer [140-square-mile] strip along the eastern Mediterranean, was confiscated to provide Israeli settlements for 7,000 Israeli Jews; 1.3 million Palestinians live on the remainder. The Gaza Strip is completely enclosed; Palestinians are essentially imprisoned, and trigger-happy soldiers shoot the residents without restraint. In 2003, UNRWA reported that 70 percent of the population was unemployed, and the UN Development Program estimated that 84.6 percent fell below the poverty line.

Now Israel wants to do to the West Bank what it did to Gaza, taking into consideration the differences in terrain and demography. By July 2003, it had completed a 145-kilometer-long [90-mile-long] segment of a much longer wall extending from the northern village of Zububa in the Jenin district to Azzun Atma in the Qalqilya district. I went to the West Bank in August 2003 and interviewed Palestinians who lived in the path of the wall to get a sense of the impact of Israel's grand plans on the people it ruled. The end of the first phase of construction seemed like an opportune time to take stock. (The entire wall, expected to be 727 kilometers [452 miles] long, is scheduled for completion in 2005.)

When the wall in the West Bank is completed, it is expected to be four times as long and in some places twice as high as the Berlin Wall, another powerful symbol of oppression. And like the Berlin Wall, Israel's wall is a system of control. Israel's wall includes concrete barriers, watchtowers, trenches on either side, military patrol roads, surveillance cameras, trace paths to register footprints, an electronic warning or "smart" fence, and a concrete barrier topped with barbed wire. This system carves through West Bank communities in a manner calculated to exact the maximum human, economic, environmental, and political cost.

Palestinians call it an apartheid wall. This term captures the racist function of the wall, which cages Palestinians in small spaces and separates them from their lands, their livelihoods, their water wells, and each other. But what Israel is doing to Palestinians goes well beyond the apartheid policies of the former South Africa. Palestinians refer to Israel's policy as a land grab. That is accurate but does not describe the long-term effect of this policy, which will be to decimate Palestinian society. Not even the Berlin Wall, as oppressive as it was in purpose and as a symbol, could be accused of that.

Israel and its supporters refer to this wall as a security fence or barrier to thwart Palestinian suicide bombers. There is no doubt that suicide bombings have unnerved a society that has long accepted as a given that it can rule over another nation, but the need for security does not explain (let alone justify) the wall. Were security the motivator, Israel would have built it along the Green Line, the internationally recognized demarcation line between it and the West Bank. A wall separates Catholic and Protestant communities in Belfast, yet neither community claims that the wall has affected them adversely and disproportionately.

Building a state piecemeal

Indeed, the security rationale is belied by the course that the wall takes. If the course of the wall is maintained according to projections, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Negotiations Affairs Department estimates that as much as 43 percent of the West Bank will be annexed to Israel; these lands include the fertile agricultural lands of the northern West Bank and the Jordan valley, and they include the lands on which 88 percent of the settlers live. At least 522,000 Palestinians (22 percent) will lose access to their land; and about 343,300 Palestinians (15 percent) will be trapped in the no man's land between the wall and Israel, where they are cut off from the larger neighboring Palestinian towns that provided school, social services, and medical facilities. Palestinians will lose access to at least fifty water wells. The wall veers sharply into the West Bank to cut around the Keddumim and Ariel settlements, encircling them; large parts of the Hebron and Bethlehem districts are lopped off, and although the eastern wall plan is unclear, initial plans suggest that much of the fertile Jordan Valley will be beyond the wall and thus beyond Palestinian reach.

In fact, the wall is a logical continuation of the policy that the Zionist movement, and later Israel, followed to create and expand the Jewish state. In the 1940s, the Zionist movement pretended to accept the UN-defined Jewish state that would grant it 55 percent of Mandate Palestine, but then went on in 1948 to conquer 78 percent, expel 700,000 Palestinians, and (contrary to international law) deny their return to their homes. In 1967, it occupied the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and the Gaza Strip and began immediately, and in violation of international law, to chip away at the territorial contiguity of the territories by transporting Israeli settlers to live in illegal settlements built on confiscated Palestinian land. The failed Oslo process was merely a time-buying measure; Israel turned over policing functions to the Palestinian Authority (a body it undermined at every turn) but accelerated the pace of settlement building. Today, more than 200 illegal Jewish-only settlements scar the West Bank landscape, occupying hilltops overlooking Palestinian towns and villages, surrounding them, preventing natural growth and expansion. The wall complements the settlement policy; the largest settlements are in fact outside the wall, which means that they are easy to incorporate within an Israel whose borders have never been defined.

Human reservations and "gated communities"

Israel's plan seems to be to restrict the Palestinians to certain areas, to control them, to prevent them from thriving as a people, and to deny them state-building potential. If the wall is completed according to plan, three non-contiguous cantons covering half of the West Bank will be carved out: one for Jenin and Nablus, one for Ramallah and Salfit, and one for Hebron and Bethlehem.

The plan for East Jerusalem can only be explained as an attempt to end once and for all Palestinians' hopes that it will one day serve as their capital. More than 90 percent of the East Jerusalem district will be absorbed by Israel; about 280,000 Palestinians will be stranded in walled enclosures and cut off from both East Jerusalem and other urban centers.

Palestinians who remain within the wall will be confined to unviable Bantustans where they can be more easily controlled. Even now, with only part of the wall completed, many Palestinian towns and villages have been turned into "gated communities" of sorts: all roads leading into and out of town are blocked except for one or two, and gates are placed on them. The Israeli army locks them at night, in effect placing everyone under town arrest. In theory, the gates are unlocked the following morning, but in practice the gates are unlocked (or not) at the discretion of the soldiers on duty. When the gates open, Palestinians stand in line and wait for a soldier to inspect their ID cards and wave them through to the other side, or wave them back to town.

Perhaps the most oppressive gated community is Qalqilya, a city that is completely encircled by a 26-foot-high concrete wall except for a single road through which residents pass on foot. Merchants carrying goods into town must unload their trucks at the gate, submit to inspection by an Israeli soldier, and then carry their goods by hand to a waiting truck within the wall gates. Since the wall has gone up, 40,000 Qalqilya residents have been deprived a view of the sunset.

Areas between the Green Line and the wall are referred to as "military seam zones," and when the wall is completed, some 343,300 Palestinians will find themselves living in such designated areas. Those who live there will be required to prove home ownership and must secure permits to live in their ancestral homes. These permits are granted at the discretion of the Israeli authorities. Those who cannot secure permits have no courts of appeal.

Loss of land and livelihood

The completed segment of the wall affects the Jenin, Tulkarem, and Qalqilya districts, which have a combined population of more than 500,000 people (22-24 percent of the West Bank population) and accounted for 45 percent of the West Bank's agricultural production. In these three districts, the wall separates 51 villages from their lands, placing 122,000 dunums beyond reach (in effect, annexing 2 percent of the West Bank); it resulted in the destruction or uprooting of 102,320 trees, dozens of commercial businesses, and 19 miles of water networks; and it places sixteen villages and thirty-six groundwater wells in the no man's land between the wall and Israel proper.

The Palestinians I met were both outraged and stunned by the scope and ferocity of the Israeli assault. Landowners relied on the land for their livelihoods and nurtured it as they did their children, and they were dumbfounded that anyone, even an enemy, could destroy their orchards and render the land useless. Farmers whose olive trees had been uprooted described their losses as though they were describing the sudden death of a family member still in his prime. To add insult to injury, the uprooted trees were rumored to have been resold in Israel for a price.

My escort in Tulkarem, Suhail, worked with an agricultural relief committee that was mobilizing opposition against the wall. He related to me the story of a farmer whose olive groves had been bulldozed so that only stumps remained. The man told him, "you can lose your son, and you bury him, and with time, you go on. My land is dead and I can't figure out how to bury it."

In Jarooshiya village (Tulkarem district), Basima Said Uthman recounted her family's losses:

The Uthman family consists of about 130 people. We have 450 dunums that support 22 families. All gone, except for the land the houses sir on. The Israelis came and cur down about 5,000 olive trees at the peak of the season, before the olives fully ripened. We went to pick the olives on one side, and the Israelis were cutting the trees on the other side. The uprooted trees were Iying on the ground, and we felt like we were turning over a human being who had died. Wherever you turned, there were gnarled dead olive trees.

The Israelis cut our trees to make a road for the wall. About one-third of our trees remain inside the wall. The olive trees are more than 100 years old. My great grandfather planted them, and some were planted by my father. The land is about 20 meters away, but we can't reach it. We look at it, but this year we haven't tasted the olives or the nuts. We yearn to eat from it, but instead we've had to buy our olives. This year we'll have to buy our olive oil. This is a tragedy.

Many Palestinians I spoke with had experienced similar losses, and they eyed the future with considerable apprehension.

The environmental cost

To go to the villages in the Jenin district is to witness unrelenting misery. Zububa, a village (population about 2,000) in the northernmost tip of the district, has experienced gradual land confiscation since 1948, and villagers fear that the rest of their land will be confiscated through the wall. In many places the wall is no more than 40 or 50 meters away from the nearest house. The environmental hazards brought about by the construction of the wall were described to me by Mohammad Jaradat, a resident of Zububa in the Jenin district:

This wall affects my house and the entire region. The wall changed the contours of the land, it diverted all the rainwater to our lands, which are lower. The sewage water was diverted to us, too, from the Salem checkpoint. ln February, the whole area gets flooded. Our whole house was filled with sewage. The salt in the sewage threatens the house, not to mention the environmental contamination. We have an old village well and a few springs, and all of them have become contaminated. The whole area is affected. When we don't have access to water from Jenin or when it is cut off, we are forced to drink this contaminated water.

They want to expropriate the lands above us to choke the residents of this village. They are sending us rainwater and their sewage so that we leave the village. We have appealed for help, but no one is listening.

Residents of these northern West Bank villages recounted the daily harassment they live with. They described how Israeli soldiers in their jeeps speed through their streets late at night, using bullhorns to curse residents and call the women whores. Early in the morning, they announce curfews, which means that no one can leave their homes. Another day of missed school.

Various interviewees independently characterized the effect of the wall as a tragedy that affected each village uniquely. I soon found that each resident in each village also faced a personal tragedy. In al-Taybeh, I met Ribhia Ighbariya, who was temporarily living together with her children in a classroom in the school she worked at as a janitor. She became homeless, she said, when construction on the wall was started:

They started to plow through the top of the mountain. Our house was on the mountain, and they kept digging and dumping the dirt on my roof. We could only enter our home through the back door. They used dynamite 4 or 5 times right above the house without warning. My kids told me, our house is cracking.

When it rained, there was nothing left as a buffer with the mountain. But with nowhere to go, she stayed in her home, moving her children to the room that was leaking the least. Finally members of the town council, who had learned of her predicament, insisted that she abandon her house immediately and gave her a classroom to live in. Speaking haltingly, she recounted for me how she had been forced by Israeli soldiers to move the grave of her husband, who had been dead for fourteen years, as well as a few others, so that a road could be built. She was dumbfounded that the dead were being pursued, like the living.

"Can no one stop their violence?" Nazlat Isa (population 2,300) is a village in the Tulkarem district that now falls in the no man's land between the wall and Israel proper. At one time it had been a commercial hub for neighboring villages, but for months Israeli bulldozers had been systematically razing it; more than one hundred commercial shops and five homes were bulldozed in a single day, August 21. One of the homes belonged to Rathiya Abu Zeben, who lived in it together with nine family members.

For the past 5 or 6 years, everything my sons made went into building this home. We went without many things just so we can finish the house and live in it. Now they denied us that. What are we to do now? Can no one stop their violence? Where can we go? There is no place else for us to go. Arab leaders have abandoned us. They aren't objecting and they aren't concerned about what's happening to us or our children, each of whom sweats blood and flesh for each cent he makes. While the Israelis chase them from street to street.

Hanna Rishmawi, who works with the anti-wall committee in the Bethlehem region, explained the threat posed by the wall to open spaces. At an average of 1,000 or 1,100 people per square kilometer, Bethlehem was relatively "underpopulated." But with the confiscation of land to build the wall, the population density is likely to reach 4,500 people per square kilometer, which makes it comparable to the population density of Gaza, which is the highest in the world. The Bethlehem district will be unable to grow naturally, so there will be a high concentration in the downtown areas and an end to green spaces in towns. Palestinians were conscious of the very real possibility that Israel's scheme for them would also deprive them of open spaces and turn Palestinian towns into tiny and overcrowded slums.

Living in a military seam area Al-Daba'a, a hamlet in the Qalqilya district, is probably typical of the communities that are now in the military seam zone. In the process of creating the wall, Israel destroyed 250 dunums of land belonging to this hamlet, uprooted 2,000 trees, and isolated five water cisterns beyond the wall. Some 1,200 dunums of farmlands are now inaccessible or reached with difficulty, a major problem for a population of whom 80 percent had relied on agriculture. Some homes have sustained structural damage and are now unsafe, a consequence of Israel's use of explosives to dear a path for the wall. Zaki 'Awda described what life was like for those who had been excised from the West Bank. I quote him at length because Zaki's experiences are likely to be the fate of 343,000 Palestinians by the time Israel completes its plans.

They completed the wall here and locked the gates. Now we have to take mountain routes, which really is a lot of wear and tear on the cars. Just to bring food for our kids. There is only one road out, and they closed it. Now we pass through an opening in the fence that they created for themselves. When they finish the wall, they'll close that passage. We have to go through the Alfe Menashe settlement, and then pass a checkpoint, and then go to Qalqilya and Azzoun. And they tell us this is the shortest way out. Qalqilya is 3 km away, but with the road as it is, you drive 30 km to get there.

We don't have water and we don't have electricity. We lack just about all services. There are about 50 or 60 houses here. We have an elementary school and a preparatory school. We don't have teachers. The teachers are from Azzoun, Kufur Thuluth, Habla, and Ras Atiya, and they can't reach us at all. Our high school and university students can't reach their schools. This is a huge problem for us.

We have no doctors here. Generally we go to Qalqilya or Habla or Azzoun. When we call for an ambulance, it can't reach us here. A patient might die on the way before he gets to an ambulance. We have to drive patients a distance before we get to the spot the ambulance waits for us. Just this morning, someone was taking a woman who had had a stroke to Qalqilya, and they were stopped at the checkpoint and prevented from passing, even though he had a permit.

We were told that there is no code number for our village, that we weren't even on the map and we weren't recognized. I am 37 years old, and I was born in this village, and I know that my grandfather and his father all lived here. So how can there be no code number for this village? Why is it not on the map? We are completely tied. We don't know what future we have.

I have about 25 dunums outside the wall. And I have another plot of land, about 30 dunums. If they let us through the fence, I have to cross a distance of 20-25 km to get to my property outside the wall. To buy groceries, we go to Azzoun or Habla or Kufur Thuluth. This is a big distance. And the police always stop us along the way, whether or not we have permits and drive correctly. There is always either a fine involved or license suspension, 500 shekel fines [about $111], and courts. We don't know what we're going to do about this. When we see the police, we try to avoid them because they question us: where are you going? And when we tell them, they say, do that some other time, this is not the time.

Our cars are not allowed on the road without a permit. And they don't give us permits. This morning my neighbor went out to his property. He should be able to cross the wall and be on his land in about 5 minutes. Today he tried to leave but couldn't. It took him 3 hours to get there and 3 hours to get back. He can't drive there, he has to go on foot. This is not workable. We can't tend our land when we spend so much time on the road. Two-thirds or more of the village lands are now beyond the wall. The wall isn't complete yet, but we still can't reach our land. When the wall is finished, we won't be able to go anywhere.

We were told we would get 6-month permits. In Beit Amin, they were given permits that were canceled after 1 or 2 months and the gate was locked, and people couldn't move.

People like Zaki are now required to secure permits from the Israeli authorities for the right to live in their homes, to farm their land, to enter such areas for work purposes, and so on. Permits are granted (or not) arbitrarily for a few months at a time. How long can these hamlets survive?

A corollary is this: How is Israel's security enhanced when Palestinians are forced to petition for the right to live in their own homes? The inescapable conclusion is that such policies stem, not from security concerns, but rather from Israel's ongoing and racist preoccupation with demographics: The (non-Jewish) Palestinians will be forced to leave, even if they somehow can resist the economic pressures to leave, because a rejected permit is as good as an eviction notice enforced by ever-present bulldozers.

Bethlehem straits

In the northern West Bank, the theft of farmland (or inability to reach it) is reducing communities to penury. In the south, the pressures are different. The Bethlehem district is home to more than 170,000 Palestinians, concentrated mostly in the three towns Bethlehem, Beit Jala, and Beit Sahour. Bethlehem's economic decline began with the signing of the Oslo Accords and was exacerbated by the closures and curfews, all of which brought the city's economic mainstays, tourism and importing, to a halt. This is only likely to get worse. Hanna Rishmawi explained to me that Israeli land confiscation settlement road patterns appeared to be designed to place the three towns in a closed area with only an east and west road supervised by the Israelis. Judging by practices in other areas, the gate will dose between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., which will kill the tourism industry and the export business. As it is, the wall around Bethlehem serves to isolate and annex the religious areas, and since my visit, Rachel's Tomb has become completely inaccessible to Palestinians. A furniture factory owner I spoke to, Mundher Elias al-Bandak, observed that he might have to dose the factory that his father built in 1936; with the wall no more than six meters away from his factory on two sides, he did not expect that anyone would bother to come to his showroom and place furniture orders.

What kind of life is possible,

Clearly, Israel's leaders are willing to bear any cost, violate every norm, and inflict tremendous pain on a nation in order to fulfill their dreams of greater Israel. The wall, together with the network of bypass roads and roadblocks and a policy of keeping 3.5 million Palestinians on the edge of starvation, is | designed to divide the West Bank into impoverished cantons | that are further subdivided into ghettos. Not only is Israel pre- J venting the emergence of a viable Palestinian state, but it also is pursuing a policy of enforced hunger that will make voluntary emigration the only viable option to an unsustainable existence. Sustained attacks against a people's ability to survive surely counts as a genocidal policy.

Palestinian, Israeli, and International Solidarity Movement activists have been protesting the wall and its extension into the Salfit and Ramallah districts since the fall of 2003. Israeli police and soldiers have responded with tear gas, concussion bombs, rubber-coated metal bullets, and live ammunition. Some Palestinians have been killed protesting the wall, and at

least one Israeli has been shot. In an emergency session, the UN General Assembly asked the International Court of Justice in The Hague to consider the legality of the wall; Israel refused to participate in the deliberations, just as it has ignored dozens of Security Council resolutions condemning its policies in the Occupied Territories.

If the wall is allowed to continue, Palestinians will find -) themselves like Native Americans, confined to reservations, where they are completely marginalized or worse. Only a sustained demonstration of international (and particularly U.S.) opposition to Israeli lawlessness stands a chance of reversing Israeli policies that have brought so much pain and suffering.

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