This is not easy to discuss.
That point was illustrated to me very clearly a few weeks ago while having dinner with a friend in New York City. I had just returned from the West Bank and was recounting some of experiences of my trip. I did have a vague sense that the couple at the adjacent table, a bit close for my comfort, had become rather quiet. That sense was confirmed when the man next to me, apparently having reached his limit of being able to hold his tongue, plunged into our conversation without so much as a polite apology about the intrusion.
In a recent television interview, former president Jimmy Carter pointed out that “the deprivation of basic human rights among the Palestinians is really horrendous” and that “this is a fact that’s known throughout the world … (and) debated heavily and constantly in Israel,” but “it is not debated at all in this country.”
Difficult or not, we must be able to address it.
To speak of the occupation almost immediately takes us into touchy waters, as I was also reminded in my impromptu discussion at that restaurant in New York City. After having listened to the man’s point about the Israeli military, the point with which he launched himself into our conversation, I responded, referring to the occupation. “What occupation?” he interjected.
At its most basic, the occupation refers to Israeli military control over the Palestinian Territories of the West Bank and Gaza.
Despite the unilateral withdrawal of Israeli settlers from the Gaza strip in the fall of 2005, Gaza remains, in the words of Israeli Human Rights Organization B’Tselem, “one gigantic prison.”1 It is one of the most densely populated places on earth, with 1.4 million Palestinians living in its 27 mile long, 3-7 mile wide (141 square miles); it is completely walled in. Jimmy Carter, in his book, Palestine: Peace not Apartheid, refers to the current reality of Gaza as a “tiny and nonviable economic and political entity, circumscribed and isolated, with no dependable access to the air, sea, or even other Palestinians.”2
But the occupation is more insidious within the territory of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The West Bank, though geographically east of Israel, refers to the land west of the Jordan River, on its west bank. As it exists today, it does not represent a contiguous territory, which comes as a surprise to most Americans. Instead, it is divided into a series of settlements, roads, and the Separation Wall. Understanding those three pieces provides the basis for understanding the current status of the occupation.
In 2002, Israel began building a separation barrier within the West Bank. Purportedly this barrier would be a temporary solution to keep suicide bombers from entering Israel. All those working toward a just peace, on all sides, would recognize Israel has the need and the right to live in peace. The dispute is whether or not the fence/wall (called Separation Wall, Security Wall, or Apartheid Wall, depending on who is speaking) is a step toward providing this peace and security. Some might still disagree whether or not erecting such a barrier is a good way to make peace, but if it were being built on the internationally recognized borders between Israel and the West Bank, the story might end there.
But not only is the barrier not on the border, it encroaches well into Palestinian territory. So the main problem is not the Wall itself, but its circuitous route.
According to Carter in a chapter titled, The Wall as Prison, “the original idea of a physical obstruction was promoted by Israeli moderates as a means of preventing intrusive attacks after the withdrawal of Israel’s occupation forces” with the plan being to “continue construction of the barricade along the border between Israel and the West Bank.”3 But that has not, in fact, been the case. As Carter notes, “instead the governments of Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert have built the fence and wall entirely within Palestinian territory, intruding deeply into the West Bank to encompass Israeli settlement blocs and large areas of other Palestinian land.” Even more troubling, the barrier “is projected to be at least three and a half times as long as Israel’s internationally recognized border.”
According to B’Tselem, the Wall’s “route was based on extraneous considerations completely unrelated to the security of Israeli citizens” and “a major aim was to build the Barrier east of as many settlements as possible to make it easier to annex them into Israel.”
This raises further difficult topics–settlements and bypass roads.
A settlement is basically a large housing unit, sometimes expanding into a small city, built illegally by Israel on land confiscated from Palestinians within the West Bank and East Jerusalem. According to B’Tselem “Israel has used a complex legal and bureaucratic mechanism to take control of more than fifty percent of the land in the West Bank. This land was used mainly to establish settlements and create reserves of land for the future expansion of the settlements.”
Because these settlements are within the Palestinian territory, they are connected to each other and to Israel via bypass roads. Only Israelis can use them. They are also built on confiscated Palestinian land. As of September of 2005, Palestinian travel was restricted or entirely prohibited on 41 roads and sections of roads throughout the West Bank, covering a total of more than 420 miles of roadway.4
In addition to the inaccessibility of these roadways, Israel also “enforces severe restrictions on the freedom of movement of Palestinians in the West Bank through a system of staffed checkpoints and physical roadblocks.”5 Within the West Bank itself, what is supposed to be contiguous Palestinian territory, there are 27 permanent checkpoints through which Israeli security forces check each person who crosses. In the beginning of 2006, again according to B’Tselem, there were about 470 physical obstacles blocking roads. These road blockades, which prevent vehicles from passing, further carve up the West Bank into separate and often isolated enclaves.
Risa Zoll, the director of international relations for B’Tselem, said in an interview that when the organization began in 1989 they thought that simply documenting the information would be enough, but they have decided they were wrong. “Our problem is not getting audiences to listen to what we say,” Zoll admitted, “It is in getting them to take some action.”
As for the guy in the restaurant in New York City? I don’t think I changed his mind about anything. But I did listen to what he had to say. In return, he offered me the same courtesy.
Perhaps that is a place to start.
Erin Dunigan, a special correspondent for the Outlook, is a seminary graduate and freelance writer living in Newport Beach, Calif.
2 Jimmy Carter, Palestine: Peace not Apartheid, page 190.
3 Carter, p 190.
4 B’Tselem, Statistics on checkpoints and Roadblocks
5 B’Tselem, Restrictions on Movement: Forbidden Checkpoints and Roads