Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, October 1996, pgs. 62.63

Special Report

Palestinians Undergo Turbulent Month in Occupied Territories

by Maureen Meehan

August was a particularly cruel month for the two million Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza as they observed a dramatic increase in land confiscations for Jewish settlement expansion, house demolitions, and an alarming decline in respect for human rights by Palestinian as well as Israeli security forces.

Setbacks and violations of the peace accord have begun to occur at such a breakneck pace that many Palestinians are convinced that it is all over but the shouting.

“It is all happening so fast and the damage is irreparable, not just to the peace process but to those affected by the new government’s total arrogance and disregard for the agreement signed with the Palestinians,” said Ziad Abu Ziad, Palestinian Council member from East Jerusalem.

What many Palestinians will recall as an especially unpleasant month began on Aug. 2, when the cabinet of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu voted to repeal a freeze on Jewish settlement expansion undertaken by the previous Labor government.

The freeze, initially a response to financial pressure from the U.S., which views Jewish settlements as an obstacle to peace, was in reality a slow-down from the rapid building that took place under the previous Labor government from the rapid building that had taken place earlier, when settlements grew by 40 percent and 3,741 acres of Palestinian land were confiscated over a three-year period.

It is estimated that under the peace deal the 144,000 Jewish settlers will live on some 3,850 square kilometers of West Bank land—a ratio of approximately 1,000 settlers per 27 sq. kilometers—while the 1.1 million native Palestinians will live on 1,950 sq. kilometers at a ratio of 1,000 people per 1.7 sq. kilometers.

“The decision to re-energize the settlement drive in the occupied territories, along with the inequitable division of land, clarifies Israel’s intention to maintain permanent control over all of the West Bank,” states a report issued by the East Jerusalem-based Palestinian Society for the Protection of Human Rights and the Environment (LAWE), which believes the decision to lift the freeze on settlement building is, in effect, the Likud government’s announcement of its intentions to end the current peace process.

Seeming to support that assumption, the current government coalition’s guidelines clearly state its intentions regarding settlement expansion: “Settlement in the Negev, the Galilee, the Golan Heights and the Jordan Valley, and in Judea, Samaria [the West Bank] and Gaza is of national importance to Israel’s defense and an expression of Zionist fulfillment. The government will alter the settlement policy, act to consolidate and develop the settlement enterprise in these areas, and allocate the resources necessary for this.”

The guidelines, recently approved by all of the constituent parties represented in Netanyahu’s cabinet, include the government’s intention to reinforce Jerusalem as the eternal capital of the Jewish people; increase Jewish immigration while opposing the establishment of a Palestinian state and the right to return of the Arab population to any part of Israel west of the Jordan River; and retain sovereignty over the Golan Heights as essential to Israel’s water sources.

Most Palestinians regard the guidelines as a direct repudiation of the peace agreement, now three years old.

The Israeli government’s publication of the guidelines, and its repeal of the settlement-building freeze, while simultaneously insisting publicly that peace with the Palestinians is at hand, is in keeping with the Likud’s historical approach to the Palestinian problem—drag out negotiations for years on end while building Jewish settlements as steadily and quickly as possible.

Consistent with this policy, the Likud-led government has wasted no time issuing building permits for settlement construction and expansion. It also unveiled concrete plans to build several thousand housing units in new or already existing settlements. In mid-August, Israel’s interior minister, Eli Suissa, announced the transfer of $4.8 million to the settlements and pledged to speed up settlement construction in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Former Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, hard-liner and head of the newly-formed Transportation and Infrastructure Ministry, moved even faster in announcing a variety of land confiscation plans to implement several by-pass-road schemes to connect the Jewish settlements to Israel while keeping Jewish drivers off highways used by Palestinians.

Israel’s policy of destroying Palestinian homes and clearing areas of an Arab presence, while at the same time financing and strengthening Jewish presence in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, underscores the aim of the Netanyahu government to limit the Palestinian population to small and disconnected areas comprising 30 percent of the West Bank while maintaining control over the remaining 70 percent of the West Bank in and around Jewish settlements.

In addition to the settlement-building frenzy in the West Bank and, eventually, in the Gaza Strip, where some 4,000 Jewish settlers own nearly a third of Gaza’s rich agricultural and coastal land, the battle for Jerusalem also got underway with a vengeance during the tense month of August.

At least 10 Palestinian homes were destroyed within the Jerusalem municipality during the month and more were torn down in the West Bank, leaving nearly 200 people homeless. One destroyed home was over 50 years old and housed 15 members of one family. All of the houses were demolished, according to the official Israeli explanation, because they were built illegally—that is, without permits—something Palestinians say are nearly impossible to obtain.

One of the most shocking demolitions occurred at 4 a.m. on Aug. 27, when a massive crane hoisted an Israeli bulldozer up and over the stone walls that surround Jerusalem’s Old City. As hundreds of policemen stood watch and a helicopter hovered overhead, the bulldozer—too large to pass through the Old City’s narrow stone entrance gates—proceeded to raze to the ground a newly-built structure of the Bourges Luc Society, a Palestinian non-governmental organization that provides social services to Palestinian handicapped, elderly, preschool and teenage residents of the Old City.

Located in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City since 1991 and funded by Canadian, Swedish and French donors, the 130 sq. meter structure that was demolished was intended to be used as a kindergarten. “The area’s Palestinian residents—especially in the Old City—receive absolutely no social services from the Israeli municipality,” said Nadwa Sarandah, member of the Society’s executive board.

“What we had been working on for the past five years was totally destroyed in a matter of one hour. Apart from a cruel act against needy people, the demolition can only serve to worsen Palestinian-Israeli relations in Jerusalem, which I think is intentional on the part of the new government,” she added.

A lifelong Jerusalem resident, Ms. Sarandah said Israel has enforced a systematic policy of population control upon the Palestinian community in East Jerusalem in a concerted effort to prevent Palestinians from building homes, offices and infrastructure in the city.

According to Israeli attorney Lynda Brayer, no Palestinian construction can be built in East Jerusalem except in accordance with a complicated Town Planning Scheme laid out by the municipal government.

“All decisions regarding property rights and planning are executed in accordance with a desire to reduce and control the number of Palestinians living in East Jerusalem,” says Brayer, executive director of the St. Yves Society, a legal resource center in Jerusalem, and a convert from Judaism to Catholicism.

Brayer explained that various strategies for limiting the growth of the Palestinian community in Jerusalem are derived from a quota drawn up soon after 1967 which is designed to ensure ongoing Jewish domination of the city.

“The [Jerusalem] municipality and the Israeli state are secretly committed to preserving a ratio of 72 percent Jewish to 28 percent Arab population. The techniques which have been used successfully in this pursuit can, of course, very easily be adapted to reducing the Palestinian presence still further and to ensuring that Palestinian land rights are further eroded,” Brayer said.

In addition to increasing dismay at the nearly total collapse of the peace process, many Palestinians say they are disillusioned with their own government for what they consider to be poor leadership qualities in dealing with the Israelis coupled with growing internal repression against those who speak out against Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian National Authority.

Since a rash of suicide bombings earlier this year, the PNA has arrested more than one thousand members of opposition groups, most of whom have not been charged or tried. Relatives of detainees complain of poor prison conditions and physical abuse at the hands of Palestinian jailers and interrogators.

On Aug. 2, Palestinian police fired into a crowd of protesters in the West Bank town of Tulkarim, killing one person and injuring at least seven. The demonstration was held to protest the death of Mahmoud Jumayal, a Palestinian prisoner who died while in police custody in Nablus the day before. Yasser Arafat admitted the 26-year-old man died of injuries inflicted by the Palestinian officers, who were promptly tried and convicted, but called it “an isolated incident.”

Human rights groups that monitor both Palestinian and Israeli prisons, where abuse and torture are commonplace, say physical abuse is increasing dramatically in Palestinian jails. At least seven people have died while in Palestinian police custody in the past 18 months, two during the month of August.

Of particular concern is the emerging pattern of arrest and detention of human rights activists. Six Palestinian human rights activists have been arrested since February after they publicly criticized the PA’s alleged prison abuses.

“The world is by now more or less aware of Israeli violations of Palestinian human rights. But breaches of civil rights by the Palestinian Authority are less known,” says Khader Shkirat, director of LAWE, which is a Palestinian non-governmental organization dedicated to preserving human rights through legal advocacy.

Most Palestinians shared the bitter disappointment as news of abuses in the prisons and police brutality spread throughout the month.

“We did not struggle and sacrifice our lives and futures to be treated so poorly by our own leaders,” said Wael, a taxi driver from Ramallah. “If it doesn’t stop, the consequences will be horrible.”