PALESTINE: 700,000 people under house arrest



RAMALLAH — The Israeli F-16 airstrike early on July 23 that killed Hamas leader Salah Shehada and 15 Palestinian civilians in a crowded Gaza neighbourhood suddenly put the roiling Israeli-Palestinian conflict back in the Western headlines.

It is possible, as some Western diplomats have stated, that Israel timed the assassination to scuttle imminent agreements between the Palestinian Authority (PA), secular Palestinian militias and Hamas to cease armed attacks on Israeli civilians. Such an agreement might have generated international pressure on Israel to end its month-old re-invasion of West Bank towns, dubbed Operation Determined Path by the army.

However, what appears certain is that Israel will now prolong its military presence and tighten curfews inside the towns, using the pretext that these measures are necessary to prevent Hamas from following through on its loudly broadcasted pledges of revenge for the July 23 Gaza massacre.

Since June 18, approximately 700,000 Palestinians in the West Bank have been living under house arrest — or less accurately "under curfew" — a story that has been remarkably absent from Western headlines.

Curfew is not a new experience for Palestinians. It is a tactic that has been used on many occasions by the Israeli government, most notably during the first intifada of 1987-1993 and the 1991 Gulf War.

What curfew means in practice is that Israeli tanks, jeeps and snipers patrol the streets of Palestinian towns confining residents to their houses. Anyone seen outside their home can be shot dead or arrested. The streets are eerily quiet, there is no movement of cars, no-one can get to work or school and every shop is closed.

The curfew tactic has been used extensively in 2002, most notably during Israel's major West Bank offensives in March and April. The most recent round of curfews apply to all Palestinian towns and larger villages in the West Bank, except the oasis town of Jericho. In Ramallah, the curfew has been in place for 48 of the last 108 days.

'Violating' the curfew

In numerous instances, Palestinian civilians have been killed for "violating" the curfew — venturing out of doors during periods when their community was under lockdown. On June 21, four Palestinians, three of them children, were killed and 24 injured when Israeli soldiers opened fire on a market in Jenin at a time when Palestinian residents believed the curfew on the city had been lifted.

However, it is often difficult to determine when the curfew has been suspended, since in many areas the Israeli military fails to publicly announce the lifting of restrictions. Residents are forced to rely on media reports and other informal sources to learn when the curfew will be relaxed and for how long. Frequently, a lifting is announced, but then cancelled at the last minute or the curfew is reimposed prior to the originally announced time.

The latest round of curfews began as secondary school students were in the process of taking their matriculation exams, a prerequisite for graduation and university entrance. In many cases exams were cancelled because of the curfew. According to one student living in Ramallah, students attempting to reach their exams were told by Israeli soldiers: "No peace, no exams."

The curfews are the latest step in a 22-month siege of Palestinian towns and villages. The resulting loss of income is hitting the poorest and most vulnerable Palestinians the hardest.

A recent report by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) found that 30% of children under five are afflicted by chronic malnutrition, defined as stunted growth, while 21% are suffering from acute malnutrition and are underweight. These figures are up from 7.5% and 2.5% respectively in 2000. A USAID environmental survey of 300 households near Nablus found that none had access to drinking water that met international health standards.

The USAID statistics confirm trends noticed by other international and local organisations over the past two years. A household income survey conducted by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics in April 2002 found that more than two-thirds of Palestinian households were living below the poverty line (approximately US$340 per month) in the first two months of 2002.

In the West Bank, 57.8% of households were below the poverty line, while in the Gaza Strip the figure reached 84.6%. More than two-thirds of the Palestinian population is living on less than $1.90 a day. According to the World Bank, the figure prior to the intifada was 21.1%.

Birzeit University's Institute for Community and Public Health has warned of increases in preventable disease, like hepatitis B, because vaccination programs cannot be carried out on schedule. The PA's ministry of health normally carries out vaccination for hepatitis B at birth. Today, many mothers cannot reach the ministry's hospitals due to the curfew and closures, and there has been a 40% increase in births at home, where there is no access to the vaccine. The ministry predicts an increase of 3.4% in the overall rate of hepatitis B infection.

For at least half of the labour force, which relies heavily upon day work and does not receive a regular salary, each day under curfew is a day without pay. Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics data indicate that more than 50% of the population has seen its income halved since September 2000. When curfews are lifted for a few hours periodically, the population spends money rather than earning it because there is not enough time to work a full day.

Political context

Many international humanitarian organisations which have documented the disastrous effects of curfew and closures on the Palestinian population are urging the Israeli government to "ease the suffering" and "end measures of collective punishment". These organisations fail to place the measures in their political context, making their appeals to the Israeli government sound like pleas to fine-tune the occupation's oppression to target those that really deserve it.

The Israeli government is more than aware of the results of confining 700,000 people to their homes. The voluminous statistics and reports are available for all to see, and even the most casual observer cannot but notice the desperation on the streets of every Palestinian town.

Rather than an accidental byproduct of "security measures", curfews and closures are a deliberate policy aimed at demoralising and demobilising the Palestinian population, as is clearly illustrated by the way the army "lifts" the curfews.

The army spreads deliberate confusion over when curfews will be lifted and for how long. Several times in Ramallah, Israeli government radio has reported that the curfew had been lifted until 6pm, even as soldiers on the ground were reimposing the lockdown at noon. At other times, army jeeps with loudspeakers have driven through the streets at 2pm telling people to return home within 10 minutes when the relaxation of curfew had been previously announced as ending at 5pm. Soldiers at checkpoints will announce one curfew time, while district officials will state another.

In this way, curfew becomes another weapon in the psychological war that Israel wages upon the Palestinians. Simple daily planning becomes an impossibility: you cannot know if you will be able to go to work, school or university or whether you will be confined to your home.

A second aim of collective punishment policies is to forestall political mobilisation of the population. The curfew is never lifted on Fridays, the day when demonstrations traditionally take place. Meetings and other forms of political and social organisation break down when people cannot leave their houses. Thousands of politically active Palestinians are forced to go underground, afraid of returning to homes whose location is known to the Israeli military.

Suffocating the uprising

The resulting demoralisation is widespread. Demonstrations in the West Bank are few and poorly attended, as people use the few hours during the lifting of curfews to buy food and attempt to make ends meet. The only visible political resistance are the kites that dot the skyline each night displaying the colours of the Palestinian flag, flown by children from their backyards.

It appears that Israel has no intention of remaining inside Palestinian population centres longer than the time required to reorder the Palestinian political system and attain a signature on an agreement "ending" the uprising.

The similarities to the first intifada are striking. In 1991, during the US-led bombardment of Iraq, Israel imposed a curfew on the Palestinian population which suffocated the already dwindling intifada. Combined with the support of Arab regimes for the Gulf War and the resulting international isolation of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, these measures led directly to the signing of the deeply flawed Oslo accords in 1993.

In the initial phase of the Oslo "peace process", Israel agreed to withdraw its soldiers from "Gaza and Jericho first", and yield the governance of the Gaza Strip and one West Bank town to the nascent PA. Today, the Israeli government speaks of another "Gaza and Jericho first" agreement as the US appears poised to attack Iraq.

According to the Israeli plan, which appears to have Washington's support, the Gaza Strip and Jericho would again be placed under the control of the PA as a first step toward a final settlement. Jordanian and Egyptian security forces would train, organise and oversee a Palestinian security force capable of suppressing the remaining resistance from the militias and the broader population.

Eventually this arrangement would be replicated elsewhere in the West Bank, with a permanent status agreement sometime in the future to legitimise Israel's settlements and bypass roads that split Palestinian territory into disconnected cantons.

While there is widespread feeling among Palestinians that Palestinian negotiators should not meet with their Israeli counterparts while attacks like the F-16 strike on Gaza continue with impunity, under curfew it is difficult for this popular feeling to coalesce into pressure on the PA.

[Adam Hanieh is a researcher and human rights worker in Ramallah, the West Bank. Abridged from a Middle East Research and Information Project press information note. Visit <>.]

From Green Left Weekly, July 31, 2002.
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