Citing “many intelligence reports” of possible attacks on civilians inside Israel, on February 10 Israel imposed “complete closure” upon Palestinian towns and villages in the Occupied Territories for the duration of the Muslim holiday, Eid al-Adha, which ends on February 14. This measure, last taken on the day of the Israeli elections on January 28, barred Palestinians from traveling between towns and villages in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and sharply curtailed the extended family visits that are an important part of the Eid. But Israel’s latest clampdown did not take away Palestinian freedom of movement, as many news reports posited, because that freedom has barely existed for nearly 12 months. “Complete closure” came on top of the closure in effect since early in the second Palestinian intifada that prevents most Palestinians from entering Israel, and a maze of “internal” closures from which there is rarely a holiday.
Quietly, Israel has been implementing a system of control over Palestinian movement since the invasions of the West Bank in the spring of 2002. Similar controls were in effect in Gaza long before then. Based on a series of long curfews in the majority of Palestinian towns and villages and hundreds of checkpoints navigable only with Israeli-issued permits, the system is Kafkaesque in its totality, and recalls the era before the 1993-1994 Oslo agreements, when the Israeli military “administered” the Occupied Territories in name as well as in fact. The movements of each of the 3.6 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are regulated by an Israeli military bureaucracy, often backed by lethal force.
Stuck at Home
What this means on the ground is that a majority of Palestinians have not left the few square miles of their city or village in months. Hundreds of thousands of people have spent most of 2002 and 2003 forcibly confined to their homes by army-imposed curfews. In Nablus, a city of 126,000 people, the army has declared curfew for three out of every four hours since June 21, 2002. More than 320,000 Palestinians living in the West Bank have actually spent more time under curfew than free of it over the last seven months. Between December 18, 2002 and January 19, 2003, according to the estimate of the Palestinian Red Crescent, an average of 430,910 people were stuck in their houses each day.
For those Palestinians not living under curfew, movement between towns and villages is extremely restricted, and often impossible. Following the March-April 2002 invasions, the Israeli government began to require any person wishing to travel between localities to present a permit issued by Israeli military authorities. It is very difficult to get a permit without also having a magnetic card obtainable only from one’s local District Coordinating Office (DCO), which is also under the control of the Israeli military. It can take weeks to obtain this card, in part because the DCO screens those applying for anyone who has been politically active—a designation embracing the majority of the Palestinian population. The cards themselves are no guarantee of obtaining a permit, as restrictions based on age, sex and area of residence also change regularly depending on the prevailing political situation. Even being in possession of a permit is no guarantee that movement will be allowed through checkpoints, as the major entrances and exits to and from cities are closed without stated reason, preventing everyone—even those with permits—from passing. All permits can be canceled by the decision of the Israeli army.
The system of cards and permits has a number of very serious ramifications. Firstly, most Palestinians are excluded from obtaining them because of their political sympathies, past (even decades-old) political activity or other arbitrary restrictions in place when they happen to apply. Anyone without a permit wishing to travel between areas inside the West Bank, therefore, is forced to take circuitous and extremely dangerous routes. A typical journey between Ramallah and Nablus, for example, which should take less than an hour, can involve an entire day of hiking over dirt tracks and through fields. Anyone caught without a permit can face imprisonment or very hefty fines. Israeli soldiers regularly open fire on people trying to travel on these paths.
Secondly, the bureaucratic system itself is set up to foster dependence on Israeli military authorities. The Shabak, Israel’s secret intelligence force in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, plays a central role in interviewing and vetting applicants for permits and magnetic cards. Israeli agents use the opportunity to gather information and—in some cases—to recruit collaborators. The system subverts any normal administrative norms, encouraging reliance upon “connections” with the Israeli military.
Moreover, this system of curfews, closure and permits enables Israel to apply systematic collective punishment and pressure on the population as a whole. Depending upon the political juncture, Israel is able to halt all movement and activity in some areas of the West Bank and Gaza Strip by closing checkpoints, canceling permits and imposing curfews. At other times, restrictions are loosened (relatively) in order to reward those areas where political activity and resistance has lessened. Because prolonged curfews and closures can cause severe shortages of food, these measures encourage and enforce Palestinian compliance with Israeli rule—literally through the threat of starvation.
These methods of collective punishment have produced a humanitarian disaster unprecedented in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Almost 75 percent of the population now lives on less than the UN official poverty line of $2 per day. As countless reports from local, international and UN bodies have repeated, the policies of closure and curfew have strangled the Palestinian economy through halting work, cutting off markets and preventing the free flow of goods. These poverty levels have more than tripled since the beginning of the intifada in late September 2000.
According to a recent World Bank report, the level of unemployment—including people who have despaired of finding work and given up looking—stood at over 50 percent for the West Bank and Gaza Strip in late 2002. In some areas of the Gaza Strip, the unemployment rate has climbed to over 70 percent. The dependency ratio, referring to the number of people supported by an employed person, has nearly doubled over the last three years and now stands at more than eight.
Economic deprivation has inflicted predictably negative effects upon the health of the population. A January 2003 study from CARE International reports that chronic malnutrition for children aged 6-59 months stands at 17.5 percent in the Gaza Strip and 7.9 percent in the West Bank. Chronic malnutrition, or stunting, is measured by a ratio of a child’s height for age. It is an indicator of past growth failure, and may lead to serious, irreversible growth and developmental delays.
The massive health problems facing the West Bank and Gaza Strip are further indicated by prevalence of anemia among children 6-59 months of age. Anemia is fairly constant for this age group between the West Bank (43.8 percent) and the Gaza Strip (44 percent). According to Christian Aid, in some villages in the Gaza Strip, 63 percent of children are anemic. Iron deficiency is the most common cause of anemia and can lead to impaired learning and growth development in children, premature delivery for pregnant women, as well as fatigue and diminished physical and mental productivity.
Medical personnel and ambulances are regularly denied free movement by Israeli soldiers at checkpoints. On February 1, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent, “an Israeli Army jeep halted an ambulance at gunpoint near [Jenin]. The ambulance, which was carrying four patients, was detained for two and a half hours. When the ambulance driver refused to make the patients leave the ambulance, he was beaten in the face and abdomen, while an Israeli soldier held a gun to his head. The soldier threatened to shoot the driver if he did not make the patients leave the ambulance. As a result, a cancer patient and an elderly male cardiac patient were removed from the ambulance, and forced to find transportation to the hospital in a private car.” Stories such as this are repeated on a daily basis across the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
In addition to the health and economic effects of closure and curfew, normal daily life has come to a halt in many areas. UNICEF reports that during the first term of the 2002-2003 school year more than 226,000 children and over 9,300 teachers were unable to reach their regular classrooms. Over the same period, at least 580 schools were closed due to Israeli military curfews and closures.
Walls and Cantons
These policies are not ad hoc emergency measures rolled out to “ensure security” or “prevent terror attacks,” as the Israeli government implies. Israel’s strategy to control the land and Palestinians has evolved systematically over the last several years, most particularly with the system of closures, curfews and permits extant since April 2002. As Israel steadily divides the West Bank and Gaza Strip into a series of separate cantons separated by concrete walls, bypass roads and Israeli settlements, such policies are necessary to maintain total control on the ground. The Israeli government is hoping that a Palestinian population driven into poverty and despair will accept this archipelago of disconnected population centers, dependent upon and controlled by Israel, as the contours of a future Palestinian “state.”
The West Bank now consists of 64 separate enclaves, with movement between them regulated by the Israeli military through the system described above. Moreover, Israel has begun construction of what has been dubbed the “Apartheid Wall,” a chain of concrete ten feet high that will stretch for more than 223 miles along the length of the West Bank. Contrary to oft-repeated claim that this wall will be a “fence” along the 1967 armistice line that separates the West Bank from Israel (the Green Line), it is estimated by a coalition of Palestinian environmental and human rights NGOs that around 10 percent of the West Bank will be confiscated to make way for the wall. De facto, many currently existing Israeli settlements located on the western side of the wall will be annexed to Israel. Several thousand Palestinians will find themselves living in a military zone between the wall and the Green Line.
Many Palestinians in the Gaza Strip already live in such a military zone. In the Mawasi area, a seven-mile sliver of land in the southwest of the Gaza Strip, around 7,000 Palestinians are scattered among 12 Israeli settlements. Mawasi has traditionally relied upon the nearby town of Khan Yunis for markets, employment and services, but since the beginning of the intifada, Khan Yunis has been nearly inaccessible. Currently, men under 40 and women under 35 are not allowed to move in and out of Mawasi. Those allowed to cross the checkpoint are banned from bringing in food except on Saturdays from 8-10 in the morning and from 2-4 in the afternoon. A similar fate could await those Palestinians trapped between the “Apartheid Wall” and the Green Line.
In the first phase of construction of the wall in the northern West Bank, some 30 villages will see their most fertile land taken away. As of December 2002, some 2,500 acres of land had been razed for the wall, with 83,000 trees uprooted. In one of the starkest indications of what the wall is intended to achieve, the major Palestinian towns of Qalqilya will be entirely surrounded by the wall, with only one point of entry and exit. Palestinians often claim that, due to the system of closure and curfews, the West Bank and Gaza Strip resembles a prison; the wall being built around Qalqilya is turning metaphor into reality.
In such a context, Israel’s “tightening of security measures” during the Eid al-Adha holiday merely underlines the fact that Palestinians in the Occupied Territories already live under a system of total control. Daily life is completely circumscribed by this system which regulates all economic, social and political activity while allowing Israel to continue unobstructed in building its vision of a future “Palestinian state.” Israel has demonstrated repeatedly its ability to shut down Palestinian life at will through simple administrative fiat coupled with the heavy fist of its military.
Many Palestinians fear that the impending war against Iraq will be used as an excuse to accelerate this process, through a total “lockdown” of the population. Residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip remember very well the 1991 Gulf war—when Israel imposed 40 days of continuous curfew. This time around, many suspect, things will be much worse, with Israel using the opportunity of curfew and closure to expel entire villages along the line of the wall, deport prisoners and political activists, and carry out mass arrests. What is almost certain is that Israel, reading tentative signals emanating from Washington and London, will seek maximum advantage for whatever political negotiations may follow the end of the war. After the Gulf war, the first intifada ended and the Oslo accords diverted attention while Israel’s plan to cantonize the West Bank began to take shape on the ground. It has been said that history repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce. If all indications on the ground prove correct, this time around the farce will be even more tragic.