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Apartheid, Israeli-style.

On March 30, in response to some of the highest levels of Arab-Jewish violence since the Palestinian uprising began, the Israeli government sealed off the West Bank and Gaza Strip, barring 130,000 Palestinians from their jobs inside Israel. Closures of this sort are not new, especially in the more troubled Gaza Strip, where in recent months they have become a way of life. This one was precipitated by the death, in March alone, of fifteen Israelis, many of whom were killed not in Gaza, Ramallah or Nablus but in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. That twenty-eight Palestinians died at the hands of the Israeli Army during the same period was of no comparative consequence. Since the closure, the level of violence within Israel proper has fallen markedly, and the hysteria that so gripped the Jewish population has largely subsided. Israelis are content with the new status quo, even though on May 23 Israel's Finance Minister reported that the closure was costing the country's economy an estimated 1 percent of G.N.P.

The renewed sense of security among Israelis has no doubt been buoyed by the proposed termination of the Arab boycott of companies that do business with Israel, and Saudi King Fahd's call for peace with the Jewish state. There is also considerable optimism regarding the Middle East peace talks, particularly as a formal agreement with Jordan seems near. Even high-ranking officials in the U.S. State Department, in recent meetings with United Nations representatives, expressed their belief that it was just a matter of time before the peace talks produced a viable solution acceptable to all parties.

The hopefulness of the Israelis and Americans is, for Palestinians, an illusion, what Voltaire called "the mania of maintaining that all is well when we are wretched." The closure has effectively separated the occupied territories into four areas: the north and south of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. The segmentation of the territories into increasingly isolated parts, coupled with near total prohibitions on entry into Israel, has paralyzed the Palestinian economy. The Palestinian work force has suffered the greatest damage. Just prior to the sealing of the territories, approximately 100,000 West Bankers, or close to 50 percent of the labor force (an increase from 30 percent in 1987), were dependent upon work in Israel. For many villages, border areas and refugee camps, close to 80 percent of local workers relied solely on employment across the green line. The dependence on Israel became particularly acute after the Gulf War, when external resources - remittances from the Persian Gulf countries and financial support from the Palestine Liberation Organization - ended.

The situation in the Gaza Strip is even more extreme, given its historical and inordinate dependence on work inside Israel. Prior to the intifada, 80,000 Gazans out of a total workforce of 120,000 were employed across the border, primarily in construction and agriculture. This figure had fallen to approximately 50,000 just before the crisis in the gulf, and to around 30,000 by March of this year, as a result of restrictions imposed by the Israeli government as a form of collective punishment. There has been no concomitant increase in domestic employment. This coupled with gross financial losses incurred since the gulf crisis dealt a severe blow to Gaza's economy. The closure in March, however, may have inflicted the final blow. By mid-May, 26,000 construction and agriculture workers from the West Bank and Gaza Strip combined received permits to enter Israel, but only 15,500 actually made it to work, an 88 percent drop in less than two months. By the end of June the situation had improved only slightly. International observers counted 15,900 Gazans and between 25,000 and 30,000 West Bankers crossing into Israel to work. But the closure has been extended indefinitely.

According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the West Bank is losing $2 million per day in wages alone, and the Gaza Strip $750,000, a major hit to economies that were already impoverished. The loss of wage income in Israel (until 1988, 30 percent of the West Bank's G.N.P. and close to 50 percent of Gaza's) has sent spasms through the rest of the economy. Personal savings have been virtually depleted, especially since an average worker has, at any given time, the equivalent of only one month's salary saved. Food purchases, and therefore personal consumption, have fallen dramatically. Sales of red meat have dropped by 70 to 90 percent, forcing many shops out of business. Overall food purchases (except for basic commodities) have declined by 50 to 70 percent despite plummeting prices for many food items, which are now flooding local markets due to blanket export restrictions imposed at the time of the closures. In Gaza, for example, where farmers are unable to market their produce outside the Strip, two weeks into the closure the price of eggplant had dropped by 50 percent, green peppers by 55 percent, tomatoes by 65 percent, cucumbers by 81 percent and squash by 90 percent.

People are rapidly running out of money. Sales of "luxury" items such as clothing have declined by almost 90 percent. Jewelers report that the resale of gold jewelry, an important source of savings, has jumped from three or four sales per month to as many as five or six transactions a day. Individuals desperate for cash are also selling television sets, radios, VCRs and other appliances (in addition to secondhand cars) at well below cost, thus driving the prices for those items into the ground. Falling prices combined with a collapsing credit system, the absence of markets and continued taxation are in turn forcing more and more businesses, both retail and wholesale, into bankruptcy. UNRWA officials report that they are overwhelmed by impossible requests for employment and emergency relief. In Gaza, where conditions are far more acute, such requests began pouring in even before the closure. In the fall of 1992 the UNRWA field office in Gaza advertised eight jobs for garbage collectors and received more than 11,000 applications. Many of the applicants had a post-secondary education. This past May the West Bank municipality of Tulkarm advertised for several day laborers and, within four hours of posting, received 700 applications.

Hunger, which first appeared as a problem in the occupied territories more than two years ago, is spreading. By June 1991, in the aftermath of the Gulf War, UNRWA was already distributing emergency food rations to 120,000 refugees and non-refugee families in the Gaza Strip and to 165,000 families in the West Bank. Although there has not been a need in the past to distribute food rations on a regular (as opposed to emergency) basis even in the more impoverished Gaza Strip, this appears to be changing. The number of people now in immediate need of food assistance has never been higher, and the long-term consequences, particularly for young children, are devastating. UNRWA's medical experts recently stated that if the closure continues without immediate relief assistance, "there will be a rise in the incidence of growth retardation among children under three years of age. This means that there will be more children suffering from malnutrition and as this is closely associated with child and infant mortality rates, there could be an increase in child deaths."

On my last trip to Gaza, in January, teachers in UNRWA schools told me that more and more of their students eat only one meal a day - a bread sandwich with crushed pepper or thyme added for flavor. The faces of many children appeared hollow and lifeless with malnourishment, robbed of all dynamism. The closure has worsened conditions greatly. For the first time since the Israeli occupation began, the specter of widespread hunger and severe malnutrition looms over the Palestinian community.

What is happening in the occupied territories at present represents a stark departure from even the most recent past. Israeli claims of a benign or humane occupation, always a dissemblance, are now so transparently false that even the government has ceased making them. No longer are the people under occupation in need of ad hoc assistance, having temporarily lost their income due to curfew or other "short-lived" punitive measures. Rather, for the first time since 1967, a large and growing number of people in the Gaza Strip and West Bank have permanently lost their jobs, their sole means of income, with absolutely no alternative or compensation in sight. To Israelis closure means complete-separation - a misnomer, since Jewish settlers have free access to the West Bank and Gaza. To Palestinians closure is a form of apartheid, segregation in its most bitter and destructive form. Israeli author Meron Benvenisti said recently:

This is apartheid, complete with a pass system. The Arabs are perceived as a work force, and beyond that no one cares what happens to them.

The feeling of desperation is palpable. A man in Jabalya camp in Gaza asked me, "How am I to feed my children if I have no money and no job? Why do they ask me to watch my children go hungry? What have I done? How will we live?"

This despair is deepened by the daily violence, which has increased tremendously since the Rabin government came to power last summer. Between December 1, 1992, and May 25 of this year, 136 Palestinians were killed in the occupied territories, thirty-two of them children under 16. More than 500 children in Gaza were shot with live ammunition. In the first two months of the closure, more than 1,100 people in Gaza alone were injured by Israeli security forces; almost half were shot with live rounds. In those same two months, forty-nine people were killed in the occupied territories. Fatality statistics reported by UNRWA show that "already, the five-month period since December 1992 has outstripped each of the previous three years in the number of killings of Gazans by the IDF." In May alone, twenty-nine Palestinians were killed in the Gaza Strip, the highest monthly total for Gaza since the intifada began. Particularly disturbing is the number of people killed by soldiers stationed at observation posts. According to international observers:

The observation Posts were ostensibly established to try and monitor the movements of wanted persons in the camp, but have become centers of provocation. Soldiers in elevated positions, with little risk of being hit by stones, have fired on unarmed civilians, including children, indiscriminately, causing numerous deaths and injuries. Since mid-March when the use of Observation Posts began, twelve people, including seven children in the age range of seven to thirteen years, have been killed.

What of a response? Internally, there is none. The local Palestinian leadership is weak and factionalized. In Gaza the leadership has been severely damaged, some would say eliminated, by imprisonment, deportation and killings. When combined with economic collapse, widening insecurity and continued political inaction, the loss of leadership in Gaza has produced a kind of collective self-withdrawal. The goals of the intifada - ending the occupation through nonviolent means, creating a Palestinian state in the territories, decreasing economic dependency on Israel and remaking society - are now considered unattainable. Unable to achieve what is regarded only in the abstract, political factions in Gaza and, to a lesser degree, the West Bank have begun to fight over control of those few remaining resources that are perceived to exist, resources that are primarily institutional. Virulent factional rivalries are replacing collective effort at many levels; internal fragmentation and the unmaking of civil society are the tragic result.

As intergroup conflict abounds, few second-and third-tier leaders are able to address problems that effect the community as a whole. Political statements that once catalyzed the population into unquestioned collective action are now beyond the capacity or the willingness of the people to enforce. The Palestinian leadership in Tunis is seen by locals as having abandoned the West Bank and Gaza, particularly since the closure.

The Israeli authorities talk of creating a "new situation" in the occupied territories through "development" and job creation program. The newspaper Davar reported that 490 million shekels ($181 million) will be allocated for infrastructural development and job creation; The Jerusalem Post cited a figure of 450 million shekels. When compared with the 1.2 billion shekels that Palestinian workers in Israel paid in taxes in 1992, development allocations seem almost incidental. In fact, during a trip to Gaza in early June, Labor Minister Ora Namir stated that the moneys allocated for job creation in the occupied territories do not represent increases in the budgets of the Civil Administration, which supervises the military occupation, but advances on what the government anticipates Palestinians will pay in taxes. To date authorities have approved hirings for street and beach cleaning, work in government schools and telephone exchanges, and various agricultural jobs at wages that are half of what is paid in Israel. These jobs are makeshift and evanescent. By late June 10,000 people were temporarily employed inside Gaza. The Israeli government's attitude was succinctly expressed by Health Minister Haim Ramon, long considered a political dove, when the commented: "I do not understand the basis for the claim that we are obligated to provide employment for the Palestinians. We have no responsibilities toward them."

As for "development," this appears to be occurring in the haphazard fashion that has long characterized Israeli economic policy and planning in the territories. In an attempt to generate jobs, the Civil Administration, for example, has advised municipalities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to resubmit all infrastructure projects rejected over the past fifteen years, without taking into account that conditions have changed fundamentally over that period. The Gaza municipality there-upon proposed to pave roads in and near Beach refugee camp. Yet if this were approved - and there is good reason to think the Civil Administration would be inclined to approve it - the roads would have have to be dug up next year so that UNRWA could proceed with its set plan to lay down sewage pipes. Moreover, without proper sewage and drainage system, road paving would cause considerable flooding within the camp during the winter months.

Conditions in the West Bank are abysmal; in Gaza they are horrific. The sense of hopeless among Palestinians is equalled only by their sense of betrayal. The dynamics of civic disintegration are already under way in Gaza, and the West Bank will soon follow. One woman from a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip tragically captured the mood of the people when she said, "I have nothing left to feed my children but black milk. What good am I?" The greatest danger facing Palestinians in the occupied territories is not explosion, as is commonly thought, but implosion. If that happen, there will be no peace for a very long time.
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Author:Roy, Sara M.
Publication:The Nation
Date:Jul 26, 1993
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