Why Palestinians are leaving, part 1

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Israeli security checkpoint. (photo: Mary Pneuman)

The facts on the ground.

By Mary J. Pneuman / Bishop’s Committee for Justice and Peace in the Holy Land

[Ed. note: After returning from a recent trip to the Holy Land, the author has updated her previous writings. We offer The Promised Land or the Land of Promise Revisited here in serial form.]


Not too long ago, I rode with a priest who had such a permit to visit Bethlehem, about five miles south of Jerusalem. His mother and the mother of his fiancée planned to ride along to visit the Church of the Nativity. We were stopped at the checkpoint and refused entry because the women, who lived near Nazareth, were Israeli citizens — no other reasons given.


A comprehensive report published in December 2016, by B’tselem (Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories) lays out the various ways and means that Israel has continued to appropriate and transfer Palestinian lands to Jewish settlers. Established in 1987 by prominent Israeli academics, lawyers and journalists to educate the Israeli public and members of parliament about human right violations in the occupied territories, this organization conducts in-depth research and publishes well documented reports about the “devastating repercussions [of] the fragmentation of Palestinian space into isolated enclaves, cutting communities off from essential land resources that are vital to their development.” The report concludes that “the forced separation of the Palestinian villages from their farmlands, pastureland and natural water resources [has] severely infringed upon their rights, devastated the local economy and propelled them into poverty and dependence on external bodies” at many levels of insecurity — social, economic, food and water. An encyclopedia of human and civil rights abuses must include an expanding array of restrictions on land use, water access, freedom of movement of people and goods, educational and economic development, and civil and political rights that have been imposed upon the Palestinian population.

For hundreds of years, Palestinian villages have been largely self-sufficient, depending on sustainable dry-land farms and orchards, livestock and shepherding for a living. Conservation of rainwater that has seeped into the limestone and the use of cisterns to collect surface runoff have provided a sufficient water supply. Most of the produce was consumed by the people themselves, but road access to larger towns and cities allowed them to reach bigger markets for agricultural surplus and the products of small business.

Measures that Israel typically uses to appropriate Palestinian land include:

  • Declaring agricultural land to be “state land,”
  • Creation of “nature reserves” or open space,
  • Creation of physical obstacles to Palestinian access to their own land,
  • Declaring land as “Special Security Areas” for the protection of settlements (including military buffer zones and other infrastructure),
  • Creation of by-pass roads to connect settlements but that prohibits use by Palestinians (even crossing by foot) and creates controlled borders between villages and villagers from their land.
Destruction of Palestinian homes and other property

In 2016, the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICHAD) reported that nearly 48,000 Palestinian properties, homes and other structures, in the West Bank had been seized or demolished since 1967, and nearly 300,000 Palestinians have left the West Bank and East Jerusalem in the last 10 years — most of the emigres are young, middle class, well-educated, and Christian. Area C is now 62% of the West Bank land but has only 5% of the Palestinian population. ICHAD states that it is the official policy of Israel to maintain a 72/28% population majority.

The UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the occupied territory reported in February 2017, that the number of structures leveled in the first month of the year had exceeded the monthly average for 2016 and displaced 240 Palestinians, affecting another 4,000. These demolitions were concentrated in area C around Nablus, Hebron, East Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley. B’tselem (2.17) reported that the number of demolitions in 2016 had broken the record of 2015 and 2014 combined. Last year 362 residences were destroyed and more than 1,100 Palestinians were made homeless, about half of them minors.

Once declared to be “state land” by the government of Israel, the burden of proof of ownership falls on the Palestinian owner. Old or new Palestinian construction on land claimed by Israel is deemed “illegal” and is subject to demolition orders, usually on grounds that building permits have not been obtained, but more than 95 percent of Palestinian building applications, even to remodel or repair existing structures, are rejected. More and more, the owners of “illegal” property are required to destroy it themselves or pay the fee for Israel to do it for them. Demolishing homes as a collective act of retribution for protest is not uncommon. B’tselem states that the principle reason is to limit Palestinian presence in the areas that Israel intends to take over.

Restrictions on freedom of movement

Israel can restrict movement in or out at all points of entry into the West Bank and Gaza at any time. Currently there are over 100 permanent obstacles to travel in or out of the West Bank. On October 11, 2017, all checkpoints were closed for a period of 11 days for the celebration of the Jewish religious Sukkot (Feast of the Tabernacles). This closure would disrupt the lives of some 4.5 million Palestinians, and according to the Jerusalem Post and Ha’aretz (10.17) affect tens of thousands of West Bank workers who have permits to work in Israel or Israeli settlements on the West Bank. The order was later amended to permit selective admission of those who work in agriculture or hospitals in accordance with the “needs of the market.”

B’Tselem called the extended Sukkot closure the “collective punishment of tens of thousands of Palestinians” and the “exploitation of the military power and authority as wanton abuse of civilians without accountability.” (Jerusalem Post) Such closures are typical at the end of all Jewish holidays — Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Passover — but can be imposed for the duration and can deny access to health or educational facilities. The reason given for such closures is usually because the holiday comes after an incident which calls for greater security.

Bypass roads which connect the settlements with each other and with commercial centers are generally off-limits to Palestinians, who must use secondary roads to reach their jobs, agricultural lands, essential services and other Palestinian communities. Bethlehem is now nearly surrounded by three large settlement blocs that are connected through by-pass roads and served by an urban infrastructure of services.

Because of restrictions on trade and economic development in the West Bank, Palestinian workers, predominantly trades and service sector workers, must seek employment in the settlements to feed their families. In addition to loss of employment income, Palestinians are often unable to visit families or places of worship. Israeli citizens who wish to visit holy sites in the West Bank are generally not allowed to do so without a special permit. Not too long ago, I rode with a priest who had such a permit to visit Bethlehem, about five miles south of Jerusalem. His mother and the mother of his fiancée planned to ride along to visit the Church of the Nativity. We were stopped at the checkpoint and refused entry because the women, who lived near Nazareth, were Israeli citizens — no other reasons given. Sadly, now there are few opportunities for Palestinians and Israelis to get to know each other in an increasingly segregated society.

Restrictions on water access and use

In the West Bank, more than 80 percent of available water is allocated for settlement use, and Palestinians, who are not allowed to dig new wells, must buy their water from Israel. In addition to water restrictions, there are restrictions on electric power. Although some have developed solar systems, 203 Palestinian villages are not connected to the power grid.

In 1967, Mekorot, Israel’s national water company, took control of the mountain aquifer of the West Bank and now has control of 80% of the water. Under the occupation, many Palestinian wells and irrigations systems have been destroyed, and no new wells are allowed. Palestinian municipalities must purchase the water from Mekorot, which has the power to reduce or shut off supply at any time. According to the EU report (1.16) the distribution between settlements and Palestinian communities is not equitable, with settlements allotted about 3 times as much water. Palestinians receive below 100 liters per day set as a minimum human consumption standard by the World Health Organization. About 200,000 Palestinians live where there are no connections to the water network and must either purchase bottled water or get their water from tanker trucks, paying four times as much as if they could purchase water from Mekorot. The heatwave of the summer of 2016 had begun before we left Ramallah. Later in the season, drastic reductions in water supplies in parts of the West Bank led to the death of livestock and ruined gardens and nurseries.

Read the full paper here →

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