Palestine (OpenDemocracy) – On Friday March 30, over 30,000 Palestinians peacefully approached the border area of the Gaza strip to bring attention to their unfulfilled right of return to their families homes inside Israel and to highlight the ongoing plight of living under Israeli occupation. Israeli military forces responded with lethal force, deploying troops, drones, tanks, and snipers who fired on the crowds using live fire, rubber-coated steel pellets, and tear gas.
By the end of the day, fifteen Palestinians had been killed – many of them plainly unarmed – and over 1,000 wounded. By the end of the following week, 31 Palestinian lives had been taken, including that of journalist Yaser Murtaja who was hit despite wearing a blue jacket marked with the word “press.” Israeli snipers have shot and wounded five other Palestinian journalists.
March 30th was to mark the start of a of a six-week mobilization leading up to the 70th anniversary of the (Nakba) day in 1948 when the expulsion of 700,000 Palestinians began following the declaration of the State of Israel. It is now the most deadly day in Gaza since heavy Israeli airstrikes ended in 2014.
The toll is shocking, but premeditated. Israel had announced in advance that the protest would be met with lethal violence and sought to preemptively justify its open-fire orders by portraying the 30,000 marchers as armed militants sponsored by Hamas. Yet reports have found that protesters are neither factional nor pose an imminent threat to life. Still, soldiers continue to be instructed to use lethal force outside of life-threatening situations, in violation of international law.
Refugees comprise nearly 90 percent of Gaza’s 1.9 million population. They live under a crippling decades-long economic blockade enforced by Israel and Egypt that has created conditionsof permanent crisis. Poverty stands at 65 percent. Unemployment hovers around 45 percent.
Public health conditions in Gaza have deteriorated. An estimated 96 percent of the groundwater supply is undrinkable. Making matters worse, the Trump administration cut more than half of funding to the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees – funds that have long provided life saving nutritional and medical support.
Palestinians have the right to protest these conditions peacefully yet continue to be shot down as they do so. The murderously disproportionate violence meted out against demonstrating Palestinians is only the latest in a long series of deadly responses to popular protests.
Israeli defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has refused to allow an investigation into the use of live ammunition by its military. He has the support of the Trump Administration who continues to block the U.N. resolution calling for an inquiry. Eleven Democratic members of U.S Congress who recently returned from Israel have remained silent.
The viscerally shocking killings in Gaza have recaptured international attention, even securing sympathetic air-time on MSNBC, a major U.S cable news outlet. The spotlight provides an opportunity to redirect focus to the more insidious side of Israeli occupation, like land grabs and Israeli settlements — well-funded, fortified hilltop cities built in Palestinian territories.
The expropriation of Palestinian land continues unabated, and the development of Israeli settlements has intensified. Just a few months ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu approved building plans for 3,736 new settlement units,announcing in the West Bank “we are here to stay.” Almost 600,000 Israeli citizens currently reside in settlements – a population growing at a rate two times higher than that within Israel.
I recently witnessed the impact of Israel’s land grab and development strategy in the West Bank with a Global Exchange delegation. We heard from Palestinians dispossessed of their lands and homes for alleged security reasons only to later find mobile homes (or, “outposts”) mark the groundbreaking of yet more Israeli subsidized settlements. We maneuvered fairly freely via an expansive network of Israeli-only bypass roads and highways conveniently facilitating movement between settlements and Israel proper.
Conversely, we observed hundreds of checkpoints, walls, permit requirements, and Israeli soldiers tightly confining Palestinians to ever shrinking territory. I discovered that this maze of control makes it so a Palestinian might grow up able to view the Mediterranean from her town without ever having received a permit allowing her to travel to its shore. Several Palestinian teens expressed dreams of one day touching the sea.
Israel justifies many of its land grabs and extensive system of control in the West Bank as defensive measures proportionate to the threat of Palestinian and Arab aggression. Recent history is often referenced: like the 1967 Six-Day War provoked by a coalition of neighboring Arab states, two Palestinian Intifadas, or uprisings, in 1987 and in 2000, and Palestinian suicide bombings targeting Israeli civilians – a strategy that gained traction during the Intifada.
Palestinians, though, view Israel’s security justification as yet another pretext to displace them from their homes. It’s seen as a palatable guise for Israel’s century long “colonial gentrification” of historic Palestine – the uprooting of indigenous peoples by settlers and imperialist powers. While impossible to list the litany of historic grievances, Palestinians often reference the demographic history of the Southern Levant, a region that for hundreds of years had been overwhelmingly populated by an Arab Muslim majority. The 1917 Balfour Declaration (whereby the British declared that the then Ottoman region would become a Jewish national home, despite Jews only accounting for 3-5 percent of the population at the time) is referenced as a destructive political landmark that, along with the 1947 United Nations Partition Resolution 181, paved the way for the formation of the Jewish state in 1948 against the will of indigenous populations.
Roots of the conflict depend on how far back one wants to go. Ideological settlers like Ardie, a Chicago-born Israeli who has lived in Israeli settlements in the West Bank since 1985, take the discussion to biblical times. The “right of return” for the Jewish diaspora, according to Ardie, rests in part on the premise that they – a unified people of the BCE Kingdoms of Israel and Judah – were there first. Over coffee and cookies, he explained:
This was Judea before it was Palestine. The Romans named it Philistina after the Philistines, our enemies, to humiliate us, rebrand us, and erase our identity. They overran us and dispersed us, and we lived around the world for thousands of years. We are unique in that we are a people with a memory that compelled us to return to our ancient homeland – and we came back.
While ancient historical claims to Palestine are commonly used to justify Israeli expansion into the occupied territories, their historicity and relevance to the 21st century conflict is often called into question. King Abdullah, for example,wrote that, while it “is absurd to reach so far back into the mists of history to argue about who should have Palestine today,” if “solid, uninterrupted Arab occupation for nearly 1,300 years does not make a country ‘Arab’, what does?” George Rishmawi from the Palestinian Centre for Rapprochement Between People agrees that the blast to the ancient past isn’t helpful:
The issue isn’t who was here first, thousands of years ago. The issue is who, less than 100 years ago, came here. And what did they do to the people they found? Displacing more than 700 thousand Palestinians from their land and turning them into refugees can never be justified under any pretext.
Another justification for the land grabs offered by an Israeli settler is that we live in a world of winners and losers where winners enjoy the spoils of war and losers suffer. The ugliness of this logic reflects the reality on the ground where a highly securitized apartheid reality is causing tremendous suffering to Palestinians. Squashed into ever shrinking towns with no territorial contiguity, it’s no wonder Palestinians tend to describe their situation as “living under siege” on “islands surrounded by a sea of Israeli control.”
Despite a stifling set of constraints and dismal near-term prospects for a just peace, Palestinians courageously resist the indignities of occupation every day. In the weeks to come, they will continue to protest for their rights, and the Israeli military will continue to meet them with lethal force.
Here are a few stories that illustrate their struggle:
Farming sisters Fadeyeh and Ne’amehwere cut off from their land after it was seized to form part of a so-called “security” buffer zone around a settlement. The creation of these special security areas became common in the wake of the second Intifada when suicide bombings that targeted Israeli civilians became a common tactic used by Palestinian armed resistance groups.
Theoretically, farmers can apply for permits to tend and cultivate the expropriated land under the watch of Israeli military personnel. In practice, the process is sabotaged by coordination challenges with the Israeli Civil Administration and aggression from settlers. Muhamad Barakat, an East Jerusalemite with an encyclopedic knowledge of the region, says the sisters typically get 10 days of approved access to their land while suffering beatings and insults from young settlers in the process.
The Bil’in farmer pictured here was cut off from much of the land he and his family once farmed to accommodate the construction of a separation wall and buffer zone for the neighboring Israeli Modi’in Illit bloc. Like Fadeyeh and Ne’ameh, he could apply for a permit but is discouraged by the fact that only forty percent of requests to enter the annexed agricultural land receive positive response. Limits on access have decreased farming in these areas by over eighty percent.
Just an eye-shot away, the settlement’s complexes are kept lush by water unavailable to Palestinian farmers. In the West Bank, water is far from evenly shared. On average, Israeli settlers have access to over 300 liters per day, while neighboring Palestinians are left with 73, well below the World Health Organization’s minimum standards of 100. It comes as no surprise that you can distinguish a Palestinian town from an Israeli settlement by seeing if homes are topped with water tanks, or not.
Pictured is the Bil’in farmer’s youngest son, kindly ensuring my cup of tea remained full. His hospitality in what’s left of a home that’s been demolished five times was a heartbreaking show of resilience. Israel pursues an aggressive housing demolition policy in the West Bank, a process that the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolition has shown is highly political. Homes are bulldozed for various reasons, including the clearing of vast tracts of land for military / security purposes, building without a permit (even though such permits are disproportionately difficult and expensive for Palestinians to secure), and out of collective punishment, or “deterrence,” against the family of any individual who carries out an attack against an Israeli target. In ninety-five percent of these demolitions, residents had nothing to do with the security offense.
Settlement enclaves encroach into Palestinian cities like Hebron where Israelis build homes on top of Palestinian homes and businesses, accompanied by an extensive system of cages and checkpoints that vertically and horizontally partition space. In the old city of Hebron known as Hebron 2, more than 4,200 Palestinian students must cross checkpoints on their way to school. Muhamad Barakat explained that the learning environment has suffered due to the potential for harassment and humiliation students receive while moving through checkpoints. Many opt to move. Indeed, the number of students attending Hebron’s Al-Ibrahimi primary school has dropped from 460 in 2011 to 220 in 2017.
Iyad Burnat is the head of the Bil’in Popular Committee against the Israeli wall and settlements. In response to the continuous uprooting of Palestinian ancient olive trees and confiscation of farmland, the main income source for Bil’in residents, Iyad has led weekly non-violent actions since 2005.
His family has paid a heavy price.
Three out of four of Iyad’s sons have either been shot in protest or arrested in home raids. At the time of the photo above, Iyad’s 17 year old had been detained in an Israeli prison for three months, charges undisclosed. This is a common experience. Forty percent of the Palestinian male population can expect to be detained, according to Lana Ramadan from the Addameer Prisoners Support Association based in Ramallah. Unlike their Jewish counterparts, Palestinians exist under military, not civil, law. This means that they can be held by administrative detention — indefinitely, without charge, and without trial. Children are overwhelmingly accused of throwing stones, an offense that can lead to 10 to 20 years, depending on location.
In the face of such adversity, one wonders where Palestinians like Iyad find the will to endure. Perhaps the answer lies in the slogan of the Bil’in’s Popular Committee:
“The occupation will not remove us from our land. We will stay in our land as the roots of olive trees.”