Opinion

How far can Israel go in trying to erase Palestinians?

Palestinians have resisted Israeli occupation and colonisation for decades. But erasure is still a looming threat.

By Mariam Barghouti

Despite the raging pandemic and Israel’s ever-increasing restrictions on the movements of Palestinians, a few friends and I still manage to meet occasionally to chat and catch up. As we sit, drinking tea and coffee, my phone would buzz with constant updates sent by journalists, activists or friends about the rising number of infections and developments surrounding Israel’s annexation plans.

As I read one depressing message after the other, the faces around me would go blank. These occasional gatherings – meant to distract us from the suffocation of living in a pandemic and an occupation – often sink into the generally sombre mood dominating the Palestinian experience.

Although we do not know what will happen next, we are terribly afraid that it is going to be perilous. Every now and then, we would ask each other, “Do you think we will survive what is coming?”

We know some of us will not. We are constantly reminded of that. On June 23, 27-year-old Ahmed Erakat, was executed at an Israeli checkpoint near Bethlehem. Two weeks later, 29-year-old Ibrahim Abu Yacoub was also shot and killed by Israeli forces north of Salfit in the West Bank. In a trigger-happy occupation, none of us is safe.

As international media is abuzz with speculation about Israel’s intent to formally annex parts of the West Bank, and as world governments prepare to issue their n-th statements of empty words against Israel, we in Palestine wonder how much more annexation we can survive.

Decades-long annexation
For decades, before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made his formal call to annex Palestinian lands, we have been experiencing persistent annexation. Illegal Israeli settlements spring up so quickly, you would think they were built overnight. And just as quickly, they continue to expand, creeping ever closer towards our villages and towns.

“When was this settlement so close? I can see the insides of the houses!” has become a common refrain across the occupied and colonised West Bank.

“They never built the settlements in a temporary fashion,” a friend from Jerusalem once told me.

In parallel, Israeli checkpoints have also proliferated throughout the West Bank to provide security for colonisation activities. “Flying checkpoints” manned by Israeli soldiers in armoured vehicles would sporadically appear and disappear, obstructing Palestinian movement at every step, causing millions of dollars of damage to the Palestinian economy. The 25km trip between Ramallah and Bethlehem, for example, can take a Palestinian hours.

There are also the more permanent checkpoints, such as the infamous Qalandia, which separates Jerusalem from the West Bank and through which Palestinians can enter the rest of historic Palestine (present-day Israel), if they have permits. In 2019, the Israelis added a massive structure to the checkpoint. Shortly after, I went through Qalandia checkpoint for the first time. My jaw dropped when I saw it. It looked like an airport terminal, rather than a checkpoint.

I recalled how not that long ago we were protesting in front of its scattered concrete structures and metal barriers, getting shot at with live ammunition.

What I saw in 2019 was a massive building with electronic doors, surveillance cameras and Israeli soldiers sitting behind large glass windows, barking orders: “Move further, come closer, you can enter, you cannot, you need to be checked!”

Beyond taking our freedom to move within the West Bank, Israel has also annexed our freedom to leave. Allenby bridge, connecting the West Bank with Jordan, was once meant to be an interim humanitarian crossing. Today it is the only port of entry/exit for West Bank Palestinians and it is operated by the Israeli Airport Authority, which can deny Palestinian travellers the right to leave.

A divided Palestinian people
The Palestinian population is facing the looming annexation divided, not just politically and geographically, but also in their experience of occupation. Palestinians in Area C – de facto under the control of Israel – or in Gaza have a different reality than those of us residing in Areas A and B.

Living in Ramallah, I recognise that the imminent threat to be expelled is less acute than for Palestinians living in Area C or in East Jerusalem, who are regularly evicted and their land and property confiscated to make way for Israeli settlers. I also know that unlike Palestinians in Gaza, I am safe from Israeli bombardment, because the West Bank is surrounded by Israeli settlers and settlements. Bombing is not an option.

Preserving my identity and the Palestinian character of my immediate surroundings is relatively easier than it is for Palestinians with Israeli citizenship. The systematic erasure they face within the Israeli state is coupled with a broad range of laws, ensuring they remain second-class citizens.

Living in Ramallah also means that I do not face the hostility of a host nation, denied the right to work or receive healthcare, like millions of Palestinian refugees in Arab countries. Living in Ramallah, also means that I do not experience the discrimination faced by Palestinians living in the West.

Yet, I too face the violence of the occupation and the precarity of being Palestinian in this world. If I am not shot randomly at a checkpoint, my home can still be raided at any Israeli official’s whim, or attacked by settlers surrounding our villages. And if not that, then the Palestinian Authority (PA) may decide I am a political threat and detain me.

In this sense, the annexation will be felt differently by different Palestinian communities. And this is probably what the occupier is counting on – that divided in our experiences, we will not be able to unite in our response.

Economic debilitation
Many Palestinians live in such destitution due to the occupation and their expulsion from their lands that their main concern is physical survival. This further erodes their ability to mobilise politically.

The 1994 Paris Protocol meant as an interim measure, has effectively ensured the economic insecurity of Palestinians through its “customs union” model making the Palestinian economy dependent on Israel. This allowed Israel to rein in the Palestinian resistance.

In the West Bank and Gaza, hundreds of thousands of families depend on salaries from the PA, which itself is depending on Israel to allow the transfer of its budget and its Western backers to donate the funds for it. The private sector is completely dominated by and dependent on the Israeli economy and political mercy. The PA’s talk about “economic disengagement” from Israel is simply laughable.

Palestinians who cannot make a living in the economically underdeveloped West Bank and Gaza are forced to seek employment in Israel, where they are thoroughly exploited and left at the mercy of their Israeli employers. They face the risk of their work permits being revoked if they or their relatives show any sign of political resistance.

After 13 years of a military-imposed siege aided by Egypt and the PA and several murderous Israeli assaults, Gaza is a living human catastrophe. The strip is unliveable and its economy is in shambles. The Palestinian population there is left in permanent economic, health, nutritional and sanitation crises. In the Arab neighbourhood, Palestinian refugees are barely scraping a living.

The occupier hopes to starve us into apathy. But just in case, it has also deployed military force, political oppression and control.

Resisting occupation and its supporters
Palestinian resistance is more than 100 years old. We have fought the British empire, Israeli colonialism and international complicity with Israeli crimes.

As Palestinians, we have tried to stop Israeli colonisation of our lands by any means available to us.

We have tried armed resistance, and have been met with the brutal response of a nuclear army; we have attempted peaceful protest only to be shot at, arrested and tortured; we have appealed to international institutions and law and have been foiled by Israeli and American diplomatic bullying; and we have also tried to promote the non-violent boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, which has been viciously attacked with various laws seeking to criminalise it as “anti-Semitic”.

Nothing has worked on the ground for the Palestinians. Nothing has stopped Israeli encroachment on our rights and theft of our land. We have been abandoned by friendly governments and Arab allies, while the international community has continued to maintain its complicity in Israeli crimes.

Apart from Israeli colonialism, we have also had to face the authoritarianism of our own Palestinian leadership. The Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza have deliberately quashed our ability to mobilise by imprisoning political activists, violently repressing protest, and pumping more resources towards their security forces rather than community development and empowerment.

Under these conditions, a 1987 or 2000-style mass uprising seems unlikely. Israel has learned its lessons and has worked hard to undermine our ability to mass mobilise.

This, of course, does not mean we will not resist. The Great March of Return of 2018 demonstrated to the Israelis and the world that we can and will march for our rights even as live bullets rain on us. The Al-Aqsa protests of 2017 proved we can mobilise momentarily without or even despite the Palestinian political factions. The Bedouins of Araqib rebuilding their homes after they were bulldozed 173 times by the Israelis shows we can persevere. Resistance will most likely be carried out at a community level. The residents of the Jordan Valley have already vowed to remain on their land, no matter what.

I admit, with all that is happening in Palestine, freedom seems to be increasingly more distant. It is a heart-breaking experience to drive between Palestinian towns and villages in the West Bank and observe how blatant the violence of the occupation has become in taking over what little remains of Palestine.

It makes me think of cities like Yaffa, Safad and Haifa. They too were once Palestinian cities but now almost no one remembers that. They have been annexed, Israelised, their Palestinian population ethnically cleansed, their Palestinian character and flavour completely scraped off.

I can see the Tel Aviv skyline from my balcony and I wonder, will Ramallah wake up one day to the glitzy new buildings of a European colonial city, thoroughly sanitised and scrubbed free of its Palestinianness? And will I survive the violence that this process will entail?

Mariam Barghouti is a Palestinian American writer based in Ramallah.

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