May 25, 2014 PDF

Last month, the latest attempt at a Middle East peace agreement fell apart, with both Israeli and Palestinian officials blaming each other for the failure. It was the latest in a long-running saga of attempts to find a solution to the regularly flaring tension between the states of Palestine and Israel, a conflict that has been simmering for more than six decades.

Across cities and towns in the West Bank – 5,640 sq km (five times the size of Hong Kong) of landlocked territory that makes up the bulk of today’s Palestine – there was a sense in the lead-up to the April 29 deadline for a peace accord in the United States-led talks that the future of Palestine as an independent state has many more downward twists to go before things can improve.

More than 60 per cent of the West Bank is directly policed by Israeli security forces, 20 per cent is controlled by a mix of Palestinian police and Israeli security forces and only 18 per cent is controlled solely by the Palestinian authorities. In some places, Palestinians have to pass through Israeli military checkpoints to visit a neighbouring village.

“People in the camps and elsewhere are continually frustrated by the peace process,” says Jamal Buqeileh, a United Nations Relief and Works Agency camp services officer for Askar, one of the West Bank’s 19 refugee camps. The camps house some of the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians forced from their land following the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, in what many Palestinians continue to refer to as the Nakba; the “catastrophe”.

For Palestinians living in the West Bank, life can be a constant reminder of the unsettled nature of the country they reside in (in Gaza, the area of Palestine divided from the West Bank by a section of Israel, the situation is said to be even worse, with many likening the roughly 360 sq km territory to a large, well-guarded prison). In the tightly packed alleyways of the Balata refugee camp, where unemployment runs at almost 50 per cent, young men hang out on the street with little to do.

Balata, just outside the bustling Palestinian city of Nablus, has existed since 1952 and now has more than 26,000 residents (up from an initial 5,000). Four schools exist to educate the 4,000-plus children who live in the camp while one health centre treats the sick; the health centre is open only until 3pm each day.

“They still believe they are refugees and believe they will return; it is a belief passed down from generation to generation,” says Abdel Samad Abu Serris, the camp services officer at Balata.

It is estimated that as many as 500 Arab villages and towns were taken over, abandoned or destroyed following the founding of Israel, with many Palestinians at the time fleeing their homes in fear, expecting to return when things had calmed down.

“I left my home at 15, now I am 77,” says Abbas Mustafa, limping slowly down one of Balata’s main thoroughfares. “At the time, we heard they were killing Arabs in Jaffa [part of today’s Tel Aviv, 48km from Nablus] so we took what we could and fled. I eventually arrived at this camp in 1955. I don’t own anything here.”

Sitting outside a row of shops a block away is 66-year-old Khalid Ada Ahmed Rawyyal.

“I was born in 1948 – my fate is unlucky,” he says. “Life here is hard but at the same time I know there is no chance of going back to my home [in Jaffa].  If I went back now, I wouldn’t even recognise my house and land.”

Israel has long resisted allowing Palestinians the right of return to homes outside Palestinian areas, fearing a stampede would pose a security risk and alter the make-up of the country to the extent that it would lose its Jewish majority. The issue has been one of the major sticking points in the many rounds of peace talks.

For the first few years of operation, refugee camps such as Balata were comprised primarily of tented accommodation but, since the late 1950s, when it became clear the situation would be a protracted one, concrete buildings have been built. However, little urban planning has gone into the mess of tightly packed streets and alleyways, and overcrowding is a major issue.
For the men and women who were born and raised in the refugee camps the future is limited; many are forced to cross into Israel to work in low-paying sectors such as construction.

“It is very difficult to find work,” says Hashem Sweidan, a 24-year-old born in the Askar refugee camp (population 18,000). “We have to leave the area. We find illegal work in Israel but if you get caught you go to prison.”

Standing nearby, 20-year-old Ibrahim Barakat explains the dilemma many young Palestinians face.

“I was arrested twice for working illegally in Israel,” he says. “Both times they just kicked me out but if I get caught again, it is six months in jail and a 6,000 shekel [HK$13,420] fine. You get three strikes. But you can earn 250 shekels a day working construction there. Here you get maybe 50 to 60.”

Simmering resentment, as well as the existence of Israel in general, has led to a series of conflicts over the years, most notably the Six-Day War. In 1967, Israel’s army and air force routed forces sent by Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Iraq. Israel then took control of additional territory, including all of the once-partitioned Jerusalem (Palestinians maintain that the city is the capital of Palestine, although Ramallah acts as the main centre in a de facto capacity) and more land in the West Bank.

The fact that the young male residents have little to occupy their time coupled with their strong sense of grievance has meant the refugee camps are often where Palestinian unrest boils over first. The first and second intifadas – violent uprisings against Israeli occupation, which began in the late 80s and in 2000, respectively, and resulted in the deaths of several thousand Palestinians as well as more than a thousand Israelis  – are thought to have started in the refugee camps.

About 200 refugees from Askar were killed during the intifadas, according to camp officials.

Posters of “martyrs” are a regular sight in the camps. Most of the young men pictured, posing with guns, were killed by Israeli security forces.

“It is very difficult to deal with the youth, those who have nothing to do,” says Buqeileh.

Hamas, a militant group that won Palestine’s last governmental elections, in 2006, and governs Gaza, is popular throughout the camps. The reconciliation between the secular Fatah, which governs the West Bank, and Hamas was a major reason Israel gave for pulling out of the most recent round of talks.

In 2002, Israel began construction of a wall that now divides it from the West Bank. To many Palestinians, the wall, which towers above its surroundings and stretches hundreds of kilometres, represents another land grab and another tool with which Israel controls Palestine.

“The wall is constructed on occupied land, not on the border. It takes 15 per cent of [Palestinian] land,” says Dr. Ehab Bessaiso, a spokesman for the Palestinian Authority, adding that the wall’s position also undermines the unity of the West Bank by cutting it into three blocks that are increasingly difficult to travel between.

“There is a systematic approach by the Israeli government,” says Bessaiso, in one of the Palestinian governmental buildings in Ramallah. “We have a vision and plans [for Palestine] and it is all based on an independent state along the 1967 lines, with East Jerusalem as its capital,” he adds, referring to the borders that were agreed upon at the conclusion of the Six-Day War.

The wall is a dominant presence in Palestinian lives. Palestinians who work in Israel have to pass through military checkpoints to get to their jobs.

Standing in the queue at the major checkpoint of Kalandia, an older Palestinian, who lives in Ramallah but works in Jerusalem, a city supposedly divided between Israel and Palestinian control, says, “Every day I have to do this. It can be one hour, 1½ hours each way – it just depends. We have no control over it.”

Palestinians without a job on the other side of the wall, or a solid reason for needing to cross the border, struggle to get permission to do so, with a single-day permit often taking days or even weeks to process.

“I can only ever get a one-day permit, which lasts from 7am to 10pm,” says another Palestinian waiting to cross. “If they catch me there after 10pm, I will not be allowed back over – ever.”

Graffiti scrawled across the Palestinian side of the wall proclaims messages such as: “One country, one jail,” and “Now I have seen I am responsible.”

For Palestinians, it is not simply that they see land being taken from them by force – land that the international community says belongs to them and which Israel is occupying illegally – nor that they have difficultly entering and exiting a neighbouring state but, rather, that foreign military forces are a constant presence throughout the West Bank. Only the major cities are off-limits to the Israeli military, though even that changes if there is a strong enough justification.

At a Palestinian police training centre outside Jericho, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, Colonel Zaher Sabbah watches a small group of women trainees run through basic stop-and-search procedures. The day is dry and dusty, with temperatures hovering at 37 degrees Celsius.

“Passing from area to area, street to street, can take whole days [for us] to get permission,” he says, of the restricted access his force is given in the areas of the West Bank policed by Israel.

“If we arrest an Israeli who has committed a crime we have to immediately hand them over to the Israelis, and then often the cases disappear entirely. We can’t prosecute Israelis no matter what they’ve done.

“I feel Israel doesn’t want us to have a strong police force,” Sabbah says. “Us having a strong police force should be good for them but they mount incursions just to show they can, to show that at anytime they can destroy us.”

More than 350,000 Israeli settlers are estimated to live in the West Bank, mostly concentrated in illegal settlements that have popped up over the past few decades. Some of the settlers are here for economic reasons – real estate in the settlements is far cheaper than in cities such as Jerusalem and Tel Aviv – but most Israelis agree that the settlement movement is largely made up of religious nationalists trying to expand the Jewish state.

“All settlements are ideological, whether the people are ideological or not,” says Avner Gvaryahu, a coordinator for  Breaking the Silence, an NGO formed by former Israeli service personnel with the purpose of collecting and sharing the testimonies of soldiers who served in the occupied Palestinian territories.  Breaking the Silence also runs tours into the West Bank, including to cities such as Hebron, and gives talks across Israel to try to raise awareness of the difficulties faced by those living in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Gvaryahu spent three years serving as a sergeant in a sniper squad, most of that time in the West Bank.

“The only time most Israelis find themselves in the West Bank is when they are soldiers,” says Gvaryahu. (National service is mandatory for Israeli citizens; men serve three years, women two.) “It is amazingly close but most Israelis have never been to Ramallah – we are not allowed. Israeli society doesn’t know what is happening in its own backyard.”

Hebron, 30km south of Jerusalem, is the largest city in the West Bank, with a population of 250,000 Palestinians. The burial place of Abraham, one of the three biblical patriarchs, it is an impressive city of stone buildings, hills and minarets.  In 1968, a community of Israeli settlers moved into a part of the city, having been granted permis8sion to enter Hebron for just one week for the religious festival of Passover. The settlers subsequently refused to leave and have been in Hebron ever since, with the community continuing to grow and the Israeli government allowing them to stay.

Now there are 700 Jewish settlers in the heart of Hebron, guarded by 650 Israeli soldiers, with large swathes of the city having been emptied of their Palestinian residents to limit the risk of clashes. A few Palestinian residents have defiantly remained in these almost empty parts of the city, with signs at their windows denouncing Israel for its “apartheid” behaviour.

“It is hard for anyone to rationalise hundreds of streets being closed, but the army says that if we want to protect the people, this is what has to happen,” says Gvaryahu, as we walk through an almost deserted street in the former bustling market area of the city. “Let’s be frank. There is no chance to have a Palestinian state while keeping Jews in the heart of Hebron, especially the ultranationalist Jewish community that is here,” he says, before explaining that some of the settlers shout abuse at Palestinians, and go so far as to throw rocks at girls on their way to school.

“Attacks by settlers on Palestinians is routine,” he says.

In 1994 a US-born settler, Baruch Goldstein, killed 29 Palestinians and injured a further 125 when he opened fire inside the central mosque in Hebron, before being overcome and beaten to death. The act was denounced by Israel and led to riots among Palestinians but, to the settler community in Hebron, Goldstein is a hero. His tomb, located on the outskirts of the city, is well maintained, with visitors placing small pebbles on the top as a mark of respect. Part of the epitaph on the tomb reads: “His hands are clean and his heart is pure”. Settlers in Hebron declined to speak to Post Magazine for the purposes of this article.

“There is definitely a price to pay for what we are doing,” Gvaryahu says, when asked about the reaction among Israelis to the NGO’s work. “Our family, friends, society; we are heavily criticised for airing Israel’s dirty laundry.”

Since 1967 Israel has built more than 100 settlements across the West Bank. Some suggest that the speed at which new settlements are going up has increased in recent years, even as peace talks were ongoing.

“It’s not what has been built on the ground since 2000 but the 10,000 units that are on the books,” says Betty Herschman, head of international relations at Ir Amim, an Israeli non-governmental watchdog that focuses on developments in and around Jerusalem. “There have been approvals for 6,000 units since the end of 2012.

“Har Homa [an Israeli settlement] is a real slap in the face to Palestine,” says the 49-year-old American-born Jew, staring out over the settlement, built on the Israeli side of the wall on land that Palestinians, and the international community, maintain belongs to Palestine. “At the beginning it had 200 housing units, now it has a population of 13,000. The plans don’t come out of nowhere, there is government infrastructure, support.  And the sad thing is that when you go to these places, it is mostly Palestinians working on the construction.”

Later in the day, we stand on Mount Scopus, looking at E1 (short for East 1), a 12 sq km part of the West Bank that Israeli politicians have, over the past few years, announced plans to develop.

“E1 is the nail in the coffin of the two-state solution,” Herschman says. “E1 drives a huge wedge between [Palestinian] East Jerusalem, Ramallah, Bethlehem. It is a big political move.”

There have already been discussions on how to relocate the roughly 5,000 Bedouins living on the edges of E1 to an urban setting.

“Under the Turks, the Brits, the Arabs, we’ve always been free to move around,” says Abu Haitham, the 52-year-old patriarch of a Bedouin family who will be forced from the land if the development goes ahead. “We are like wild animals; if you put us in a small cage we die. As soon as a Bedouin enters a village he is no longer a Bedouin.”

ON THE BUSTLING STREETS of Ramallah, the open-air markets are in full swing. Drivers honk their car horns with impatience in the jammed streets. Stores and restaurants are filled with customers and the pavements are thronged with an even mix of people dressed in Western attire and those wearing conservative, Arabic clothing. It’s a scene not much different from that found in many other vibrant metropolises.

“Ramallah is where young, ambitious Palestinians go if they stay in the country,” says Ahmad Daghlas, a 31-year-old photographer and graphic designer who lives and works in the city.

While the West Bank’s per capita gross domestic product was just US$2,093 in 2012, in Ramallah young men and women eat in restaurants or drink coffee in cafes not dissimilar to those found in Hong Kong. Alcohol is available in bars and women can dress less traditionally than those in the more conservative villages, towns and cities across the West Bank.

“It is quite vibrant in Ramallah. There are lots of NGOs, businesses, young people,” says Daghlas.

However, “it is not easy living here”, he says. “Seeing what happens to us Arabs in the West Bank.”

Images by Kit Gillet