David Broder interviewed John Strawson about the restrictions on movement and other daily struggles for the Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank. John Strawson is a lecturer at the University of East London and also teaches at Birzeit University in the West Bank.
What is Israel doing to change the status of its checkpoints in the Occupied Territories?
It’s moving to make them permanent, in my opinion. They say that they are making them permanent, but that is making life easier for Palestinians, moving between checkpoints. What they’re actually doing is alternating them. So whereas now you have soldiers who check papers manually, the idea is now to have swipe cards. And of course, by creating the infrastructure for that kind of technology, you’re creating places which will look increasingly like the terminals in airports.
At the biggest checkpoint, at Qalandiya between Jerusalem and Ramallah, as you go into Ramallah, they’ve cleared an enormous area. It’s clear that they want to make this a permanent arrangement. I suspect they’re trying to make the West Bank a site which is going to be divided between Israel and the Palestinians as part of the disengagement plans.
It seems to me the idea is to disengage in Gaza and build the wall in the West Bank — you literally wall the Palestinians in, probably with the Palestinians living in somewhere in the region of 50% of the West Bank. Probably, Ariel Sharon will try to sell this to the international community as the Palestinian state.
Is this to facilitate a military occupation of the Palestinian territories?
Partly, yes, it’s a security question. It is creating and maintaining the military dominance of Israel over the Palestinians. So, in a sense, it is perpetrating the occupation. If you go right back to the 80s, Sharon’s original position was the hope that Israel would conquer and entirely integrate all of the West Bank and Gaza into a Greater Israel. He wanted to put pressure on the Palestinians, to make life there unpleasant so that they would leave. But what Sharon has realised is that even though life there is now really quite intolerable for Palestinians, the Palestinians are not leaving. And he’s realised that, particularly since the Kosova war, the international community will no longer allow ethnic cleansing on a massive scale. Therefore he’s decided that the best thing you can do is to create the smallest and weakest Palestinian state possible.
Weak in the sense that it is discontinuous in territory, weak in the sense that it’ll have not many powers, and weak in the sense that it’ll look a humiliated state by being behind a wall. There’s plans to build not just a wall to the west, between Israel and the Palestinian territories, but also in the east between Jordan and the Palestinian territories. Gaza is already behind a wall. So you can see that’s what emerging is the idea of containing Palestinians into this area and then announcing to the international community that there is no partner for peace.
Mahmoud Abbas will probably be regarded not as evil like Arafat but as weak. They [the Americans] want to deliver, particularly if Hamas does well in the next elections. Therefore, so the argument will go, you can’t discuss with Abbas, not because he’s bad, but because he’s weak.
What Sharon has wanted, I would say now for two years, is to create a unilateral situation in which Israel can impose a "solution" upon the Palestinians which will mean grabbing about 40-50% of the West Bank and incorporating it into Israel.
This is making life very difficult for Palestinians, but is it also making it very difficult for academics in the Occupied Territories to operate normally?
Yes, life is not normal. Simple journeys, going to universities, going to work, are something you can’t predict. Since 2000, the disruption just to go to your place of work has been either by Israeli permit checkpoints, by temporary checkpoints or by roadblocks - digging up roads - meaning you can’t actually drive across. And for a long time in order to go to from Ramallah to the university, which is a ten-minute journey by car, you had to walk for about 300 metres because the Israelis had disrupted the road. That makes life very difficult, and sometimes they’d just close it altogether.
If a Palestinian academic wants to go abroad to a conference — a simple thing — they have to apply to the Palestinian Authority for a permit to go through Israel, either to go to Ben Gurion airport, or to go to Jordan. In order to get the permit, the Palestinian Authority security has to ask the Israelis if they will agree to give the permit. Often the situation is that the permit comes too late for you to actually book the ticket. If you can’t go to Ben Gurion airport you have to go overland via Jericho, which is part of the Palestinian Authority and cross the Allenby bridge.
For many Palestinians this is a journey which would take at least seven hours, maybe even longer, and you have to budget for longer — and it’s a journey which if you just went by car would take an hour and a half maximum.
I often invite Palestinian academics to come to Britain. And I know I’m not giving them a freebie, but a terrible thing to do. Whereas if I’m invited to go to the United States I think “how nice, wonderful”... for Palestinians it’s completely different. They think about everything in a quite different way because of the sense of being isolated and trapped in these cities — because of the checkpoints and because of the way in which life is organised. It’s a profoundly difficult experience.
Have academic come out with any concerted response to the increasing repression?
There’s two types of response. There’s a political response in which I think academics have behaved like other sectors of Palestinian society. There’s different responses depending on which political movement you support.
There’s a Communist party, there’s a Socialist Party, there’s the Islamic response and so on. Palestinian academics have behaved almost like the rest of society — they’ll divide between different factions.
And there is a more practical response also. What I find extraordinary is that Palestinian academics and academic administrators have continued in developing academic programmes. Quite exciting academic programmes. Launching new courses. Building new buildings within universities. The library at Birzeit has just doubled in size, for example. A new sports facility has been built; an institute of law has been built; a faculty of law is planned to be built for undergraduate students. There are a whole series of activities, which is very surprising. And research and development continues apace.
One of the problems with research at Palestinian universities is that its funding is very donor-driven. So you are dependent upon USAID, the World Bank, the European Union. Academics have a quite different relationship to funding than they might have in other societies. That’s because the Palestinian authority has itself no money.
This might begin to change with the G8 plan which is to donate $3 billion to the Palestinian authority every year for the next 5 years. If that happens, maybe the situation of funding might improve because the Palestinian Authority might have more money.
Is the building of new facilities an act of defiance against the Israeli occupation?
It is defiance but don’t forget that the development of research is often very much connected to the “Roadmap” initiative. The donors often want you to carry out their plan. So for instance the American Greater Middle East Initiative is aimed at promoting to democracy, and that is linked into the enforced reform programme for the Palestinian Authority. Therefore a lot of research in social science subjects is linked to this reform program. So research is quite connected to United States foreign policy, because the US have the money. And the same thing with the European Union.
So it’s very contradictory; that while Palestinian academics might be able to engage in research, the research which they’re engaged in is not so much individual research — a decision which they have made in order to carry out their interest — but a decision which is forced on them. Basically contract research, is your only option for doing any research at all.
Are academics in the Occupied Territories looking to socialists and progressive forces abroad to show solidarity and how shall we do that?
The worst thing in Palestine is the sense of isolation. Before the Oslo agreement, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, if they wanted to go to Tel Aviv to the beach, they could just get in their car and drive. Now if you want to leave Ramallah and go to Nablus you have to go through all these checkpoints. So many people stay in their towns and cities because travelling is just such a trauma.
I experienced this — I didn’t go to Jerusalem for four years and when I was flying in and out I was going directly to Ramallah and it didn’t seem possible - psychologically possible — to leave, even though I could with my shiny British passport. It’s a circle of mentality which rose up.
Al people outside of Palestine can conceive of ways of making links and relationships which relieve this sense of isolation. That is why I think going to Palestine is extremely important and being involved with Palestinian activities is very important. Going to a university, or a health project, housing projects, agricultural... that in my view is extremely important. Also, making political contacts with fractions and groups and trends with which you think you have something in common.