Israel and Palestine: check points and searches mark the conflict’s reality (Part 1)

By Moara Crivelente (story and pictures) |  The complete series was published in Brasil de Fato

Visiting Israel and Palestine, for those who care to follow this conflict of over six decades, means watching closely and experiencing violent conditions reproduced on a daily basis. This is the case for the checkpoints, the separation wall, the omnipresent Israeli soldiers, the limitations to the Palestinian economy, the de facto occupation, the administrative detentions, the separation imposed on families, farmers and their land, and other violations of human rights, already institutionalized.

Some introduction: arrival

Arriving at the airport predicts always a surprise, since before leaving I could hear all sorts of warnings, regarding the Israeli authorities. The airport officials search for people’s names through Google and, if “suspicious” information is found – for example, something that denounces the person as “pro-Palestinian” – the person could be obliged to sign documents where they compromise not to enter Palestinian territory. Other people, according to Ha’aretz journalist Amira Hass herself, are asked by the officials to give their Facebook and e-mail accounts password, especially if they are Palestinians, who do not live in the territory. These are stories I had the chance to see firsthand.

Anyone travelling to Israel has to be prepared for any kind of tension regarding security officials; routines include inspections to the computers, searches of the bags, bodies and souls: questions related to religion, family name and the parents’ given name are also usual. When leaving, again, the officials ask the same questions, over and over again: “why did you come here?”; “where have you been?”; “who do you know here?”; “do you know someone in the Palestinian territories?”; “have you been there?”; “what have you done all this time?”, and so on.  Having in mind that this country is investing in tourism, this approach could be counter-productive.

For the Palestinians, obviously, the situation is worse. Ali Dajani, a young salesman in Jerusalem, went to Ukraine to study Russian for two years. When he returned, the Israeli officials made him undress and kept him in a small room, in low temperatures, for almost 2 hours. They have asked him all sorts of questions and, Ali assures, there are many cases worse than his. Despite this kind of ill treatment, the issue over the Palestinian documentation and nationality is frequently uncared for.

Identification and refugees

Important matters related to the identification of Palestinians include the Palestinian political organization and the most important reivindications regarding the peace negotiations: the definition of the pre-1967 borders – blurred after the Six Day War – separating Israel from Palestine and the right of return for the Palestinians who had to leave the territories for safety reasons. The last refers to the right of refugees and their descendants to go back to their pre-1948 homes – destroyed or taken by the then established State of Israel – in what is called “Mandatory Palestine”.

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Aida Refugee Camp, near Bethlehem

The UN has recognized the Palestinian right of return through the General Assembly Resolution 194, of December 11, 1948. Until now, it has not been effective: in 2008, the refugee population over the world was estimated in 7,2 million people by the Badil Research Center, in Bethlehem.

Palestinians who were born in Jerusalem have an Israeli identification document, which does not grant them proper civil rights. The identification card, written in Hebrew, allows Israeli officials to have all of the approached Palestinian’s history: the parents’ and grandparents’ names, the husband’s or wife’s name, number of children, address and other simpler information. Besides granting them no rights, the identification card still restricts their movement: some Palestinians are not permitted to circulate through various areas.

The same occurs to Palestinians who, living in Israeli territory – as recognized by its allies – have decided to accept the Israeli citizenship, when the Oslo Accords were signed, in the ‘90s. Currently, with a complicated situation for the peace negotiations and with little solutions reached, these “Israeli Arabs”, as they’re called, are banned also from other territories in neighboring countries. These policies’ results are also millions of Palestinians who have no official nationality: they integrate the “stateless people” group, already a major concern in the International agenda.

Jerusalem Oriental13To leave Israel, some Palestinians reccur to the travel documents issued by neighboring Jordan, which do not grant them any civil rights either. In fact, when travelling to Jordan itself, the Palestinians who have this document need to pay for the visa to enter the country, just like any other foreign. The Palestinians are part of the oldest refugee group – or so reconized internationally – to which the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) is dedicated; it was created short after the UN itself, in 1949.

A Palestinian refugee, according to UNRWA, is any person “whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict.” Besides them, also the male Palestinian refugees’ descendants are recognized as refugees. The agency mandate extends through Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and the Palestinan Territories (the Gaza Strip and the West Bank). According to the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs (PASSIA), based in Jerusalem, the refugee camps in Lebanon are the worst: they are over-crowded, the refugees have no citizenship or nationality, they are restricted in many ways in the labor market and they’re forbidden to buy properties.

International Cooperation

In 2009, the USA and the European Union were the biggest donors for UNRWA, but after the international crisis and the spending cuts, both have considerably reduced support for the agency, while the refugee population continues to grow. Brazil, on the other hand, has recently incremented its annual contribution with 700% of the previous contribution, which means it Will send 7,5 million USD to the agency in 2012. The increase was announced in May, by the Head of the Brazilian Representation to the Palestinian Authority, in Jerusalem, Mrs. Ligia Maria Scherer.

Both Israel and the Palestinian Authority receive international funding for their subsistence. Besides that, Jewish communities all over the world, especially from the USA, send money to support various organizations, financing schools and synagogues, museums and ambulances.

The Palestinian National Authority (PNA), officially recognized by over 130 countries as representative of the Palestinian State, receives direct contributions from a number of UN members, such as Japan, Norway, United Kingdom and the USA. The UNRWA, too, through donations from various countries, contributes with the work of the PNA, for instance building roads and housing units.

These are delicate issues, which touch directly at the political dimension regarding the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory and the conditions under which the Palestinians live, some of whom having been born and raised in refugee communities. To transform the area where they live, under this statute, in areas effectively inhabited by them could jeopardize their refugee status, their representation as victims, displaced as consequence of a still active armed conflict. Furthermore, it does not grant them better economic and livelihood conditions, especially when considering a territory under Israeli blockade, such as Gaza. The Palestinians continue dependant on foreign assistance, subject to Israeli conditions and removed of autonomy.

Hebron: a microcosm of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Walking through the streets of Hebron, in the West Bank, is like taking a Picture of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Everything a person slightly interested in the conflict hears or read about in NGOs and Human Rights observers’ reports is there, and in the way there.

Since the touristic Old City, in Jerusalem, through its Damascus gate – which is called this for being positioned towards the Syrian capital, according to some, or for having been built by people from that city, according to others – and walking through the commercial streets, densely occupied by street markets and bazaar, it is possible to take a bus to Bethlehem and, from there, to Hebron.

Jerusalem - Belem check point2To arrive in Bethlehem one first needs to pass through one of the Israeli check points – since the way is out of Israel into Palestinian territory (the West Bank) –, called only “300”. On the way into the West Bank it was not necessary to stop, and the little clues about being on a check point are the high walls and the watch towers, besides the armed soldiers. Finally in the West Bank, I have received a text message on my cell welcoming me to Palestine, as if I was entering a normal and decently recognized foreign country.

In Hebron, however, the experience turns out to be a little tenser. The city is divided in militarized zones, in which many Israeli families live under the watch and protection of Israeli soldiers, in fancy apartment buildings – comparing to the Palestinian homes –, settlements in plain Palestinian urban territory. Again, this is not new information. On the other hand, walking to the Ibrahim Mosque and being questioned by the Israeli soldiers in one of the internal check points about my religion and my visit’s motivation was something unexpected. Watching them entering the Mosque with their M-16 in their shoulders, too, was very surprising.

Hebron Jamal e horizonte antigoOn the streets of the Old Market, practically abandoned, I met Jamal, a Palestinian determined to show the “activist tourists” the reality in which he lives. I have heard from him and from other Palestinians in the streets all the criticism, concerns and emphasis that the activists dedicated to the Palestinian cause focus on, when considering the layers of this violent political, economic and social reality.

For instance, a salesman in one of the few shops open has explained me and has almost given me a ceritificate for the Palestinian keffiyeh I was buying. “It is really made here, local production, it is not made in China, neither in Israel”, the man told me while counting my shekels, the Israeli currency, still not boycotted. I was already very familiar with the political and economic initiative called Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions (BDS) with which many Palestinians and international activists are engaging.

Jamal had me convinced to follow him on a tour through the disgrace of the Palestinians. I was in Hebron exactly for having read about the graphic representation that this place is of then conflict. We have started with the bazaar itself and followed the streets through the Old City, and he showed me the little squares built in the corners of the street-tunnels where many homes were planted. He showed me some new bricks in streets that smell bad for the swages, where children were playing. Accompanying this little squares and bricks there were signs already rusted with the names of the donors, through their international cooperation agencies.

To get to the next neighborhood, it was necessary to go through one of the internal Israeli check points and give our bags to be searched, passing through metal detectors; we were about to enter in a region were many Israeli families live. We could pass more rapidly, if the soldiers were mature and experienced, or less quickly if they were 18 to 21 year-old boys and girls who were flirting with each other. They are part of the team that controls the Palestinians’ lives, putting them in lines so they can wait their time to pass from a street to another, until 9 pm, when the check points are closed.

Hebron apartheid1Next to it, a street is literally divided; it leads to a panoramic terrace where the tour would continue in a strategic fashion. Jamal explains that we have to walk on the right side of the street, since He is Palestinian; the Jews walk on the other side and the cars have to make special maneuvers. A moment later, we entered another emblematic street, in which a traditional market subsists, with a few shops open. According to Jamal, there are over 1.000 shops in that street, but only 1 tenth of them are open, since the salesmen had to leave town.

On this street, the shops are protected by metal nets, above. The motive is that some Israelis live in the apartments and they used to throw stones and garbage at the Palestinians beneath. Likewise, their windows are also protected by nets or are simply closed for the same reason; Israelis and Palestinians use to throw stones and other things at each other houses.

Hebron mercadoForward, the Al-Shuhada (the Martyr) Street, is known as the Ghost Street. The houses and shops in this nicely built street, of approximately 1km, are completely empty and, in many cases, depredated. The shops’ gates are sealed and the windows destroyed. There are around 50 abandoned buildings in the Old City alone, from which Palestinians were driven away for the growing violence, the movement restrictions and the Israeli military presence. In fact, in this same street is another check point at the entrance of an Israeli settlement, with decent residential buildings, a school and a synagogue.

There are a number of settlements like that in all Hebron. According to Jamal, around 400 Israelis live near his house, which is behind the historical Ibrahim Mosque. Some of the settlements are Beit Hadassa, Beit Rumanu, Tal Irmida and Abraham Avinu; in each one of them live around 20 families. At the panoramic terrace, where they show tourist-activists everything that the Israeli presence represents, it is possible to see the Israeli flags in water tanks, at the top of the buildings and other structures strategically placed in the three military watch towers’ line of sight; they are installed in Hebron’s hills, which grant the soldiers working there the vision of all the city. From there Jamal also shows the school built by the UNRWA, surrounded by empty streets and military check points.

The feeling of insecurity is constant; Jamal says that the Israeli military presence, the settlements, the abandoned markets, the check points and the violence between Palestinians and Israelis are daily situations that help in escalating tensions in general. The feeling of living under occupation can certainly contribute to that increase.

The PNA police forces cannot carry weapons in this region – despite the fact that it is Palestinian territory – but the frustration towards the institution is treated with cynicism by some of the Palestinians I talked to; I seemed to be reminding them that the authority exists, because they certainly do not see it. The Oslo Accords were supposed to restore the Palestinian authory in the region, but Hebron was a special case.

In the Hebron Accord, the city was divided in two different regions: H1, under Palestinian authority, in which Jews cannot enter; and H2, which was still inhabited by over 30.000 Palestinians and was taken over Israeli military control, with severe movement restrictions and curfews for the Palestinians. The alleged motive is that hundreds of Jews also live there, due to their religious ties to the site. For that, the Palestinians cannot go near the areas where the Israelis live without a written permit from the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

Still, Jamal says that every 3 months the Israeli officials enter his home and search everything, in a constant program of control. Near his house there are, at least, 10 abandoned buildings, in which Palestinian people used to live. The UN, in some occasions, has tried to remediate the situation in an effort for helping them to stay in the region and keep their economic activities, but the physical and social insecurity prevent them of having a normal and decent life in Hebron.  On Fridays many Muslims come to the city to pray at the Ibrahim Mosque, but they soon leave the region.

The way back to Bethlehem is different: it is necessary to stop at the “300” check point, wait in the line, to answer questions and to be searched by the soldiers, especially when you are Palestinian. For being a foreign, the bus driver asked me to stay on the bus, and some Israeli soldiers have gotten in to ask me and another couple of foreigners some polite questions. In another check point, however, the situation is harder. Foreigners also have to leave the bus, cross the border on foot through corridors surrounded by metal bars, wait in a line, answer the soldiers the same questions as always, to be searched, and to give them the passports – which are scanned into their security system. This is Calandia, one of the most tense check points, between Jerusalem and Ramallah. But this is another story.

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