When you witness it, you are left in disbelief; how can it be happening? But it is occurring daily; what seems to be purposeful hindrances to West Bank residents that reduce Palestinians, who have meager demands and normal needs, to total despair and deprivation.
I had already observed a power point presentation on Fragmentation of the West Bank, one of many presentations that the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) displays for those interested in conditions in the Palestinian West Bank. An OCHA source told me that former British Prime Minister Tony Blair expressed surprise with the same presentation; he hadn’t been informed of the shown and known restrictive conditions. Evidently, Tony Blair had been unaware of the separation wall that separates Palestinian communities and families, that chokes the Palestinian economy and obstructs daily exchanges between peoples, He was not sufficiently informed of a planned North South super highway for only Israelis that will divide the West bank in half, of the other highways that slice through Palestinian lands and completely bar farm homes from agriculture; of checkpoints every five miles, flying checkpoints, road barriers, berms, trenches, settler bypass roads, blocked Palestinian village roads, and travel restrictions to Jerusalem.
All of this was emphasized in another presentation by Machsom Watch’s Hanna Baraj. Machsom Watch consists of a group of women who rise at 5 AM daily, go to 40 checkpoints and investigate human rights violations. Ms. Baraj related horror stories; of Palestinians who cannot receive visitors, of a child who had cancer but the parents did not have permission to accompany the child to a hospital in Jerusalem, of women who cannot obtain passports or identity cards and are locked in their homes. Her exposition led to one conclusion: The entire purpose of the restrictions on freedom of movement is to make life impossible for the Palestinians.
OCHA Field Support Officer, Dr. Tim Williams, transformed the visual and auditory presentations to real life. He provided a guided tour from Jerusalem to Bethlehem and parts of the West Bank. Start on Road #1, along the Green Line that leads to the Mandelbaum Gate, a former checkpoint between Israeli and Jordanian sectors of Jerusalem. Pass the Mandelbaum gate and arrive in East Jerusalem.
The Palestinians in East Jerusalem who refused Israeli citizenship after the 1967 war are now stateless. To make their lives worse, Israel has halted re-unification of families that are separated between the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Approximately 100,000 persons have applied for reunification. Most persons who had a spouse and children in both areas are denied access to their families. Some parents can’t register children or obtain birth certificates. For these parents it means not being able to move to a job in another country without leaving the child.
Entering Bethlehem means being greeted by the separation wall which runs close to homes. The former popular Bethlehem has shrunk in size and economy. Israel decided to incorporate 22% of Bethlehem land into Jerusalem. The government also routed the wall so that it cuts across the Jerusalem/Bethlehem highway and closes the previously used road to Bethlehem. This road brought tourists past the souvenir shops, which are now mostly closed. Hotels are only 10% occupied. The livelihoods of many Bethlehem citizens have disappeared. To obtain employment, laborers line up at 3AM at checkpoints they must pass through in order to go to Jerusalem and work. The checkpoint funnels persons through a small fenced area, similar to a stockyard, bringing them to a turnstile and to security control.
The once busy and proud Bethlehem is now a decaying town; empty shops, empty homes, empty tourist attractions. If the Christian Lord could rise again, he would be alone. The UN claims decaying Bethlehem water pipelines lose 25% of the water. The former Palestine Authority intelligence headquarters, bombed by Israeli jets on March 5, 2002, remains a bombed out group of senseless buildings.
At a hilltop site in Gush Etzion, (Bloc of the Tree), the famous Zionist settlements, which were destroyed and abandoned under Jordanian rule, but have returned to grow to 40,000 settlers since Israel’s occupation after the 1967 war, Israel’s modification of the land is apparent. Israeli setlements dot the landscape. Several temporary vans with antennae are in view on the top of the hill. Two Israelis come jogging from the incipient settlement. An old Palestinan village is obvious in the near distance. We are told that its cisterns have been dampened and the village is static — building of new homes is not permitted, except for special circumstances. A new narrow road winds its way in the distance. The direct road which led to the main road has been blocked, bypassed, reblocked and on and on.
A super highway, for settlers only, cuts through Palestinian lands and separates the homes from the agriculture and gazing. Children who tend goats after school must walk several hundred yards from their homes in order to cross the road and find the goats. A Palestinian only road is being constructed under the superhighway. Fruit trees have been destroyed to provide this road, which at its low level, is subjected to flooding. The road is not finished.
Hebron is the other principal Palestinian city in the southern part of the West Bank. Gill Swain, voluntary member of the Ecumenical Accompaniers in Hebron, is the Hebron guide. The Ecumenical Accompaniers in Hebron do just what their nomenclature indicates; they accompany Hebron Arabs in everyday functions and prevent harrassment from illegal settlers.
Entrances to the old market, where the supposed Abraham’s tomb is located, have been blocked by checkpoints. Arab children, who attend schools in the old section, must pass through metal detectors at these checkpoints. Most shops and homes along the principal street of the old wholesale market have had their locks broken and remain empty. The guide stops and talks to a man, an illegal settler, under house arrest. Nevertheless, the man walks the streets.
The illegal settlers now control the central part of the old city. They mingle together, obviously not working, in a housing project hidden from the main street. Their children, many of them, run and play. The settlers are reticient to talk, saying they will only talk if we promise to tell the truth. When asked why the Palestinians are no longer here, the settler responds he doesn’t know — an example of what he characterizes as the truth. Outside the settlement is a huge banner that proclaims: Return Stolen Jewish Property — a reference to the1929 riots when about 65 Jews were killed and all Jews eventually left Hebron. The sign is raised over Arab stores, all of which have been destroyed and are now locked and unused; although the proprietors must pay taxes and the leasees must pay rents.
The illegal settlements have destroyed Palestinian life in the central market of Hebron. When the Israeli military attempted to evict the settlers, the settlers broke windows and ruined the Palestinian shops. For an incomprehensible reason, the settlers have returned to their positions and the Palestinian shops and houses remain empty These settlers make claim to properties “taken” from Jews during riots against Hebron Jews back in 1929, but do not display any rights of inheritance or deeds to any of the properties. Can this claim of a ‘collective right’ have a legal basis? Contrast the Hebron settlers’ illegal positions and false claims with Palestinians, who have legal deeds to properties in Israel, and are prevented from recovering their properties.
Close to the security checkpoint and directly opposite to a settlement of 30 families at Beit Hadassah, Palestinian children attend a school. Each day the entrance to the steps leading to the school is blocked by a car, just a petty expression that characterizes the Hebron settlers.
Separate roads, separate schools, separate shops, separate everything — isn’t that apartheid? President Jimmy Carter didn’t err in calling it apartheid. He could have termed it a super apartheid, nothing comparable to it in the western world of the present century.