The lowdown on a country that isn’t
Let me tell you about Palestine.
Palestine feels like a distinct country when you’re there, but it isn’t one. It might one day gain independence, in connection with a ‘two-state solution’ with Israel, but only some people believe this will happen. Personally, I’d give it a 30% chance – sounds pessimistic, but the two-state idea is more a foreign idea than a local likelihood. Some believe in a one-state solution, since Israel is unlikely to give up anything that it considers important, though it might one day start to treat Palestinians better. Pessimists believe that the current unresolved situation could go on forever – and they have a case because some Israelis see dogged non-resolution as the main solution, since it allows them free rein to do what they want. There are other possibilities, but these are the main ones.
The much-vaunted two-state solution won’t work because the current Palestinian-ruled areas which would make up a state are too small. They’re not joined together, with no external border and the Israelis are very unlikely to allow a change to this. Gaza has a border with Egypt, but even this has been subjected to hyper-control, often closed or restricted.
Israel repeatedly disputes the amount of territory Palestine should have – in particular the ‘eternal’ Palestinian capital, East Jerusalem. It wants to retain overall control, denying Palestinians full sovereignty. So a viable state is not very visible as a possibility. To make it viable would require Israel to give up more land and control than it is willing to release – the pattern of its settlements, land-appropriations, road-building and the separation wall in the West Bank demonstrates this unwillingness in very concrete terms. But then, in a changing world, all change is possible.
The administrative capital of OPT, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, is Ramallah, north of Jerusalem. Not an ancient city (it was founded in the 1600s), during the 1990s it grew as the capital of the Palestine Authority (PA), the governing body for OPT.
There’s a recent complication because, since 2007, Gaza and the West Bank have lived under separate governments. Ramallah is now the capital of the West Bank only. Also, since 2005, Gaza has not been Israeli-occupied, though it has been blockaded, under siege. Both Gaza and the West Bank are still called ‘OPT’ in international diplomatic circles. Palestinian jurisdiction in the West Bank is complex: Palestinian-majority areas are classified into Areas A, B and C, giving them different amounts of control – about which, more later.
The West Bank is split into parts, called by some observers ‘bantustans’, harking back to apartheid times in South Africa. These are centred around bigger Palestinian towns, themselves separated from each other by Israeli settlements and settler roads, occupied land and separation walls. West Bank towns are thus like islands, capable of being put under military control by the Israelis at any time. Water, fuel, communications and supplies can all be controlled if the Israelis so choose. Road closures and checkpoints have eased since 2008, following international pressure, but the infrastructure of control remains. The changing political climate in Israel impacts hard on Palestinians and their daily lives, and so the situation is constantly variable.
Getting from the south to the north of the West Bank is a longer journey than it ought to be. To avoid Israeli territory and checkpoints one must drive along a circuitous switchback mountain road from Bethlehem to Ramallah, avoiding Jerusalem, which the Israelis have isolated. It is indeed scenic, but it isn’t a ‘Route 1’ at all, just a joined up series of desert and mountain roads. Its great virtue is that there are few active checkpoints on it, giving relatively free movement.
In Gaza, access and trade are controlled by Israel and Egypt, but at least there are definite borders and the Gaza government has a more clearly-defined jurisdiction than that of the West Bank. Gaza and the West Bank are not even joined by road; although a link road was proposed by the UN in 1948 and in subsequent treaty proposals, it has never been permitted by Israel.
There is Palestine, the state which isn’t, and there are the Palestinians. Roughly ten million Palestinians, in fact. About 30% of them live in places where their ancestors have lived for generations and the rest are either internal refugees living in the West Bank and Gaza or they are exiles living in other countries.
About 30% of the refugees live in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza or neighbouring Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. As a result of population growth, the refugee population has increased since the two main periods of exodus in 1948 and 1967 – from 711,000 in 1950 to five million today. Not all are classified by the UN as refugees. During the 1948 exodus when Israel was established, 750,000 out of 900,000 Palestinians fled or were ethnically cleansed. During the 1967 exodus when Israel occupied Gaza and the West Bank, another 300,000 refugees fled or were ‘transferred’ abroad. Many Israelis sincerely believe they just chose to leave, or they never even lived in Palestine and, sadly, de facto UN policy tends to reflect this belief.
About half of the total Palestinian population lives abroad, most of them leading ordinary lives rather than languishing in refugee camps. They live in Jordan (2.7m), Syria (600,000), Chile (500,000), Lebanon (400,000), Saudi Arabia (250,000), the Gulf Emirates (200,000), other Middle Eastern states (200,000), Europe (250,000) and North America (220,000).
The other half live in the area now comprising Israel and Palestine, often called ‘historic Palestine’. Of these, about 2.3m live in the West Bank, 1.4m in Gaza and 1.3m in the state of Israel – five million in all. Palestinians living in Israel proper, labelled ‘Israeli Arabs’, make up 20% of the population of Israel. The word ‘Palestinians’ tends to apply more to people living in the West Bank and Gaza. If the total population of both Israel and Palestine were added together, Israelis would slightly outnumber Palestinians, but the Palestinian population is growing faster. There is a demographic problem ahead for Israelis, who will gradually become a minority. This troubles them, but mostly they don’t discuss it.
Up to WW1, the whole of the Middle East was part of the Turkish Ottoman empire. Then it was divided up under French and British rule from around 1920. France took what became Lebanon and Syria and Britain took Palestine, Transjordan, Iraq, Kuwait and Egypt, by mandate of the League of Nations.
In 1948 the British gave up their mandate over Palestine and it was partitioned by the UN into a proposed Palestine and Israel. The British had pursued confused, divisive and contradictory policies in Mandate Palestine, contributing greatly to the mess that followed. In the ensuing war of 1948 the Israelis took more land than the UN allocated, and kept it. An independent Palestine never came to pass – it was occupied by Jordan (in the West Bank) and Egypt (in Gaza), mainly to stop further Israeli expansion. So Palestine never became a state.
Twenty years later, in the 1967 Six Day War, Israel occupied the Palestinian Territories, expelling Jordan and Egypt, thus controlling the whole of former Mandate Palestine. For twenty further years the Palestinian people lived under direct occupation and Israelis started colonising the West Bank and Gaza, building settlements and military bases there – though they left Gaza in 2005 to concentrate on the West Bank.
After the first Palestinian uprising or intifada from 1987 to 1993, the Oslo Accords of 1993-94 formalised the shape of Palestinian-majority areas to be governed by the Palestine Authority in Ramallah. The PA was founded out of the former PLO (Palestine Liberation Organisation) in 1988 – a fighting movement that became a government, of sorts.
These Palestinian-run areas were to be the start of a larger, incremental handover of land to the Palestinians which was to form a new Palestinian state by 2001 or soon after. That was the plan. But they were islands surrounded by Israeli settlements and settler roads, islands easily isolated and controlled by the Israelis. The negotiation and handover process ground to a halt in the late 1990s and no recognised Palestinian state was declared.
During the first intifada, Yasser Arafat’s PLO symbolically declared an independent Palestine in 1988, and a form of recognition of Palestine as a state-to-be was built into the Oslo Accords. But this was a provisional independence, contingent on Israel’s own decisions. The PA doesn’t have sovereignty since its lands and many of its affairs are controlled by Israel as a military occupying power. Some sceptics regard the PA as an overgrown municipality, in charge of policing, social and some economic issues only, handling things the Israelis don’t want to take responsibility for, and subsidised from abroad so that other countries can avoid fulfilling their international obligations by bearing down on Israel to fulfil its promises.
The signing of the Oslo Accords was supposed to bring sovereign independence within a decade or so. The lack of progress, plus continued Israeli land-seizures, settlement building, roadblocks, checkpoints and military control gave rise to the second intifada of 2000-04. The building of the Israeli separation wall was started, preventing contact between Palestinians and Israelis – its rationale was to stop terrorists getting into Israeli territory, but really it created an Israeli-determined concrete and barbed-wire border which would lay down permanent ‘facts on the ground’. The matter of independence remains unresolved today – Palestine is a de facto nation without legal and political status.
Palestinian national unity was complicated by the civil conflict in 2007 between Fateh (a nationalist, secular party) and Hamas (an Islamic social reform party). This followed an election in 2006 when, to everyone’s surprise, Hamas gained 60% of the vote, to become the governing party of the Palestine Authority. The result was accepted neither by Israel nor the international community – then dominated by the Americans – since Hamas was deemed a terrorist organisation. An economic blockade was enforced on Palestine by Israel and the West, aiming to squeeze Hamas out of office. Development grants, projects and subsidies were withdrawn, causing great hardship to ordinary Palestinians. Later, these funds were later diverted to Fateh to be disbursed by them.
Political affairs were manoeuvred to shift powers from the Hamas government to the Fateh president. Hamas parliamentarians were arrested and the organisation was hobbled. This was a foreign-inspired coup d’étât aiming to divide Palestinians, and generally it succeeded. Tensions escalated between Hamas and Fateh and when, in 2007, Fateh vied for military dominance of Gaza, Hamas took control there, whereupon Fateh took control of the West Bank. Gaza and the West Bank were thus no longer united. This situation persists today, though since the Arab revolutions of early 2011, young Palestinians have been agitating for reunification.
Jurisdiction over Palestinian-majority territory in the West Bank is complicated. Under the Oslo Accords, three areas of influence were established: Area A (the main West Bank cities except East Jerusalem), with complete Palestinian control; Area B (mainly urban hinterlands) with Palestinian control and Israeli military precedence; and Area C, with complete Israeli control of Palestinian-majority land. All conveniently split up into little areas.
So now Palestinians exist within these tangled webs. They have limited choice in the matter but they’re also tired of fighting. They just want to get on with their lives and yet they can do so only on a day-by-day basis. That’s the reality of Palestine.
NEXT: Reconciliation under the Full Moon
© Text and pictures copyright Palden Jenkins 2011. This is an extract from the book Pictures of Palestine by Palden Jenkins. You may print it out in single copies for your own non-commercial use or forward it by e-mail as long as the piece is unaltered and properly attributed to the author. The book's website is at www.palden.co.uk/pop