Back in the West Bank (part II)

Posted: August 16th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: this is personal, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , | 3 Comments »

It’s been nine years since my previous military service in the West Bank. Back than, I promised myself that it was the last time I took such an active part in the occupation, but I didn’t keep my word. In the last three weeks I have been stationed in a small base in the Jordan Valley area, north of Jericho. I have a few more days to go. In my previous post I discussed the reason that brought me there. Now I’d like to report some of the things I’ve seen and learned.

The first thing one notices upon returning to the WB are the increased limitations on the Palestinians’ lives. When I was called to the territories for the first time, in 1993, Palestinians traveled freely into and out of the West Bank. During the Oslo days, the WB and Gaza were sealed. Now, after the second Intifada, Palestinians can’t even travel freely between their own towns and villages (though some of the roadblocks were removed recently). Most Palestinians are not allowed to use highway 90, going along the Jordan Valley, and some other main roads as well. The result is that on the West Bank Highways, you only see cars with the yellow Israeli license plates.

There are, however, exceptions. Some Palestinian Authority officials are allowed to pass through roadblocks. Others have permits to work at a certain settlements, or inside Israel, on the other side of the Green Line. Some live near the major highways, so they are issued a special permit to use certain roads which are normally reserved for Israelis. All this leads to an incredibly bureaucratic system of permits and approval, issued and renewed every few months by the army and with the supervision of the Shin Beit (the powerful internal security bureau). In most roadblocks and checkpoints one can find thick leaflets explaining the rights granted to the Palestinians by every permit. And when the permits are not enough, each Palestinian is registered on the IDF computer, so it’s possible to check where he is allowed to be, if he can use a specific “Israelis only” road, where can he work, etc.

This complicated system is operated, at ground level, by 20 years old kids or by reservists on units such as mine. Some of them are “nicer” to the local population, some are crueler, most of them are simply indifferent. I don’t think this is because they are bad people, but rather because of the nature of the work: the soldiers are standing on their posts for hours, as hundreds of people are passing by. The basic orders they are given is to be watchful and always look for suspects. The system of permits and approvals is getting even more complicated when it meets real life situations: a man with a valid permit accompanying a sick father with no approval. An old woman with no papers. A man whose papers just expired. A patient driving to get medical treatment.

All these cases and incidents which happen every day in real life are now subjected to the good will and judgment of the soldier at the roadblock, who is bored, anxious and untrusting towards the Palestinians (having left with no other choice, some Palestinian try to cheat their way through checkpoints). This soldier can let the people pass or send them back. Occasionally he just let them wait, while he checks the situation with his superiors. This can take hours. For the Palestinian, there is no appealing authority on the ground. The soldiers’ decision is as final as it is arbitrary. Trying to argue might end up with an arrest – but in most cases, it just leads to a heated debate, followed by some more angry orders from the soldiers, sometimes even beating or mockery.

It is clear that not only Israelis are among those who benefit from the whole situation. You always have your middlemen, those who smuggle goods and people, those with contacts who can sort problems, etc. The difference between the Palestinians who work for the PA to the common people is evident. Standing on a roadblock, one sees businessmen and officials driving expensive cars and talking on brand new phones. Sometimes, you can spot the tension between officials and common Palestinians. One night, during a regular patrol mission, we came across two cars standing near the road – a new BMW and a taxi. The BMW belonged to a Palestinian officer. In the Taxi was a young Palestinian couple, going back home from a night in town. The officer was angry, possibly drunk. He claimed the couple “acted suspiciously”, so he followed them out of town and asked for their papers. The couple claimed he was harassing them. We checked both their papers with HQ – it took about an hour – and when everything seemed in order, we told all three of them as well as the taxi driver they could leave. But the couple wouldn’t go – they were afraid the officer would wait for them a few miles down the road, to make them pay not only for their previous behavior, but also for the humiliation of being detained by the army because of them.

You get to see these kind of stories everyday in the West Bank. It leads me to something I always have problems explaining: that the true cruelty of the Israeli occupation doesn’t lay in it’s murderous nature – because there are far more murderous regimes on earth, let alone in history – but in the way it controls and limits the everyday life of the Palestinians, reducing them to not much more than survival. Forty years of occupation, plus two violent outbursts, resulted in a world  where the very foundations of justice – such as the right to equal treatment by the law – no longer valid. They are replaced by the good (or ill) will of the authority you meet, be it the soldier at the roadblock or the Palestinian official. In those encounters, sometimes you get lucky, sometimes you don’t, and whatever the result is, there is almost nowhere to appeal. It is what some philosophers called a “bare existence” or a “bare life”, where man is stripped out of every protection or right the modern society was intended to provide him with.

To survive in this situation, it seemed to me that the Palestinians created a strong sense of community. A few days ago we came across a Palestinian car that was stuck with a flat tire. There wasn’t a car that passed on this road and didn’t stop to offer help. Soon, there were four or five of them standing in line on the side of the road. It wasn’t the first time I saw this kind of behavior. It seems that every time a Palestinian got into trouble, everyone around was there for him.

To sum it all up, the West Bank today is truly a de-facto Apartheid. Israelis and Palestinians are more separated than ever. The settlements – most of them sitting on mountain tops, while the Arab villages and cities are build in the valleys – are protected by high walls and electric fences. The Israelis use separate roads. They don’t wait at check points. They enjoy western services and living conditions. It is actually possible, even easy, for the ordinary settler, let alone the Israeli living in Tel Aviv, not to see the poverty and despair of the millions around. Even the soldiers’ contact with the Palestinians is very limited. This is a result of the Oslo accord and the second Intifada. Unlike in the past, the army rarely enters the Palestinian towns. The soldiers are sitting in armed vehicles or bunkers and concrete towers, giving orders to the locals from afar, sometimes by speakers. Even the soldiers on the checkpoints are wearing bullet proof vests and are instructed to limit their contact with the population to the minimum, to avoid the dangers of surprise stabbing or suicide attacks. So it is getting harder and harder for them to see the Palestinians as real people (and most of them don’t even try).

Where does all this lead to? Compared to what’s happening now, the occupation in the 90′s seems much more “human”, and the situation in the 70′s and 80′s, when Palestinians could drive to Tel Aviv and Israelis came to shop in the West Bank, seems almost ideal. One can easily understand why both sides are so disappointed with the peace process, which only won them pain and troubles. But even if things seem desperate at the moment – and there is certainly no end in sight – I still think this whole system of the occupation is unsustainable. Israel can go on building  fences and walls, adding check points and high-tech monitoring systems (the army has long distance cameras watching all Palestinian towns), but it will only make the absurdity of the matter more evident. You can’t run a western style democracy and hold millions of people in your back yard as prisoners at the same time. The contradiction is too evident, and the whole project is too demanding. Something will have to give.

3 Comments on “Back in the West Bank (part II)”

  1. 1 Mo-ha-med said at 5:31 pm on August 16th, 2009:

    “and the situation in the 70’s and 80’s, when Palestinians could drive to Tel Aviv and Israelis came to shop in the West Bank, seems almost ideal.”

    Is it just me or does that sound like a one-state solution?

  2. 2 Fong said at 12:18 pm on August 19th, 2009:

    Perhaps the Palestinians should have thought about that before they waged the recent terror war. Actually, I fault people like you more than I fault the Palestinians. If I were Yasser Arafat and was reading Haaretz in 1998-2000, I too would conclude that Israel was on the verge of collapse, and would not have bothered to negotiate with Israel. Why make a concession by recognizing Israel’s borders when you can have all of Palestine with a little violence. People like you gave hope to the most radical of Palestinian irredentism

  3. 3 daria shualy said at 1:56 pm on August 19th, 2009:

    I feel so ashamed to be an Israeli Jew. The fact is, of course, that we as a society are severely punished for our terrible crime; for the occupation has turned us in to an increasingly violent and indifferent society, and the flat tire incident is a very good test case.
    Israel used to be a place where if a person had a flat tire, dozens would stop to help. This was still true even 12 years ago.

    But about a year ago, a biker crashed in a busy intersection, and no one stopped.

    A few weeks ago, a women drown in the Yarkon stream, and until one by-passer jumped to the rescue, the rest just stood there and watched.

    A few days ago, a man was murdered on the beach, for no reason at all.

    Our crimes against the Palestinians are eating us from within, and they will continue until we become moral again, and see the other side for what it is – human, and deserving.