Posted December 8, 2006
This was my first visit to Palestine/Israel. As I traveled inside Jerusalem and around the surrounding area, American and British friends pointed out how Israel has been able to restrict Palestinians’ daily life even more than since their visit two years before. Particularly with the construction of the Wall, Palestinians have much less freedom of movement.
While in Jerusalem I visited Sabeel, a Christian organization that supports Palestinian rights and challenges “Christian Zionism”; B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories; the Nidal Center, a community center in the Old City of Jerusalem; the Alternative Information Center (AIC), which combines political activism with research and analysis; and the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD), which works with Palestinians to expose the number of house demolitions and works to rebuild “illegal” Palestinian homes that have been destroyed by the Israeli army.
A Divided City
Following the 1967 war, Israel incorporated East Jerusalem (6 square kilometers) into Jerusalem and added another 64 square kilometers from the West Bank. In order to maintain a Jewish majority within the city, Israel included sparsely populated Palestinian areas while excluding more populated ones. As a result, several neighborhoods and even villages were divided. In some cases farmlands belonging to a village were annexed while the village itself was not.
Immediately following this annexation, Israel conducted a population census. Palestinians residing in the municipality were granted “permanent resident” status and the option of becoming Israeli citizens. Most did not choose citizenship because that would foreclose their becoming citizens in a future Palestine state.
It’s a startling contrast between the Palestinian areas of Jerusalem and the Jewish areas. Urban planning has been the major mechanism through which resources have been sucked out of Palestinian neighborhoods and redirected toward Jewish areas. Although Palestinians are at least one-third of the city’s tax-paying population, their neighborhoods lack the most basic infrastructure: no sidewalks, street lights or sewage connections. Statistics tell the story. The health department allocates 20% of its budget for services to Palestinians; other departments allocate as little as 2%. There are 1,423 public parks in Jewish neighborhoods, only 12 in Palestinian ones; Jewish neighborhoods have twelve times as many libraries. There are 258 sport facilities in Jewish areas, only 27 in Palestinian neighborhoods. Between 1967 and 2003 some 90,000 housing units were built for the Jewish population in East Jerusalem, most with public financing. None were built for Palestinians.
Since the annexation of East Jerusalem, the Israeli government has designated more than half the area “open green space” reserved for “public purposes.” Another third has been expropriated for military use. With most of the land unavailable to them, Palestinians find themselves in a Catch 22 situation. They can’t obtain permits to build or expand their homes. Consequently Palestinians families living in Jerusalem are overcrowded, with nearly 20% having more than three people per room.
Palestinians began to move to nearby West Bank towns where housing was more affordable, but this move is tricky because Jerusalem residency is contingent, for Palestinians, on continual residence. The Interior Ministry has revoked the residency of over 6,000. Meanwhile more than 200,000 Jews have moved into East Jerusalem.
Since 2000, the beginning of the second intifada, Palestinians who do not hold Jerusalem identity cards have been forbidden to enter Jerusalem without obtaining a special permit. This has isolated Palestinians living in the West Bank from family, friends and coworkers who live in Jerusalem. It has prevented West Bank residents from working in Jerusalem or even traveling through the city on their way to another part of the West Bank. One community leader in Jerusalem explained that when the organization, which has branches in the West Bank and Gaza, holds a meeting, it is forced to do so in Cairo.
Settlements as Blockades
I spent two days touring the Jerusalem area, comparing Palestinian and Jewish neighborhoods. I also looked at some of the 17 settlements that are strategically located around Jerusalem, effectively cutting the city off from the West Bank. One day I went on a tour sponsored by the Israeli Committee on House Demolitions, another day I went with the Alternative Information Center.
The largest settlement, Ma’ale Adumim, begins just east of the Jerusalem city limits and extends as far as Jericho. Ma’ale Adumim’s first housing dates from 1975. Currently it has 34,000 residents but its population is slated to double within the next five years. Residents are secular Jews, mostly choosing to move there for a suburban lifestyle just minutes from Jerusalem.
I also saw Har Homa, a settlement being constructed on top of what used to be a forested mountain. Today only 10% occupied, this settlement closed off the last open area between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. It’s clear from viewing Har Homa and Ma’ale Adumim that the Israeli government builds settlements for strategic purposes, enticing the Jewish population to move there by offering sweet deals.
Settlements are self-contained units. They have shopping centers, schools, health clinics, parks, cinemas, synagogues, and a network of roads. They look like very comfortable suburban housing, with green lawns and lush landscaping, sidewalks and even swimming pools. Settlers use about four times the amount of water allocated to Palestinians living in the area. These settlements stand in sharp contrast to nearby Palestinian communities.
The 205 settlements sprinkled throughout the West Bank receive their own educational, health and municipal funds, entitling settlers to even better student/teacher and health worker/patient ratios than the general Israeli population enjoys. Settlers enjoy extensive overinvestment in their infrastructure while receiving big tax discounts. Most importantly, the settlements require enormous security costs, including a special network of bypass roads.
Almost 70% of the settlements are classified as “priority A areas” in which those moving in are entitled to receive a subsidized loan of NIS 60,000 (the rate of exchange with the U.S. dollar is roughly four to one), half of which becomes a grant after 15 years. (Another 20% are in “priority B areas” where people are entitled to loans of NIS 50,000, one-third of which eventually becomes a grant.)
Settlements also house 200 factories in seven industrial zones. These receive generous tax breaks and other concessions. Since they are exempt from Israeli environmental law, the most polluting industries are located here.
Americans would probably be surprised to know that since the 1990s the settler population has been rapidly increasing. In addition to the more than 200,000 Jews who have moved to East Jerusalem since 1967, another 225,000 have moved to the settlements. While the majority of the settlers live in the area surrounding Jerusalem, settlements are spread throughout the West Bank.
At the end of November, Peace Now’s Settlement Watch Report, with the help of a whistle blower deep within the Israeli Civil Administration, released information that almost 40% of all settlements were built on privately owned Palestinian land. Israel has always maintained that the settlement lands were built on “state” property.
Twice as large as the next largest settlement, Ma’ale Adumim led the list, with 86% of its land taken from individual Palestinian landowners. Originally expropriated for military purposes, the land was subsequently turned over to the settlement developers. The entire area is still a closed military zone, off-limits to Palestinians without special permits. Construction of Ma’ale Adumim also involved expelling the Bedouin Jahalin tribe. After long legal battles they were “relocated” to the site of the municipal garbage dump.
The report released by Peace Now was based on the government’s own maps, and challenges the official government view that Israel is in compliance with international law. Hopefully the public discussion over the settlement land will lead into a larger debate over the illegality of the continuing occupation.
The Fourth Geneva Convention spells out that an occupying power cannot annex land (Article 47) nor transfer parts of its own civilian population into the occupied territory (Article 49). It can only evacuate the population of a given area under “imperative military reasons” and only so long as hostilities in the area last (Article 49).
[See Part 2 for the conclusion of this article.]