Apartheid in the West Bank: From bad to worse

March 26, 2024
mural and map
A mural on the wall of the threatened Silwan neighbourhood in East Jerusalem. Inset: Map of forcibly displaced communities in the West Bank, pre-Oct 7 (yellow dots) and post-October 7, 2023 (red, purple dots). Source: btselem.org

Ammar Abu Shamleh is a young Palestinian-Australian from Jenin. The following is the text of a speech he gave to an Iftar dinner fund-raiser in Perth/Boorloo on March 22.

* * *

Today, I want to primarily focus my attention on the situation in the West Bank. Israel’s genocidal assault on Gaza has largely eclipsed their actions in the West Bank since October 7, so I want to try paint a picture of the grim reality there.

I want to approach this by discussing four main themes that I think are present in the West Bank. These are all related to each other and are the corners of Israel’s system of control and Apartheid.

The first major theme is that of fragmentation and de-development. Israel has always maintained a suffocating system of checkpoints in the West Bank that can, at a moment’s notice, control, disrupt and shutdown the most basic elements of life. Since October 7, this has been taken to extremes.

The network of checkpoints has been used to completely fragment the West Bank into small besieged pockets of Palestinians. Many rural towns have had their entrances and exits shutdown by mobile checkpoints, leaving villagers with little recourse when they need to visit neighbouring cities. Cities such as Nablus have effectively become besieged enclaves, cut off from one another. Routine 15 minute journeys have turned into hours-long ordeals.

This has made basic life within the West Bank nearly untenable. It has caused severe disruption to business, social and essential movements. Students are cut off from universities. Employees from their places of work. Friends and family, from each other.

The disruption to economic activity is particularly notable, and exacerbated by the revocation of so-called “entrance permits”, which allowed Palestinians within the West Bank to travel inside Israel’s borders for work. A very large portion of Palestinians have been stripped of their livelihoods. It’s a reminder that the occupation of Palestine is not just physical. The economy itself is occupied.

The second major theme, and one often misrepresented, is that of settlers, and consequently, displacement. Contrary to the view of Western media, the bogarting settler-thugs that daily harass and assault Palestinians in the West Bank are not an isolated problem. They’re a deliberate, planned, and state-sponsored enterprise of land theft and violence.

Settlers are, quite literally, armed and aided by the Israeli government and military. [Itamar] Ben-Gvir infamously purchased and handed tens of thousands of firearms to violent settlers after October 7, which they proceeded to use exactly as was expected: to bully, attack, murder and displace Palestinians.

When settlers assault a village, the army blockade it to prevent escape. Palestinians who attempt to resist or defend themselves are fired at by the military. The settlers have long been weaponised to displace Palestinians. This is done in two ways: 1. Assault villages enough that the Palestinians flee out of fear; 2. Steal Palestinian land for new settlement enterprises and evict the residents

Alongside home demolitions, performed under one of two flimsy and illegal premises, Palestinians in the West Bank are finding themselves internally displaced at a record rate.

All these mechanisms have gone into overdrive since October 7. With over 3000 new settlement units announced, and many villages depopulated of their residents in the wake of endless rounds of settler attacks. The rate of settler violence, already at an all-time high before October 7, has almost tripled since. Whether at the hands of the military, or the settlers (often both, it makes no difference), Palestinians are experiencing an alarming level of violence in the West Bank.

This brings us straight to the third major theme: military raids and killings. The Israeli military have, since October 7, conducted numerous — often dozens — of raids across the West Bank daily. Particularly frequent targets are the refugee camps, especially those in Tulkarem, Nur Shams, Balata, and particularly Jenin. The army invades, terrorises the residents, carries out arrests and extrajudicial killings, destroys infrastructure, including the roads, and then leaves. Palestinians are left with little time to breathe before the next round.

These are carried out with no respect for human dignity, the sanctity of life, or any legal convention on the planet. Twice have hospitals in Jenin been targeted and invaded, with Israel sending in death squads to murder sleeping patients in their beds.

A 13-year-old child, Rami Hamdan al-Halhuli, was shot and killed by a sniper in East Jerusalem while playing with fireworks to celebrate the start of Ramadan. In what is a common pattern, his body was taken and withheld by the Israeli military.

And finally, this brings us straight to our last theme, one of the most sensitive issues for Palestinians: arrests and the prisoner movement.

The detention of Palestinians has always been political in nature. Palestinians are snatched up in the middle of the night and held either under trumped-up charges, or under so-called administrative detention — without any charges.

It’s an attempt to seize Palestine’s political future, by imprisoning people who engage in any form of advocacy, journalism, or resistance — whether armed or unarmed.

Since October 7, almost 8000 Palestinians have been arrested and detained by the Israeli military. Many of those freed in the brief November truce have since been rearrested. An extended relative of mine in Nablus, a fifth-year medical student, was arrested weeks ago for his father’s former political activity.

Often, if the military don’t find the people they’re after, they arrest their family members as a form of pressure.

The conditions in the prisons are unbearable, with Palestinians subjected to overcrowding, abuse and torture, and deprivation of food, water and medical care. Since October 7 at least 10 Palestinians have died in Israeli prisons. At least 27 Palestinians from Gaza have died in military camps. Many of these are young detainees, leaving no doubt that violence was involved in their deaths. The bodies of Palestinians who die in custody are often kept to serve out the remainder of the term.

This is all only a brief snapshot of the situation in the West Bank. Much like Gaza, words don’t capture the reality. But it’s the best we can do to try and convey the oppressive structures Palestinians live under. Ultimately, both the West Bank and Gaza are different manifestations of the same ideologies and policies of racial supremacy and subjugation.

But I want to finish now on a more positive note. That despite what Palestinians endure, and in spite of every effort made to break our wills, Palestinians remain steadfast, resolute and unbending in their demands for justice and their connection to their land. Israel’s project of ethnic cleansing has only failure behind it, and failure in-front of it, because the resistance and resilience of Palestinians today is stronger than ever.

[The text has been lightly edited for style.]

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