West Bank and Gaza Closed for 26 Years

I was reminded of the great distance between 21 Schocken Street (the Haaretz offices) and Qalandiyah, Nablus or Jayyous with some of the articles published in Haaretz before the Sukkot holiday. They reminded me (again, again) how badly I have failed in my attempts to describe, explain and illustrate Israel’s policy of restrictions of movement.

Because I have written reams on the closure policy in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank since it was first imposed in January 1991, I recognize my personal responsibility on the matter.

Several of my colleagues at Haaretz (including in one editorial) rightly criticized the order of the Israeli political and military leadership to prohibit the exit of Palestinians from the West Bank during the entire Sukkot holiday. The writers noted the cruelty of harming the livelihood of tens of thousands of workers with collective punishment, with a blockade.

But these articles created the false impression that the checkpoints are open to everyone normally and, consequently, somehow justify the word used by the military establishment – “crossings,” as though these are border crossings between two sovereign and equal states.

From the criticism in the articles, it appeared that, just as the average Israeli can board a bus or get into a car and travel eastward, freely, on any day of the week and at any hour, a rank-and-file Palestinian can likewise hit the same deluxe highways and head westward. To the sea. Or to Jerusalem. To their family in the Galilee; as they choose, on almost any day and at any hour, except on Shabbat and holidays.

So let’s say it once more: The closure has not been lifted since it was imposed on the population in the Gaza Strip and West Bank (not including East Jerusalem) on January 15, 1991. How should we define it today, more than 26 years on? The closure is the reinstatement of the Green Line – but only in one direction, and for one people. It is nonexistent for Jews, but it most certainly does exist for Palestinians (along with its new reinforcement – the West Bank separation barrier).

Sometimes, the closure is less hermetic; sometimes more so. In other words, sometimes more Palestinians receive entry permits into Israel, and sometimes fewer, or none at all, or almost none at all (Gaza). But it’s always a minority of Palestinians to whom Israel gives permits – and mostly because some sectors in the Israeli economy (mainly construction and agriculture, as well as the Shin Bet security service) need them.

For almost two decades, and for its own political calculations, Israel respected the Palestinians’ right to freedom of movement – with a few exceptions – and they entered Israel and traveled between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank without requiring a time-limited permit.

Since 1991, though, Israel has denied the right to freedom of movement to all Palestinians in these areas, with a few exceptions, according to criteria and quotas that it determines and changes as it sees fit.

January 1991 is ancient history for many readers and interested parties, some of whom were even born after this date. But for every Palestinian over the age of 42, January ’91 is one of the many dates that mark another retreat and negative reversal in their lives.

In the historiography of our domination over the Palestinians, January 15, 1991, should be studied as a cornerstone (not the first or the only one) in Israeli apartheid. One country from the sea to the river, two peoples, one government whose policy determines the lives of both peoples; the democratic right to elect a government is granted to only one people and to part of the second one. That is known. Two separate legal systems; two separate and unequal infrastructure systems – improved for one people, a rickety and deteriorating one for the second.

And, no less important: Freedom of movement for one people; different levels of reduced movement, up to a total absence of freedom of movement, for the other. The sea? Jerusalem? The friends who live in the Galilee? They’re all as far from Qalqilyah as the moon – and not only during the Sukkot holiday.

The technique of how the closure was actually implemented is also important. A drastic change never comes all at once, it is never declared publicly. It’s always presented as a response – not as an initiative. (Israelis view the closure as a means of preventing suicide bombings, conveniently ignoring its starting date long before the attacks began.)

Since 1991, the denial of freedom of movement has only become more technologically sophisticated: separate roads, checkpoints and search methods that are more humiliating and time-consuming; routine biometric identification; an infrastructure that enables a restoration of the checkpoints around the West Bank enclaves and separates them from each other. The calculated gradualness and failure to announce the policy and its objective in advance, and the internal closure of the Palestinian enclaves surrounded by Area C – all of these normalize the situation.

Closure (as a foundation of apartheid) is perceived as the natural, permanent state, the standard people no longer notice. That’s why only a temporary worsening of the situation, announced in advance, attracts any attention or recognition.

However, I’m not the megalomaniacal type so don’t carry all the responsibility on my own shoulders. The inability of words to describe and fully explain the many aspects of Israeli domination over the Palestinians is a sociological and psychological phenomenon, which isn’t due to the impotence of a single writer or two. The words don’t reach – even for those who oppose the closure – in all their significance, because it’s hard to constantly live with the knowledge and understanding that we have created a regime that is darkness for the non-Jews; that our evil planning to make things worse is virtuosic, and that we are living quite well with the horrors we have created.

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