A roadblock to coexistence

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The Oslo Accord may look pretty on paper, but Israeli border restrictions leave the West Bank a far cry away from a land of peace and parity.

Ramallah's is one of the least accessible government administrative headquarters in the world. Not because of geographical difficulties but because of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. The Palestinian National Authority (PNA), which is technically in charge of civil administration in parts of the West Bank, is based out of Ramallah. But the West Bank doesn’t have a civilian airport, nor is the territory’s airspace under the control of the PNA.

The West Bank has an airfield in Jenin and a small airport in Kalandia, located between Jerusalem and Ramallah. The Kalandia airport was closed to civilian traffic in 2001 after the breakout of the second intifada*. So, usually, those who are going to the West Bank land either in Tel Aviv or Amman and then travel by road, crossing Israeli checkpoints, to get to Palestinian townships. Since we were part of President Pranab Mukherjee’s delegation, our passage to Ramallah was relatively easier. We landed at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport, and then boarded the media vans organised by the Israelis.

Before leaving for Tel Aviv from Amman, we were told that we would not be able to take check-in baggage to Ramallah due to “security reasons”. All of us had been carrying necessary clothing and other items, including computers, in our handbags. At the Israeli side of the Beitunia checkpoint, we had to de-board and walk through the crossing. “Israeli vehicles are not allowed on the other side of the wall,” we had been told earlier by the External Affairs Ministry official accompanying us, with regard to the separation wall Israel is building.

We had to pass through the checkpoint, which was like going through a massive tunnel. Heavily-armed Israeli soldiers were standing at both ends of the checkpoint, their index fingers on the trigger. “Never ever mess with the Israeli security” — the words of Venu Rajamony, the press secretary to President Mukherjee, echoed in my ears as I walked past the soldiers. On the Palestinian side, Arabs stood in queue inside a terminal, perhaps to cross the border. We boarded media vans arranged by the PNA that moved through narrow roads connecting hilly townships. Vegetation was scarce. Soldiers in green uniform carrying large guns were standing on either side of the road. Shops were open, but with hardly any customers.

 

Ramallah is in ‘Area A’ of the West Bank, the security and civil control for which lie in the hands of the PNA. According to the Oslo II Agreement reached between the Palestinian leadership and Israel in 1995, the West Bank is divided into three areas — A, B and C. Hebron, Nablus, Ramallah, Bethlehem and some towns and villages that do not border Israeli settlements are in Area A, which comprises some 18 per cent of the West Bank. Area B, which comprises around 22 per cent of the territory, is under Palestinian civil administration while Israel retains exclusive security control. Area C is the largest division in the West Bank; comprising some 60 per cent of the territory, it’s under full Israel civil administration and security control.

Most of Israel’s settlements in the West Bank are in Area C. While this partition was made on the basis of the Oslo II Agreement, the ground situation is not smooth. “Life here is little difficult. But we move on,” the bartender at the basement bar of Ramallah’s Movenpick hotel tells me. A short man with a grim face, he speaks in fluent English, telling me of the wall and the Israeli checkpoints which are making life “like hell”. “My sister is staying in Jerusalem. But I haven’t seen her for the past six months. If I want to go there, I need a permit from the Israelis,” he said.

It’s difficult for Palestinians to travel even from one city to another in the fragmented Area A because of the Israeli checkpoints. For example, there are 10 checkpoints around Ramallah. At any point in time, Israel could close down these points cutting the city off from the rest of the world. We crossed through one of them while leaving the city for Al-Quds University in Abu Dis, a Palestinian town in the Jerusalem governorate. Stones were strewn on the road. The Israeli white flag with the Star of David fluttered on one side of the checkpoint. Soldiers stopped us, asking our driver for identification.

When we started taking photos, they strictly said NO. As nobody was in a mood to argue with the Israeli soldiers in the Palestinian land, we all set aside our cameras, phones and iPads. “The Israeli strategy is to capsule Palestinian towns and villages. It’s a deliberate policy to limit their movement within the towns they live in,” an Indian diplomat who came to Ramallah to make arrangements for Mr. Mukherjee’s visit told me. “And this is frustrating the Palestinians. They can’t move around. They can’t go to colleges. They can’t trade. They can’t meet their relatives.”

In September 2011, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said there were 522 roadblocks and checkpoints obstructing Palestinian movement in the West Bank, up from 503 in July 2010. Besides, there were 495 temporary checkpoints known as “flying checkpoints" per month on an average in the West Bank in 2011. Obviously, this complex web of checkpoints, roadblocks and the wall is placing enormous limitations on the Palestine economy. In 2013, a World Bank report found that Israeli restrictions in the West Bank alone cost the Palestinian economy $3.4 billion a year, or 35 per cent of its GDP. According to Oxfam, around 800,000 olive trees have been uprooted by Israeli authorities since 1967. As a result, about 80,000 Palestinian families, which are economically reliant on the olive harvest, lose $12.3 million each year.

The inability of the Palestinian government led by Mahmoud Abbas to resist these measures of Israel and meaningfully take forward the cause for statehood have made the PNA hugely unpopular among the Palestinians. “Abu Mazen [Abbas] is a good man, but a very bad leader. He can’t do anything but preaching,” the bartender said. Abbas doesn’t actually have any real powers. He lost Gaza to Hamas. He presides over an economy which is heavily reliant on overseas aid. He lacks the charisma of Yasser Arafat and can neither inspire a peaceful Palestinian movement nor stop the occasional outbreak of violence.

 

“He just takes money from all around the world in the name of Palestinians, but does nothing,” an Arab salesman in an antiquities shop at Jerusalem’s famed Mamilla Mall told me two days later. It’s this frustration against foreign occupation as well as their own leadership that’s driving up support among young Palestinians for an armed uprising. According to a recent poll conducted by pollster and political scientist Khalil Shikaki, 42 per cent of respondents believe that only an armed struggle would lead to Palestinian statehood and two-thirds want Abbas to resign.

This anger explains the recent outbreak of violence in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. It’s easy to write off the teenaged boys attacking Israelis with knifes and stones as terrorists, but they represent the overflowing frustration of a people living under occupation for decades who don’t find any way forward. “Our kids go and throw stones at the Israelis at the checkpoints and they throw bombs and bullets back on us,” Georgy Annab, who works in the PNA’s media department, told me. Georgy is a dynamic young man who was running around the PNA headquarters to make arrangements for President Mukherjee’s visit to the Arafat mausoleum when I met him.

As soon as the ceremonial reception was over and Presidents Mukherjee and Abbas went to the higher floors of the administrative building for delegation level talks, Georgy lit a cigarette, seemingly relaxed. Shaking my hand, he asked: “How's Palestine, my friend?” I said it was good. “No, it’s not good.” He took a step backward to blow out smoke, and then spread his hand gesturing at the Presidential compound. “Palestine is in a pretty bad shape. Do you know that you stand in a compound which was attacked several times by the Israelis earlier?” I told him I had heard about the siege of the headquarters. Arafat was at the compound when Israelis attacked the buildings in September 2002. They destroyed all buildings in the compound except the one where Arafat and other leaders were staying. The compound remained under siege until October 2004, when Arafat was transferred to France for medical reasons. “We rebuilt the palace. One day, we will rebuild Palestine,” said Georgy.

Back in Hotel Movenpick, we had a long chat with Husam Zomlot, Palestine’s ambassador-at-large and one of the senior foreign policy advisers of President Abbas. A fellow journalist asked him about the effectiveness of throwing stones at the Israeli checkpoints. “We would have used F16s if we had them. But we don’t. What we only have are these stones and that’s what our kids are doing,” he said. Asked about violence by Palestinians, he said his administration doesn’t back any violence. “Should their violence be justified? Not at all. But one has to look at the whole situation. They are hopeless people frustrated by the occupation. They can’t even move freely and in their own territories. Secondly, if they commit violence, the law of the land should deal with them. Not the Israeli police. What they [Israelis] are doing is just killing our children,” said the ambassador.

 

Even though the Palestinian leadership has denounced violent methods, the new-generation activists do not seem to be convinced. Neither the brutal response of Israeli troops nor the checkpoint system implemented in the West Bank has been able to stop the new tide of violence which has already claimed at least eight Israeli and over 30 Palestinian lives. “The kids have a sense of history. They know that whatever the Palestinians gained from the Israelis was through violent uprisings,” a psychology student at Al-Quds University said later in the day. Nathan Thrall, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, would agree with her. In an Op-Ed article in The New York Times on October 18, he wrote: “It is a deeply regrettable fact that during the past quarter-century, violence has been the most consistent factor in Israeli territorial withdrawal”, citing the Oslo Accord that followed the first intifada and the Gaza withdrawal that followed the second intifada.

Two days later, I met a Jewish girl at Jerusalem’s Inbal Hotel. She took a small team of journalists to the Old City. A student of History of Art at the Hebrew University, Ada Elkin knew almost everything about the Old City. She explained to us the historical significance of the walls, towers, domes and even columns in the Holy Sepulchre compound. While walking back alongside the walls of the Old City, I asked her about Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister. “I am not from the embassy. I can say whatever I want to.” I said that’s what we would like to hear. “I don’t agree with most of his policies. I think he’s taking Israel to the dark ages.”

Ada is a secular Jew working for the rights of Arabs living in Israel. Her parents migrated to Israel in the early 1990s from Azerbaijan, and were living in Jerusalem. She and her husband moved to Tel Aviv recently, but she came often to Jerusalem. While walking from the Jewish Quarter of the Old City to the Arab Quarter, she said: “Look at the difference. One lives in prosperity and the other in poverty and darkness.” Lights were actually not lit in the Arab quarters, perhaps because shops were closed. Israeli soldiers were standing on guard at every turn.

I asked Ada what, in her view, was the solution. Was the two-state solution still viable? “The two-state solution died long ago. Only a one federal state in which Arabs, Christians and Jews can co-exist is the viable solution.” I asked whether she could be quoted. “Yes, of course. They already call me and my friends traitors. They say we want Israel to be defeated. That’s not right. We want Israel to live in peace.”



Glossary:

Intifada : an Arabic word literally meaning, as a noun, "tremor", "shivering", "shuddering". In the Palestinian context, with which it is particularly associated, the word refers to attempts to “shake off” the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories in the First (1987-1993) and Second (2000 - 2005) intifadas

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