Life in the West Bank

Submitted by Matthew on 17 June, 2015 - 11:54 Author: Ira Berkovic

Israeli assaults in 2009 and 2014 have foregrounded Gaza in the popular imagination of Palestine throughout the world. But the West Bank, where 2.7 million Palestinians live (compared to around 1.7 million in Gaza), is the site of daily brutalities that, while perhaps less spectacularly savage than the bombardments of Gaza, give just as clear a picture of the Israeli state’s colonial project in Palestine.

The West Bank is an area of around 5,640 sq. km. In the UN’s 1947 partition plan for Israel/Palestine, the West Bank was intended to the be the territorial core of an independent Palestinian-Arab state, but was occupied by Jordan during the 1948 war.

Since 1967, it has been occupied by Israel. In the 1993 Oslo Accords, Israel ceded limited control of certain areas of the West Bank to a Palestinian Authority, giving what Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem called “an illusion of autonomy”.

The Accords divided the West Bank into three areas — A, B, and C. Area A, where 55% of the Palestinian population lives but which comprises only 18% of land in the West Bank, was placed under the notionally full control of the Palestinian Authority. Area B, comprising around 21% of land in the West Bank, is under the “civil” control of the Palestinian Authority but remains subject to Israeli military law. Area C contains the vast majority of the West Bank’s natural resources and spaces suitable for construction and development. Control of this area was intended to be handed back to the Palestinians in 1999. Israel never honoured the agreement, using Area C to construct Jewish-only settlements, cutting the Palestinian population of the area off from the services and infrastructure of Palestinian society elsewhere in the West Bank.

In 1972, the Jewish settler population of Area C was around 1,000. Today the settler population is over 350,000. Another 400,000 live in disputed territory in East Jerusalem. In the years since the Oslo Accords, the settler population has more than doubled. Settlers make up around 4% of the Israeli electorate. Some settlements are now large enough to effectively constitute cities. The Ariel settlement has a population of nearly 19,000.

Israel’s encouragement of Jewish settlement, pursued with varying degrees of vigour depending on the political character of the government but never meaningfully confronted, is an essential means by which it retains its colonial control over Palestine and prevents the emergence of a viable Palestinian state. Even where the Palestinian Authority has control, it is prevented from much economic and social development by its exclusion from the most viable and resource-rich areas.

According to the Israeli group Peace Now, construction began on 3,100 new “residential units” in 2014. Of these, 287 began without official permission from the Israeli authorities. A substantial system of internal checkpoints (both permanent and temporary “flying checkpoints”), and, since 2002, the so-called “security fence”, sub-divide the West Bank, cutting off Palestinians from their land, or requiring them to obtain permits to travel to and from work. For a society for which agriculture has been historically integral, to be prevented from accessing land is both a severe socio-economic impediment and a form of brutalisation. The main employment options for West Bank Palestinians are to work in a public-sector job for the PA, to work on a settlement (either as a labourer in settlement construction, or in the internal industry of larger settlement towns), or to find work in Israel itself.

Around 40,000 Palestinian workers work in Israel “officially”, travelling through one of several checkpoints on the border. They arrive from 2am in order to make it to work on time (most checkpoints open at 4am). Some checkpoints are operated directly by the Israeli military but some, like the Eyal checkpoint, through which 4,500 workers pass every day, are outsourced to private security firms for fees of between $50-100m.

In December 2014, Palestinian workers using the Sha’ar Ephraim checkpoint organised a wildcat strike in protest at overcrowding and poor treatment, refusing to pass through and go to work.

They forced some concessions from the private operator which agreed to open more checking lanes to process workers more quickly (reducing queuing time, overcrowding, and meaning workers did not have to arrive as early). Things soon regressed, however, just a month later Adel Muhammad Yakoub was crushed to death at Sha’ar Ephraim due to overcrowding.

In March 2015, Israel ordered that a checkpoint outside the town of al-Sawahra al-Sharqiya, south east of Jerusalem be upgraded from a roadside sentry hut to a more substantial checkpoint, with the installation o­­f electronic gates and facilities to search individuals and vehicles.

House demolitions are also a common feature of life in the West Bank, with armoured military bulldozers routinely demolishing houses, and sometimes entire villages, either for alleged military reasons or because the houses are claimed to have violated building codes or regulations. Much social-movement activism in the West Bank centres around community opposition to these demolitions. Anti-demolition demonstrations are regularly subject to heavy repression from the IDF, with soldiers using tear gas and rubber bullets against demonstrators.

There is a domestic Palestinian economy, with a construction industry, a finance sector, retail, and more. However, with tax revenue and the flow of raw materials substantially controlled by Israel, the domestic economy is fragile and unstable. Some Palestinian towns, such as Bethlehem, benefit from tourism, due to their religious and historic significance, but checkpoints and restrictions on access make this revenue unreliable. The security sector in Palestine is growing, with 28% of the PA’s total budget allocated to security services in 2014 (up from 19% in 2013). Many believe the Fatah-run PA is building up the security sector in order to bolster itself against Hamas.

The Palestinian labour movement is largely based in the public sector. The main union federation, the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU) is Fatah-led. It is integrated into the international labour movement to a relatively high degree and has some links with the Histadrut, the main union federation in Israel. Independent labour-movement initiatives in Palestine such as the Democracy and Workers’ Rights Centre in Ramallah, or the Workers’ Advice Centre (Ma’an, which is based predominantly in Israel but has organised in the West Bank, for example at the Salit Quarry) are weak, and in great need of international solidarity. Increasingly despairing of any progress through negotiated agreements between the PA and Israel (or, indeed, between the Fatah-led PA and the Hamas-led administration in Gaza), or of any social upheaval either internally or in Israel, much of Palestinian civil society, and much (although not all) of the labour movement, now looks to various forms of boycott as the only means to pressure Israel.

For the past six months, daily life for Palestinians in the West Bank was largely defined by the consequences of a freeze by Israel in December 2014 of the transfer of tax funds to the Palestinian Authority. Tax collected by Israel on behalf of the PA accounts for around 66% of the PA budget, at around $120m per month. Israel froze the funds to punish the PA for having the temerity to make a limited push towards independent statehood, including joining the International Criminal Court. For the 60% of West Bank Palestinians who work in the public sector, the financial crisis meant a de facto months-long pay cut, with workers paid at only around 60% of their full pay. Palestinian teachers’ unions held a one-day protest strike against the non-payment of wages. With workers less able to purchase goods, the freeze also had a knock-on effect into private-sector industry. As well as wage freezes, various infrastructure and construction projects, such as road rebuilding, were suspended. The freeze was finally lifted in late March 2015, shortly after the Israeli elections.

Israel’s strategy has been to prevent the development of anything that might form the basis of a viable Palestinian state. The West Bank is a quintessential colony, criss-crossed with military checkpoints and divided by a wall, where the indigenous population must obtain permits from the occupying power to work, travel, study, or access land, and where their options for finding work consist either in working for a domestic administration beholden to the occupier for its tax revenue; working in Israel, necessitating the daily exhaustion and humiliation of passage through an overcrowded checkpoint; or working on a settlement. The effect is to systematically grind down the Palestinians’ basic sense of human dignity and national consciousness; after all, if working on a settlement is the only way to feed one’s family, how can the settlements be opposed?

Ending the Israeli colonisation of the West Bank, and its siege of Gaza, are prerequisite foundations for any lasting settlement in the region: dismantling the checkpoints, tearing down the wall, and restoring Palestinian access to the land and resources necessary to establish a viable domestic economy.

Socialists have a duty of basic solidarity to those struggling against the daily effects of that colonisation — the anti-demolition movement, Palestinian human rights and refugee aid organisations, and the labour movement.

Fatah is a nationalist political party which leads the Palestine Liberation Organisation.

It was founded by activists in Palestinian diaspora in 1959, and formally constituted as a political party in 1965. Historically its roots are in radical and leftish secular nationalism.

It leads the Palestinian National Authority in the West Bank and is substantially enmeshed with the semi-state that exists there. It is the subject of widespread allegations of corruption. Since 2006/2007, it has been engaged in a bitter and bloody conflict with Hamas, the far-right Islamist party linked to the Muslim Brotherhood which has a strong base in Gaza.

In June 2014, Fatah made a deal with Hamas that led to the constitution of a “unity government”, involving both parties, in Gaza.

A substantial social upheaval inside Israel itself will be essential to any progressive settlement in the region. Currently, left-wing, internationalist, anti-racist forces within Israel are weak and embattled.

Around 5,000 Israelis demonstrated in Tel Aviv against “Operation Protective Edge”, the Israeli assault on Gaza in July 2014. Demonstrations have also taken place against racist attacks on African migrants. Both demonstration were subject to physical attacks from right wingers.

Gush Shalom, the “Peace Bloc”, is perhaps the best known and most well-established anti-occupation organisation in Israel. Other groups, like Anarchists Against The Wall and the Israeli Coalition Against House Demolitions, are also active. There is a long tradition of refusal to serve in the army (national service is compulsory and refusal is punishable with imprisonment), with networks of organisations which exist to support refusers.

The mainstream union federation, the Histadrut, has policy in favour of an independent Palestine, and has links with the PGFTU, but is tied to the Labor Party which has been complicit in the oppression of the Palestinians during periods in government.

There is a small milieu of independent workers' organisations, such as the Workers' Advice Centre (WAC/Ma'an) and Koch La'Oved which aim to organise workers marginalised by the mainstream unions, and seek to unite Jewish and Arab workers in common organisations.

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