Living well in the West Bank?

Posted on 23 April 2011

If you follow this blog regularly (which we are grateful for! :-)), you know that I’ve recently come back from the Middle-East and already expressed some reflections about my stay in Israel in a previous post. Today I would like to share some thoughts about my stay in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

As you know, ‘Palestine’ does not exist as a legal entity (although around a hundred countries recognise it as a country and it is likely more will later this year) and is rather referred to the Occupied Palestinian Territories, composed of two disconnected and fragmented territories, namely the West Bank and the Gaza strip. While the former is governed by the party Fatah, the latter is de facto led by the Hamas, an Islamist movement. Although both territories are populated by Arab Palestinians, the West Bank is also occupied by Israeli Jews, essentially settlers. The International Court of Justice and the international community say these settlements are illegal, and the United Nations has repeatedly upheld the view that Israel’s construction of settlements constitutes violation of international law. As of July 2009, more than 300,000 Israelis live in the 121 officially-recognised settlements in the West Bank, (also 192,000 Israelis live in settlements in East Jerusalem and over 20,000 live in settlements in the Golan Heights). Settlements range in character from farming communities and frontier villages to urban suburbs and neighbourhoods. The three largest settlements have achieved city status, with over 30,000 residents each. Unsurprisingly then, the ongoing settlement construction by Israel is frequently criticized as an obstacle to the peace process.

I frequently heard that the situation for the Palestinians living in the West bank has improved these last few years, with fewer Israeli restrictions of all sorts, better trade and more hope generally speaking. This is said to be the result of Israel loosening its stranglehold as a way to support the Fatah (as opposed to the Hamas) and to receive less criticism from the international community. Altogether however, it doesn’t change the unsustainable character of the current situation. As a West Bank inhabitant told me, “think of it this way: imagine a farmer who is renting the land he lives and works on, and whose farm has become too small for his family and for his cattle. He then goes to the landlord and asks if he can pasture the animals outside of the farm’s yard. The landlord gets very upset and, threatening the farmer with a gun, forces him to take his cattle and to put them inside his house. The situation goes from bad to worse and the children get sick because of it. But there is nothing he can do in front of his armed landlord. A few years later though, the landlord comes back and offers to put the animals back to their barn, where they use to be. The Palestinian family do it and their situation improves dramatically. You see, we are like the farmer. The Palestinians living in the West Bank are in a better situation that they used to be, but it’s a bit of an illusion.”

When travelling inside the West Bank, I frequently asked ‘how do you differentiate a settlement to a Palestinian community?’ and inevitably got the same answers: it’s actually easy to recognise settlements as they are located on top of hills (giving them a strategic advantage); they have fences and walls, and better access to water. The latter point is crucial if one considers that the West Bank is a pretty dry land as is evident from the following pictures.

The settlements’ better access to water is obvious as their lands (at least those I have seen) are greener than their surroundings (and in particular greener than the Palestinian communities below) and their buildings do not have water tanks on their top. This may sound strange, but when you compare Palestinian villages/cities with these settlements, you are struck by the number of black water tanks on top of the Arabs’ buildings. The reason is simple: when there are water restrictions, they are the first (and, as I’ve been told the only ones) to be denied water for days and weeks in a row. They then have no other choice than having stocks of water on their roof tops.

I actually encourage you to listen to the following interview (here), which is of a Palestinian permaculturist (who remains rather patient given the circumstances he is put under) sharing his experience of living in a permaculture farm located under an Israeli settlement. His simple words give a honest yet crude idea of some of the problems created by settlers.

Another issue which I frequently heard relates to the regular stoning of passing cars by settlers. I’ve mostly heard such stories by fellow colleagues of different humanitarian NGOs, who consider these acts as a high risk to their operations, but in general, I’d say that violent acts from settlers (but also from Israeli forces as well as Palestinian security factions), make the West Bank a rather difficult place to live. In addition, the Arab inhabitants of the West Bank are constrained by Israeli check-points; also the diverse authorisations required from Israeli authorities for any construction make it virtually impossible for them to extend their house; they are forbidden to use newly built roads which are reserved for settlers; their fields are said to be regularly devastated by settlers; but they also suffer from the torture of opponents by the Palestinian Authorities’ forces; the lack of (social and political) space for the Palestinian civil society to grow or express alternative views;  etc…

 

Indeed, the most troubling in the West Bank is to hear of the daily acts, small and big, that Palestinians are victims of. As a consequence, it’s really sad to see how their misery has been transformed into indignity.


 


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