Many South Asians imagine that the Israeli occupation of Palestine is as oppressive, intrusive and brutal, and as degrading, humiliating and dehumanising as colonial rule was in this part of the world, except that the present injustice has a religious dimension, in Zionism.
They are wrong. The occupation is much, much worse. I have just visited Palestine-Israel for two weeks and can testify to this. Just consider this: During the first half of the 20th century, the British gradually relaxed their iron-grip over India and became accommodative of the peopleâs aspirations. During the past half-century, Israel has further tightened its grip over Palestinian land and practised greater exclusion. It has confiscated as much as 24 percent of the area of the West Bank and Gaza and 89 percent of East Jerusalem for illegal settlements, highways, military installations, nature reserves, etc.
Israel has reduced the Palestiniansâ daily life to unbearable forms of prison existence. They have no freedom of movement sometimes inside their own mohalla. They cannot enter even “unified” cities like Jerusalem without permits. Today, there are 400,000 settlers in 300 colonies dotted all over the West Bank.
The settlers are incredibly privileged. For instance, they are allocated 1,450 cubic metres of water a year, the Palestinians only 83. Israel controls 80 percent of the water resources of the Occupied Territories (OT) and also gets one-third of its water requirements from the Jordan River. Eighty percent of the water from the West Bankâs sole groundwater aquifer goes to Israel.
Israeli-Palestinian economic disparities are staggering. Israel is the worldâs 16th wealthiest country, richer than Ireland or Spain. The Palestinian economy is plumbing low depths. Its size has shrunk by one-half in the past three years alone. Seventy percent of firms have closed or severely reduced production. Unemployment runs at 67 percent in Gaza and 50 percent in the West Bank. Half the OT Palestinians require external food assistance.
The cause of this acute economic distress lies in Israeli-imposed closures and expropriations from military operations against “terrorism”. Since September 2000, the OT poverty-ratio has worsened gravely – from 20 to 75 percent (85 percent-plus in Gaza).
Israelâs post-September 2000 military campaigns have killed 2,984 people, including 500 children (until April 19, 2004). In 2002, Operation “Defensive Shield” caused a $360 million loss – almost double the annual public investment in the economy.
According to a UN Conference on Trade & Development estimate, closures and damage to the infrastructure from military operations have drained $2.4 billion out of the Palestinian economy. Palestinians have lost more than $4 billion in income.
Israelâs creation was meant to correct a terrible historic wrong, culminating in the Holocaust. Instead, it created another catastrophe (“Nakba”) – the uprooting and expulsion of 800,000 Palestinians. Israel declared itself a Jewish state and turned the remaining Palestinians into second-class citizens. In 1967, it occupied the West Bank and Gaza, displacing 325,000 people.
Recently, Prime Minister Sharon offered to unilaterally “disengage” from the Gaza Strip. The plan would vacate some 7,500 settlers (in a population of 1.5 million) who control 40 percent of Gazaâs land. The plan was defeated in an “internal” Likud Party referendum on Sunday.
One shouldnât shed any tears over this. From Sharonâs point of view, the Gaza disengagement had nothing to do with Palestinian independence. Rather, it would get rid of a “trouble-spot” to consolidate the much larger settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem, and prevent the emergence of a sovereign Palestinian state. The plan would have allowed Sharon to claim that heâs a “man of peace”, who can make “concessions”.
In reality, as Israeli writer Meron Benvenisti says, the pullout “would have allowed him to âimproveâ the demographic situation by removing 1.5 million Palestinians from Israeli control and thereby reducing the danger that the country will cease to be a Jewish state”.
Israel has already declared it will pump tens of millions of dollars into the West Bank settlements. The Gaza pullout plan had no intention of ceding suzerainty or “paramountcy” over Gaza either. Israel would continue to control its air-space, sea and land approaches, and would send troops back in to protect its own “security”. The April 14 Bush-Sharon declaration explicitly provides for this.
So much for “disengagement”! “After the pullout, Gaza will become a prison republic”, says Azmi Bishara, a distinguished Israeli-Palestinian philosopher-social scientist, and member of parliament. “This wonât be a step towards a resolution of the Palestinian question based upon ending Israelâs occupation.”
Sharon has been temporarily stalled by the Hard-Right “Settler Lobby”. But he himself is partly responsible for its strength. He has strengthened the extreme-Zionists since 1977 through his aggressive settlement policy. His own long-advocated strategy has been: when under pressure to give up occupied territories, respond by further expanding the settlements! Since his provocative September 2000 march on the Haram-al-Sharif, Israelâs politics has taken a vicious turn, and its military campaigns have become ferocious.
Sharonâs real goal is to reduce Palestine to a cluster of Bantustans without contiguous territory, sovereignty or independence. This cannot be done except by practising a kind of apartheid – separateness and segregation. Sharon is doing just this by trying to:
- Confine Palestinians to small pockets (Area âAâ under the PAâs full control, and Area âBâ under “jointâ security), and keep them out of fully Israeli-controlled âCâ area under the Oslo accords.
- Subject them to daily harassment, obstruction and economic punishment so that their will breaks.
- Prevent their movement by creating 760 checkpoints and countless other roadblocks throughout the West Bank and Gaza.
- Demolish peoplesâ homes and uproot them – and then impose ethnic segregation. Over the past three years, Israel has stepped up house demolitions-under the guise of fighting “terrorism”. Over 4,000 houses were destroyed, and 15,000 damaged. (Besides, lakhs of olive trees were uprooted and hundreds of water-wells closed.)
Thatâs where the 700 km-long “Apartheid Wall” comes in. It will shield the settlements and bring them “geographically” into Israel. I visited the Wall at Abu Dis near Jerusalem. It cuts village after Palestinian village into two, with the local school on one side and the mosque or cemetery on the other. The monstrous $2 billion Wall does not look like a temporary structure. Itâs designed to change “the facts on the ground”-by irreversibly dividing up territory. The Wall will tear Palestinian society to shreds.
The occupation of Palestine is the worst legacy of colonialism and the unresolved problems of the 20th century. It equals the Algeria of the 1960s plus the Vietnam of the 1970s and the South Africa of the 1980s. Fighting it demands the same kind of international solidarity. The global community wonât find it easy to rein in Israel, which has roguishly defied international law. The US has been its closest backer and cannot be trusted to be an honest broker.
Only a genuinely global, multilateral initiative can change things. Much will depend on what happens in Iraq, where US plans for Empire face their gravest crisis. If Iraq changes the world balance-of-power, the US and Israel could yet be forced to see reason.
The writer is one of Indiaâs most widely published columnists. Formerly a Senior Fellow of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, he is a winner of the Sean MacBride Prize for 2000 of the International Peace Bureau.