Fawzi Yusef, a farmer in the West Bank village of Yanun, has been unable to reach his olive groves near the Itamar settlement for more than 10 years due to a “military closure.” He might have taken hope from a 2006 decision by Israel’s High Court of Justice. The court ruled that the Israel Defense Forces should refrain from preventing Palestinians from reaching their lands, absent real-time intelligence of threats on the ground.
But in practice, that decision hasn’t meant much to Yusef at all. The Israeli army now “coordinates” with villagers to visit their lands — but they only get a few days a year. “You need two months to dig around, fertilize, prune and take away the cut branches, plus enough time for the harvest,” Yusuf told a Human Rights Watch researcher, referring to his olive trees. “Coordination gives you enough time to say hello to the tree, that’s it, then you have to leave.”
All across the West Bank, Israeli authorities are inflicting needless humiliation and suffering — unrelated to any security issues — on Palestinians living in portions of the territory designated as Area C. These are the areas of the West Bank over which Israel has retained total and exclusive control.
About 125,000 Palestinians live in Area C, which is also where all of Israel’s settlements are located. Palestinian residents of Area C have no alternative but to turn to Israel’s government for redress of grievances. But Israel continually rebuffs and denies their appeals.
Villagers in Jubbet al-Dhib have been filing repeated requests to be connected to the electricity network since 1988. The Israeli Civil Administration, which governs Palestinian affairs for the army in Area C, has turned down six requests since 2000 alone, on the grounds that the village lacks a master plan. But the Civil Administration has also turned down several master plans that the village has presented.
When Human Rights Watch researchers visited Jubbet al-Dhib one evening in November 2009, they watched as children lit candles to begin doing their nightly homework. Out the windows of their home, the lights of the fully electrified settlements of Nokdim, Teqoa and Sde Bar were clearly visible.
This picture is replicated across the Israeli-controlled West Bank, where Palestinians live with unpaved roads, dried-up wells, a lack of schools and medical facilities, and the persistent inability to obtain permission to build the simplest structures. Even chicken coops may be bulldozed by the Israeli army if they are built without a permit, which is nearly impossible to get.
These living conditions are all the more shocking because Israeli settlements enjoy swimming pools, fountains, clinics, computer labs and super-highways to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. “Outposts” that are illegal even under Israeli law are often connected to Israeli electrical and water networks. The settlers’ gleaming infrastructure is subsidized generously by Israeli taxpayers.
The Israeli government often justifies military closures, land confiscations and other harsh measures in Area C as necessary to ensure security. But this is often little more than a mantra. Would building a school in a Palestinian village somehow endanger Israeli citizens?
Numerous treaties that Israel has ratified require the government not to discriminate against people under its control — whether they are citizens or not. A state of emergency, and even a state of war, does not void that basic human rights obligation. Israel’s high court has agreed that while security precautions may justify some restrictions on Palestinian life, they cannot be applied in a blanket fashion.
While the parties to the conflict argue about the future of the settlements, there are many things that can be done today to address the plight of thousands of Palestinians whose lives are made impossible by policies that systematically discriminate against them. With the peace process stalled, Israel should take the initiative to make some simple, humanitarian gestures. Israel’s Civil Administration in the West Bank can grant building permits; authorize municipal plans; allow the construction of roads, schools and clinics — which international donors will pay for anyway — and permit repairs of Palestinian water networks that waste as much as 40% of the water that flows through them.
Ultimately, the settlements issue must be resolved. But in the meantime, Israel must alleviate the needless suffering of those over whom it rules.
Kathleen Peratis is a board member emerita of Human Rights Watch and co-chair of its Middle East and North Africa division. She is a member of the board of the Forward Association.