By Ross Plowman
The Israeli air strikes in Gaza marked one month since my arrival in Palestine. Four of us sat in front of the television, watching the same scenes over and over. One image stood out: a father carrying his dead five-year-old daughter through a crowd. In three days, 44 Palestinians were killed, including 16 children, and at least 350 Palestinians were injured.
The recurring theme here is the strength of the Palestinians. I hear many stories about how the occupation affects their lives, each of them shocking in their own way. From arbitrary arrests with no charge to extrajudicial killings with no repercussion. Everyone has a story to tell. Based in Ramallah, close to Al-Quds (Jerusalem), I work as an intern at a local NGO. What is most striking are my trips to other cities are the Israeli settlements in the West Bank deemed illegal by the United Nations. It is easy to spot them, with their surrounding concrete walls and strategic location on hilltops. The identical detached houses and red roofs with no water tanks on top stand out – Palestinians only have access to water up to three times a week and need to store it. Over 60% of the West Bank is in Area C, under Israeli military control.
Despite criticism of the Israeli military’s violations of international law and the fourth Geneva Convention, the settlements in Area C continue to expand. Although demolitions, evictions and settlement expansions happen all over the West Bank, they are particularly prominent in Masafer Ya”a, in the South. The refugee camps in the West Bank stand in stark contrast to their prosperous settlements. The West Bank contains 19 refugee camps, a higher concentration than any other area in the world. The Jalazone camp in the West Bank is located adjacent to the Beit El settlement, proving dangerous for its inhabitants. In 2020, on 13 different occasions, tear gas was used against Jalazone’s inhabitants, with one tear gas canister ending up in a school. On 16th June this year, the Israeli forces released a 17-year-old boy who had been detained for sixteen months without charge. The Israeli forces frequently raid the camps and are not held accountable for damages to people or buildings. As one drives through the West Bank, one sees the infamous checkpoints peppered in Israeli flags, barbed wire and tall grey watchtowers. Conscripted teenagers often halt Palestinian drivers for fun. Such theatrics are designed to humiliate the Palestinians and make them aware of the superiority of the occupying forces. My first experience of this was at the Qalandiya Checkpoint, between Ramallah and Al-Quds. The checkpoint sits on the main route that inhabitants of the West Bank take to go to work in Al-Quds. Once we had reached the front of the queue, we had to wait for the green light above the barrier. Five minutes passed. Roughly one hundred of us were waiting and yet the three teenage soldiers were not le”ing us through. The soldiers were deliberately making us wait and made use of their time on TikTok. I know this because I was watching – we all were. They seemed to be having an excellent time – laughing, joking and occasionally making eye contact with us to let us know they were making us wait. One of the female soldiers eventually pressed the green button to let five of us through on each side. And repeat. I knew that this was nothing in the grand scheme of the occupation, but this is what Palestinians have to endure each day to get to work.
It is hard to shrug off stories that you hear. A friend of mine is an English teacher here. She had to console a student who was stopped on his way to school, blindfolded and forced to wait on his knees for two hours before he was let go, without being charged. Everyone is simultaneously affected by and desensitised to experiences such as these. I once asked a friend what his earliest memory was. He recalled tanks rolling through the streets and his father being taken and held for ten days during the Second Intifada. His family had no way of knowing if he was safe or when he was coming back. This is a reality for many Palestinians and the situation for them is not improving. Yet, the Palestinian people endure. After a month, I am yet to be disappointed by the overwhelming hospitality of the Palestinian people. I was welcomed into homes of people I’d only just met. I was given presents for no reason. Passionate about sharing their traditional dishes, there is lots of food to go around. Every day has been different, but within this, Palestinian generosity always manages to find a way to make an appearance.
In my role at the NGO, I have been responsible for helping to empower Palestinian students from universities across the West Bank and Gaza. I couldn’t help but juxtapose my experiences as a student in the UK with theirs in Palestine. At Birzeit University, in March 2019, three students were kidnapped by Israeli operatives. During annual student elections, students are often arrested by the Israeli forces or the Fateh-controlled Palestinian Authority. Meanwhile, at Durham University, low voter turnout is considered a problem. Recently, I was tasked with finding out how the occupation has affected the human right to education in Palestine. After scrolling through countless UN reports, I came to realise the sheer number of violations of international law that had occurred in the 15 year long siege against Gaza. More astonishing was the lack of accountability. Most recently, the Israeli air strikes damaged the Al-Quds University in Gaza this August. But this is far from the only obstacle restricting the access of Palestinians to their right to education. Discriminatory planning by the occupation forces and the bureaucratic inefficiency of the Palestinian Authority led to a protracted shortage and inevitable overcrowding of classrooms. Many students have to cross checkpoints to get to school or university. Inherent discrimination against adolescent Palestinian boys often leads to arrests or delays which reduce their access to education. As a result, Palestinian children fall behind or drop out of education altogether. In Al-Quds alone, the annual drop-out rate was 1,300 pre-Covid. In Gaza, during ‘peacetime,’ people receive up to six hours of electricity a day. No air conditioning in summer or heating in winter, homework by candlelight and darkened classrooms all prevents students from receiving a quality education. Light is not a problem if one doesn’t have the necessary textbooks – which 31% of households in Gaza have difficulty purchasing.
Due to under resourcing from the Palestinian Authority, some educational institutions do not have even have a library. A 2018 UNICEF study reported that vulnerable Palestinian children are “less able to attend school regularly or learn effectively due to a range of factors including hunger, anaemia, high levels of morbidity, inability to concentrate, post-traumatic stress disorder, and behavioural problems.”
No matter how many human rights violations or international law violations, little will change. During his state visit in July, US President Joe Biden pledged his steadfast support for Israel, and made clear that a two-state solution was still far away. A two-state solution is complicated by the settlements in Palestine deemed illegal by the UN. A one state solution has a trilemma. There cannot be a Jewish democracy that occupies Gaza and the West Bank. If the one-state wants to be democratic and occupy the Palestinian territories, then all Palestinians would gain suffrage and create an Arab majority – therefore, the state would no longer be Jewish, it would be Muslim. Israel has a demographic problem on its hands, and it is to their advantage to continue to seize Palestinian land, le”ing the demographic problem solve itself. The Palestinian Authority and Hamas deserve a proportion of the blame. Chronic nepotism and corruption has led to under-funding and neglect of infrastructure across Palestine. Many view the Palestinian Authority as prioritising self-promotion over the interests of the Palestinians. Subsequently, residents of the West Bank look to other political parties, namely, Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Hamas, the elected government in Gaza, is popular in the West Bank because of their retaliation to the occupation, including their deadly rocket attacks on residential neighbourhoods in Israel.
The situation in Gaza is dire, but cannot solely be blamed on the Israelis. Hamas has consistently failed to ensure the welfare of its people and maintain its infrastructure – in part, because they are not allowed import certain goods.
With Hamas internationally recognised as a terrorist organisation, they are cut off from the outside world, only worsening the situation for the residents of Gaza. Those in the West Bank are fed up with the inactivity of the Palestinian Authority and their failure to stand up to the occupation. On every other street there are pictures of Palestinian martyrs, such as Shireen Abu Akleh – a famous Palestinian-American journalist for Al Jazeera who was shot by a sniper in May this year. US and Israeli investigations were inconclusive, however an investigation by the UN claimed that Shireen was killed by the Israeli military. To Palestinian people here, each martyr has a story and was killed as a result of the occupation. As I write this, the Palestinian people are marking the 150th day of Khalil Awawdeh’s hunger strike. Awawdeh is a victim of the policy that states that the Israeli authorities may hold a detainee for up to six months without an official charge. There are around 600 prisoners in the same position at this time. Albeit a whistle-stop tour of many different aspects of such a culturally and historically rich area, I think this summary is revealing of my experience here. I have been exposed to different types of people with a range of views and stories to tell. It is difficult to internalise all the daily struggles that Palestinians go through. But remember that Palestinians across Gaza, the West Bank, Al-Quds, Israel and the remaining Palestinian diaspora don’t want pity. They want their freedom.
Image: Ahmed Abu Hameeda via Unsplash