Robin Briant: Life is confined and cruel for Palestinians on the West Bank

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Devastation is the unsettling reality of building settlements in the West Bank.
An Israeli Arab woman stands by the rubble of demolished house in Kalansua, Israel. Photo / AP
An Israeli Arab woman stands by the rubble of demolished house in Kalansua, Israel. Photo / AP

The passage of UN Security Council Resolution 2334 condemning Israeli settlements in the West Bank is a small but symbolically important act. It was led by New Zealand and I am proud of that.

I lived in the West Bank and Gaza for a year in 2003-4 while I worked for a large humanitarian medical organisation. I travelled through the occupied territory to deliver medical service to people unable to move because of Israeli settlements nearby. I observed first hand the way life for Palestinians was made miserable and dangerous by the effects of the many Israeli settlements.

The processes of building and maintaining a settlement are hugely disruptive and violent and entail all or most of the following elements.

The first essential is land on which to build, but the land all belongs to other people, who have been there for decades if not centuries, and they do not want to sell. There is no polite negotiation, no legal sale and purchase agreements here; just take the land, by force.

The Israeli Defence Force (IDF) come in to action, intimidating people and bulldozing a space where they can build their first command post.

From there it's a matter of gradually enlarging the area. Bulldozers are a major part of the IDF armamentarium. They push down gardens, sheds, olive orchards that might have stood and produced for 100 years, and houses. People inevitably must leave as well.

They then make a hill for the new town while they are on the job, simple with bulldozers and all that rubble and earth; hills are easier to fortify and protect. Then they build a wall to keep unwanted people out.

Next they divert lots of water to the site so that a nice first-world life can be lived within the wall. No matter that local bores go dry, orchards die and even more livelihoods are lost outside the wall.

Israeli Arab women and children protest the demolition of houses in Kalansua, Israel. Photo / AP
Israeli Arab women and children protest the demolition of houses in Kalansua, Israel. Photo / AP

By now there are few people close by, they have been all forcibly moved on so that the settlement can be secure from enraged, disenfranchised Palestinian victims who must not be allowed anywhere near.

The Israeli settlers then build their houses but the settlements are just for living in - all the rest of their lives happen within the borders mandated for Israel in May 1948; work, school, shopping, sport tend to be outside the settlement.

So highways have to be built for the safe transfer of Israelis from home to work and back; wide, straight and fast, these highways link settlements with each other and with Israel.

Palestinians must not be near these roads either, so there's a wide clearance of houses and activity on each side. Palestinians certainly cannot use the roads nor are they allowed to cross them. The consequences are divided communities, farmers separated from their land, children from their school.

If a direct route is not available from point A to point B, then an indirect one has to be found, and much of Palestinian time and effort is spent in achieving this. In the process some of them might pass too close for settler comfort to one of the walls or highways, so the IDF set up checkpoints to control movement on these alternate routes.

Check points are heavy fortifications, manned around the clock by permanently armed soldiers who never take their right hand off their weapon or their index finger off the trigger. These soldiers appear to be in the business of delaying or denying transit by Palestinians for whatever arbitrary reason they can think of.

Israeli Arabs boy look at the rubble of demolished houses in Kalansua, Israel. Photo / AP
Israeli Arabs boy look at the rubble of demolished houses in Kalansua, Israel. Photo / AP

I have witnessed thousands of men, women and children humiliated at checkpoints, made to wait in the hot sun without shelter or seating for hours, made to wait despite impending childbirth, made to wait dying in ambulances, made late for school or work, just made to wait for no reason other than they, the soldiers, can make them wait.

Violence at checkpoints is common and many Palestinians have lost their lives trying to cross. I encountered many scary things in my work in the Occupied Territories, but checkpoints were the most frightening.

Increased Palestinian frustration and understandable anger are a result of the settlement policy of the Israeli Government. An increased likelihood of retribution leads to ever harsher control and more aggressive soldiering from the IDF there protecting settlers.

The result, for Palestine as a state and as a people, is that the West Bank is fragmented into smaller and smaller enclaves where people and their lives are confined. Palestinians suffer progressive loss of their land and livelihoods, loss of their homes and liberty, loss of their dignity, autonomy and hope, and all too often loss of their lives as well.
Palestinians have absolutely nothing left to bargain with.

Resolution 2334 is an important stake in the ground; it must be followed by meaningful dialogue and action to end the illegal occupation of Palestinian land by the government of Israel.

Robin Briant MD FRACP is a retired physician and occasional writer living in Gisborne.

Dialogue Contributions are welcome and should be 500-700 words. Send your submission to dialogue@nzherald.co.nz. Text may be edited and used in digital formats as well as on paper

- NZ Herald

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