Building new settlements in Gush Etzion in 2010.
This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.
It's the show that time and the world forgot. It's called the Occupation and it's now in its 45th year. Playing on a landscape about the size of Delaware, it remains largely hidden from view, while Middle Eastern headlines from elsewhere seize the day. Diplomats shuttle back and forth from Washington and Brussels to Middle Eastern capitals; the Israeli-Turkish alliance ruptures amid bold declarations from the Turkish prime minister; crowds storm the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, while Israeli ambassadors flee the Egyptian capital and Amman, the Jordanian one; and of course, there's the headliner, the show-stopper of the moment, the Palestinian Authority's campaign for statehood in the United Nations, which will prompt an Obama administration veto in the Security Council.
But whatever the Turks, Egyptians, or Americans do, whatever symbolic satisfaction the Palestinian Authority may get at the U.N., there's always the Occupation and there—take it from someone just back from a summer living in the West Bank—Israel isn't losing. It's winning the battle, at least the one that means the most to Palestinians and Israelis, the one for control over every square foot of ground. Inch by inch, meter by meter, Israel's expansion project in the West Bank and Jerusalem is, in fact, gaining momentum, ensuring that the "nation" that the U.N. might grant membership will be each day a little smaller, a little less viable, a little less there.
How to Disappear a Land
On my many drives from West Bank city to West Bank city, from Ramallah to Jenin, Abu Dis to Jericho, Bethlehem to Hebron, I'd play a little game: Could I travel for an entire minute without seeing physical evidence of the occupation? Occasionally—say, when riding through a narrow passage between hills—it was possible. But not often. Nearly every panoramic vista, every turn in the highway revealed a Jewish settlement, an Israeli army checkpoint, a military watchtower, a looming concrete wall, a barbed-wire fence with signs announcing another restricted area, or a cluster of army jeeps stopping cars and inspecting young men for their documents.
The ill-fated Oslo "peace process" that emerged from the Oslo Accords of 1993 not only failed to prevent such expansion, it effectively sanctioned it. Since then, the number of Israeli settlers on the West Bank has nearly tripled to more than 300,000—and that figure doesn't include the more than 200,000 Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem.
The Oslo Accords, ratified by both the Palestinians and the Israelis, divided the West Bank into three zones—A, B, and C. At the time, they were imagined by the Palestinian Authority as a temporary way station on the road to an independent state. They are, however, still in effect today. The de facto Israeli strategy has been and remains to give Palestinians relative freedom in Area A, around the West Bank's cities, while locking down "Area C"—60 percent of the West Bank—for the use of the Jewish settlements and for what are called "restricted military areas." (Area B is essentially a kind of grey zone between the other two.) From this strategy come the thousands of demolitions of "illegal" housing and the regular arrests of villagers who simply try to build improvements to their homes. Restrictions are strictly enforced and violations dealt with harshly.
When I visited the South Hebron Hills in late 2009, for example, villagers were not even allowed to smooth out a virtually impassable dirt road so that their children wouldn't have to walk two to three miles to school every day. Na'im al-Adarah, from the village of At-Tuwani, paid the price for transporting those kids to the school "illegally." A few weeks after my visit, he was arrested and his red Toyota pickup seized and destroyed by Israeli soldiers. He didn't bother complaining to the Palestinian Authority—the same people now going to the U.N. to declare a Palestinian state—because they have no control over what happens in Area C.
The only time he'd seen a Palestinian official, al-Adarah told me, was when he and other villagers drove to Ramallah to bring one to the area. (The man from the Palestinian Authority refused to come on his own.) "He said this is the first time he knew that this land [in Area C] is ours. A minister like him is surprised that we have these areas? I told him, 'How can a minister like you not know this? You're the minister of local government!'
"It was like he didn't know what was happening in his own country," added al-Adarah. "We're forgotten, unfortunately."
The Israeli strategy of control also explains, strategically speaking, the "need" for the network of checkpoints; the looming separation barrier (known to Israelis as the "security fence" and to Palestinians as the "apartheid wall") that divides Israel from the West Bank (and sometimes West Bankers from each other); the repeated evictions of Palestinians from residential areas like Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem; the systematic revoking of Jerusalem IDs once held by thousands of Palestinians who were born in the Holy City; and the labyrinthine travel restrictions which keep so many Palestinians locked in their West Bank enclaves.
While Israel justifies most of these measures in terms of national security, it's clear enough that the larger goal behind them is to incrementally take and hold ever more of the land. The separation barrier, for example, has put 10 percent of the West Bank's land on the Israeli side—a case of "annexation in the guise of security," according to the respected Israeli human rights group, B'tselem.
Taken together, these measures amount to the solution that the Israeli government seeks, one revealed in a series of maps drawn up by Israeli politicians, cartographers, and military men over recent years that show Palestine broken into isolated islands (often compared to South African apartheid-era "bantustans") on only about 40 percent of the West Bank. At the outset of Oslo, Palestinians believed they had made a historic compromise, agreeing to a state on 22 percent of historic Palestine—that is, the West Bank and Gaza. The reality now is a kind of "ten percent solution," a rump statelet without sovereignty, freedom of movement, or control of its own land, air, or water. Palestinians cannot even drill a well to tap into the vast aquifer beneath their feet.
Living Amid Checkpoints, Roadblocks, and Night Raids
Almost always overlooked in assessments of this ruinous "no-state solution" is the human toll it takes on the occupied. More than on any of my dozen previous journeys there, I came away from this trip to Palestine with a sense of the psychic damage the military occupation has inflicted on every Palestinian. None, no matter how warm-hearted or resilient, escape its effects.
"The soldier pointed to my violin case. He said, 'What's that?'" 13-year-old Alá Shelaldeh, who lives in old Ramallah, told me. She is a student at Al Kamandjati (Arabic for "the violinist"), a music school in her neighborhood (which will be a focus of my next book). She was recalling a time three years earlier when a van she was in, full of young musicians, was stopped at an Israeli checkpoint near Nablus. They were coming back from a concert. "I told him, 'It's a violin.' He told me to get out of the van and show him." Alá stepped onto the roadside, unzipped her case, and displayed the instrument for the soldier. "Play something," he insisted. Alá played "Hilwadeen" (Beautiful Girl), the song made famous by the Lebanese star Fayrouz. It was a typical moment in Palestine, and one she has yet to, and may never, forget.
It is impossible, of course, to calculate the long-term emotional damage of such encounters on children and adults alike, including on the Israeli soldiers, who are not immune to their own actions.
Humiliation at checkpoints is a basic fact of West Bank Palestinian life. Everyone, even children, has his or her story to tell of helplessness, fear, and rage while waiting for a teenaged soldier to decide whether or not they can pass. It has become so normal that some kids have no idea the rest of the world doesn't live like this. "I thought the whole world was like us—they are occupied, they have soldiers," remembered Alá's older brother, Shehade, now 20.
At 15, he was invited to Italy. "It was a shock for me to see this life. You can go very, very far, and no checkpoint. You see the land very, very far, and no wall. I was so happy, and at the same time sad, you know? Because we don't have this freedom in my country."
At age 12, Shehade had seen his cousin shot dead by soldiers during the second intifada, which erupted in late 2001 after Israel's then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon paid a provocative visit to holy sites in the Old City of Jerusalem. Clashes erupted as youths hurled stones at soldiers. Israeli troops responded with live fire, killing some 250 Palestinians (compared to 29 Israeli deaths) in the first two months of the intifada. The next year, Palestinian factions launched waves of suicide bombings in Israel.
One day in 2002, Shehade recalled, with Ramallah again fully occupied by the Israeli army, the young cousins broke a military curfew in order to buy bread. A shot rang out near a corner market; Shehade watched his cousin fall. This summer Shehada showed me the gruesome pictures—blood flowing from a 12-year-old's mouth and ears—taken moments after the shooting in 2002.