There is oppression

How to describe the present situation?
For the truth to be told, there is no getting around it: one important aspect is the present occupation — the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory — and, whatever the expressed disclaimers, this has dragged oppression in its wake. Few Israelis deny it, when they speak about it — though most Israelis live their normal pleasant, loving, and sometimes stressful lives without dwelling too much on the subject.

Amira Hass, an Israeli journalist who has lived among and reported on the lives of Palestinians in the West Bank and in Gaza, reporting for Haaretz newspaper, wrote a few years back about the desire expressed by her Israeli compatriots that when they say they want “peace”, she believed what they really meant was “peace” as in “peace and quiet”.

Her recent reporting has taken on a more exhausted and impatient tone.

At the beginning of October, she wrote an article entitled “Democracy is more than going to the polls”. It opened by a reflection on the use of the word “calm” in Israeli reporting about the aftermath of Buddhist-led demonstrations against the military junta in Myanmar: “… several editors chose the word ‘calm’, which embodies the rulers’ point of view: The norm is ‘calm’, even if it means constant government violence. The mass protest against the oppression is a disruption of order and calm. The word ‘calm’ was an automatic reflection of how most Israeli Jews and their media see the constant, 40-year Israeli oppression of the Palestinians. This is the norm one thinks of when the Palestinians disrupt the calm.

The oppression of the Palestinian people is intended to perpetuate its banishment from its land and the infringement on its rights there. But on the other side of the regime of oppression is democracy for Jews, even those who oppose the occupation …

Generally, Jewish dissidents are not risking their life, livelihood, freedom or rights … there are dozens of anti-oppression activities that do not endanger the hundreds of devoted activists (mostly women) who take part in them.

[But] Potentially, hundreds of thousands of Jewish Israelis could have taken part in activities against the multi-faceted Israeli oppression – the apartheid laws and orders, military attacks, hidden information, economic siege, land expropriation, expanding settlements, and more. Not a hair on their head would be touched. These are people who say they support peace, with a Palestinian state beside Israel. But apparently their interpretation of participation in democracy is going to the polls once every few years, and faint protest in their living room.

However, democracy also is displaying civic responsibility, by constantly supervising the political decisions and acts between elections, thus ensuring that democracy’s essence has not been eroded. Those who say they support a two-state solution are ignoring the other facet of the democracy-for-Jews – the military regime that it imposes on the Palestinians The Jewish citizens who enjoy their democracy are not personally harmed by its other facet. On the contrary, they gain from it – cheap land and quality housing, additional water sources, a cadre of security professionals in demand worldwide, and thriving defense industries. This is the “calm” that even self-defined peace supporters refrain from disrupting …

[However] In Israel, because it is a democracy for Jews, all those who sit idle, ignoring what is being done in their name, bear a heavy responsibility. Chiefs of staff, prime ministers, ministers and generals are not the only ones responsible. Anyone who theoretically objects to oppression, discrimination and expulsion, but does not actively take part in the struggle and in creating a constant popular resistance to topple the apartheid regime we have created here, is responsible.
Amira Hass’ recent article on the calm of the occupation is here.

An editorial published by Haaretz in early October, entitled “Where is the Occupation”, takes the description a bit further: “The occupied territories and the Palestinians living there are slowly becoming virtual realities, distant from the eye and the heart. Palestinian workers have disappeared from our streets. Israelis no longer enter Palestinian towns for shopping. There is a new generation on each side that does not know the other. Even the settlers no longer meet Palestinians because of the different road systems that distinguish between the two populations; one is free and mobile, the other stuck at the roadblocks. While the politicians argue over dividing the land between two peoples, the public is apathetic. The people feel that the division has already taken place. The disengagement from the Gaza Strip, the evacuation of Gush Katif, the construction of a separation barrier – the problem is solved to our satisfaction. The settlers are conducting a settlement policy of their own, taking over new areas, expanding settlements, anything to prevent a permanent solution. They are also satisfied with the status quo that relies on the Shin Bet security service and the Israel Defense Forces. The de facto separation is today more similar to political apartheid than an occupation regime because of its constancy. One side – determined by national, not geographic association – includes people who have the right to choose and the freedom to move, and a growing economy. On the other side are people closed behind the walls surrounding their community, who have no right to vote, lack freedom of movement, and have no chance to plan their future …” The Haaretz editorial on the present invisibility — in Israel — of the occupation is here.

Part of how the occupation is administered is through a system of barriers and checkpoints. The main checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah, Qalandia, is operated as if it were a border “between two countries”, as the soldiers and other personnel manning it say frequently — though there is no state on the other side, the Palestinian side, but rather something that more closely resembles what is now called a “failed state”.

A new vocabulary is emerging in which Israeli officials attempt to describe their relationship with the Palestinians as one of a provider of services.

At the same time, practices such as strip searches — usually reserved in most democratic countries for a person who is under sufficient suspicion to be in jail — have become a matter of routine for Israelis checking Palestinians (and even some internationals, or citizens of third countries) at checkpoints, real border crossings such as the Allenby Bridge, and the Ben Gurion international airport.

The checkpoints in the West Bank are in a state of transition: formerly manned by the Israeli defense forces, they are now controlled by a combination of soldiers, police, and employees of private security contractors. This has not improved the conditions there, but the language is sanitized, as Meron Rapoport reported in another article published in Haaretz, entitled “Outsourcing the checkpoints”:

“… The dozens of Palestinians who gather in the early morning hours at the metal turnstile at the checkpoint’s entrance have no opinion about privatization. But they have very definite opinions about the checkpoint’s privatization. Without exception, men and women, young and old, miss the soldiers. They say it quickly before entering the checkpoint, and explain why at greater length when they emerge, exhausted, after a wait ranging from 45 minutes to an hour and a half. ‘May God remove whoever brought them here’, somebody says, summing up the widespread feeling toward the civilians who have replaced the soldiers. It appears the Palestinians will have to get used to the new reality. The model of privatized, civilian-run checkpoints is the future, at least as far as the large checkpoints are concerned. Thus far, in addition to Reihan, four other checkpoints in the northern West Bank have been privatized. Soon, more will follow their lead in the center and southern part of the territories. Eliezer Rosenbaum, the deputy director general of the Public Security Ministry, promises that the civilianization of the checkpoints around Jerusalem will begin by mid-2008.

The new system has a dual purpose, according to the relevant authorities in the Defense and Public Security Ministries: On the one hand, it is supposed to make the security checks more efficient, while at the same time, the procedure is meant to improve ‘the level of service to Palestinian citizens’, to quote Rosenbaum. But there is another factor that they talk about less: According to the authorities, replacing soldiers with a contractor’s employees saves money and it absolves the government of any responsibility for them. That, too, is an economy …

The dozens of people I met as they emerged from the checkpoint spoke about long checks, about the indifference of the private company’s employees, and especially about inexplicable delays. ‘The soldiers would only hold back those they thought were suspicious’, says Yehiye: ‘One here, one there. Now 90 percent of the men are detained for checks’.

The checks themselves are humiliating, complain the Palestinians. ‘They put eight of us in one room, sometimes even up to 15’, says Yehiye. ‘They force us to strip, in front of the others … The security personnel confiscate the mobile phones of everyone inside the room, and the Palestinians are forced to wait half an hour, sometimes 45 minutes or even more than an hour. During that time, one of the regulars relates, ‘the checkers do nothing. They speak on their mobile phones and we wait. Sometimes, if someone makes trouble, says another, they stop the checks, close the gates, and anyone who is inside the checkpoint is stuck’.

The worst complaints relate to ‘Room 3’, a small sealed room where, according to the testimony of Yehiye and others, Palestinians are made to strip completely.

A few weeks ago, a man passed out in this room. His friends said he was kept in there for two hours; the Shin-Bet company said he was only held for a few minutes. One way or the other, the incident intensified tensions at the checkpoint.

The treatment of the women is even more of a sensitive point. A few days ago, according to a report by the women of Machsom Watch (“machsom” is the Hebrew word for checkpoint), two women were told to strip in Room 3. The report stated that their transit permits were canceled after they refused to strip and instead returned home to the West Bank. The women I spoke to at the checkpoint, all of whom work as seamstresses in the eastern, Palestinian side of Barta’a, had heard the story …

Officials in the Defense Ministry deny the allegations. ‘There is no stripping, no exposure of body parts, it just doesn’t happen’, said a senior source in the ministry. The same source added that the physical conditions at the checkpoint have been improved substantially – there are now shelters, drinking water and chemical toilets – and that the Palestinians are processed in a ‘polite and considerate’ manner. The delays, according to the source, are a consequence of ‘an improvement in the security checking process, which possibly [emphasis added] prevents Palestinians from doing things they did in the past – and the wise will understand the allusion’.

The Defense Ministry’s official response stated that ‘the person crossing spends no more than 15 minutes [in the checkpoint]. Those who require a more thorough security check may remain in the checkpoint for up to 30 minutes’. That is not what I witnessed at Reihan last week. Most people only emerged after 45 minutes or more.

In my first conversation with the senior source in the Defense Ministry, he told me that the example of Reihan and the other four civilianized checkpoints was ‘not just successful, but very successful’. In our second conversation, after I told him what I had seen at Reihan, he conceded that ‘it is possible that there are rare shortcomings’, and added that ‘several personnel were dismissed’ because of such shortcomings …

Haggai Alon, a former adviser to the defense minister on the fabric of Palestinian life, was involved in the discussions on the privatization of the checkpoints. This past June he raised several tough questions regarding the authority of the private security companies vis-a-vis that of the army and the police. ‘There is a real danger that private companies will operate under instructions for opening fire without supervision or authority’, Alon says today. ‘Beneath the positive move of civilianizing the checkpoints lies a dangerous process of putting [national] security in private hands’. [n.b., while removing much of the element of accountability…].

Rosenbaum says that the work that will determine these details has not yet been completed. For instance, it is not even certain whether the police or the Public Security Ministry will be the responsible authority. In any event, he reiterates, the goal is to ‘provide quick and efficient service’ … ” The report by Meron Rapoport in Haaretz about the “privatization” of security at checkpoints in the West Bank is posted here.

A week ago, during U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice’s latest attempt at what used to be called “shuttle diplomacy”, this time between Israelis and the Palestinian Authority, the Associated Press reported that the Israeli Defense Minister (and former Prime Minister) Ehud Barak, after meeting Rice, “issued a statement saying the [Israeli] military’s freedom of movement in the West Bank was a ‘fundamental principle that must be demanded in the future as well’.” The AP did note drily that these comments “came despite long-standing Palestinian demands for a reduced Israeli presence in the West Bank”. See the post published in UN-Truth here.

And, during her most recent, Rice was treated to the use of the new “service-oriented” vocabulary to discuss Israel’s re-positioned relations with the Palestinians, when she asked Israeli officials about news that the Israeli military had confiscated land from four Palestinian villages in order to construct a Palestinian bypass road around the enormous Israeli settlement of Ma’ale Adumim, located in the West Bank, west of Jerusalem. She told journalists on 14 October that she had, indeed, received some official Israeli clarification while here. Here is her exchange with journalists on the topic, according to a transcript later released by the U.S. State Department:

“QUESTION: Madame Secretary, did you get an answer from the Israelis about this confiscation of Palestinian land?

SECRETARY RICE: I did. What I’ll do is I’d prefer to have the Israelis say precisely what they — their clarification. But let me put it this way: it was a clarification concerning the timing of such a — the actual timing that anything would happen, saying that it was not imminent and also that it was to improve Palestinian mobility. We’ll continue to have discussions about this. But the point that I’ll be making is we have to be very careful as we’re trying to move toward the establishment of a Palestinian state by actions and statement that erode confidence in the parties’ commitment to a two-state solution”. See “Rice is in Jerusalem to check on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations” posted here.

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