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Occupation is violent and unpredictable

A symbol of the occupation Photo: Lucy Duncan / AFSC

Note: Sandra Tamari’s recent post on Acting in Faith spoke of the terrible price parents in the Occupied West Bank have paid for years with little or no protest from the international community as their children have been killed and arrested, usually with no one being held accountable.  It makes clear that occupation is brutal and that that violence is felt every day. 

This guest post by Martha Yager highlights that the grinding nature of occupation is made of smaller actions – the sudden imposition of a new checkpoint or changing the documents needed to travel or any of the other many details that rule life in an occupation – those can all be done by an administrator at a desk.  Sometimes it isn’t a devastating change, it is just that it is imposed, with little or no notice.   And it almost always complicates life. 

For more on AFSC’s position on the recent military attacks on Gaza, see AFSC’s recently published statement, which ends, "It is important to call for an end to current violence and obstacles to peace, such as settlement construction, home demolitions, and individual acts of violence. It is also essential for Israelis and those supporting them to confront the deeper issues of injustice and discrimination done to Palestinians. Only then will a just and lasting peace based on equality, freedom, and justice be achieved for both Palestinians and Israelis.” -  Lucy

In May when AFSC staff visited the area, a young woman sitting at the conference table in Ramallah laughed as she told us that the first thing she wants to know about someone she meets is where they live, but it clearly was no laughing matter.  We heard the same sentiment from many other young people. 

Map of occupied Palestinian terriotoryThat is because they live in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, sometimes called the West Bank.  And when you live under Israeli occupation, your travel is regulated by checkpoints and permits.  Where you live determines what kind of status you have - Palestinian in Israel, Palestinian in the West Bank, in East Jerusalem or in Gaza.  Each has different “privileges” and different restrictions. 

If a Palestinian man from Israel falls in love with a woman in the West Bank and they marry, she will not be able to join him in Israel.  He will have to move to the West Bank and in so doing give up the freedom of movement he has as an Israeli citizen. 

People in East Jerusalem have a whole different set of rules to play by.  That makes it difficult for my friend it Ramallah to consider a relationship with someone from East Jerusalem, even though geographically they are next to each other.  Occupation limits their choices on where to live and limits travel between the two cities.  Permits to travel within the West Bank are granted in what often appears to be an arbitrary and unpredictable way.   And to be in relationship with someone in Gaza?  Forget about it.  No one in Gaza can get out of Gaza, and Palestinians from the West Bank are not allowed into Gaza. 

As we talked about this another young woman sighed.  “Yes, occupation is complicated like that.”

Qalandia checkpointAreas in between the major Palestinian towns (shown in red, Area A) of the West Bank are under military control.Movement between these towns requires permits, which require planning.  Most are granted for six month periods at most,  which means time has to be spent renewing them.  Visits to family, attending university, going to the doctor or a hospital in East Jerusalem – all require permits and going through checkpoints. 

Checkpoints are run by the military.  In February of this year, B’Tselem reported that there were 99 fixed checkpoints, with 59 of them being inside the Occupied Palestinian Territory.  In December 2013 the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) counted 256 flying checkpoints (checkpoints set up unexpectedly).  These snarl traffic and substantially limit movement.  At any checkpoint, soldiers stand around with large automatic weapons, which some casually direct at people approaching the checkpoint.  Some soldiers sit with automatic weapons in the ever present guard towers.   Others inspect documents.  Treatment is arbitrary. 

Soldiers speaking out as part of the group “Breaking the Silence” talk of making people wait for no reason, or inspecting the inside of a sandwich that was carried in a clear plastic bag as required -  just to assert their authority.  Children passing through a checkpoint every day on their way to school may be harassed, searched, or detained.    Some checkpoints permit vehicles to go through if they have the correct permits, but many checkpoints  prohibit vehicles.  One evening it took our bus over two hours to pass through the Qualandia checkpoint.  Occupation is humiliating and frustrating like that.

Most of the Occupied Palestinian Territories are under the control of the Israeli Military Authority – something the military makes very clear.  Some municipalities have a city government and police force, but Israel can and does arbitrarily enter those cities with its military at any time without warning.  The past few weeks have been a brutal reminder of that. 

Tent of Nations

The Military Authority exercises amazing layers of control.  It can seize land and only rarely do Palestinians have the resources and necessary documents to fight the seizure in court.  Israeli administrators can decide that land that is being contested (and as such should be exempt from further action), is somehow suddenly in a military zone and bulldozers can come in to uproot over 1500 fruit trees, as happened in May to the Nassar family which runs a peace program called the Tent of Nations.  The family has persisted for years in their resistance, determined to stay and refusing to hate.  Their story has inspired many people.  Nonviolent resistance to occupation can be powerful like that.  

Everything about life in the West Bank is controlled.  In May Palestinian business man Sam Bahour reported that the Israeli Central Bank will “no longer allow Palestinian banks to transport their surplus Israeli currency to the Israeli Central Bank, an act that is unheard of in the world of banking. Israel is refusing to serve its own currency. In effect, Israel is declaring war on the Palestinian economy, risking the collapse of the thriving Palestinian banking sector, and disrupting the flow of basic goods such as electricity, petroleum, and natural gas into Palestine.”   Occupation is arbitrary and strange like that. 

Farm in PalestineIsrael controls all imports and exports to the West Bank and Gaza.  If the agricultural sector starts to thrive, it can and has dumped cheap Israeli produce into the market, undercutting local farmers.  Because unemployment is high in the West Bank, Israel has created industrial zones in the settlements where it can hire Palestinians at far lower wages than in Israel.  An example of that is Soda Stream, a product that carbonates liquids.  Many of these products are part of the targets of the call by Palestinian Civil Society for boycott, divestment and sanctions.  (Click here to learn more about BDS.) 

Israel controls the electromagnetic spectrum, preventing access to 3G networking in the West Bank.  It restricts building permits, making expanding ones home or building a new one almost impossible.  Building done without permits can be demolished at any time. 

Israel controls the aquifers, doling water out in abundance to Israel and the settlements while restricting water to Palestinians.  It prohibits the digging of wells, which impacts both drinking water and agriculture.  Occupation is complex and oppressive like that. 

People at checkpointOccupation is grinding.  It wears people down.  As I watched Palestinian children walking to school on busy road frequented by settlers who have a long history of attacks on the children, as I watched women maintain their dignity while going through a checkpoint, as I watched men standing in a long line at a checkpoint, their belongings in clear plastic bags, so that they could go to work in another part of the West Bank, I began to understand the adage “To exist is to resist”.   Children are taught from an early age that to simply refuse to go away, to stay on their land, to stay in the refugee camps waiting for the day they might return to where they came from – that is resistance and it is powerful.  

What is often not talked about when talking about the occupation, is the profound effect it is also having on Israeli society.  Generations of young people have now enforced the occupation through service in the Israeli Defense Forces.  Many see that very little of what they did has anything to do with protecting Israel’s safety.  Many are aware of how it changed them to exercise power with a gun, how they were changed by going along with the dehumanizing of Palestinians, how they were horrified by the abusive behavior of some of their comrades.  Some have organized in a group called Breaking the Silence.  Their mission is “to stimulate public debate about the price paid for a reality in which young soldiers face a civilian population on a daily basis, and are engaged in the control of that population’s everyday life.”  Others, including AFSC, are working with high school students to encourage them to refuse to serve in the military. 

Palestinians protesting Nonviolent resistance.  Be it simply insisting on going about one’s day with as much dignity as possible or participating in demonstrations or organizing a campaign for freedom of movement or speaking out against the practices of the military occupiers – it is everywhere.  It is powerful.  And it gives me hope.  It also nudges me to use my voice to join with them in insisting on a just end to the occupation.  

About the Author

Martha Yager is the program coordinator of the South East New England office of the American Friends Service Committee, in Seekonk.

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