Seeing Apartheid in Action, Part 2

Posted December 8, 2006

This is the third of a three part article by Dianne Feeley reflecting on her recent trip to the Middle East. Read the first part or the second part directly.

Roads, Checkpoints and Other Methods of Restriction

With Israeli settlements taking root in the West Bank, the government’s “Settlement Master Plan for 1983-1986” proposed building new roads that would bypass Arab population centers. The development of both gained momentum, peaking in the 1993-95 period. In Forbidden Roads, Israel’s Discriminatory Road Regime in the West Bank (August 2004) B’Tselem researchers concluded that there are 17 roads where Palestinian travel is forbidden. On 10 others with special permits travel is allowed and, in the case of 14 roads or main arteries, travel is possible under certain conditions. Rather than being able to use the main roads between cities, the population is often forced to use more arduous alternative routes.

The by-pass road system is based on the premise that all Palestinians are security risks. Policy is not formulated in law but simply enforced by the military and Border Police.  That is, there are no road signs or written regulations-the system is entirely based on the military’s verbal orders. Despite this, the policy is definitely institutionalized. All permits are issued by an arm of the Ministry of Defense. Access to the roads requires a special license plate, a staffed checkpoint and police patrols that enforce orders. Palestinian cars caught on forbidden roads are confiscated.

In 1990 Israel began imposing restrictions on the free movement of Palestinians. At first, Palestinians were prohibited from entering Israel or East Jerusalem. Then these restrictions were extended to the West Bank. Currently there are 650 checkpoints within the West Bank, a 40% increase since August 2006. Some function as “terminals,” designed more as international borders, like the one I crossed from Bethlehem to Jerusalem. Others are permanent checkpoints where it is necessary to produce the proper documentation in order to travel further; still others are “flying” checkpoints, temporary places where soldiers check the Palestinians’ ID. On most work days just up the hill from East Jerusalem soldiers stop and check all Palestinians who walk by.

Under the Oslo Agreements of 1993 the Occupied Palestinian Territories were divided into Area A, B and C. Some governmental powers were transferred to the Palestinian Authority in Areas A and B, while Area C remained under Israeli authority. In Area C Israelis face no restriction on travel, but Palestinian travel is restricted and, on some roads, prohibited. Area A comprises 11 separate blocks and represents 18% of the West Bank, Area B consists of 120 separate blocks comprising 22% and Area C is one continuous block covering 60%.  Palestinians who want to travel from one block to another must cross Area C, and are thus confronted with restrictions the army imposes.

Israel controls the Palestinian population registry as well as all border crossings. This means Israel holds exclusive power over the ability of Palestinians to live with the person they marry. It also means Israel can register, or refuse to register, children. In contradiction to human rights law, Israel has always contended that family reunification is not a right, but a “special benevolent act of the Israeli authorities.”

By 2000 the Israeli government halted even its limited process of family unification. With the “freeze” policy in place, there are more than 120,000 requests on file. Some families have been forcibly separated; others live “illegally.” Out of fear of being deported, tens of thousands of women married to Palestinian men are isolating and imprisoning themselves in their homes.

In 2002 the Israeli government made a decision to construct a 700-kilometer Separation Barrier in the West Bank. Two years later the International Court of Justice ruled that the Wall violates international law. Despite that decision, the construction continues.

In urban areas the barrier is a 25-foot-high concrete wall, in other areas it is an electronic fence supplemented with surveillance devices, a trench, barbed wire and a patrol road. Eighty percent of the planned route is inside the West Bank, with just 20% following the Green Line, the line of the 1949 armistice between Israel and Palestine (then part of Jordan). The Wall cuts Palestinian towns in two, separates villages from their farmland, and divides the West Bank from East Jerusalem. Its construction is gobbling up 10% more of the West Bank.

Perhaps the most affected are the 60,000 Palestinians who have residency status in Jerusalem but have been left on the other side of the Wall. Because of the difficulty in commuting back and forth across the Wall, many are now resettling inside the Wall. I spoke to one man who has taken a small apartment at a rent that is eating up his salary. He isn’t quite sure how long he can hold out, caught between his need to keep his job, benefits and access to city services and his need for a more affordable home.

Restructuring the Palestinian Working Class

When talking with representatives from Al-Haq, a Palestinian human rights organization based in Ramallah, I explained I was active in my union and particularly interested in the problems Palestinian workers face. They stated that before the Oslo Accords about 200,000 Palestinians worked inside Israel. Because even the minimum wage (roughly comparable to the U.S. minimum wage) there was higher than the going wage in the OPT, Palestinians working inside Israel supported many other family members.

In 1987, when Palestinians began a massive civil resistance to the occupation with the first intifada, the government decided that they wanted to replace Palestinian workers with immigrant laborers. Today perhaps no more than 10% of the Palestinians who used to work in Israel are able to obtain a magnetic security card-and less than half of those actually make it across the checkpoints to work. The card itself is very restrictive, requiring that Palestinians not residing in Israel leave between 4-7 PM.

While some Palestinians “illegally” work inside Israel, they live a precarious existence. Those who live such an underground existence are forced to spend months at a time away from their families for fear of being caught. Those who try to go to and from work every day face the stress of evading checkpoints and of worrying about getting to work on time.

Al-Haq representatives pointed to social problems that arise from the lack of work and lack of mobility. The first is the daily level of humiliation for those unable to find work. Second is the reality that without work desperation forces some to find “illegal” ways to survive. These activities, in turn, can have serious repercussions within the community.

I also met with representatives from the Palestine General Federation of Trade Unions’ Women’s Department when I was in Ramallah. They said that currently 60% of the population lives below the poverty level. Currently 40% of the Palestinian working class is workless. Of the 10,000 Palestinian prisoners, at least half are workers. Aware of how difficult the economic situation is, the union is using this period to deepen their educational work, particularly the development of women leaders.

Given Israeli refusal to turn over the money it collects, how is the economy being maintained? One hundred and sixty-five thousand government workers, including teachers, have gone without pay for nine months. Although there is employment by nongovernmental organizations and by Palestinian businesses still able to produce and sell goods, remittances sent by family members play an increasingly important role.

A System of Control

Israel is attempting to control the Palestinians demographically, both by preventing them from working in Israel and by providing them with an incentive to go elsewhere, and geographically by the continual construction of settlements, bypass roads, checkpoints and the Wall. These all take land away from Palestinians at the same time Palestinians are unable to construct wells or build new homes. Jeff Halper, in Obstacles to Peace, calculated the massive expropriation of Palestinian land at 24% of the West Bank, 25% of Gaza and 89% of West Jerusalem. (11)

All these land takeovers are carried out in the name of security or for the common good, but for Palestinians they are just the opposite. These methods of dispossession also separate Palestinians from some of their most valuable land and water resources.

Another method of dispossession the Israelis utilize is house demolition. Since 1967 the army has demolished 12,000 Palestinian buildings, displacing 70,000. The authorities cite three reasons for demolition: failure to secure a building permit, deterring terrorism by destroying the home of an individual regarded as a “terrorist” or claiming the land for military needs. Over the last seven years, 25% of the reasons cited for demolishing homes were because there was no permit. In fact, Palestinians are rarely able to obtain permits. Another 15% were demolished to “deter” Palestinians from carrying out terrorist attacks-but of course the army has never applied this form of deterrence against Israeli terrorists. Demolitions based on deterrence are in reality acts of “collective punishment,” which is never permitted under international law (Article 49).

These extensive, discriminatory and costly systems of control place enormous power in the hands of the Israeli Defense Force, Border Police and the bureaucracy that backs them up. Many human rights field researchers have documented how this system provides a perfect culture for harassing and humiliating Palestinians. At the same time, the military offers special privileges to entice some to become collaborators.

Given the growing settlements and restrictions against the Palestinians’ right to move from one area to another in the West Bank and Gaza, prominent individuals including Nelson Mandela and Bishop Tutu are describing this reality as “apartheid.” Many Palestinian and Israeli anti-occupation activists are very pleased with the publication of Jimmy Carter’s book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid? They are hoping the book, by a former U.S. president, will open up a discussion that can challenge U.S. foreign policy. It’s clear that Israel can’t maintain the settlements and the military structure that props them up without the $3 billion in annual U.S. aid.

As I observed the extreme security measures in both the West Bank and Israel, I wondered whether I was viewing a possible U.S. future. In the name of terrorism, daily life becomes one security check after another. The majority of Israelis don’t see the construction of an apartheid system being carried out in their name just as many Americans don’t see how institutionalized racism plays out in everyday life here. Fortunately, though, there is a significant minority talking about the costs of militarization on both Palestinians and Jews.

Sources: Al-Haq (; Alternative Information Center (; B’tselem (; Israeli Committee against House Demolitions ( Workers Hotline (