Amidst the wreckage of homes, schools, buildings and lives it is sometimes difficult to discern any method to Israel’s assaults upon Palestinians. Coded talk of “security”, “retaliation”, “incursions” only seem to camouflage still further Sharon’s intention of making Palestinian independence impossible.
Ariel Sharon, like many Israelis, has never given up on his dream of a greater Israel which includes the whole of mandate Palestine and therefore despises the very idea of a Palestinian state. Godfather of the illegal Jewish settlements, Sharon has, since 1981 driving his vision for the occupied territories. Reversing previous Israeli strategy of concentrating Jewish settlements in the sparsely populated Jordan valley, Sharon sought to bore illegal settlements into heavily populated areas of the West Bank.
His colonial logic was faultless. Ensure that the presence of Palestinians on their own land remains in a constant state of upheaval, temporary, forbidden to build, expand and develop, their lives are rendered almost powerless to the administrative control of Israelâ€™s occupation army. Add to this structure the systematic brutality of an ever expanding occupation army, surveillance and most importantly what have become immovable, permanent and to the likes of Sharon, non-negotiable Jewish settlements in occupied Palestine. The result: small Palestinian self-ruled enclaves with no possibility of a viable independent state.
Coming full circle and two intifadas later those plans are close to realization. Following September 11th, Sharon has sensed that Israel now has a “window of opportunity” and that he is not going to let the opportunity slip away.
Already over 42% of the West Bank is riddled with a web of illegal settlements that act as watch towers of occupation. Even before the intifada the situation was dire. In 1993, the number of illegal settlers in the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) totalled 247,000. By the end of 2001 this figure had risen to 380,000 – an increase of approximately 54 percent in seven years. Since December 2000, 34 new settlements have been built and the plan is to build still more. As Harry Morris of the Financial Times wrote recently: “Israel is effectively joining up the dots of settlements at a time when army roadblocks and restrictions on movement are bottling up 3 million Palestinians in and around mutually-isolated population centres. A situation in which Jewish settlements existed as islands in a Palestinian sea is seen as giving way to one of Palestinian islands in a sea of settlements.”
Thus increasingly isolated and besieged Palestinian economic activity has all but ceased in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. According to the UN, the Palestinian economy is on the “edge of collapse.” Blaming severe mobility restrictions placed on Palestinians and round-the-clock curfews, the UN claims Israeli siege of Palestinian towns and villages has effectively crippled an already feeble economy.
Living conditions have plummeted, with more than 50 percent of Palestinians unemployed, leading to sharp increases in poverty levels, now estimated at over 60 percent. More ominously though, the greatest damage may already have been done. The UN says, that it may be permanent as the “economy [is] no longerâ€¦[able]â€¦”bounce back”, even if closures were lifted and conditions returned to pre-Intifada levels.”
Palestinian towns are now effectively severed from each other. There are some 164 fixed Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank alone. Few can account for the many random ad-hoc checkpoints of Palestinians being pulled over the side of the road for interrogation. To travel between Bethlehem and Ramallah, a trip of 30 k.m., Palestinians must go through 16 checkpoints. Being caught traveling from one Palestinian town to another without a special Israeli â€œpermit,â€ which even for dire medical emergencies are rarely â€œgranted,â€ carries a huge risk of detention, hours of interrogation and even worse possible imprisonment. To travel from Jenin to Ramallah, a distance of about 80 kilometers, in current conditions could become a 6-hour trip.
The combinations of curfews, checkpoints, and closures have made the ability to plan their lives virtually impossible for Palestinians. The few new roads that have been laboriously built over the Oslo period and paid for by the European Union have been torn up. The road from Ramallah to Birzeit University has been gouged out by bulldozers and tanks; and blocked by more checkpoints. The â€œchoicesâ€ Palestinians have are simple, either accept the consciousness of defeat and stay locked up in your homes as newly appointed Israeli Defense Minister Shoal Mofaz believes, take the risk by travelling on “settler only” apartheid style by-pass roads without â€œspecial permits,â€ or walk for hours on donkey paths of rubble and dust through steep hillsides.
With local trade made impossible by Israeli prohibitions on movement, farmers are unable reach their markets and many olive trees remain un-harvested in fields because of the Israeli armyâ€™s unwillingness to protect harvesters from armed settlers. In some instances, settlers have harvested the olives while Palestinians were left helplessly watching the theft of the fruits of their hard labour. The Israeli army does nothing to prevent this or to protect Palestinians.
Since October 2000, Israeli soldiers and settlers have bulldozed, uprooted, or set ablaze about 200,000 Palestinian olive trees, at a cost to Palestinian farmers of about $10 million. Olive and olive oil production sustains ¼ of the Palestinian economy.
Qalqiliya is an even more insidious example of state sponsored economic strangulation. A West Bank market town, its inhabitants own some of the best farmland in occupied Palestine. However, earlier this summer Israel began constructing a huge wall that will eventually cage the whole town and surrounding villages, expropriating more Palestinians land and cutting them off from their fields. Costing almost $5 million per km, this monstrous project aims to follow a course east of the 1967 borders swallowing up land and livelihoods in its path. For the farmers in Qalqiliya, the wall means that they must now make a 12 km circuitous hike through two checkpoints to get to their fields. Conveniently, the three Jewish settlements that stare down on the fertile valleys are the accessible side of the wall.
The logic of full occupation and destruction is simple; drive the Palestinians off their land and destroy any prospect of an independent entity. Systematically up-root Palestinian society, destroy their way of life, violate their right to their land and given the opportunity, expel them. Most efforts at mass resistance are deterred by the need by most of the Palestinian population to focus on basic means of survival. Peace or no peace, the intention is to break Palestinian society, to shatter it and render it powerless in the mammoth task of first shaking off a brutally seemingly endless occupation and then of building a state out of the debris and wholesale destruction that was left behind.
However, it fictitious to think of this design to build what the UK Ambassador to Israel Sherard Cowper-Coles called “the largest detention camp in the world,” as solely the warped vision of Likud and its right-wing racist allies. The Israeli left has never departed from its belief in settlements, illegal annexation, dispossession and brute military force.
Under the former Labour Prime Minster Ehud Barak, settlement construction peaked, with almost 4,800 new housing units built. Similarly, Shimon Peresâ€™ parroted platitudes about “peace” and “alleviating the suffering of the Palestinians” also echo a hollow ring. Peres himself, has signed-off on many of the acts of repression including collective punishment, torture and assassination.
Even the recent departure of the Labor Party Leader Binyamin Ben-Eliezer from the post as Defense Minister, touted in the Western media as a great schism in Israeli politics, betrayed the truth. The Labor Party did not storm out of the government out of moral disgust at Sharon’s Policies, but because of differences over dividing the budget between their partisan constituents. The Israeli left’s outlook remains firmly colonial. They utter phrases of justice and peace, yet very few believe in the right of return of Palestinian refugees, a right enshrined in numerous legal and political bodies. The delivery of diapers and essential food products are important in alleviating some of the immediate suffering of Palestinians under occupation, but the axiom “occupation with a human face,” is appropriate, for again so few believe in truly crippling the means of occupation by advocating for actions such as economic sanctions. True to colonial mentality, it â€œokayâ€ to give the “native” a few crumbs but it is impermissible that they should demand the whole loaf.
An offer you canâ€™t refuse or else
As if the “generous offer” at Camp David II was not proof enough, the future for the Palestinians under the Labour Party, is one in which they would be corralled into five Bantustan-like enclaves, surrounded by Jewish settlements build on annexed Palestinian lands and military watch towers. Under Israelâ€™s â€œbest offer,” the Israelis would have retained control of water resources, borders, air-space, roads, East Jerusalem, settlement and a veto over the right of Palestinian refugees to return.
With the Israeli lobby now enforcing the “No-Criticism-Zone” over Israeli policies and action and the US Administration offering its unconditional support and $3bn in aid, the dye of continued domination is cast. A politically docile and compliant Palestinian leadership is vetted by Israel to rule as “emperors” in a Palestinian Authority the size of its postage stamp. Palestinians are left with an economy retarded into enclaves incapable of being stitched together and a society fragmented into fragile, marooned villages and towns that have the impermanence of swatter camps, dependent on international food hand-outs and breaks in the curfews. Ariel Sharon was once asked what he thought a Palestinian state might look like? He replied, “Jordan!” Perhaps given the smokescreen of an American war in Iraq, many suggest he might take the opportunity to achieve his vision of a Greater Israel. For the sake of the Palestinians we can only hope that Sharonâ€™s opportunity doesnâ€™t become yet another horrific chapter in the long Palestinian history of exile.