The Closure: Everything Under Control
| Shirabe Yamada
August 29, 1999, Ramallah / Jerusalem
I received many heartfelt responses to my last report
on the house demolitions - they encouraged and cheered me a lot.
Special thanks to those of you who wrote to Barak and Clinton. I'd
like to make my reports as interactive as possible, so keep on emailing
The Khalifa homes now have roofs and outside walls up.
The house next door received a demolition order this past week, as the
soldiers had warned it last time. Jeff Halper from the Israeli Committee
Against House Demolition is working to get liberal members of the Jerusalem
City Council to intervene. Stay tuned.
The Closure: Everything Under Control
One of the first Arabic vocabularies that a foreigner
would learn in Palestine is 'mushkela' - which means 'problem.' Living
and working with Palestinians means your life becomes intertwined with
theirs, and you start to get a taste of Palestinian hardships under the
occupation by sharing many of their mushkelas. The harshest mushkela imposed
by the Israeli occupation today is the closure - the sealing of the Palestinian
The West Bank and Gaza Strip have been territories under
siege for the past six years ever since Israel adopted the policy of the
closure. It was initially implemented as a response to Palestinian attacks
on Israeli civilians, and later became a permanent policy in March 1993
(see more on the closure policy - on Law Society's web site). The policy
prohibits the movement of goods and persons in and out of the territories
as well as between the territories unless a person has a permit from the
Israeli authority, which is extremely difficult to obtain in most cases.
Two and a half Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip find themselves
completely deprived of freedom of movement today, separated in four separate
territorial entities (Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem, the southern West Bank
and northern West Bank) due to the Israeli occupation and continuous annexation
of the land. The policy of closure has imposed profound hardships in economic,
cultural, social, religious aspects of the Palestinian lives as communities
are kept disconnected and becoming increasing isolated from one another.
The policy resembles closely the bantustan system that was used against
blacks in the Apartheid South Africa.
Military roadblocks, checkpoints, soldiers, and permits
- they are mechanics of the closure policy and are visible icons of the
occupation. Numerous military checkpoints are placed in and around the
territories (Gaza Strip is literally surrounded by fences), and Israeli
Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers are controlling movement of people, inspecting
car by car. A color-coding system classifies one's legality and illegality.
Yellow license plate cars belong to all the Jews, and Palestinians with
a permit. They can travel freely anywhere. The cars with green and blue
license plates belong to the Palestinians without permits, and they can
not travel beyond checkpoints. Jews and Palestinians with a permit carry
a blue or green ID card. Majority of Palestinians with an orange ID card,
unless there is a special permit attached to it, will be turned away at
checkpoints. Entrance to Jerusalem for the Palestinians is extremely strict,
as Israel is working to clear the city of Palestinian elements in order
to claim an eternal Jewish capital. There are currently 16 checkpoints
on Jerusalem-West Bank borders.
I witness this closure policy at work on my commute on
a service (pronounced 'ser-vees') taxi from my flat in Ramallah (a West
Bank city), crossing checkpoints as I enter and leave Jerusalem several
times a day. A service taxi is a ten-passenger van that runs between cities,
towns and villages in the territories. Some of them have a permit
to cross into Jerusalem or Israel, and they cater to passengers with a
permit. Every morning in the vibrant city center, I weave through produce
venders, bakery and coffee stands, unloading merchant trucks, commuters,
shoppers, to catch a service taxi with a yellow license plate to Jerusalem.
I ride with college students, mothers with babies and small children, religious
worshippers, and elderly Bedouins with boxes of vegetables, in full-blast
In about fifteen minutes, the taxi reaches the checkpoint
A checkpoint is virtually a small military station,
with a dozen soldiers with their Uzi, a watch tower from which an automatic
weapon pointing the street, concrete road blocks, several IDF jeeps, and
an Israeli flag of an enormous size. Everyone gets slightly tense as a
soldier waves to stop the van.
As soldiers rudely open the door, I always pray that no
one will get caught. Jerusalem has been a center of Palestinian social,
economic, cultural and spiritual life for centuries. No matter how many
roadblocks are built they will never be able to cut the ties between the
city and the people. The Palestinians will still need to work, go to school,
visit family members, get hospitalized, pray in mosques and churches, and
attend weddings and funerals in Jerusalem. Many people enter the
city without a permit, by taking a risk of detention.
Soldiers look in, glare at everyone, and then ask for
the passengers' ID cards. Sometimes they ask for everyone's ID, including
one for foreigner like myself (they often try to flirt with foreign women
- I am now a master of a mean discouraging look). Some soldiers would
glare at everyone, then order only young men to present their ID or to
step outside the van. Many IDF soldiers treat Palestinians with little
respect. It is especially unpleasant when they question elderly people
in a condescending manner. Everyone keeps silence while the van is inspected
by these eighteen-year old boys, with their guns reminding us where the
power is. When we all pass the checkpoint smoothly, there is always a moment
of shared relief. The van enters Jerusalem, into a clean, modern and wealthy
Israeli city, leaving behind bumpy roads, barbers, patrolling IDF jeeps,
roadside garbage dumps, and barefoot children playing in front of refugee
One morning last week, I was sitting in a back window
seat of a service taxi when two young men dressed in suit asked me if I
could move to aisle to switch seats with them. They explained they were
on their way to a job interview for a lecturer position at Al Quds University
(a Palestinian university in Jerusalem). They didn't have the permit. Because
most passengers happened to be women, they were hoping for the van to escape
an inspection by making themselves as invisible as possible in the back
seats. As the three of us chatted in English, I learned that they were
educated overseas and had not been able to find a job in their small hometown
in the West Bank. "I hate it that I am illegal in our city," as they said
I felt this familiar discomfort that I had experienced many times since
I moved here. Many of my Palestinian friends can not come to Jerusalem
no matter how much they want to or need to, while I, a Japanese woman who
has no cultural or spiritual connection to Jerusalem, have all the freedom
to visit the city. Although we joked and laughed, their nervousness was
becoming more apparent. As a giant Israeli flag at the checkpoint entered
my sight, my heart started to race.
The soldiers were too busy questioning some young men
even to turn our way. Our van drove through the checkpoint without being
stopped, and we smiled at each other with a huge sigh of relief.
Those two were lucky that morning. Had they been with
me just four days ago, they wouldn't have made it to the interview. As
the issue of releasing Palestinian political prisoners was on the negotiation
table of the Wye 'security for peace' Agreement, Prime Minister Barak apparently
was putting a pressure on President Arafat by tightening security measures.
On my way to work, a handful of IDF jeeps were blocking the main road to
Jerusalem right outside of Ramallah. Every single service taxi was pulled
to the side, and every single one of us was ordered to show our ID. Drivers
and young male passengers - especially the ones who looked Muslim - were
all asked to step outside. The roadside was chaotic with IDF jeeps,
tens of service taxis, and IDF soldiers inspecting and questioning Palestinian
men. After waiting for twenty minutes or so, our van was finally allowed
to go, leaving several male passengers behind. The same process was repeated
when we reached the Jerusalem checkpoint. I was an hour late for work.
Checkpoints get congested in morning and evening commuter
hours, and people sit in the traffic with frustration and in the exhausting
Middle Eastern heat. Checkpoints often become a site of confrontation and
tragedy when the territories are completely sealed, even to the ones with
a permit, at times of political instability. Last summer two infants from
Hebron died when their mothers were turned away at a checkpoint on their
way to a hospital. A mother lost her twin babies as she had to give birth
on a roadside, after her husband's car was refused to pass a checkpoint
on their way to a hospital. Also last year, three workers were shot to
death by IDF soldiers when their vehicle lost control and drove through
The closure makes it impossible to transit Jerusalem or
Israel in order to travel between the West Bank to Gaza Strip. My
friend Mahar who works as a journalist in Gaza City hasn't seen his wife
and two daughters in Bethlehem for six years. For my friends George and
Mohammed, Gazan Palestinians who study at Bir Zeit University in the West
Bank, continuing their education is to take a risk of arrest and deportation.
They are not only illegal in the West Bank, but also unable to travel back
to Gaza to see their families.
The closure makes it extremely difficult for the Palestinians
to move from the southern part to the northern part of the West Bank, because
of the Israeli annexation of a part of the West Bank into East Jerusalem
(see a map on the web - http://www.fmep.org/
and go to 'map' and select 'Greater Jerusalem Map'). I commute from Ramallah
in the north of the West Bank to Bethlehem in the south via Jerusalem everyday.
For most Palestinians this is hardly a realistic commute - they would need
travel on a route that is hilly, dangerous and three-times longer in order
to detour Jerusalem. These obstacles of movement interfere with my
work as well. This weekend I organized a workshop on alternative educational
tours for both Palestinians and Israelis. Choosing a location for the workshop
was a complicated and delicate process as I had to take into an account
if lecturers and participants have a permit or not, what part of the West
Bank they are coming from and on what route, what checkpoints are more
strict or loose, etc.
The Closure also has caused a severe damage on already
stagnated Palestinian economy. The Palestinian territories lack basis for
economic development and industrial activities under the military occupation,
thus many people used to seek physical and low wage labor inside Israel.
Neither Palestinian workers can get to jobs in Israel anymore, nor can
Palestinian goods and agricultural products reach outside the territories.
Both poverty and unemployment rates increased drastically after the closure
However, people still need to work inside Israel out of
a need for survival and for supporting one's family. On several occasions
I was on a service taxi that dropped off workers before a checkpoint, and
after entering Israel, picked them up as they emerged out of some mysterious
hidden border-crossing route. Sometimes a taxi itself will take such
This Saturday, I was on a service taxi from a village
in the south of West Bank, to visit a friend in Beer Sheva, south of Israel.
The taxi was full of Palestinian workers going back to Israel after spending
the weekend with their families in the village. They all carried a duffel
bag, stuffed with necessities for the whole week of stay and work inside
Israel. Right before the checkpoint on the southern border of the West
Bank, the taxi suddenly got off the road. It drove in a desert, on rocks,
between olive gloves, in dried riverbed, and over and around hills. We
rolled up windows to keep the dust out, and sat in the unbearable heat
and hang on tight as the van rocked and jumped on the desert path. After
about half an hour, it came back to a main road inside Israel, way passed
the checkpoint. The workers were dropped off at farms and factories, to
return to another week of illegal work with their occupiers.
Putting an entire population under such punitive measure
is illegal under international laws, including the Hague Regulations and
the Fourth Geneva Convention, which seek to protect civilians living under
military occupation. The Israeli policy of closure has been criticized
as a human rights violation by numerous organizations, including the Amnesty
International and Human Rights Watch.
This week the implementation plan for the Wye Agreement
is in negotiation between Barak and Arafat, yet people seem disinterested
in the whole process. Whatever percentage of the West Bank Israel agrees
to withdraw from, it would hardly bring any positive improvements to most
Palestinians, unless the closure is lifted. There is this perpetual feeling
of being choked and tied up among the people, because each time you move
you find yourself at a checkpoint with soldiers, hitting up against strict
and extensive Israeli system of control. I could only imagine how frustrating
and often painful it is to be barred from seeing family and friends, exploring
employment or educational opportunity of your choice, or simply not having
freedom to go wherever and whenever you wish. I have begun to understand
emotional and psychological toll of being continuously violated and oppressed
over accumulated time, through my daily dealing with checkpoints, soldiers,
Uzi, and ID checks under Israeli flags. It has begun to rub off on
me. And I am not even a Palestinian who has been living under the military
occupation for the entire life.
Program Director, Volunteers for Peace in Palestine, Middle
East Children's Alliance, Ramallah Palestine