Palestine, Part I: Water and Land in the Occupied Territories
I have travelled to the Palestinian Territories twice: on a three-week Christian study tour in 2010, and for a one-month internship in the capital, Ramallah, in summer 2012. Since multiple people on this site have mentioned that most of their knowledge of Palestine comes from the news, I decided to write a piece on my experiences. This should have been written last year; however, it’s a highly emotional topic for me and I found writing about it difficult. Here it is, finally.
You enter Israel through Ben-Gurion International Airport, halfway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. It’s modernist in design and an attractive introduction to the country, filled with fountains and waterfalls. In a predominantly desert land, this is a statement equivalent to covering the interior in gold leaf.
Water quickly becomes one of the distinguishing factors between Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. West Jerusalem, Israeli territory, has green and spacious parks filled with flowers; East Jerusalem – legally Palestinian territory, but annexed by Israel following the Six-Day War of 1967 – has few to none. Water for both Israel and Palestine comes from three aquifers and from the Jordan Valley. The Eastern and Northeastern aquifers are located almost entirely with the Palestinian Territories; the Western lies underneath areas of both Israel and the Palestinian Territories but derives some 85% of its water from rainfall in the West Bank. Despite this geography, the Oslo Accords granted Israel use of the vast majority of the water in the three aquifers, with the Palestinian Territories permitted to use only 20% of the total estimated potential volume; when the actual volume was found to be greater than estimated, only Israel’s portion increased. Even beyond this, Israel uses well over 50% more water than the Oslo Accords allow it, an unsustainable level of use which is draining the aquifers. Palestinian per capita water use is approximately 25% that of Israelis, and has been falling since Oslo. When I was living in Ramallah, the group which organized my internship encouraged me to minimize shower time in order to conserve water.
The Jordan Valley within the Palestinian Territories is also entirely controlled by the Israelis, as are the substantial groves of date palms alongside it which Israel and settlers draw profits from. The same is true of the portions of the Dead Sea shoreline within the Palestinian Territories, and the lucrative salt extraction plants there, which produce globally-sold and highly-valued cosmetics; Ahava is a cosmetic company known to source its products from Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Under international law concerning permanent sovereignty over natural resources, including rulings by the International Court of Justice, resources in the territory of an occupied population may be used solely with the consent of that population and for their benefit, so this is a clearly illegal activity that has seriously detrimental consequences for the economy of the Palestinian Territories. The potential value of the Dead Sea shore to the Palestinian economy, both in cosmetics and in resort development, is substantial, and Israel’s occupation both denies this value to the Palestinians and removes value through their own extraction activities and resource-processing in settlements.
Settlements themselves are ubiquitous in the Palestinian Territories; some 345,000 Israeli settlers now live in the West Bank, with another 200,000 in East Jerusalem. Even between my two visits I could see that major growth had occurred, and that far more of my travel time in the West Bank involved watching settlement after settlement pass by the windows, distinctive from their red, peaked roofs, very different from the typical white, angular construction of buildings in the rest of the region. West Bank settlement has more than tripled since the signing of the Oslo Accords: in 1993, when they were signed, there were 111,600 settlers in the West Bank. Netanyahu has been continuously accelerating it even further: to compare, in a presentation I made for my church after returning from my 2010 trip, West Bank settlement numbers were 305,000, and 180,000 in Jerusalem. Current settlement construction in 2013 is up 70% over last year.
The residents in the settements vary. Some of them are there for purely economic reasons – the Israeli government subsidizes the settlements heavily, so it’s cheaper to live in a settlement near Jerusalem and commute than it is to live in Israel. Others are for religious reasons: I’ve visited two on my trips, Ephrat and Gush Etzion. One of the members of my Christian study tour asked the settler we talked to in Ephrat how settlement and the treatment of the Palestinians related to the Torah’s statements on justice and caring for the oppressed; he responded that these injuctions applied to looking out for oppressed Jews, and didn’t apply to treatment of other people groups. The group in Gush Etzion had a fairly sophisticated museum and showed us a long propaganda film about the heroic settlers making farmland out of a wilderness and being attacked by the evil Arabs. (Their settlement was in fact located near Bethlehem, where Palestinians had been cultivating the land for many generations before Zionist settlement.) When my group brought up the Palestinians, he said the radicals and rock-throwers were dangerous, but some of the Palestinians did repairs and picked cherries on the settlements and were fine people – he even made a cup of coffee for one of them once! These are the comparatively moderate religions settlers. The third type of settlers are the ones around Hebron, who throw junk in Palestinians’ yards and doorways so they can’t get into their houses, stand on the roofs and toss garbage down on them in the marketplace (the Palestinians put up a net to catch it, so then the settlers threw bleach), and even threaten and beat Palestinian children on the way to school. There are Palestinian and international groups that walk the kids to school in order to guard them from settler attacks. The city of Hebron itself has heavy security, with gates and checkpoints and Israeli soldiers with machine guns, but they do nothing about the settlers’ actions.
There’s considerable determination among the settlers to expand. One night on my second trip I stayed at the Tent of Nations: a farm, summer camp, and peacebuilding/advocacy organization created by a Palestinian Christian family a little outside of Bethlehem. A nearby settlement offered them a blank cheque for their land. They refused; this is their home. The Israeli government has repeatedly threatened to demolish their house and wells, but so far they have had sufficient international support, and sufficient legal assistance wih the courts, to prevent demolition. Their challenges are continuous, though. From their latest newsletter:
In December 2012, the high court rejected our appeal for a building permit for the 13 demolishing orders for our structures. They said that we have to apply again according to the new rules. Before applying the land must be surveyed again. Our Lawyer did the paper work and we started a new process in the Israeli courts to protect our structures. It is a frustrated situation for us but we still believe in justice and one day justice will prevail.?With your prayers and support we are able to keep this hope alive and are able also to overcome our obstacles.
Permits are one of the several ways the Israelis justify their demolition of Palestinian homes, which is common in East Jerusalem as well as the West Bank. Building permits are rarely granted to Palestinian families, though apartments rise unabated in West Jerusalem and building continues apace in the settlements. When the families go ahead and build anyway, the Israeli government calls their homes illegal and bulldozes them, charging the family for the demolition costs. It’s realized the public relations issues with this and now gives less and less notification and does the demolition in the early mornings, when there’s less chance of people seeing it or being there to protest. On some occasions they’ve demolished houses with the family inside. I saw some of these demolished houses in East Jerusalem, with newly built settler houses – again identifiable by the peaked red roofs – right beside them. Settlers have no trouble with permits.
But there are a range of other ways to justify land confiscations in the West Bank. Sometimes it’s for a nature reserve. Sometimes it’s because the family doesn’t have a written document of land title from the Ottoman period. Sometimes it’s for “security reasons”, but those security reasons don’t stop the government from being able to build a settlement on the place where Palestinian homes used to be. All the hilltops in Palestine have been taken by the Israelies for security reason (a Palestinian man involved in setting up Palestine’s telecom network discussed the problems this caused for that endeavour), and many of those now have settlements covering them. Sometimes it’s because settlements need a certain area around them as a security zone – Palestinian homes can’t be too near a settlment, so even if the Palestinians were there long before the settlement was, that means demolition. This security zone also means Palestinians can’t farm their fields or olive groves if they’re within that region. A law from the Jordanian occupation of Palestine says that land can revert to the state if it isn’t cultivated for several years – so after several years, the land within the security zone, which Palestinians aren’t permitted to farm, is claimed by the Israeli government and used to expand the settlement. The settlement then needs a new security zone, so more fields and orchards go unused and more houses and wells are demolished. And that’s how a settlement grows.
Settlement has several advantages for Israel. The simplest one is that it acquires additional land for housing its population (which had its own form of the Occupy movement over domestic socioeconomic issues, including housing), a valuable thing for a small state, particularly when much of that land can serve as commuter suburbs for Jerusalem. The second is that it renders a functional Palestinian state impossible, and ensures that the remaining Palestinian-populated areas are divided and difficult to travel between.
Creating divisions between the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and between different areas of the West Bank, has a systematic plan and a deliberate policy of the Israeli government ever since 1967 – or rather, a debate between two policies. The Allon Plan would have Israel take control of the Jordan Valley and Dead Sea shore to separate Palestinian territory from Jordan, use settlements to disconnect the West Bank from East Jerusalem, and divide the remainder of the West Bank in two through large settlements in its central areas – such as Ma’ale Adumim. The more comprehensive Sharon Plan, developed by Ariel Sharon in 1977, called for large numbers of settlements throughout the West Bank with a population of 2 million, splitting the West Bank into a substantial number of small, disconnected islands in a sea of Israeli-controlled areas. If you look at a map of West Bank Areas A (Palestinian civil and military control) and B (Palestinian civil control, Israeli military control) surrounded by C (full Israeli military control), you’ll see the resemblance. Neither of these plans involved anything resembling a viable Palestinian state.
The success of these plans is constantly visible when you travel in the Palestinian Territories. Due to having to skirt the settlements and the wall, it’s a 90-minute journey from Ramallah (north of Jerusalem) to Bethlehem (south of Jerusalem), cities about 10 miles apart. Settlements are close to cutting Ramallah off from East Jerusalem, and the major Ma’ale Adumim settlement reaches from Jerusalem to Jericho in the Jordan Valley. Last year Israel announced an expansion of Ma’ale Adumim that will cut the West Bank in half, combining with Israeli military control of the Jordan Valley to block travel between the north and south. Foreign Policy has called it “the settlement that broke the two-state solution.”
All this is a major factor in Palestinians’ conviction that Israel never intends – and never intended – to allow a Palestinian state or to cease its occupation of the lands captured in 1967. If you’re going to give up control of land, why deliberately – and at an ever-increasing rate – transfer large portions of your population into it, people who have zero interest in ever being part of a Palestinian state? The only reason is annexation, and we’ve seen that as Israeli leaders – such as Netanyahu – continuously talk about needing to draw borders in line with “facts on the ground” (ie: the large Israeli settler population) rather than according to the 1967 border.
If you want to know why the Second Intifada happened, look at settlement, and look at the Oslo Accords. The Oslo Accords were supposed to be a basis for permanent status agreements; Palestinians believed that it would, at last, end the occupation. The Accords stated that there would be a “transitional period not exceeding five years”, with the negotiations taking place within that time leading to “the implementation of Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338”. Resolution 242 calls for Israel’s withdrawal from the territories occupied in 1967. The Oslo Accords demanded much from the Palestinians (including the unequal agreement about water described above, acceptance of continued occupation in the short term, and no restrictions on settlements during the term of negotiations); the Palestinian people accepted it with the expectation that, in return, they would see an end to the occupation and the creation of their own state. The expanding pace of settlement made it increasingly clear that the Israelis had no intention of leaving; when the “deadline” for the end of the occupation was reached in 2000 and the occupation still showed no signs of ending, frustrations boiled over. I don’t defend many of the actions that were taken, but no people will tolerate a permenant state of occupation and mistreatment, nor should they be expected to do so. To the Palestinians – and frankly, to me – it looks as if they were conned: the Oslo Accords let the international community, and for a time the Palestinians, feel like progress was being made, and so bought Israel time to solidify its hold on the Occupied Territories though settlement expansion.
A poll by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research finds that over 75% of Palestinians now believe that Israel intends to annex the West Bank and either expel its population or deny them political and civil rights. This echoes what I heard when I was last in the region. Israel wouldn’t annex the West Bank as a whole – if it did, its population would become roughly 50% Jewish and 50% Palestinian, with a slight Palestinian majority. The plan outlined to me by people who had been watching the political developments was that Israel would split the significant Palestinian towns and cities off from each other by driving out most of the population of Area C, and then annex Area C. The Palestinian population of Area C is now less than half the size of the settler population there, and continually shrinking due to house and well demolitions, evictions, phyiscal attacks and destruction of olive groves by settlers, and economic pressures. Thus, annexing Area C wouldn’t require Israel to absorb (and grant civil rights to) any subtantial number of Palestinians, but would enable it to gain the majority of the land in the West Bank – and the best land, including all the Jordan Valley. It would also allow Israel to control the divided and surrounded Palestinian areas of Areas A and B, and permanently end the possibility of a Palestinian state, an entity which no Israeli leader – even Rabin, by his own admission – ever wanted in the first place.
As long as settlement continues, negotiations are a stalling tactic by Israel, not an act of good faith. They don’t need negotiations when they can get what they want – land – and avoid what they don’t want – Palestinian citizens of Israel – without negotiating. All they need is a little more time, and a little more international complacency.