Separate and Unequal on the West Bank
By Amira Hass, The New York Times, 2 September 2001
RAMALLAH, West Bank— From my living room window in Ramallah, a Palestinian city, I see the lights of the Israeli settlement Pesagot on the opposite mountain. Across the eastern road of my neighborhood, there is an Israeli military base, protecting another settlement, Beit El. Had I wanted, as an Israeli Jew, born in West Jerusalem, I could have moved at any moment to any of these settlements. My Palestinian next-door neighbors in Ramallah, whose grandparents were born in what is now Israel, could not even think of moving to, say, Tel Aviv.

There is no way to understand the current Palestinian uprising without examining the moral, economic and social reality that Israeli settlement policy has created in the last 34 years.

Since the 1967 war, Israeli governments — both Labor and Likud — have built settlements all over the occupied West Bank and the small Gaza Strip, in the midst of Arab-Palestinian communities that are centuries old. About 390,000 settlers now live in the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and in Gaza. The construction and development of these outposts have essentially allowed Israel to create the infrastructure of one state, stretching from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River. Israel's governments have determined the overall character of these lands and the fate of their people while the three million Palestinians who live there and have paid taxes to Israel's Treasury could not vote for these governments. Yet Israeli Jews in the settlements have the right to vote.

A network of large, well-maintained roads now connects Israeli outposts — even the smallest and most remote ones — to Israel proper. While Israelis can at any time move to the West Bank or Gaza, Palestinians are not allowed to live legally in an Israeli city or settlement, even if this settlement is built upon their family land.

From the river to the sea, within the contours of what is now de facto one state governed by Israel, live some 4 million Palestinians. These people are classified in three different categories: One million of them are Israeli citizens, who live within Israel's 1967 borders and who have the right to vote. Some 200,000 Palestinians are residents of East Jerusalem, which was annexed to Israel's West Jerusalem in 1967. They could become Israeli citizens, but most have refused, claiming that they live in an occupied territory and they are a population discriminated against by foreign rule.

Finally, there are the 2.8 million Palestinians who live in the territories that Israel took over in 1967 and to which Israel has allocated very low sums, if any, for public infrastructure improvements.

The result: Alongside the flourishing, green and ever-expanding Israeli- Jewish outposts — well maintained by Israeli policies and laws — is a Palestinian society subject to the rule of military orders and restrictions, its dense communities (including those in East Jerusalem) squeezed into small areas, served by miserably maintained roads and an insufficient water supply system.

With the Oslo accords and the establishment of self-rule under the Palestinian Authority, one hoped these immense inequalities might be repaired or, at the very least, that the conditions of the West Bank and Gaza would no longer be determined exclusively by an occupying government. Yet during the last seven years, Israel continued to determine major aspects of Palestinian life, like access to land and water and freedom of movement. The Palestinian self-rule enclaves are encircled by vast Israeli-controlled areas and cannot develop without Israeli permits for activities like building water pipelines and new schools, upgrading a road or building a gas station. To this day, the same military organ — the civil administration, an agent of Israeli government policies in the West Bank — prohibits Palestinian construction and planting and at the same time continues to develop Israeli outposts in the very same territory.

Access to water is a glaring example of inequality. Since 1967 Israel has controlled water resources and distribution in the West Bank and Gaza. This has resulted in a striking difference in per capita domestic consumption of water by Israelis and Palestinians — an average of 280 liters per day versus 60 to 90 liters per day. No Israeli settler needs to worry about running out of water, while thousands living in Palestinian towns and villages have no running water for days at a stretch during summer. When there is no running water in our building, I drive to Jerusalem to fill my water bottles and to do my laundry. My neighbors would need a permit to enter Jerusalem.

Any Israeli may travel freely at any time — abroad and in the entire country. Any Palestinian needs an Israeli- issued travel permit to move from Gaza to the West Bank, or from these territories to Israel. Only a minority get such permits. And Israel also determines who will pass through the external borders, which it controls. My friends in Gaza missed a whole semester of studies at Bir Zeit University near Ramallah because they did not receive travel permits on time. No Israeli settler in Gaza would face this problem.

Israelis and Palestinians are in a single geographic state controlled by one government, but they live under two separate and unequal systems of rights and laws.

Palestinians wanted to believe that this unequal state of affairs would end or diminish with the Oslo accords. Instead, the number of settlers in the West Bank (not including East Jerusalem) has doubled in the past decade — the years of the peace talks — and the slow pace of Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank (and the total halt during the years of the Barak government) has left Palestinians trapped in small, scattered enclaves, making urban and rural development in Palestinian areas nearly impossible.

The offer made by Ehud Barak at Camp David kept intact the largest Israeli settlements and their connecting roads. That offer would have split Palestinian territory into four cantons. My acquaintances in a nearby refugee camp, just opposite the Beit El settlement, sensed that there would be no real end to Israeli domination over their lives and future.

Anger has accumulated in every Palestinian heart — over the scarce water, over each demolished Palestinian house, over the daily humiliation of waiting for a travel permit from an Israeli officer. A small match can cause this anger to explode, and in this past year, it has.

Amira Hass, the correspondent for Haaretz in the Palestinian territories, is author of "Drinking the Sea at Gaza.''

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