The hostilities in Gaza are over, for now, but...
There might have been a temptation to breathe a deep sigh of relief at the ending of the most recent round of hostilities between Israel and Islamic Jihad last weekend, with yet another ceasefire announced after “only” three days of fighting.
Still, in the absence of a long-term solution these ceasefires are fragile. And even in such a limited confrontation as this latest one, which was the most violent flare-up between the two antagonists in more than a year, at least 44 Palestinians died, including civilians and 15 children.
Both sides were quick to declare victory — although on this occasion, despite firing at least 1,100 rockets into Israel, it was Islamic Jihad that sustained the most painful losses, including some of its highest-ranking military commanders. Meanwhile, Hamas did not seem to be shedding too many tears over the losses suffered by its domestic political rival.
As always, the ultimate victims of this vicious cycle of violence are ordinary Palestinians, especially those who live in the Gaza Strip, and, to a lesser extent, the Israelis who live close to the border with Gaza or within range of Islamic Jihad’s rockets. But looking at the bigger picture, the violence has further dented the prospects for peace and coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians.
In the absence of any prospect for the peace process moving forward, let alone an agreement being reached, the so-called status quo of the harsh Israeli occupation and blockade is establishing ever-deeper roots in Gaza and the West Bank, with no end in sight.
A new and disturbing collection of testimonies from members of the Israeli security forces, published by Israeli human rights organization Breaking the Silence, highlights the ill-treatment of Palestinians by their occupiers through what it calls the “bureaucratic violence and oppression” that the Palestinian people experience every day.
This is not about maintaining security or fighting terrorism, as the Israeli authorities claim about every single act of oppression involved in the occupation, but about the banality of the occupier controlling almost every aspect of the existence of the people living under occupation.
This is about keeping those people guessing, uncertain and unsure about what is expected of them and what are they entitled to, to the extent that they develop a complete dependency on both the military and civil administrations who can, with a stroke of a pen or a wave of a hand, ease some of the restrictions on basic aspects of daily life such as freedom of movement, the right to work, the right to receive medical treatment, or even the right to visit a sick or dying relative — or simply to deny all of these rights.
The Israeli Civil Administration is formally tasked with managing civilian affairs in the Occupied Territories “for the welfare and benefit of the population and for the purpose of providing and operating public services, given the need to maintain good governance and public order.”
The ultimate victims of this vicious cycle of violence are ordinary Palestinians, especially those who live in the Gaza Strip.
The reality, revealed in Breaking the Silence’s collection of accounts by former military personnel, makes a mockery of the idea that the Civil Administration is ensuring the welfare of the population. It mainly serves as an arm of the security services that ensures full control over Palestinian land and people through the exploitation of a permits regime that means Palestinians must have specific permission to enjoy all of the rights bestowed on Israelis, including settlers, thanks to the sheer luck of not being born as Palestinians under occupation.
As much as its obvious practical purpose is to limit legitimate human activity, there is also a psychological aspect to this system of permits that has nothing whatsoever to do with averting militancy but has everything to do with controlling the Palestinian population.
Palestinians need permits — most of which are denied — to enter Israel for any reason: To work there, where more jobs are available and better paid than those in the West Bank and Gaza; to visit family members; to travel between Gaza and the West Bank or within Israel; or for medical treatment.
Most of them are prohibited from worshipping at their holy places or simply enjoying a day at the beach. Absurdly, there are cases where Palestinians require permits to cultivate their own land or access their own homes.
For example, one account by a former Israeli first sergeant describes how farmers were prevented from harvesting their olive crops. In another case, a Palestinian called Nijam lives in a remote location on the Israeli side of the separation barrier, near an Israeli settlement, and so to to enter his own house he has to call an operations room to have a gate in the barrier opened for him, leaving him at the mercy of the soldiers who control the gate.
This sort of situation is not uncommon and places a huge amount of power in the hands of young soldiers and officers to impose their own interpretations of what is allowed and what is not, while making up their own policies based on what they believe is “the spirit of the high command” — or simply on a whim.
Similar experiences are reported by another Israeli human rights organization, Gisha, the mission of which is to protect the freedom of movement of Palestinian residents of Gaza.
The residents of Gaza, most of whom are classified as refugees, suffer from the effects of wars and destruction, unemployment and poverty, and have no access to basic services. In addition to all this, only a tiny proportion of them are granted travel permits, for what are defined as “exceptional humanitarian circumstances.” They are approved for only a limited number of traders and businesspeople, and recently also for manual laborers working in agriculture and construction in Israel, which benefits the Israeli economy as much as the Gazans.
This discriminatory system, which often ignores its own rules by denying permits to the majority of applicants without giving any reason — and on occasion even refuses to allow those who have a permit to enter Israel when they arrive at the crossing point — is due to what can only be described as completely arbitrary actions by those who haphazardly decide the people’s fate, just because they can.
Those are not isolated incidents or uncommon stories. Some are more absurd than others but all of them, in one way or another, have the effect of dictating to ordinary Palestinians whether or not they will be able to feed their families, farm their land, or make it to a hospital for a routine appointment or emergency treatment.
In the absence of any political horizon for negotiation, these daily hardships and the constant friction with Israeli soldiers and bureaucrats are deepening the resentment toward Israel and leaving a population of 2 million Palestinians in despair.
This is exactly what the Israeli authorities would like to achieve: Despair that leads to submissiveness and compliance. This is not only immoral in the extreme but, in the long run, might also destroy any prospect of peaceful coexistence and will only lead to more hatred, inevitably followed by more wars and bloodshed.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.