Looking over the wall
Lorna Anderson recently visited Palestine and talked to a number of political activists about the current situation in Israel and the occupied territories. In a second article she will discuss developments in Palestinian politics.
Wherever you are in Palestine - even in areas nominally under the control of the Palestinian Authority (PA) - you are always aware of the occupation. Whilst you might see Palestinian police dealing with a traffic accident in Hebron, pass soldiers mounting a ceremonial guard at Yasser Arafat’s mausoleum in Ramallah, or find the outward symbols of sovereignty displayed in PA government buildings and municipal offices, the ‘facts on the ground’ tell a different story, leaving you in no doubt about who is really in chanrge of these territories.
These ‘facts on the ground’, as Israeli politicians and apologists for Israel’s continued control of the West Bank like to describe the situation, are not kept hidden. In reality the opposite is true. Far from keeping its control a secret, a key aim of the Israeli state is to let the Palestinian population be in no doubt as to who the real masters in the West Bank are. Israel’s control over the external ‘borders’ of the PA through checkpoints and crossings in the suppression wall, the de facto military control of 60% of West Bank territory designated as ‘Area C’ and the annexation by settlement throughout the occupied territories - all show the significance of this control of space and land for the Zionist project. Binyamin Netanyahu’s recent campaign promises on the annexation of the Jordan Valley and the political consensus supporting the expansion of settlements further reflects how important these material ‘facts on the ground’ remain to politics in Palestine.
Many Palestinians compare their situation to that of the black population in apartheid South Africa and the attempt by the white minority regime to corral the majority into Bantustans, all the better to control and exploit them. The pattern of settlement construction, the shape of Israeli military control and the proposed annexations in the West Bank certainly support that comparison. The settlements - frequently built on hilltops and higher ground, linked with their own roads and transport systems, and guarded by Israeli army checkpoints - are the physical embodiment of this policy. The word ‘settlement’ conjures up images of hardy pioneers and frugal shelters, but many of them are modern towns with all the amenities a population of up to 60,000 people could wish for. Although located in the West Bank or an annexed territory contiguous with the 1948 border, these towns are completely integrated into Israel economically and socially. They are closer in appearance and lifestyle to an American suburb than the Palestinian villages over the wall, whose land has been stolen to add to more ‘facts on the ground’.
The settlers and their Palestinian neighbours appear to live parallel and separate lives. The settlers’ cars and buses speed along their exclusive roads, taking commuters and shoppers to Tel Aviv or Jerusalem within the hour, whilst the Palestinians are confined to the West Bank and cannot even visit those cities, let alone the villages and towns from which their grandparents were expelled in 1948.
Yet both the settlers and the Palestinians are acutely aware of each other. The wall might be built to separate and segregate, but the lives of the two populations are intimately intertwined. The Friday demonstrations against the wall and the seizures of land are a continuing and noisy reminder of resistance. Some Palestinians work in the settlements, either building the houses or in the service sector. Thus the villages on the ‘other side of the wall’ know full well what goes on in the settlements. While I was standing on a small hill looking across to the neat rows of apartments, the various groups who made up one particular settlement (of 30,000 people) were pointed out to me. “Over there are the French and other Europeans, whilst that cluster of houses standing back from the road was built by a group of Orthodox American Jews,” I was told. “They don’t really get on: the Europeans - especially the women - act and dress differently, and there really is bad feeling between them and the ultra-religious settlers.”
This contradictory character of the settlements in general was confirmed for me when I visited three different areas of the West Bank. One was populated by quite militant religious settlers who made it clear that they did not welcome visitors - especially if they were other, less visibly orthodox Israelis. Another was a secular suburb on the edge of Jerusalem - all well-watered lawns and spacious bungalows. For its inhabitants life was familiar and normal: no aggressive Zionism here. The last was in marked contrast to the other places. This settlement was a rather shabby collection of multi-storey flats, with limited amenities and neglected, rubbish-strewn public space. It was inhabited by recent emigrants from eastern Europe and Russia, encouraged by low rents and other incentives to live in the settlement. In appearance and spirit it had more in common with the post-industrial cities of Europe than either the prosperous, familiar suburbs of Jerusalem or the ideological project of the religiously orthodox settlements in, say, Hebron or around Nablus.
These three different types of settlement pointed up for me some of the deep divisions within Israeli society along class, religious and cultural faultlines. The issues raised in the recent election campaigns and the continuing debates about the growing strength and influence of religious orthodoxy in Israeli society were encapsulated in these very different places, joined by the label, ‘the settlements’.
Netanyahu’s election promises on the further annexation of areas of Palestinian territory and the widespread consensus on the legitimacy of the settlements means that the nature and impact of the occupation is an ever-present issue, especially when it is most obviously ignored by Israeli politicians. The dwindling band of left Zionists bemoan the corrupting impact of the occupation on their project, arguing that it has turned democratic Israel into a conformist Sparta and strengthened the forces of ethnic nationalism and religious reaction. Other critical voices have also been raised - amongst them former soldiers describing the brutal reality of repression in the occupied territories or lawyers trying to defend the limited human rights of Palestinians entrapped in the military courts and civil administration of the West Bank. The picture these activists paint corroborates the accounts that Palestinian activists and former prisoners gave to me.
Israeli politicians stress ‘security’ and focus on ‘the Arab enemy within’ as a key part of consolidating the Zionist ideological hegemony over Israeli society. The recent elections also show that this focus is an essential part of politics in the state. The occupation strengthens this narrative: the settlements are under constant threat of attack from the surrounding Palestinian population, it is argued. The employment of Palestinians and Israeli Arabs within the country must be controlled and limited, even to the extent of encouraging the immigration of workers from the Philippines, China and Africa to lessen a possible dependence on Palestinian labour (although, of course, without giving them or their children born in Israel any real rights or citizenship). The lessons of the second Intifada and the historical ‘mistake’ apartheid South Africa made in creating its own gravediggers in the form of a combative black working class have been well-learned by the Israeli state.
However, the occupation of the West Bank continues to create its own ‘security’ problems, especially as the two-state solution is now dead and the dominant view amongst the Israeli ruling class is that ‘there are no Arab partners for peace’. The continued advance of the settlements, altering ‘the facts on the ground’, combined with the proposed annexations, in effect mean that the occupation will be made permanent. While some form of limited ‘self-government’ may continue in the rump areas of the West Bank, its functions will be very limited and very localised.
Both the Israeli and Palestinian activists I talked to were certain that the current forms of Israeli rule would continue and would even be heightened. In particular the use of the Israeli army and military courts to control the population in various ways would be increased. Given the current low level of popular struggle in the occupied territories (excluding Gaza, of course), these security policies are not a response to violence or mobilisation against the state: they are framed to pre-empt that and prevent the re-emergence of a mass Palestinian resistance on the scale of the second Intifada. The frequent harassment, house raids, arrests and imprisonments, especially of teenagers and young men, are clearly designed to cow potential militants and break up any nascent forms of popular struggle. Former prisoners explained to me how arrest and time in prison frequently engendered suspicions and disorientation: who might be collaborating with the Israelis in return for work permits or acting as informers in their villages to save themselves or their own sons from gaol?
So far, so familiar: the tactics and strategy of the Israeli army in the occupied territories mirror those of other colonial armies throughout history. In the case of the West Bank, however, there is an added historical dimension. As one Israeli, recounting his experience as a conscript in the army, explained, the role of the military is explicitly political: “Our commander told us on our first day that we had to make the Palestinians feel afraid, to make them feel like our ancestors had felt in Poland and Russia when they heard the Cossacks approaching”.