Throughout Israel, Palestinians are being suffocated
Shortly after I had arrived in Palestine last month, I visited the devastated community in the Jordan Valley where the Israeli army had, just days earlier, demolished around 70 “illegal” structures. The same week, I visited Dahmash, an “unrecognised” village between Ramla and Lod, inside Israel, where Palestinian citizens face pending demolition orders. Finally, a few days later, I woke up to the news that the “unrecognised” Palestinian Bedouin village of al-Araqib, in the Negev, had been destroyed in a raid involving 1,300 armed police (and cheering volunteers).
Whether under military rule in the West Bank, or as citizens in Israel, Palestinian communities’ ability to grow naturally is compromised by laws, “zoning” plans and permit systems designed to enforce a regime of separation and inequality. In 2008, a UN report detailed how 94 per cent of Palestinian building permit applications are denied in “Area C” of the West Bank, an area that covers 60 per cent of the territory.
“Area C” is also where major Israeli colonisation efforts have been focused. The Israeli human rights NGO B’Tselem estimates the total area controlled by settlements at over 40 per cent of the West Bank.
Inside pre-1967 Israeli borders, the state’s approach to the Palestinian minority blows apart the myth of Israel as “the only democracy in the Middle East”. As one recent study has shown, a quarter of Palestinian towns and villages inside Israel lack a building “master plan” and are thus ineligible for permits. In addition, while roughly a thousand new Jewish communities have been established since 1948, not a single Arab town has been created — even as the minority population has multiplied by seven.
In Dahmash, ironically described as “Israel’s best-kept secret”, residents struggle to survive on land that has been designated “agricultural”, while next door the zoning status was changed to facilitate a housing development aimed at Jewish Israelis.
As an “unrecognised” village, Dahmash is denied basic services and threatened with home demolitions. Activists on the ground see links with the struggles in East Jerusalem — in other words, “internal colonialism is not yet history in Israel”. As Arafat Ismayil, head of the Dahmash village committee, said to me, “We’re in the heart of Israel, but we’re not here.”
In the Negev, long-standing policies of “Judaisation” — similar to what has happened in Galilee — shape the demolitions seen recently (a point made by the Israeli professor Neve Gordon). What Human Rights Watch called Israel’s “discriminatory policies” occur in a context where Jewish National Fund forests, and maintaining a “Jewish majority”, are prioritised over and above the rights and dignity of Palestinian Bedouin citizens.
On the same day as the destruction of al-Araqib, it was reported that the Israeli government plans to help army officers move to the Negev, part of moves to “strengthen” the area.
Naturally, the legal context differs. In the West Bank, restricting the Palestinians to certain areas and freeing up land for colonisation is effected using the military’s prerogative to deny permits in “Area C”, as well as the cover of “military necessity” and cherry-picking laws from Ottoman times and the British Mandate. Inside Israel’s pre-1967 borders, the tools are land confiscation laws and manipulating planning procedures.
Yet the core dynamic is the same. The bulldozers in Silwan, al-Walaja and al-Araqib are advancing the same goals.
There is significance in drawing the connections between the struggles of Palestinian communities, whether they are in the heart of the West Bank or Galilee. In the west, and especially the UK and Europe, there is a growing understanding of, and solidarity with, the struggles centred on the likes of the siege of Gaza, the evictions in Sheikh Jarrah and the illegal Separation Wall. While this is welcome, there is a risk of missing the bigger picture — and excluding Palestinians in Israel and the refugees altogether. It is about moving beyond the framework of “the occupation”, and reintegrating the “Question of Palestine”, with a fight for rights, justice and equality at the centre.
Who has done the most to fail to distinguish between pre-1967 Israel and the settlements? Who has “erased” the Green Line? The answer is the Israeli state, which for decades has pursued policies of colonisation, control and segregation in all of the territory under its control.
When the government sets its (discriminatory) plan for “National Priority Areas”, West Bank settlements and Galilee are included alike. It means the adviser to the prime minister on settlements under Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert affirming his “commitment to bolstering the Jewish population” of the Golan, Galilee, Negev and West Bank, as “settlement is settlement”. It is why the current minister for the development of the Negev and Galilee, Silvan Shalom, can talk of the need to “settle all parts of Israel, including the Negev and Galilee and Judaea and Samaria”.
From the West Bank to the Negev, differences in geography and legal regime can conceal the disturbing reality: that events have a great deal in common, both practically and strategically.
Seeing these developments from a more holistic perspective has important implications for how we understand the conflict in Palestine/Israel, as well as consequences for the nature of our response.
Published first in New Statesman.