Palestine at the Crossroads


Some of my students are walking time bombs," said Reem Al-Shareef, principal of Qurtuba school in the West Bank town of Hebron. She was explaining the psychological and physical torment of life under occupation for the young people under her care. Hebron was part of a busy and wide-ranging itinerary for a 22-member delegation from Ireland to the West Bank to assess the human rights situation for Palestinians living under occupation. The closed physical environment of Qurtuba school, with its raised perimeter walls designed to repel missiles from two adjacent Israeli settlements, captured in microcosm the anger, frustration, dangers, and limitations of life in the occupied territories.


First day of school—photo by Tamar Matza,

A quarter of Qurtuba’s 132 students have to pass through Israeli Defense Force (IDF) Checkpoint 56 to get to school and regularly run a gauntlet of abuse from a settlement opposite their school, which has 400 inhabitants with its own garrison of 2,000 Israeli soldiers. Many of these settlers are ideologically fundamentalist and openly hostile toward their neighbors. They have the freedom to arm themselves and a wide latitude of legal impunity.

If students retaliate to settler provocation, they face up to 6 months imprisonment for 12-year-olds, rising to a year for 14- to 15-year-olds. According to the NGO Defense for Children International, 350 Palestinian children are currently in Israeli prisons.

Palestinian Prisoners

Our delegation, based in Bethlehem, visited Beit Sahour, Bil’in, East Jerusalem, Hebron, Nablus, and Ramallah, meeting with human rights activists and NGOs. The recurring issues in these discussions were the notorious security wall that is devouring Palestinian land, the expanding settlements, the checkpoints that disrupt everyday life, and the arbitrary imprisonment of men, women, and children.

According to the prisoner-support organization Addameer, Israel has detained over 650,000 Palestinians since the 1967 Israeli occupation of the Palestinian Territories. There are currently 7,300 Palestinians defined as "security prisoners," including women and children. Addameer estimates that of the over 120 women imprisoned since 2004, 17 of them were mothers, 2 of whom gave birth while in Israeli custody. Women have not been spared the mental and physical torture applied to Palestinian prisoners, including ritual humiliation, sexual harassment, and beatings. The prison regime of poor food, lack of sunlight, and limited physical exercise creates severe health problems such as joint pain, asthma, skin complaints, and anemia.

Since 2000, some of the women prisoners have held hunger strikes to improve their conditions and have gained some concessions, including recreation time, library access, and opportunities in higher education. However, many of their demands remain unaddressed, such as family visits and gender-sensitive health care.

The arbitrary imprisonment of Palestinians is mostly carried out under the legal auspices of Administrative Detention, whereby detainees are held without charge or trial for a period of up to six months. The period of detention is frequently renewed and this process can continue indefinitely. The British government used the same form of detention in the north of Ireland in the 1970s. At the end of 2008, there were 700 administrative detainees in Israeli prisons and detention centers, including 5 women and 13 children under 18 years.

It was encouraging for our group to meet with Israeli human rights groups similarly critical of Administrative Detention and wider human rights abuses. For example, B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights, states that Israel has "Made a charade out of the entire system of procedural safeguards in both domestic and international law regarding the right to liberty and due process."

Checkpoints & Settlements

Our group met with a 64-year-old activist from Machsom Watch, an activist group that monitors IDF checkpoints for human rights abuses on a daily basis and post their reports on the Internet ( She stands at checkpoints every day at 6:00 AM and 2:00 PM, keeping a careful eye on the treatment of Palestinians. The presence of these women can prevent serious abuses and shines a light on the daily grind and humiliation created by the checkpoints.

Palestinian workerst at Bethlehem checkpoint—photo by Neta Afroni, Machsom Watch

We spent an early morning going through the Bethlehem checkpoint and saw hundreds of people queuing patiently, some of them at 3:30 AM to start work at 6:00 AM. After spending hours waiting to enter the checkpoint, they need to show a pass, followed by a fingerprint and work permit check. Permanent checkpoints like Bethlehem also have an x-ray machine to check bags and possessions. Those who have permits to work somewhere in the West Bank make it through.

A major Palestinian pre-condition for the initiation of negotiations is a halt to the construction of settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem. We received a tour of settlements in East Jerusalem and Palestinian homes taken over by settlers following forced evictions. Some of our group visited a Palestinian family living in a tent opposite their home now occupied by a settler family.

Israel is intent on annexing East Jerusalem. The Israeli strategy is simple: talk of negotiations to the world’s media, proclaiming democratic credentials and good intentions, while flooding the West Bank and East Jerusalem with so many settlements that a Palestinian state is not feasible.

There are 135 settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and 450,000 settlers who are refused entry to Palestinian-run areas (17 percent of the West Bank). Settlement construction means loss of homes, possessions, livelihoods, and income for Palestinians. The United Nations estimated poverty to extend to 65 percent of the Occupied Territories in 2005, with one million citizens considered "subsistence poor."

The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD), an advocacy and human rights group based in Jerusalem, resists demolitions and helps to rebuild homes "as an act of resistance and solidarity." ICAHD estimates that 24,145 homes have been demolished in the Occupied Territories since 1967 with 4,247 destroyed in the Gaza Strip during Operation Cast Lead—Israel’s three-week military bombardment in the winter of 2008-2009 that killed 1,400 Gazans.

Security Wall

The traditional Israeli "rationale" for its punitive judicial apparatus and network of checkpoints and barriers in the West Bank is security. Security is also the reason given for the variously named "separation barrier," "security fence," or "apartheid wall" under construction to allegedly prevent attacks in Israeli territory. The wall is approximately 700 kilometers long (60 percent completed) and up to 8 meters high and has, on average, a 60-meter-wide exclusion area. Around 1.5 million trees were uprooted to make room for the wall, only 20 percent of which runs along the recognized border, the Green Line.

If Israel’s primary reason for constructing the wall was security, then it would have adhered to the existing border between Palestine and Israel and ensured that the entire Palestinian population was on one side. In fact, the wall deviates substantially from the Green Line to make major incursions into Palestinian territory, annexing large tracts of fertile farming land. Many Palestinian farmers have lost their livelihoods and are forced to live in open, prison-like conditions surrounded by the wall. In 2004, the International Court of Justice gave an advisory opinion that the construction of the wall was "contrary to international law" and called for it to be removed.

The wall not only restricts freedom of movement, but limits commercial activity, the right to worship, and access to work. It is also one of the means used by Israel to restrict Palestinian water supply, as the fragmentation of the West Bank into isolated enclaves impedes the development of efficient water and sanitation infrastructure. A recent Amnesty International (AI) report states that, "Palestinian water consumption barely reaches 70 liters a day per person," which is well below the recommended World Health Organization intake of 100 liters per day. The AI report adds: "Israel controls and restricts Palestinian access to water in the Occupied Palestinian Territories to a level that neither meets their needs nor constitutes a fair distribution of shared water resources." The report found that Israel uses 80 percent of the mountain aquifer, the Palestinians’ sole remaining water resource, and that Israeli settlers use 20 times more water per capita than their Palestinian neighbors.

Bil’in Resistance

The wall has become the focus of a sustained and courageous non-violent resistance campaign in Bil’in, a 988-acre agricultural village west of Ramallah with a population of 1,780. Israel has declared more than half of Bil’in’s agricultural land as "state land," which it has confiscated for the construction of a settlement bloc, Modi’in Illit, occupied by over 42,000 residents. When Israel began constructing the separation wall on Bil’in’s land, the village was cut in half to ensure that Modi’in Illit would be on the Israeli side of the wall.

In March 2005, the residents of Bil’in began organizing direct actions and demonstrations against the construction of the wall. Our group participated in a demonstration that coincided with the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall in November 2009. With the imagination and creativity that has characterized the Bil’in protests, the villagers made their own mock Berlin wall, contrasting the collapse of one failed means of separation with the continued construction of another.


Bil’in protest banner—photo by Stephen McCloskey

Since the protests started, Israeli forces have used sound and shock grenades, water cannon, rubber-coated steel bullets, tear gas grenades, tear gas canisters, and .22 caliber live ammunition against protesters. On April 17, 2009, local activist Bassem Abu Rahma was shot and killed by the Israeli military during a Bil’in protest. But the importance of the protests resonates beyond the local struggle in Bil’in. They maintain the international profile of the Palestinian struggle and highlight the injustice of the wall, the settlements, and land annexations.

Balfour Declaration

In addition to the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall, our visit also coincided with the Balfour Declaration of November 2, 1917 in which the British Foreign Secretary announced that the government viewed with favor "The establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people." The declaration was subsequently put into effect by the 1922 British Mandate for Palestine, which created new boundaries for the "two new states" and paved the way for the 1948 "Nakbah" (cataclysm) that resulted in the uprooting and dispossession of 750,000 Palestinians during the creation of a "Jewish state."

Despite Britain’s complicity in the events that forced Palestinians (now four million) into exile, it has failed to meaningfully address the outcomes of its actions. Britain and its partners in the EU have largely followed Washington’s line of supporting Israeli "democracy" against Palestinian "insurgency" and "terrorism," language which falls neatly into the post-9/11 "us and them" paradigm of the Bush presidency. President Obama has thus far failed to manifest any significant divergence from the previous Administration on the Palestinian question. His request for a freeze on settlement construction to assist negotiations has been ignored by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Nevertheless, at the end of October 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised Netanyahu’s "unprecedented concessions" on West Bank settlement construction toward supporting peace talks.

International Pressure

The Israeli political lobby and U.S. aid to Israel (amounting to $3 billion per annum) are major stumbling blocks to negotiations and justice for the Palestinians, though there have been indications of late that international pressure is having an effect. The Goldstone Report on the Israeli military’s conduct of Operation Cast Lead is unequivocal in stating that the military campaign was "carefully planned…to punish, humiliate, and terrorize a civilian population, radically diminish its local economic capacity both to work and to provide for itself, and to force upon it an ever increasing sense of dependency and vulnerability." It adds: "Responsibility lies in the first place with those who designed, planned, ordered and oversaw the operations."

One of those responsible, Israel’s former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, was the subject of an arrest warrant issued in December 2009 by a London magistrates court for war crimes, at the request of lawyers acting for victims of the Gazan bombardment. The warrant was subsequently withdrawn when Livni cancelled her planned trip to Britain. Similar legal moves have been made toward Ehud Barak, Israel’s defense minister at the time of the Gaza operations. Likewise, in 2005, retired Israeli general Doron Almog returned to Israel after landing in London where he was warned about a warrant for his arrest for overseeing a separate bombing incident in Gaza.

Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions

Israel’s blockade of Gaza, which preceded Operation Cast Lead, has prevented the reconstruction of Gaza since it ended. Israel has thwarted effective aid efforts to tackle the effects of its bombardment, which targeted factories, schools, wells, hospitals, and other public buildings. What Goldstone describes as the "collective punishment" of Gaza demands that Israeli ministers should be made legally accountable for their actions. But we need to implement a wide-ranging Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) strategy toward isolating Israel academically, culturally, politically, and economically to ensure its compliance with international law and human rights conventions.

Students should follow the example of Ireland’s Sussex University’s student union boycott of Israeli goods following a referendum. And we should all use our power as consumers to boycott Israeli produce and positively promote Palestinian alternatives. Divestment means encouraging financial institutions and companies to shed their investments in Israel, particularly those companies complicit in the construction of settlements and the security wall. In regard to sanctions, the Global BDS Movement believes that Israel’s dependency on global markets, particularly in research and technology, make this arguably the most effective method for exerting real pressure on the Israeli economy. Campaigners and activists need to use all methods at their disposal—from consumer boycotts to political lobbying and public education—to extend solidarity to Palestine and spur on efforts toward reconciliation.

The Irish delegation, on its visit to the West Bank, viewed Palestine as being at a crossroads, which could lead either toward another Intifada or toward the completion of the Zionist program to prevent a coherent Palestinian society. The political vacuum in the West Bank and divided Palestinian resistance, combined with the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and a complicit EU and U.S., make the activism of supporters around the world a paramount factor in the struggle for an end to injustice in Palestine. Only the accelerated isolation of Israel through diplomatic, economic, and cultural sanctions and pressure can make it become a serious participant in negotiations worth their name.


Stephen McCloskey is director of the Centre for Global Education, a non-governmental organization based in Belfast. He is editor (with Gerard McCann) of From the Local to the Global: Key issues in Development Studies (Pluto Press, 2009).