Uprooting the Olive Branch

Ongoing Israeli Repression Fuels Bitterness in Gaza

Palestinians can't interpret the scene as anything other than an exercise in control and humiliation. After all, the crowded taxis, crop- and water-bearing trucks, private cars, and buses are not attempting to enter Israeli territory, only trying to move from one point to another in Gaza—an area that is supposed to be under autonomous Palestinian control. The soldiers up high in the guard post never search a car trunk or check an ID, so the claim that they are performing a "security function," says one driver stuck in the mayhem for an hour in the noontime sun, is "utterly preposterous." And he lets out a deep guffaw, explaining that finding humor in the absurdity is the only way he manages to survive. Boys walk from car to car, peddling lemonade and nuts.

Of course, Palestinians in the West Bank feel much the same way at checkpoints where soldiers actually do inspect cars and IDs. Drives that once took 20 minutes can take upward of five hours as roadblocks delay and redirect traffic all over the territories, even as settlers whiz along on the Jewish-only bypass roads. And while some Palestinians grant that looking in trunks for weapons may be legitimate, they still question the way soldiers flauntingly take breaks after each inspection, before calling the next car forward. Meanwhile, those on foot—old women with parcels on their heads, men with briefcases, kids with knapsacks—generally walk right through. Young men, though, are frequently stopped, and, according to recent reports in the Israeli press, forced to stand in the sun for several hours, or even beaten. Indeed, in mid August, six IDF soldiers were arrested on suspicion that they had brutally beaten a group of Palestinian taxi passengers, and forced them at gunpoint to thrash each other.

A checkpoint in the West Bank: 20-minute trips can now take five hours.
photo: Alisa Solomon
A checkpoint in the West Bank: 20-minute trips can now take five hours.

Recently, in the leading Israeli daily, Ha'aretz, columnist Gideon Levy offered his fellow citizens a colorful description of the checkpoints, concluding, "If more Israelis were exposed to this slice of reality, which is a regular part of Palestinian life, and saw with their own eyes the ordeals endured by ordinary, innocent Palestinians, they might gain a better understanding of the roots of the hatred the Palestinians feel for them. One roadblock is enough to understand it."

Even so, the ubiquitous checkpoints are only the most visible manifestation of the ongoing Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. One of its most punishing aspects is literally underground: water.

Water has long been a crisis in the region. Israel faced its own dire shortages this summer, and citizens were discouraged from watering their lawns. Even so, according to the Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem, the average Israeli consumes six times as much water as the average West Bank resident. B'Tselem reports that some 200,000 Palestinians living in 218 West Bank villages are not connected to any water network and thus have no running water. Meanwhile, Gaza's water is increasingly salinated and polluted by untreated sewage and fertilizers running off from Israel, and the settlements' heavy water use has contributed to the "over-extraction" of the local aquifer, putting future supplies in doubt. The crisis has intensified since October because water tankers have not been able to move freely through the territories.

Naifa, 30, prays that the water tanker will make it up the road to her village near the southern West Bank city of Yatta on its regular run every 20 days. And if it does, she explains, she has a new worry: how to come up with the 200 shekels (about $50) she pays each time to supply her family of seven for the three weeks. Her husband had been working in nearby Ber Sheva until the intifada started. He's been jobless ever since.

Though a city of 50,000 with a plumbing system, Yatta is not much better off these days than the villages without any infrastructure. Last Saturday, when the town was visited by a mobile clinic from Israel's Physicians for Human Rights—who defied Israeli law forbidding them from entering the territories to help address the medical crises the closures have aggravated—Yatta had been without water for four days. According to Yatta's mayor, Khalil Mo'sd Younis, men from the nearby settlement sabotage their system repeatedly, turning off the pipes at night. "Who are we going to complain to," he asks with a rhetorical sweep of his hand, "the IDF?"

"Israelis think that the occupation ended with the Oslo accords," notes Ruchama Marton, president of the physicians group. "So they think that zero hour for the current conflict is Camp David. What they don't recognize is that the oppression has continued for the last 34 years. And so they also don't recognize that the Palestinians are, quite simply, resisting it."

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