“I didn’t know you were such an empiricist,” a friend told me impatiently, a veteran peace activist with a doctorate, when I insisted at some meeting on specifying the prohibitions on the movement of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.
That was in 1995, and he thought I didn’t see the big picture, the positive direction, the vision, the beat of the wings of history, and instead was merely insisting on going into detail, into temporary malfunctions. He wasn’t alone in thinking that. One of my editors at the time told me I lacked perspective because I lived in Gaza, and so my reports looked the way they did. In short, wearisome.
The signs were there right from the start − signs that the so much talked-about Peace Process was a process of subjugation; signs that Israel intended to impose on the other side an agreement whose terms were far from the Palestinian minimum, and far from what many countries in the world envisioned as a two-state solution.
But it was hard for these signs to infiltrate public awareness (as well as the Israeli and international media) through the powerful interest in seeing the outward manifestations of something that you believe exists: in Gazans bathing in the sea; in the head of the Israeli Shin Bet security service meeting with the head of the Palestinian security service; in Shimon Peres visiting Gaza; in joint security patrols; and in our soldiers no longer patrolling in the heart of the Palestinian towns.
From the supposedly narrow perspective of the Strip, though, the reality of incarceration was, looked and felt like the complete opposite of a peace process.
The chronology is important here − I’ve repeated it countless times and will repeat it countless more times − because local readers like to think that the blanket prohibitions on Palestinian mobility were a response to the suicide attacks from 1994 on. That is not the case.
It began in January 1991, on the eve of the Gulf War. The Israel Defense Forces GOC Central and Southern Commands then revoked an earlier order, from the 1970s, of a “general exit permit to Israel” − in other words, one that allowed the Palestinian residents of the occupied territory to enter Israel, and move freely within its borders and between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
Initially, the revocation was interpreted as something temporary, a preventive measure during the unclear period of wartime.
But after a lengthy curfew, the residents of the Strip woke up to a new reality. If up until 1991 Israel had respected (for reasons of its own) the right to freedom of movement for all Palestinians, but withheld it from a few people, after 1991 the situation was reversed: Israel denied all Palestinians (those in the West Bank as well) the right to freedom of movement, aside from a few groups and numbers that it determined.
Since then, this is the rule in effect, aside from shifts in the various categories and specific numbers of those permitted to leave. The expectation that signing the transfer of powers from the Civil Administration to the Palestinian Authority in May 1994 would restore freedom of movement was soon dashed. That was the first clear sign.
Incarceration within the Gaza Strip bagged several birds during this process of subjugation:
Just how important and deliberate that fourth step was may be gleaned from two other signs. Under the Oslo Accords, the PA has the power to change a person’s home address on his or her identity card, and only has to report the change to the Civil Administration (as the representative of Israeli’s Interior Ministry), which enters the new details in the database of its Population Registry.
But in 1996, it emerged that Israel was refusing to register address changes from Gaza to the West Bank.
In 1997, another military order was issued: Gazans now needed a permit even when entering the West Bank via the Allenby Bridge. That closed a loophole which students and others had exploited until then: They would depart Gaza through Egypt, fly to Jordan, and then continue westward, through the Allenby Bridge crossing.
‘No reason to leave’
As early as 1995 I asked a woman in the Israeli security establishment why, if “confidence-building measures” between the Palestinians and Israel had been declared, there would be no easing up with respect to mobility permits and the convoluted bureaucracy that developed around them. Why not, for example, grant women and children exit permits that were valid for a year − if not to Israel, then at least to the West Bank? This woman, though not a decision maker, was placed in the right junction to answer my question: “Because they have no reason to leave,” she told me, honestly.
Clerks and junior officers in the system hear and grasp what is planned in the corridors of power, but are less careful than their superiors about what they say, and do not bother to hide certain intentions. In 1997, when I was already in the West Bank, I started to become acquainted with the traditional Palestinian farming communities in the Jordan Valley, whose tent encampments and shacks had been systematically destroyed by the Civil Administration’s inspectors and soldiers.
Several of the people whose homes had been demolished told me: “I asked the inspector, ‘So where will we go now that you’ve destroyed our home?’ And he replied: ‘Go to Arafat, go to Area A [the small area which was then designed to be under Palestinian administrative-civilian control].’”
To this day, 16 years later, that is the policy behind the destruction of the water cisterns and of tent encampments there. To this day, that is the state’s answer to the High Court of Justice in petitions by residents of the southern Hebron Hills against intentions to evict them from their communities: “They have somewhere to live in Area A.”
“Area A” and “Area B” (under Palestinian civil control and Israeli military control) are the code names for the Palestinian enclaves that formed in the past 20 years − the years of the “peace process.” The Israeli battle to create the detached and separate Gaza enclave succeeded better than expected when Hamas − aided by foolish decisions of the PA − created its own separate institutions of government.
- Separation and creation of distance between senior officials and ordinary folks by granting “generous” mobility permits to a select class of Palestinians: freedom of movement for senior PA officials who came from abroad and gave no thought to the reality that existed before, without a need for permits, and to several prisoners who had been released and positioned themselves high in the PA leadership;
- Satisfying the PA and then PLO leader Yasser Arafat’s sense of pseudo-control − closing the crossings and requesting permits necessitated coordination between the Civil Administration and its Palestinian twin (the Ministry of Civil Affairs);
- Giving the PA a chance to develop the commercial monopolies of its people and cronies − by sheer dint of the need to coordinate exits between the PA and Israel;
- Most important of all: Severing the society in Gaza from that of the West Bank. In other words, undermining the basic condition for a Palestinian state, in both parts of the territory conquered in 1967.