2-Sided Legacy of Israeli Rule : West Bank: More Prosperous but Bitter
Among the books on display at the headquarters of a human rights organization here is one detailing the hodgepodge of Israeli, British, Jordanian and even Turkish laws applied by Israeli occupation authorities.
The library of the Law in the Service of Man organization also has copies of the 1,180 military decrees issued since Israel captured the West Bank of the Jordan River and appointed its first military governor on the third day of the 1967 Six-Day War--decrees that circumscribe Palestinian life.
Four metal filing cabinets in another room contain sworn Palestinian affidavits about beatings and other forms of mistreatment in West Bank jails, details about scores of homes bulldozed in collective punishment for the alleged offenses of one family member and other human rights abuses that the organization’s co-founder, Raja Shehadeh, said have characterized Israel’s 20-year reign here.
Still, Shehadeh volunteered in an interview, while the occupation leaves “a very bitter taste . . . one must say also that Law in the Service of Man does exist on the West Bank. And in no Arab country, except perhaps Tunisia and Egypt, could such a human rights organization function. I think that’s significant.”
Thus, a generation after the war, the organization’s third-floor office in this town of 40,000 about 10 miles north of Jerusalem stands as a symbol of the conflict’s two-sided legacy to an increasingly vocal group of Palestinians who live in the legal, political and economic never-never land of Israeli occupation.
Materially, they have made great strides in the last 20 years. And while formally denied many rights considered basic in democratic countries, in practice they are allowed certain political freedoms that many of their peers in the traditionally authoritarian Arab world can only envy.
Ironically, Israel’s 1967 victory has also strengthened a sense of national identity, not only among Palestinians in the occupied territories but also among those Arabs who remained within Israel’s borders after the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict. As a result, Palestinians here have more sophisticated expectations today than they did a generation ago, and a growing conviction that they cannot rely solely on their Arab brethren abroad to satisfy them.
On the other hand, West Bankers who express that heightened sense of nationalism by singing a patriotic song or raising a Palestinian flag are considered seditious and risk imprisonment by the occupation authorities.
Half of what used to be Arab land on the West Bank has been expropriated by Israel or otherwise closed to Palestinian use. Much of it has been turned over to about 60,000 Jewish settlers who now live in 118 towns and outposts scattered over the area. Their mere presence serves as a constant reminder that the West Bank’s 800,000 Palestinians have become second-class citizens in the land of their birth.
Under Military Rule
The Palestinians are also subject to the daily humiliations of living under a military rule that, while it may be more humane than many, nevertheless treats them as hostile until proven otherwise.
“I think it’s probably true” that Israel’s is a relatively benevolent occupation, said Samuel W. Lewis, former U.S. ambassador to Israel, in an interview.
“They’re better educated,” Lewis said of the Palestinians on the West Bank. “They benefit economically, even though it’s a bit of a colonial system in terms of the way it works. . . . But there’s really no good example anywhere where economic well-being takes the place of political satisfactions. Though they’ve gotten wealthier, (they) haven’t gotten in any sense more ready to accept permanent Israeli rule.”
Historic Palestine included all the area of what today is Jordan, Israel and the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip and West Bank territories. Britain, which took the area from the Turks in World War I, split it at the Jordan River, turning the eastern portion over to the grandfather of Jordan’s current monarch, Hussein.
Partitioned by War
The United Nations tried to partition the remainder peacefully between the new Israeli state and the Palestinians after World War II, but the Arabs balked. The land was partitioned by the 1948 Arab-Israeli War instead, with a Delaware-sized bulge of land on the western bank of the river winding up in Jordanian hands. Amman ruled here for 19 years, until Israel overran the area in the Six-Day War.
Because what is today the West Bank was the heart of biblical Israel, its conquest in 1967 triggered a tug of war that has dominated thinking about the Arab-Israeli conflict ever since. It is a contest between a Jewish religious-nationalist movement that sees this land as Israel’s by right both of conquest and theology, and a Palestinian majority for whom it represents a political last stand.
Jordan admittedly neglected the West Bank during its rule, and some residents are almost as critical of King Hussein as they are of the Israeli army.
Into New Housing
Gen. Freddy Zakh, Israel’s deputy government coordinator for the occupied territories, said the West Bank’s economy has grown fourfold from the underdeveloped condition in which Israel found it in 1967. Thousands of families made refugees by the 1948 conflict have been moved out of squalid camps and into new housing. Unemployment, previously estimated at about 20%, is today negligible, Zakh said, although underemployment is a problem.
Health and education services have been improved and half a dozen universities opened where none existed before 1967. Even though it is censored by the Israeli army, the Palestinian press in East Jerusalem and the West Bank has more latitude to criticize the ruling government than its counterpart a few miles away in Jordan.
While most West Bankers acknowledge that their situation has improved in many ways in one generation, they point out the huge gaps that remain between Palestinian and Jewish living standards.
Fewer Phone Lines
A report by the Israeli Citizens Rights Movement, for example, noted that the approximately 70,000 Arab residents of Hebron were serviced by 700 telephone lines, while their 5,000 Jewish neighbors in the settlement of Kiryat Arba have about 4,000 lines.
Also, they say, the authorities often ignore the contribution to improved West Bank living standards made by money that Palestinians have earned, not in Israel but in the Persian Gulf during the oil boom.
Most of all, the Palestinians resent it when Israelis use economic progress as an argument to justify the occupation.
A few weeks ago, for example, the militant Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful) West Bank settlement movement, which has made no secret of its desire to settle Jews in Jericho, distributed leaflets in the town before an Israel Independence Day march planned there for May 4.
The Palestinian residents should welcome the settlers, the leaflet argued.
‘Blessings and Prosperity’
“Go out and see how settlement and Jewish neighbors have brought you livelihood, homes, television sets, cars and a standard of living you and your forefathers never dreamed of. Every Palestinian Arab has received a gift from us--a longer life expectancy than any Arab in the Middle East. . . . Your infant mortality has ceased because of the Zionist blessing. When we settle in Jericho, you will also enjoy blessings and prosperity.”
“It’s so insulting!” an angry Shehadeh said of the leaflet. But then, he added, from the Palestinian point of view, the occupation means a steady stream of indignities, large and small.
Zvi Gilat, an Israeli journalist who posed for a week in Tel Aviv as an Arab day laborer from the territories, said that what struck him most was the way he was deliberately ignored.
A Jewish woman he encountered on a bus was only the most glaring example. Gilat, sitting across from her, was surprised to see her start picking her nose as if he wasn’t there. He asked her for directions to make sure she wasn’t daydreaming.
‘Never Did Answer’
“She stared at me, stopped picking her nose for a second, and then continued again. She never did answer.”
West Bankers are forbidden to be in Jerusalem after midnight, and they need special government permission to visit Israel’s southern tip at Eilat, on the Gulf of Aqaba.
But even in their own back yard they face constant reminders of their inferior status.
Some are subtle. Signs on the main road toward the West Bank’s largest city, for example, have been changed to identify it by its old Hebrew name, Shechem, rather than by the Palestinian name, Nablus. The signs identifying Ramallah’s main police station are only in Hebrew and English, not in the Arabic language of the residents.
Other reminders are more direct. West Bank cars, for example, are easily identified by their blue or green license plates, and they are routinely stopped at the road blocks common to the area even as yellow-plated Israeli cars are waved through.
Stopped for Questioning
West Bankers, particularly young men, can be and are stopped arbitrarily on the street for identity checks and questioning. To protest or to get angry at an Israeli soldier or policeman is a luxury most say they cannot afford under a legal system that is separate for them--a system under which, for instance, they can be held without warrant for up to 18 days. The limit for an Israeli citizen is 48 hours.
The security forces are often verbally abusive and sometimes worse, particularly in the wake of anti-government demonstrations or a terrorist attack on an Israeli. A. J. Charters, an Israeli from Netanya, wrote to the Jerusalem Post earlier this year to protest a scene that he witnessed:
“There, in full view of the public, on the main street, IDF (army) vehicles were ferrying Arab youths into custody. About a hundred of those who arrived earlier were squatting with their foreheads and hands pressed against a long wall. A continuous roll of barbed wire had been placed tightly against their legs and lower backs.
Clubbed to the Ground
“There was a constant stream of new arrivals, four at a time, who were made to run the gauntlet of a dozen or so soldiers who clubbed them to the ground. Those who could still walk were required to crawl over the wire to their positions against the wall; those who could no longer stand up were thrown onto it. Other soldiers strolled around, randomly clubbing from behind those squatting motionless against the wall.”
Charters said that when he complained to one of several army officers at the scene, he was advised to “look the other way.”
Brig. Gen. Ephraim Sneh, the military head of what Israel prefers to call a “civil administration” on the West Bank, said that while abusive behavior toward the Palestinians is against government policy, cases of army brutality do occur. He estimated the number of soldiers punished for such behavior each year at “no more than a dozen,” however.
Paying Some Price
Meanwhile, Israeli officials say, strict security measures are necessary to combat the ever-present danger of Palestinian terrorism. While the vast majority of residents have nothing to do with terrorist activity, they add, they inevitably wind up paying some price for those who do.
The distinction between terrorism and civil disobedience is frequently blurred on the West Bank, even though top security officials acknowledge that there has been an important change in the nature of the open opposition to Israeli rule.
“I would say that in recent years the major part of the disturbances (on the West Bank), perhaps 80%, have stemmed from internal organizing in the field by local residents, usually young, sometimes very young, without their being organized in an orderly manner by a terrorist organization from outside,” Maj. Gen. Ehud Barak, recently promoted as the army’s deputy chief of staff, told Israel radio in April.
From Bombs to Stones
The “enemy,” Jerusalem Post defense correspondent Hirsch Goodman said, “has been transformed from well-trained infiltrators and saboteurs . . . to students and schoolchildren; the weapons from bombs and grenades to stones, placards and slogans.”
“We fight our enemies by stones because we have nothing else to fight them with,” said Samih Faraj, a 32-year-old teacher at the rebellious Dahaisha Palestinian refugee camp outside Bethlehem. A Palestinian student, Faraj added, “is obliged to stone (Israeli) cars. He is obliged to stone their buses. And he is obliged to demonstrate against them, everywhere and in every time.”
Rocks and firebombs have proved just as lethal as bullets--an Israeli woman was burned to death in April by a Molotov cocktail thrown into her car. So the army takes a hard line against youthful demonstrators and rock throwers, a policy that the Palestinians call Israel’s “iron fist.” Scores of students have been killed and wounded by the army opening fire to put down West Bank demonstrations in the last few years.
Acquainted With Jails
It is a widely accepted statistic here that more than half of all Palestinian youths have seen the inside of an Israeli jail by the time they are 18. West Bank military courts are assembly lines where the conviction rate is 94% and attorneys frequently meet their clients for the first time when they walk into the courtroom.
Ori Nir, West Bank correspondent for the independent Israeli newspaper Haaretz, described a typical scene at the Ramallah military court earlier this year when seven young men were brought in, accused of belonging to a hostile organization:
“The two lawyers representing the defendants are trying to find out which of the seven is listed as their client. Some of the names appear on both their lists. ‘Is Number Three mine or yours?’ asks attorney Ali Rafa. Attorney Felicia Langer: ‘Three, Five and Seven are mine--who is Three?’
“Finally attorney Rafa turns to the courtroom and asks the families: ‘Who is representing you, me or Felicia?’ ”
To Break the Cycle
An increasing number of Palestinians here are trying alternative methods to break the cycle of violence and repression.
An American-educated Jerusalemite named Mubarak Awad has opened a Palestinian Center for the Study of Nonviolence and has led a number of peaceful protests in the last two years.
Sari Nusseibeh, 38, a professor of political philosophy educated at Oxford and Harvard universities and a member of one of Jerusalem’s most prominent Palestinian families, has said publicly that it would be better if the occupied territories were legally annexed and the Palestinian struggle re-focused toward winning political rights within the Israeli system.
“The rules of the war at the moment are such that we are bound to lose it,” Nusseibeh said in an interview. “But if we change our strategy, we at least have a chance of winning.”
Other Palestinians, like lawyer Jonathan Kuttab, who heads a new group agitating on behalf of divided families, have focused on narrow issues in hopes of making incremental gains. Last year, the number of Palestinians permitted to rejoin their families as residents of the territories was almost doubled.
But the struggle is still very much uphill. As Shehadeh, who was a 16-year-old high school student at the time of the “Great Shock” of 1967, put it: “There isn’t mutual respect. That’s the problem.”