One of the difficulties in writing regularly about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is, in my eyes, that so little ever changes. The basic constants above all, Israel’s overwhelming military, economic, and political superiority, all serving its colonialist aims change slightly over years, if at all. The media concentrate on immediate episodes: a violent incident, a statement, a peace plan but in hindsight, they all make very little difference. In the longer term, the realities on the ground are ultimately derived from the aims and interests of the stronger side, with minor considerations, modifications, or delays due to Palestinian resistance or international reservations.
Blockade on Gaza
The Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip seems to be one of those few great earthquakes that do change the view completely, for better or worse. This is not the place, perhaps not the time either, to evaluate the withdrawal as a whole; but at the moment, even here little has changed. The Quartet’s special envoy for the disengagement finds that Israel is acting as if the disengagement never happened. James Wolfensohn says “the Government of Israel, with its important security concerns, is loath to relinquish control, almost acting as though there has been no withdrawal, delaying making difficult decisions and preferring to take difficult matters back into slow-moving subcommittees.”
Typically, what Israel targets is Palestinian freedom of movement. The Gaza Strip has no seaport nor airport; the border to Egypt is closed: “The Israelis have not agreed to accept the EU’s generous offer to consider the role of ‘a third party’ in supervising the Rafah crossing temporarily,” says Wolfensohn in his report, and as for the Strip’s border with Israel, Ha’aretz (24.10.2005) reports that “since the pullout was completed, the Erez Checkpoint has been almost hermetically sealed to Palestinian traffic. Before the disengagement, 6,500 people went through Erez daily. That number dropped in September to 100, on average, and to zero at the beginning of this month. The Karni cargo crossing has also been either closed or particularly slow.” The Palestinians may now move freely inside the 5 x 25 miles of the Strip, free of Israeli settlements, but the economic and humanitarian disaster due to Israeli strangulation from without has only worsened since the withdrawal.
Apartheid Roads in the West Bank
But the real gambit of the Gaza pullout, in Israel’s eyes, is the West Bank. Barely a month after that pullout, using as pretext an armed Palestinian attack killing three Israeli settlers, the Israeli army closed Road 60 the main intercity road of the West Bank, connecting the urban centers of Hebron and Nablus with Jerusalem to Palestinian private vehicles. Following American protest, officials in Jerusalem clarified that Israel had no new plans to separate Israeli and Palestinian traffic. That is quite true: Israel has no such new plans. What is being implemented, step by step, are very old policies. The settlers’ far Right, always the best indicator for the government’s future plans, demanded almost a decade ago, years before the second Intifada, to impose “complete and perpetual closure on the Arabs of Judea and Samaria” (Moledet Party ad published in Ha’aretz, June 15, 1996); during the past half decade, this demand was more than met. As Gideon Levy writes (Oct. 23, 2005),
“For nearly five years, the basic freedom of movement has been denied to 2.5 million residents in the West Bank. Most of the roads in the West Bank are desolate, with no people or cars. On days [Shabbat] and hours when the settlers are not traveling on them, they become ghost roads. If you strain your eyes, you will notice at the sides of the road the traffic lanes assigned to the Palestinians: pathways through the terraces winding up the hills, goat paths on which cars are sputtering, including those carrying the sick, women in labor, pupils, and ordinary citizens who decide to place their life in their hands in order to travel for two to three hours to reach the neighboring village.”
The Permit System
There are about 700 checkpoints and roadblocks spread throughout the West Bank. The checkpoints are not an ad hoc measure for the short term; they are part of long-term policy. The checkpoints are supported by an entire bureaucratic edifice, responsible for the permit system. Incredible as it sounds, a Palestinian needs an Israeli permit to pass internal checkpoints within the occupied territories not just from the Occupied Territories to Israel, but also between the different geographical cells in the West Bank, whose borders are defined by the Israel security forces; in order to get to the Palestinian enclaves that have been created by the Wall; in order to move between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank; and between both of these and East Jerusalem. The permits are issued by eight so-called “District Coordination and Liaison Offices” (DCO) historically a joint Palestinian-Israeli institution of the Oslo period, but in fact the authority to issue permits is exclusively in Israeli hands. The DCOs are chronically i.e., intentionally undermanned; applicants wait for hours on end, treated like cattle, humiliated by rude Israeli teenage soldiers who are given the chance to play God over the helpless colonized subjects. At least one DCO (Nablus) is located behind an Israeli checkpoint, which, absurdly enough, makes it inaccessible to Palestinians without a permit you have to have a permit in order to apply for one. A permit is issued or, more often, not issued by a confidential, unaccounted-for decision by Israel’s notorious General Security Services. Estimated hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, mostly men, are blacklisted by the GSS and cannot get even a magnetic card, which is a necessary, though not sufficient, condition to get a permit of any kind. Appeals to a court or even just hiring a lawyer often makes the GSS change their mind, exposing the total arbitrariness of their previous rejections. Rules for blacklisting Palestinians are Kafkaesque: if a Palestinian is killed by a settler or soldier, the whole family is blacklisted thus deprived of job opportunities, access to health and education facilities, etc. for fear of revenge. If issued, a permit can be valid for a few days or for a month, from sunrise to sunset only; it has to be renewed regularly. MachsomWatch activists in their extensive annual report have countless heartbreaking stories to tell, like that of the father not allowed to visit his two children, lying badly injured in a traffic accident in Palestinian and Israeli hospitals in Jerusalem. The principle question is, of course, why an individual needs a permit to get to his/her workplace, or go to school, or visit the doctor, or to do any other mundane activity.
Stinkers and VIPs
The answer is obvious to anyone who knows a thing or two about control mechanisms, especially colonialist ones. Permits of sorts were imposed by apartheid South Africa, by the Dutch in colonial Indonesia, and elsewhere. The colonizer’s gains are clear: divide-and-rule; destroying national coherence in favor of separate, conflicting local interests; making the colonized too busy with survival to oppose their oppression; and so on. The GSS have a more concrete motivation, well phrased in the sentence that so many Palestinians discretely hear when they apply for a permit: “We’ll help you, if you help us.” After all, collaborators “stinkers” in Israeli army jargon, “helpers” as the official Israeli Newspeak terms them are at the heart of every tyranny, and the occupation run by the Middle East’s only democracy is no exception. If the only way to save your child’s life is by betraying your brother, what would you do? The permit system allows the Israeli forces to spot the soft points of a Palestinian a family tragedy, a sick child, a dying parent, financial plight and take advantage of them. The weakest is always the easiest prey.
On the other end of the ladder, or perhaps on the same, are the Palestinian VIPs. Again, no tyranny can survive without them, and Israel is no exception. Already in the Oslo years, when limiting the Palestinian freedom of movement started, the occupation was wise enough to issue so-called VIP cards to the Palestinian elite politicians, intellectuals, businessmen. While the vast majority of Palestinians have to chose between the legal torture (DCO, permits, and checkpoints) and the illegal one (avoiding checkpoints by using goat paths and pathways through the terraces), a thin layer of Palestinian VIPs can pass any checkpoint in their air-conditioned cars, enter Israel rather freely, and enjoy much of the freedom of movement denied their less lucky compatriots. The benefits for the colonizer are again obvious: the co-opted elite has got something to lose, which separates it from the powerless masses. The Palestinian elite is thus complicit in the occupation; VIP cardholders deserve an accusing Palestinian finger no less than the wretched persons blackmailed by Israel into collaboration.