Since 1967, Israeli military orders have decreed the West Bank and Gaza as closed military zones, requiring Palestinians to obtain permits to enter Israel or exit the Occupied Territories. For the first 20 years of the occupation and throughout the the Palestinian uprising (intifada), Israel rarely enforced these orders. Instead, it issued a general permit to the Palestinian population, allowing relatively free movement.
Following the total curfew placed by Israel on the Occupied Territories during the Gulf war in 1991, Israel erected checkpoints along its borders and, by 1993, solidified the system known as “closure,” replacing the general permit with an individual permit system for male Palestinians. Before closure, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians worked, studied, received medical treatment, and travelled in Israel daily. With the imposition of closure, the doors to Israel have been shut, halting freedom of movement for more than three million Palestinians.
Initially, women, the elderly, and children were exempted from the need to obtain permits. Since the advent of the Oslo peace process in 1993, however, and with the call by Israel’s Labor Party for “separation,” all Palestinians officially have been prohibited from leaving the Occupied Territories and are required to obtain travel permits from the Israeli security services.
Closure is an indisputable violation of international law, which prohibits collective punishment and requires an occupying power to ensure the welfare of the occupied population. Human Rights Watch/Middle East stated in July 1996 that “[t]he closure of the occupied territories does not merely create inconveniences for Palestinians; it adversely affects the ability of the population to meet its basic needs and amounts to collective punishment.”
Permits and Privileges:
Under the closure policy, freedom of movement is a privilege handed out by the Israeli security services and occupation authorities (the Civil Administration) mostly to Palestinians willing to serve its interests. At present, only a small percentage of the adult Palestinian population actually receives travel permits regularly from the Israeli security services. But even the few who do must leave Israel by 7 p.m. and are not allowed to enter with their cars or trucks.
VIP passes are issued to members of the Palestinian Authority (PA), to wealthy Palestinian business persons, and to some collaborators. This system enables this select elite to maintain political and economic control over the rest of the Palestinian population, and assures the continued prosperity of all the Palestinian monopolies. Closure also supplies cheap, unprotected Palestinian labor for the mequilladora industrial zones owned and operated by Israeli and VIP Palestinian businessmen.
Impact on Economic Development and Employment:
Israel’s longstanding policies in the Occupied Territories preventing economic development have produced nearly complete Palestinian dependency on the Israeli economy, especially for employment. Land confiscation and Israeli restrictions on agricultural production have virtually closed down the Palestinian agricultural sector, forcing more than 100,000 Palestinian farmers to become low-wage laborers in Israel.
The imposition of closure has resulted in massive unemployment and poverty. The Palestinian Ministry of Economy and Trade reported that, in 1997, only 57,000 Palestinian laborers worked in Israel, compared to 116,000 workers in 1993 before closure was imposed. The ministry has also linked closure to the current 28.4 percent unemployment rate in the West Bank and Gaza, and to the dramatic increase in poverty now affecting more than half-a-million Palestinians-40 percent of the population in Gaza, and 12 percent of West Bank Palestinians.
Severing Jerusalem from Palestinian Life: Closure virtually cuts access of Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza to Jerusalem. By hampering or denying access to medical care located in Jerusalem and to Christian and Muslim holy places, closure has undermined the city’s traditional role as the medical, religious, educational, cultural, and economic center of Palestinian life.
Family members separated by the borders of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem find it difficult or impossible to visit each other. Many prominent Palestinian institutions, suffering from a shortage of staff with permits to enter Jerusalem, have been forced to move out of the city. Moreover, for the 2,000 Palestinian prisoners and detainees still held in prisons inside Israel, closure turns the right of family visits into a privilege subject to securing Israeli-approved permits.
The Illusion of “Safe Passage”:
Until 1999, the West Bank and Gaza Strip were completely separated from each other by closure. The 25 October 1999 opening of the Israeli-controlled “safe passage” route between Gaza and Tarqumiyah in Hebron was hailed as a sign of progress in the peace process. The right to use the passage, however, is still subject to the same Israeli permit system, and true “safe” passage is not assured-users can be arrested by the Israeli security forces controlling the passage. Moreover, thousands of Palestinians have been denied permits-some 16 percent of the 18,000 individuals who applied within the first month of the opening of the passage.
“Peace through Separation”:
The Israeli government uses closure as a pretext to convince uninformed supporters of peace that “separation” is the first step in the implementation of the “two-state” solution. Yet Ehud Barak’s campaign slogan, “Peace Through Separation: We Are Here; They Are There,” is reminiscent more of Jim Crow ideology than as a call for Palestinian statehood. For there is no parity in separation or in closure-they function only one way. Closure seals the Occupied Territories for Palestinians only; all 400,000 Jewish settlers in the Occupied Territories have freedom of movement.
The policy of separation and closure is part and parcel of the Oslo “peace process” that began in September 1993. Instead of facilitating the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, closure actually solidifies Israeli control over the entire area where the state is to be established. The construction of separate checkpoints for Gaza and Bethlehem, of by-pass roads, and of the so-called “safe passage” completes the segregation of settler Jews and Palestinian residents and ensures an apartheid system of legal rights and controls between the two populations. Just this month, Israel further tightened its control over the Gazan economy by terminating the “convoy system” that allowed Gazan vehicles carrying import and export goods to pass through Israel under military escort.
The Next Stage:
Several weeks ago, the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz ran a headline story stating that PA president Yasser Arafat agreed to abdicate control over West Bank land where Jewish settlement blocs are located. Reliable Palestinian sources stated that, in exchange, Israel will transfer control to the PA of Israeli-Arab villages inside Israel proper in the “Triangle”-from Kufr Qassem to Umm el-Fahm. Discussion of such land and population transfers attests to the slippery racist slope of closure and separation, leading to an ethnically homogenized Israel, Jim Crow in the West Bank and Gaza, Israeli hegemony over all Palestinian movement, and a nonviable Palestinian state.
Peace through separation liberates senior members of the PA and the Palestinian VIP permit holders. But for the rest of the Palestinian population (and perhaps, in the future, Palestinians presently living in Israel with Israeli citizenship), separation is a euphemism for apartheid and oppression. The Oslo plan denies true Palestinian liberation and makes a mockery of the Palestinian refugees’ demands for return by offering them only the closed gates of Gaza and the tiny West Bank bantustans.
Peace and justice evolve out of equality and mutual respect. Those concerned about the future of the area should reexamine the call to establish a truly democratic, secular republic in all of Palestine. This solution may seem difficult to achieve, but nearly eight years of “peace through separation” make it the most viable and just option today.
Allegra Pacheco, an Israeli human rights attorney practicing in Bethlehem, is a founder of the Freedom of Movement. Project.