For Palestinians, Life Is Without Horizon or Hope

Decades of Israeli bans on the freedom of movement of Palestinians have nullified and chopped up the dwindling expanse in which they live in the West Bank and Gaza.

Palestinian women sit on the floor of a bus terminal in Jericho July 14, 2002.
Palestinian women sit on the floor of a bus terminal in Jericho July 14, 2002 as they wait to cross the border into Jordan via the Allenby Bridge. Reuters / Haaretz Archive

Bisected, chopped-up, sealed-off expanses; drawn-out, evaporating, lost time. This is a précis of the past 24 years, albeit an unfinished précis because reality in the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and the Gaza Strip teaches us that the expanse of the Palestinians continues to shrink and to be sliced up, and the time they need to move from one fragment of that expanse to the other continues to lengthen, to be wasted, to disappear within a quasi-Soviet bureaucracy of prohibitions and permits.

Until the late 1980s, the Israeli settlements seemed to be scattered enclaves in a continuous Palestinian territory that was on path to becoming a state alongside Israel. In the past quarter-century, however, that tapestry has flipped onto the other side, its colors reversed: Now it is the enclaves that are Palestinian, swallowed up by and obscured within the pan-Israeli territory that stretches from sea to river.

The starting point for the 1991 Madrid talks was that of reversible Israeli enclaves in the territory occupied in 1967. Now the starting point, and the point of no return, in any negotiation is the Palestinian “reservations.” The longer the Palestinians delay before saying yes to Israel’s never-ending conditions, the more these reservations will proliferate in number and shrink in size.

Thanks to the occupation of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank in 1967, Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line Green Line resumed life together as a single people, in an expanse that stretched from the sea to the river. Family and friendly relations that had been cut off 19 years earlier were revived, and new ones were forged. Villages that had been splintered and torn apart were reunified. The heartbreak over the homes and fields lost in 1948 did not fade, even grew stronger. But all the same, life began to flow in the open and shared expanse – one controlled, though, by a hostile government. And in this expanse the Palestinians grew familiar with Israeli society, and had a chance to see that it was not artificial and transitory, as they had previously believed.

Palestinians from all over the country met in those years in the universities and colleges in the West Bank. Military directives hindered development

of the economy there and in the Gaza Strip, but did permit work in Israel. Wages were low, and Israeli employers were happy to exploit the Palestinian workers – but, nevertheless, the financial situation of tens of thousands of families (primarily from Gaza and the villages and refugee camps of the West Bank) improved. This freedom of movement created opportunities of relative freedom of choice, despite the occupation.

All this came to an end due to a single military decree. A widespread optical illusion attributes the loss of the expanse and the freedom of movement to the formation of the Palestinian Authority, to the Oslo Accords. But that isn’t the case: The decisive turnaround occurred in January 1991, on the eve of the Gulf War. Orders signed by the generals (from both the Israel Defense Forces Central Command and Southern Command) revoked previous military orders dating to the 1970s, which gave the Palestinians a “general permit” to leave the West Bank and Gaza, and enter Israel. All Palestinians, except for a few individuals, enjoyed freedom of movement.

In 1991, everything changed: Israel denied and has continued to deny ever since freedom of movement to all Palestinians – except for certain categories of people and a varying number of individuals, who receive permits to move in and throughout Israel. But they are the exceptions.

The Gaza Strip as an enclave is fenced off and under permanent surveillance today. It has become the prototype, which has been replicated in the West Bank in several versions, of smaller dimensions. Sparsely populated settlements in the Strip were dismantled in 2005, in exchange for particularly draconian conditions of imprisonment. The natural links between Gaza and the West Bank have increasingly unraveled, to the point of practically complete disconnection.

The extent to which the expanse and the freedom to move through it had had clear advantages for the Palestinians was only grasped by them after their expanse was blocked, sealed and sliced up into population clusters that were almost totally severed from one another, and became reservations closed off by roadblocks manned by armed Israelis, reinforced by fences, walls, IDF bases, security zones, firing areas and a burgeoning number of Jewish settlements.

Pockets of poverty

As of June 2014, the Palestinians are living in dozens of panopticons (i.e., closed facilities in which a guard is able to watch all of the inmates simultaneously) of different sizes, surrounded by sophisticated fences equipped with firing devices, control and oversight mechanisms, video cameras, and real and imagined surveillance. Unemployment, poverty, limitation of freedom of choice and perpetual fear of being shot are the natural by-products of this situation.

The regime of movement restrictions and movement permits made the expanse shrink and nullified its greatest part (e.g., the territory of the State of Israel plus Area C, that part of the occupied territories which is under exclusive Israeli control). The remaining expanse of the West Bank is chopped up by roads running the width and the length of the land, for the benefit of Jews alone, while the areas under settlements’ jurisdiction keep growing, further closing in on Palestinian panopticons.

East Jerusalem, for its part, was torn away from the West Bank in March 1993, when the 1991 movement restrictions started to be implemented there. It continues to undergo a process of disintegration into pockets of poverty, encompassed by rings of Jewish settlements (known as “neighborhoods”). The genuine threat, often being realized, of revoking Palestinians’ residency status (a threat introduced in 1995 as a binding directive under Haim Ramon, the then interior minister of the Labor Meretz coalition) has created a fabric of unseen but impassable walls and fences around the Palestinian residents.

To move between the enclaves of the West Bank one does not need an Israeli permit, but to do so, Palestinian motorists must travel along secondary roads that skirt Area C and the settlements, and pass between army positions, which exacts a much higher cost in terms of both time and fuel than taking a direct route. Entering Israel now includes hours and days spent waiting for approval (which is often not granted), and lengthy and humiliating inspections at checkpoints.

The Allenby Bridge, which is under Israeli control and is the sole exit for Palestinians residing in the West Bank, is a nightmarish punishment camp for hundreds of thousands of persons each year – one that includes long hours of waiting and inspection, unexpected closures, humiliation and condescending attitudes on the part of lower-ranking officials, and the fear of being shot by an IDF soldier.

Entry and exit possibilities from the mass detention facility that is called the Gaza Strip are practically nil, and for those who reside in this densely packed area, life is a test of dragged-out time that stretches into days and years, of constrained space that lacks any horizon, objective or meaning. Time – a vital and limited resource – is also controlled by Israel, and it evaporates and is wasted within and between the closed Palestinian territories. Its forced purposelessness is an affront to the human dignity of the Palestinians.

Palestinians who are citizens of Israel enjoy relative freedom of movement that their brethren do not have. But they live in a similar tapestry of dense enclaves, whose land reserves have been expropriated for the sake and benefit of Jews. This is a fabric of master-minded strangulation and suffocation, on either side of the Green Line, that generates prolonged trauma.

There are two contradictory but complementary remedies to this trauma: One is the growing accommodation to life within an enclave, clinging to an illusion of sovereignty and freedom from the occupier, which ends within a radius or two from one’s home. The second remedy is the dream and vision of a return of the entire expanse to Palestinian hands.

When we speak of renewal of the negotiations and the 20th anniversary of Oslo, we must not ignore this trauma-invoking map, in all its colors, stains, spots, bypass roads and bypass-of-bypass roads. The tapestry of scattered Palestinian points was not weaved on its own.

It is not masked, unidentified robbers who are stealing the Palestinians’ time and expanse, but the State of Israel and its institutions, and behind them, flesh-and-blood human beings. This is not a coincidental continuum of events, but an intentional and calculated process, whose engineers excelled at camouflaging it with the label “peace process.”