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shirabe's report from palestine:

The Closure - Everything Under Control

Shirabe Yamada

29 Aug. 1999, Ramallah / Jerusalem

Hi everyone,

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 me!

Wallajah Update:

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 territories.

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 Arabic pop-music.

In about fifteen minutes, the taxi reaches the checkpoint to Jerusalem.

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 camps.

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 a checkpoint.

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 policy began.

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 clandestine routes.

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.

Shirabe Yamada

 
 

Human rights worker Shirabe Yamada is part of the Middle East Children's Alliance.