Palestine in 2020

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I’ve seen a number of friends talking about Palestine on social media. I’ve also seen their friends asking some version of “what’s happening in the Occupied Territories?” (i.e. questions motivated by both an interest in what life is like there, and a lack of knowledge). I thought I’d share therefore something I wrote a few weeks back – a simple “explainer” setting out for people in the West how the occupation works and its impact on people’s lives

The Palestinians comprise a) nearly two million Arabs living within the pre-1967 borders of Israel, or a bit less than one in five of the Israeli population, where their average income is around a third lower than that of Jewish Israelis,[1] and they are more than twice as likely to have an income below the state poverty line.[2] They suffer discrimination in employment and housing, for example by rules offering employment only to those who have served in the Israeli army. Arab employment in the civil servant stands at just eleven percent, or around half of what it should be were it not for employment barriers.[3]

In theory, those living within the pre-1967 borders are permitted to vote in Israeli elections, and they elects members to the Knesset, enabling Israel to present itself to the world as a normal democracy. However Arab deputies are stigmatised, denounced by government ministers and subject to laws enabling other deputies to revoke their election at any time.[4] According to the Knesset’s Rules of Procedures, the Presidium “shall not approve a bill that in its opinion denies the existence of the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish People.” On the basis of those rules, between 2011 and 2019, four bills related to Palestinians’ rights, including their right to participate in public life, were disqualified before even reaching discussion in that parliament.[5]

There are then b) around 400,000 Palestinians who live in East Jerusalem which was annexed in 1967. They do not have Israeli citizenship, only a limited right to reside which can be taken away at any time (for example, if they marry a non-resident). They are not permitted to vote in Israeli elections. Laws prevent building in East Jerusalem and encourage the demolition of Palestinian homes, which the state does repeatedly, with 265 homes pulled down in 2019 alone.[6]

Then there are c) some four and a half million Palestinians living in occupied West Bank or Gaza. There, average wages are significantly lower than among Arab Israelis, at very roughly a half (the West Bank) or a quarter (Gaza) of what they are in Israel.[7] In spring 2020, the official unemployment in Gaza stood at 45 percent.[8] A small number of Palestinians from the Occupied Territories are employed in Israel or on settlements (around two percent of the population) there they suffer even worse discrimination than those living within Israel’s borders. Health and safety protections are minimal, workers are refused to switch employers, their work permits are routinely cancelled, and wages go repeatedly unpaid.[9] Although Palestinian literacy rates are among the highest in the world,[10] educational infrastructure is crumbling.[11] While, in autumn 2020, as Covid struck, health officials were warning of a lack of ventilators, PPE, and medicine.[12]

In Gaza, economic blockade has meant that fewer than one in ten households have access to fresh water.[13] Access to electricity is interrupted. The roads which join Palestinian towns are broken, every few hundred metres, with a fresh checkpoints, many of them created by Israel’s 400 mile long separation wall, more than four-fifths of which meanders within the Western Bank far inside the Green Line (the supposed border with Israel).[14]

Meanwhile, repeated incursions from Israeli troops, including by helicopter,[15] and in bulldozer raids and night-time bombings cause even during times of apparent peace repeated civilian deaths. Two hundred citizens from West Bank and Gaza were killed in 2019, according to the UN; while eight Israeli civilians also died.[16] Between 2018 and 2020, night-time raids on the occupied territories were taking place at the rate of 250 per month. No warrants were required to justify these raids. They left their victims feeling unsafe in their own homes and beds.[17]

Palestinians residents of the West Bank or Gaza are not citizens of Israel, have no right to travel there unless (exceptionally) for work, and have no rights or legal status within that country. By law even a Palestinian married to an Israeli is prohibited from being a citizen of Israel or residing there. As Prime Minister Sharon explained, when the law was introduced, “There is no need to hide behind security arrangements. There is a need for the existence of a Jewish state.”[18]

The West Bank and Gaza are not contiguous; it is a matter of extreme difficult to travel from one part of the occupied territories to the other. Citizens of the occupied territories are not citizens of Israel, are permitted only to vote in elections for the Palestinian Authority, which has no effective control over most of the matters which normally constitute statehood: people, goods, food, medicines and even water enter only by Israeli consent, which is repeatedly withdrawn.

The fourth and final element of the Palestinian population are d) the refugees of Israel’s wars, who live in exile (many in cramped conditions in refugee camps),[19] and their descendants. Some 4 million Palestinian refugees, including the survivors of the 800,000 people[20] displaced in the 1948 Arab-Israel war, and their families, are registered for humanitarian assistance with the United Nations.[21] Members of this group are excluded from Israel citizenship and deprived from returning to Israel. Their homes and land were part of historical Palestine and are now occupied by Israel. “Our dead are still in the cemeteries of others,” the Palestinian poet and author Mourid Barghouti has written, “our living are clinging to foreign borders.”[22]

When speaking of Palestinian refugees, it should be recalled that Israeli attacks on other countries in the region have destroyed some of the few places where Palestinians were allowed to live in relative peace; notably Beirut which prior to Israeli’s 1982 invasion and the massacre in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, had been “the birthplace for thousands of Palestinians who knew no other cradle … an island upon which Arab immigrants dreaming of a new world landed”.[23]

For all Palestinians, occupation is a constant and ongoing process:

[It] prevents you from managing your affairs in your own way. It interferes in every aspect of life and death; it interferes with longing and anger and desire and walking in the street. It interferes with going anywhere and coming back, with going to market, the emergency hospital, the beach, the bedroom, or a distant capital.[24]

None of these Palestinian groups have the same citizenship rights in Israel as the country’s seven million Jewish citizens[25] – nor indeed the same citizenship rights as Jews living in Britain, France, or the United States. Rather, a panoply of directly and indirectly discriminatory laws make them second class citizens or permanent exiles.[26]

Sources:


[1] ‘Wages of Jewish workers in Israel 35 percent higher than Arab counterparts,’ Middle East Monitor, 11 December 2019.

[2] Inter-Agency Task Force on Israeli Arab Issues, ‘Israel’s Annual Poverty Report: Decline in Arab Poverty Meets Increase in Depth and Severity’, 5 February 2019.

[3] N. Ahituv, ‘Could Netanyahu Actually Be Good for Israel’s Arabs?’ Haaretz, 31 October 2019.

[4] Y. Jabareen, ‘Silencing Arab members of the Knesset would be a new low for Israeli democracy,’ Guardian, 1 April 2016.

[5] ‘Israel Discriminatory measures undermine Palestinian representation in Knesset,’ Amnesty International, 4 September 2019.

[6] J. Magid, ‘2019 saw spike in Palestinian home demolitions by Israel, rights group finds,’ Times of Israel, 6 November 2020; for justification of previous waves of house demolition, E. Habiby, The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist (London: Arabia, 2010), p. 125.

[7] ‘The Working Conditions of Palestinian Wage Earners in Israel’, Center for Political Economics, February 2017.

[8] ‘Labour Force Survey Preliminary Results First quarter January – March 2020’, 31 May 2020.

[9] Kav LaOved, Worker’s Hotline, undated but accessed 20 August 2020.

[10] Around 4 percent of adult Palestinians, compared to 16 percent in Britain. ‘Literacy Rate of Persons (15 Years and Over) in Palestine by Age Groups and Sex, 1995, 1997, 2000-2013’, Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, 2014; ‘Adult literacy’, National Literacy Trust, accessed 26 October 2020.

[11] In 2014, thirty percent of Gaza schools needed rebuilding as a result of that year’s Israeli military attacks. ‘Education,’ United Nations Development Programme (2015).

[12] W. Mahmoud, ‘Gaza declares COVID-19 disaster with health system near collapse,’ Al-Jazeera, 23 November 2020.

[13] G. von Medeazza, ‘Searching for clean water in Gaza,’ Unicef, 10 January 2019.

[14] ‘The Separation Barrier,’ B’tselem, 11 November 2017.

[15] “The helicopter hovering above the refugee camp / As though it were dusting a field,” A. Shabtai, ‘Mice of the World Unite,’ in T. Nitzan and R. T. Back, With an Iron Pen: Twenty Years of Hebrew Protest Poetry (New York: Excelsior Editions, 2009), p. 19.

[16] ‘Data on Casualties’, United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, accessed 20 August 2020.

[17] P. Beaumont, ‘Dehumanising: Israeli groups’ verdict on military invasions of Palestinian homes,’ Guardian, 29 November 2020.

[18] A. Abunimah, The Battle for Justice in Palestine (Chicago: Haymarket, 2014), p. 25; U. Forat, ‘For an Israeli Married to a Palestinian, Family Unification Is Forbidden,’ Haaretz, 1 June 2020.

[19] Sahar Khalifeh writes of “Life in the refugee camp, in a tiny room the size of a chicken coop, amid the clamour of people and their secrets”. S. Khalifeh, The End of Spring (Northampton, Massachusetts: 2008), p. 9.

[20] David Gilmour writes that the exact number of refugees was never established. The UN Economic Survey Mission put the total at 726,000; the Refugee Office of the UN Palestine Coalition Commissions placed it at 900,000, and the true figure is probably somewhere in between. D. Gilmour, Dispossessed: The Ordeal of the Palestinians (London: Sphere Books, 1982), p. 74. The Jewish population of Palestine was at that time just 630,000 people. S. Sand, The Invention of the Jewish People (London: Verso, 2009), p. 281.

[21] ‘Palestine Refugees,’ United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees int the Near East. Accessed 1 August 2020.

[22] M. Barghouti, I Saw Ramallah (London: Bloomsbury, 2004), p. 38.

[23] M. Darwish, Memory for Forgetfulness: August, Beirut, 1982 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), p. xii.

[24] Barghouti, I Saw Ramallah, p. 48.

[25] ‘Monthly Bulletin of Statistics,’ October 2019.

[26] Adalah, the Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, has published a list of more than 60 Israeli laws which at discriminate directly or indirectly against Palestinian citizens in Israel or Palestinian residents of the occupied territories. ‘Discriminatory Laws in Israel’, Adalah, accessed 26 August 2020.

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