Race against space

 
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By Khaled Diab

Both time and space are  running out for the two-state solution. If Israelis wish to preserve the Jewish identity of their state, they need to act now to create a Palestinian state.

Monday 25 July 2011

Local children squeeze into the one-roomed school for the village's summer camp. ©Photo: Khaled Diab

Perched on a scenic hilltop named ‘Mont de Joie’ (‘Mountain of Joy’) by the Crusaders for its commanding view of the Jerusalem they were about to conquer, Nabi Samwil’s 250 or so Palestinian inhabitants have little to feel joyous about. They are cut off, by Israeli settlements and the separation wall, from the rest of the West Bank, while the West Bank IDs they carry deprive them of access to Jerusalem, even though Israel considers their village to be within the municipal boundaries of the city. 

“We’ve become like a tiny island,” describes Mohammed Barakat, a local lawyer, who lives with three branches of his family, i.e. 13 people, in a small house of about 120m2. “If a child needs a doctor, you have to embark on a very long journey to get to other nearby villages or Ramallah.”

 As he speaks, Barakat, who was crippled in a car crash in Amman, is sitting on his bed working on his computer, one of the few connections he has with the outside world. In addition to being a key advocate of the villagers’ rights, Barakat runs an NGO appropriately called, given the confinement of his village, Disabled without Borders.

One practical problem associated with their imposed isolation is getting relatives and friends from other parts of the West Bank into the village. Mohammed’s brother, Rebhi, who is a member of the village council, is somewhat anxious about a local wedding that is due to take place later in the week.

“The Israeli civilian administration insists on knowing the names of everyone who is coming,” he complains. “But you can never know who exactly is coming because each person you invite usually brings along their family and friends.”

The villagers’ woes don’t end there. Owing to draconian Israeli building restrictions, the bride and groom, like many other young people, are forced to abandon the village in search of housing elsewhere. Villagers report that only two houses have been built since Israel took over control in 1967, while numerous homes were demolished near the mosque and the tomb that is believed by some, despite the absence of archaeological or biblical evidence, to house the prophet Samuel. 

One of the sad consequences of this inability to build which I witnessed is that some two dozen children have to squeeze into the village’s tiny one-room school, which will soon lack a properly functioning toilet because the one they built has a demolition order on it. 

Isolated as Nabi Samwil is, it is not an isolated case – demolitions and displacements are a daily fact of life. This is clearly illustrated in a new report by the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) which is due out on 21 July. Entitled Forced Out, the sobering document focuses on displaced communities in Area C, more than three-fifths of the West Bank over which Israel retains full civil and security control under the Oslo Accords. 

It documents how local communities – faced with restrictions on their movement, a freeze on building and settler violence and intimidation – are facing severe housing shortages, with many moving to Areas A and B as a result. Among the hardest hit are farming and Bedouin communities in the Jordan Valley, some of whom have even resorted to building concrete structures inside their tents to conceal them from the army. 

“While the intent behind the various policies applied by Israel to Area C is unclear, their effect is to make it impossible for many Palestinian communities to develop,” says UN Humanitarian Coordinator Maxwell Gaylard who expresses “concerns about demographic shifts and changes to the ethnic make-up of Area C”. 

Although Israel’s intentions are indeed unclear, the fact that a sharp increase in demolitions and evictions has taken place this year seems to suggest a bid to “create realities on the ground” before the Palestinian leadership gets a chance to go to the UN to seek recognition for an independent Palestine. OCHA’s records show that over 1,100 Palestinians have been forcibly displaced so far in 2011 in Area C and East Jerusalem. 

Area C, which has experienced a massive upsurge in settlement building since the signing of the Oslo Accords, is currently home to twice as many Israeli settlers as Palestinians (300,000 as opposed to 150,000). Nevertheless, it possesses the majority of Palestinian agricultural and grazing land and is the only contiguous territory in the West Bank, which was foreseen to provide, under the ‘land for peace’ formula, the bulk of the space upon which a future Palestinian state would be established. 

However, with 70% of Area C currently set aside for settlements or the IDF, there is little room left for the two-state solution. This might partly explain why the Palestinian leadership, caught as it is in a race against space, has desperately resorted to the UN path, despite its slim chances of success. 

But it is not just Palestinians who should be worried about the changing reality of Area C and East Jerusalem, ordinary Israelis should be, too. If current policies remain unchecked, most of the Palestinian population will soon be living in a series of disconnected islands that will be impossible to join up into a coherent territory, leading to a de facto single Israeli-Palestinian state. 

Once they realise that their dream of an independent state is dead, Palestinians are likely to start focusing their attention on demanding equal civil rights and Israeli citizenship. This will leave Israel with a dilemma: either live up to its democratic credentials and grant Palestinians full rights and dilute the country’s prized Jewish identity, or continue an unsustainable and increasingly oppressive occupation, with all the disenfranchisement it involves, to hold on to this Jewishness. 

I am personally in favour of a single binational state made up of two non-geographical Israeli and Palestinian community governments which oversee the affairs of their peoples, and a joint federal government which manages common issues, such as trade, defence and foreign policy. 

Although a growing minority of Israelis supports this vision, most favour a state with a clearly Jewish identity which, by implication, makes them supporters of an independent Palestine on the pre-1967 borders. However, the current government, which holds the land to be holier than its people, is unlikely to take any meaningful steps to achieve the two-state vision. 

This leaves it up to ordinary Israelis to bring pressure to bear on the government to act now or risk forever holding back peace. Last Friday, some 4,500 protesters, mostly Israelis, marched through East Jerusalem to voice their support for an independent Palestine. The time has come for hundreds of thousands more to join them.

This article first appeared in The Jerusalem Post on Friday 21 July 2011.

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