The Israeli F-16 strike early on July 23 that killed Hamas leader Salah Shehada and 15 Palestinian civilians in the crowded Gaza neighborhood of al-Daraj put the roiling Israeli-Palestinian conflict suddenly back in the Western headlines. It is possible, as some Western diplomats have stated to the press, that Israel timed the assassination to scuttle imminent agreements between the Palestinian Authority (PA), secular Palestinian militias and Hamas to cease armed attacks on Israeli civilians. Such an agreement might have generated international pressure on Israel to end its month-old reinvasion of West Bank towns, dubbed Operation Determined Path by the army. What appears certain, however, is that Israel will now prolong its military presence, and tight curfews inside the towns, using the pretext that these measures are necessary to prevent Hamas from following through on its loudly broadcasted pledges of revenge for the killings in Gaza City.
Since June 18, approximately 700,000 Palestinians in the West Bank have been living under de facto house arrest — a story that has been remarkably absent from the headlines. The lack of international condemnation or even acknowledgement of the scale of this collective punishment illustrates the manner in which everyday, mundane Palestinian suffering has become normalized in the mainstream media.
DE FACTO HOUSE ARREST
Curfew — more accurately called house arrest — is not a new experience for Palestinians. It is a tactic that has been used on many occasions by the Israeli government, most notably during the first intifada of 1987-1993 and the 1991 Gulf war. What curfew means in practice is that Israeli tanks, military jeeps and snipers patrol the streets of Palestinian towns confining residents to their houses. Anyone seen outside their home can be shot dead or arrested. The streets are eerily quiet, there is no movement of cars, no one can get to work or school and every shop is closed.
The curfew tactic has been used extensively in 2002, most notably during Israel’s major West Bank offensives in March and April. The most recent round of curfews applies to all Palestinian towns and larger villages in the West Bank except the oasis town of Jericho, meaning that a percentage of the population proportionally equivalent to the populations of California, New York and Florida combined has been mostly stuck indoors for over a month. In Ramallah, curfew has been in place for 48 of the last 108 days.
In numerous instances, Palestinian civilians have been killed for “violating” the curfew — venturing out of doors during periods when their community was under lockdown. On June 21, four Palestinians, three of them children, were killed and 24 injured when Israeli soldiers opened fire on a market in Jenin at a time when Palestinian residents believed the curfew on the city had been lifted. However, it is often difficult to determine when the curfew has been suspended, since in many areas the Israeli military fails to publicly announce the lifting of restrictions. Residents are forced to rely on media reports and other informal sources of information to learn when the curfew will be relaxed and for how long. Frequently, a lifting is announced, but then cancelled at the last minute or the curfew is reimposed prior to the originally announced time.
The latest round of curfews began as secondary school students were in the process of taking their matriculation (tawjihi) exams, a prerequisite for graduation and university entrance. In many cases exams were cancelled because of the curfew. On some days students came under attack by the Israeli military as they were proceeding to their exam halls. According to one student living in Ramallah, students in Ramallah and al-Bireh attempting to reach their exams were told by Israeli soldiers: “no peace, no exams.”
The curfews of Determined Path are the latest step in a 22-month siege of Palestinian towns and villages in which the movement of people and commerce has been hindered or blocked by checkpoints and military closures — with devastating effects on Palestinian society and its future development. The resulting loss of income is hitting the poorest and most vulnerable Palestinians the hardest. A recent report by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) found that 30 percent of children under five are afflicted by chronic malnutrition, defined as stunted growth, while 21 percent are suffering from acute malnutrition and are underweight. These figures are up from 7.5 percent and 2.5 percent respectively in the year 2000. A USAID environmental survey of 300 households near Nablus found that none had access to drinking water meeting international health standards. Because of US support for the policies of the Israeli military and government, and hence partial American responsibility for the effects of the curfew, Palestinian NGOs have boycotted USAID funds.
The USAID statistics confirm trends noticed by other international and local organizations over the past two years. A household income survey conducted by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics in April 2002 found that more than two thirds of Palestinian households were living below the poverty line (approximately $340 per month) in the first two months of the year 2002. In the West Bank, 57.8 percent of households were below the poverty line, while in the Gaza Strip the figure reached 84.6 percent. Translating these figures onto an individual level, more than two thirds of the Palestinian population is living on less than $1.90 a day. According to the World Bank, the figure prior to the intifada was 21.1 percent.
Birzeit University’s Institute for Community and Public Health has warned of increases in preventable disease, like hepatitis B, because vaccination programs cannot be carried out on schedule. The PA’s Ministry of Health normally carries out vaccination for hepatitis B at birth. Today many mothers cannot reach the Ministry’s hospitals due to the curfew and closures, and there has been a 40 percent increase in births at home, where there is no access to the vaccine. The Ministry predicts an increase of 3.4 percent in the overall rate of hepatitis B infection. In some areas, such as Askar refugee camp near Nablus, vaccines have spoiled because electricity powering cold storage facilities has been cut off for long periods.
For at least half of the labor force, which relies heavily upon day labor and does not receive a regular salary, each day under curfew is a day without pay. Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics data indicate that over 50 percent of the population has seen its income halved since September 2000. When curfews are lifted for a few hours periodically, the population spends money rather than earning it because there is not enough time to work a full day. This income loss has occurred while inflation rates have risen and exchange rates have deteriorated — both factors a direct consequence of the West Bank and Gaza’s dependence on the Israeli economy, which has suffered the same ill effects during the intifada.
CURFEW AS POLITICS
Many international humanitarian organizations which have documented the disastrous effects of curfew and closure on the Palestinian population are urging the Israeli government to “ease the suffering of the population” and “end measures of collective punishment.” But many of these organizations fail to place these measures of collective punishment in political context, making their appeals to the Israeli government sound like pleas to fine-tune the occupation’s oppression to target those that really deserve it.
The Israeli government is more than aware of the results of confining 700,000 people to their homes. The voluminous statistics and reports are available for all to see, and even the most casual observer cannot but notice the desperation on the streets of every Palestinian town.
Rather than an accidental byproduct of “security measures,” curfews and closures are a deliberate policy aimed at demoralizing and demobilizing the Palestinian population, as clearly illustrated by the pattern of lifting the curfews. The army spreads deliberate confusion over when curfews will be lifted and for how long. Several times in Ramallah, Israeli government radio has reported that the curfew was lifted until 6 pm when soldiers on the ground were reimposing the lockdown at noon. At other times, army jeeps with loudspeakers have driven through the streets at 2 pm telling people to return home within ten minutes when the relaxation of curfew had been previously announced as ending at 5 pm. Soldiers at the checkpoint will announce one curfew time, while the District Coordinating Office will state another.
In this way, curfew becomes another weapon in the psychological war Israel’s occupation wages upon the Palestinians. Simple daily planning becomes an impossibility: you cannot know if you will be able to go to work, school or university or whether you will be confined to your home.
A second aim of collective punishment policies is to forestall political mobilization of the population. The curfew is never lifted on Fridays, the day when demonstrations traditionally take place. Meetings and other forms of political and social organization in Palestinian urban areas break down when people cannot leave their houses. Thousands of politically active Palestinians are forced to go underground, afraid of returning to homes whose location is known to the Israeli military.
SUFFOCATING THE UPRISING
The resulting demoralization is widespread. Demonstrations in the West Bank are few and poorly attended, as people use the few hours during the lifting of curfews to buy food and attempt to make ends meet. The only visible political resistance is the kites that dot the skyline each night displaying the colors of the Palestinian flag, flown by children from their backyards.
It appears that Israel has no intention of remaining inside Palestinian population centers longer than the time required to reorder the Palestinian political system and attain a signature on an agreement “ending” the uprising. The similarities to the first intifada are striking. In 1991, during the US-led bombardment of Iraq, Israel imposed a curfew on the Palestinian population which suffocated the already dwindling intifada. Combined with the support of Arab regimes for the Gulf war and the resulting international isolation of the PLO, these collective punishment measures led directly to the signing of the deeply flawed Oslo accord in 1993.
In the initial phase of the Oslo “peace process,” Israel agreed to withdraw its soldiers from “Gaza and Jericho first,” and yield the governance of the Gaza Strip and one West Bank town to the nascent Palestinian Authority. Today, the Israeli government speaks of another “Gaza and Jericho First” agreement at the same time that the US appears poised to attack Iraq. According to the Israeli plan, which appears to have Washington’s support, the Gaza Strip and Jericho would again be placed under the control of the PA as a first step toward a final settlement. Jordanian and Egyptian security forces would train, organize and oversee a Palestinian security force capable of suppressing remaining resistance from the militias and the broader population. Eventually this arrangement would be replicated elsewhere in the West Bank, with a permanent status agreement sometime in the future to legitimize the settlement blocs and bypass roads that would split Palestinian territory into disconnected cantons.
While there is widespread feeling among Palestinians that Palestinian negotiators should not meet with their Israeli counterparts while attacks like the the F-16 strike on Gaza City continue with impunity, under curfew it is difficult for this feeling to coalesce into pressure on the PA to halt the progress of Israel’s intentions for the West Bank.