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Breaking the silence: inside the West Bank

By Stefanos Evripidou

DO YOU ever get the feeling that you’re guilty of something you haven’t done, simply because it’s expected of you?

It’s a horrible feeling, especially when manifested in the initial stages of a two-hour airport security check.

As staff searched every particle of my belongings, I speculated on what might have triggered the ‘full on’ security check. My trip to Pakistan seven years ago? Or the stopover in Dubai last year?

Perhaps I shouldn’t have said I was travelling to the West Bank for an EU-led tour of the occupied Palestinian territories. But it was the enigma of truth, after all, that got me into journalism in the first place.

At Israel’s Ben Gurion airport I was guided to a special security section reserved for the more suspect arrivals.

Next to me sat a tall bearded man wearing an Islamic skullcap. He seemed agitated. I gathered from his grumblings he’d been there a while. His wife was waiting in arrivals but his phone had no battery. I feared if I offered him mine, I’d be branded with guilt by association.

Airport security rarely fosters amity among travellers, particularly in this part of the world.

Safely through, it was time to head to the West Bank, my first trip there so I had little idea what to expect. I was struck by the ease with which we crossed from Israel into Palestine.

Where were the intrusive security checks? The separation barrier? The soldiers? The taxi driver, exploiting the night’s indifference, took a back road and drove straight to Ramallah, the administrative centre of the Palestinian Authority.

The ease of movement that first night was followed by other more cumbersome crossings and checkpoints, painting a contradictory picture of just how security is perceived and randomly enforced in this hotly contested land.

It’s not that there aren’t hundreds of checkpoints, guarded by often bored, indifferent or impatient soldiers. There are. Just like there is a separation barrier, which cuts across parts of the occupied territories, effectively grabbing 15 per cent of the West Bank. The wall divides communities; cutting them off from schools, health facilities and holy sites while smothering mobility.

A pitiful example is Azoun Atma, a village of 2,200 people surrounded on all sides by the separation barrier. Beyond the wall are Israeli settlements, whose security is of primary importance. There are only two entry/exit points in the village, manned by the Israeli army. Names of visiting guests have to be given in advance by the villagers.

The wall cuts into the local school’s grounds, looming over the educational facility like a frozen tsunami. The section behind the school is coloured, for the children, as opposed to the grey concrete slab elsewhere. “It’s like putting make-up on a crime,” said one villager.

But a closer look at how movement is controlled suggests that the Israeli occupation in most cases is less about security, and more about presence and control.

It can take anywhere from two minutes to five hours to pass a checkpoint, depending on the time, location and mood of the occupation army. The borders are porous in some places and lethal in others. Many Palestinians are able to cross to work illegally in the construction sector, often on illegal settlements in East Jerusalem.

The Israeli-Palestinian peace talks – ended last month – set out to create a two-state solution, with the Palestinian State made up of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, roughly based on the 1967 borders.

Our tour was limited to the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The Gaza Strip, populated by over 1.5 million Palestinians, mostly refugees, has been off bounds since Hamas took over.

For the 2.5 million people in the West Bank, the Oslo Accords afforded the Palestinian Authority (PA) a limited form of self-governance.

What is less obvious to most is that the Israeli army maintains security and administrative control of over 60 per cent of the West Bank, called Area C. When you hear of Israeli bulldozers demolishing Palestinian homes, mosques and other buildings because the necessary Israeli permit was not acquired, it’s usually in Area C, where building permits for Palestinians are extremely hard to come by.

The Israeli army maintains security and administrative control of over 60 per cent of the West Bank
The Israeli army maintains security and administrative control of over 60 per cent of the West Bank

The PA has no say over three fifths of the West Bank. The remainder is divided into Area A, where the PA is responsible for policing and administration, and Area B, where the Palestinians have civilian control but Israel maintains security.

Area A counts for 18 per cent of the West Bank and is scattered into pockets of urban areas, surrounded by Areas B and C.

An example of how Oslo works in practice: if a Palestinian police officer wants to attend a call in Area C, he requires permission from Israel.

David Wolfe from the London Metropolitan Police advises Palestinian police as part of an EU mission. He says getting permission to enter Area C can take anywhere from three minutes to three days to not at all. If permission comes, conditions are sometimes attached: the officer can’t go in a marked car, in uniform, or with a gun, and has to travel a specific route at a specific time.

Captain Iyad Daraghmeh of the Palestinian Civil Police says the biggest challenge and embarrassment is when the Israeli army “in front of our people” carries out incursions in areas supposedly under PA control. In such instances, the Palestinian police have to retreat to their stations and abandon the streets until the Israeli army is done.

Driving through the West Bank, the biggest aberration, in terms of aspirations for a future viable state, is the site of Israeli settlements dispersed throughout the land.

Whenever a settlement is established in the West Bank – or Judea and Samaria to the Israeli religious nationalists – the Israeli state provides security. On the ground, this means further land grabs as the Israeli army ring-fences the settlement with a larger security zone around it, a job sometimes taken on by the massive separation barrier or even an electric fence.

Practically, these security zones eat into the available land, creating no-go areas for Palestinians, particularly farmers wishing to graze their animals. In turn, they are forced to import animal feed from Israel, often at a prohibitive cost.

For the 2,000-odd Bedouins living in an area designated by Israel as E1 their survival depends on their ability to breed animals. With E1 earmarked for future Israeli settlements, the Bedouins face a tough struggle to avoid further displacement.

They also represent the last obstacle preventing E1 settlements from driving a wedge through the heart of the West Bank, separating north from south, creating a belt of settlements around East Jerusalem, and destroying any chances of a functional state.

There are believed to be, though accurate figures are hard to find, around 500,000 Israeli settlers, mostly religious nationalists, living in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians want as a future capital – and the Israelis have effectively annexed, illegally according to most of the world.

On April 29, 2014, when the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks formally ended, Israeli monitor group Peace Now highlighted the “unprecedented” scale of Israeli plans for new settlements – nearly 14,000 housing units announced during the nine months of talks.

Palestinians like to use the pizza analogy for continued Israeli settlement expansion. It’s like two people negotiating on how to share a pizza, while one of them is eating the pizza.

PA spokesman Dr Ehab Bessaiso noted the huge challenges on the ground, given the ever expanding settlements and indiscriminate violence against Palestinians.

“More than 60 Palestinians were shot by Israeli troops or settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip since negotiations began,” he said three weeks before the talks ended.

Thousands of olive trees are uprooted, villagers are attacked on a daily basis by violent settlers on their way to and from their farms, while the Israeli army does nothing, said Bessaiso.

On the day we visited the South Hebron Hills, two settlers from the illegal outpost Havat Ma’on attacked a group of Palestinian school girls on their way to school with stones.

Avner Gvaryahu, 29, argues that settlements started off being a security issue. Now they are ideologically-driven and supported by the Israeli state.

Gvaryahu comes from a family of Israeli religious nationalists. He has relatives and friends who live in settlements. After serving as a sergeant in a sniper’s team in the Israeli army during the Second Intifada, he joined the Israeli NGO Breaking the Silence (BtS).

The BtS team encourages former soldiers who served in the occupied territories to give testimonies about their experiences, either anonymously or on video. They have over 900 testimonies on the treatment of Palestinians, some of them shocking, and some suggestive of war crimes, like the use of civilians as human shields.

“You wake up and look in the mirror and don’t recognise the person you are,” he said.

“We’re not trying to make the army better, or teach them to be nice occupiers, we oppose the occupation.”

Gvaryahu argues that only a small portion of Israelis serve in the West Bank.

Most of the coffee-drinking, beach-going residents of liberal Tel Aviv have little to no idea what the army is doing just a stone’s throw away in the occupied territories, and in their name.

“When we’re talking about breaking the silence, a lot of people are not listening because it doesn’t affect their lives,” he says.

One Palestinian man who wished to remain anonymous said former Israeli intelligence officials told him the more secure Israelis felt, the less interested they were in reaching a peace deal.

Gvaryahu agrees. “The truth is Israeli society doesn’t really know what’s happening in its own back yard.”

He points to Hebron, the second biggest Palestinian city in the West Bank, as a microcosm of the wider conflict, marked by separation, martial law and settler violence.

An Israeli sign in Hebron
An Israeli sign in Hebron

In Hebron, the Israeli army exercises the most extreme form of separation and discrimination against the local Palestinian population.

The main commercial street, Al-Shuhada, is closed off to Palestinians, as are other parts of the historic centre. They are simply not allowed to open their shops, walk or drive down the street. Those Palestinians who refused to move even after their front doors were welded together have to access their homes from the rooftops. Their windows are caged to protect against stones and Molotov cocktails thrown by radical settlers.

Gvaryahu says the army calls what’s happening in central Hebron “sterilisation”.

Living in a cage, a Palestinian home in a settler area
Living in a cage, a Palestinian home in a settler area

Around 650 Israeli soldiers are based in the city centre, once a bustling marketplace and now a ghost town, to protect 700 settlers. Around 10,000 Palestinians have left the area due to the grim realities of occupation. The Israeli army detains Palestinian children if suspected of misbehaving but stands idly by if settler children throw stones at their Palestinian counterparts, says the former sniper.

The tombstone of Baruch Goldstein, who gunned down 29 Muslims praying in the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron in 1994, gives one a sense of the religious fanaticism of the settlers. It says: “His hands are clean and his heart is pure.”

Elsewhere in the city, a Palestinian kindergarten is vandalised with images of the Star of David. Graffiti on a wall reads: “Gas the Arabs.” A huge banner on Al-Shuhada Street: “Palestine never existed! (and never will).”

Before and after - the busy street closed down in Hebron
Before and after – the busy street closed down in Hebron

The BtS representative argues that the army’s main mission is to make their presence felt, to “brand Palestinian consciousness” by disrupting their everyday life. Soldiers have given testimonies of randomly pointing laser guns at Palestinians, taking over houses as part of random searches, locking up family members in a room while watching football on their TV.

Gradually, the notion of “innocent Palestinians” has eroded, replaced by the term “Palestinians that are not involved”, he said.

Betty Herschman from the Israeli NGO Ir Amim highlights discrimination against the Palestinian community in East Jerusalem, which is under the full control of the Israeli municipality, and essentially cut off from the rest of the West Bank, under army control.

Palestinians make up almost 40 per cent of Jerusalem’s population but only around 10 per cent of the municipal budget is spent on services for Palestinians, 80 per cent of whom live in poverty.

“The ongoing building of Israeli settlements or neighbourhoods, depending on how one views them, with the parallel complete lack of access to city planning by the Palestinians; the inability to acquire building permits; the implementation of all sorts of displacement policies; the revocation of permanent residency status; the maintenance of severe socio-economic disparities, that displace Palestinians from the city, all of these together create huge stresses that daily erode Palestinians grasp on the city.”

She points to the Begin Highway Extension, a six-lane highway tearing through a Palestinian neighbourhood, Beit Safafa. Herschman says the highway aims to link the three main settlements north, south and east of Jerusalem to consolidate control over a ‘Greater Jerusalem’.

Ir Amim argues that everything in Jerusalem has some form of political import. For example, declaring a national park, Mount Scopus Slopes Park, without consulting the local Palestinian community is a form of land grab, creating a handy land bridge to the proposed E1 area.

She also highlights the policy of ‘silent transfer’, where Palestinian neighbourhoods within the Jerusalem municipal boundary have found themselves on the other side of the separation barrier, with the rest of the West Bank. However, the PA is not permitted to administer these ‘forgotten’ areas, and they are left without municipal services.

Considering around a quarter of Jerusalem’s Palestinians face the prospect of having their homes demolished for not having Israeli permits, the unchecked areas outside the wall appear an attractive destination.

Herschman argues that the new settlements planned in East Jerusalem could be the nail in the coffin of a two-state solution.

In Jerusalem’s Old City Palestinian shopkeepers are closing down one by one as they buckle under the weight of municipal fines. Palestinian residents find it near impossible to secure permits to renovate rundown houses, while 1,000 surveillance cameras monitor any effort to bring building material into the Old City.

Alessandro Mrakic, UNDP’s chief technical adviser in the region, says: “Jerusalem could be an ideal city, living all together, but in reality the situation and daily life is very tense, especially for the Palestinian community.”

But what is the moral cost of the occupation? What is the endgame? Has the point of no return been passed? Is Israel OK with a one-state solution?

Some within the Israeli leadership want to continue the occupation until Israel secures the majority of the land with the minimum amount of Palestinians.

The implication being Palestinians will squeeze into the remaining pockets of self-rule.

Can Israelis – and the international community – really live with that? Could the US really turn a blind eye and sign a new 10-year, $30 billion defence aid package with Israel?

When asked how people survive under the circumstances, a 36-year-old Palestinian resident of Jerusalem replied: “To exist is to resist. We will not leave.”

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