Where Roads don't Connect but Divide

18 July 2005

  Praful Bidwai

Where Roads don't Connect but Divide
Praful Bidwai
The Hindu, 5 May 2004

How long does it to travel from Jerusalem to Ramallah, barely 20 km away as the crow flies?

Answers an Israeli friend: "About 30 minutes if you are Israeli and take the special "Jewish" motorway. If you are Palestinian, it could be one-and-a-half hours-if you are lucky at the checkpoints. If there's a special check (frequent), or the guard doesn't like your face, it could be three hours, six hours, even till tomorrow..."

The drive-through road between Jerusalem, which both Israelis and Palestinians claim is their capital, and Ramallah, occupied West Bank's biggest city, is not for ordinary people. Only Jewish settlers, diplomats or Palestinian Authority VIPs can take it. There is no public transportation. So you must have a car.

Most Palestinians take ramshackle buses or shared "Arab-taxis", alighting at each checkpoint to show their papers to soldiers, satisfying them they are no security risk, and then taking yet another bus/taxi.

Checkpoints-there are over 750 of them in relatively tiny West Bank/Gaza-are inseparable from Palestinian daily life. It is hard to escape them. "Flying checkpoints" materialise out of nowhere.

A whole infrastructure of tea/coffee-vending and grocery shops, has emerged at checkpoints-because nobody knows how long they would have to wait. Fiftytwo women-in-labour have given birth at checkpoints, having been denied ambulance transport.

"The Israeli military can descend upon any PA-controlled city, surround an area, impose curfew and establish checkpoints", says a United Nations official.

The checkpoints are a daily humiliation for Palestinians-a reminder that a 20-year-old guard who treats them with infinite disdain controls their life and determines if they will or won't earn a wage today.

"Coming from a village near Ramallah is an extremely unpleasant, traumatising and insulting experience", says Khaled Abu-Akel, who works 12-hour shifts in a small East Jerusalem restaurant. "I have to miss work or partially lose wages about two to three days a week because of delays. Sometimes, I don't go back home for days because I won't be able to return. My family life is a mess ..."

Checkpoints ensure Palestinians have no control over their livelihoods. They are part of a complex system of organising and perpetuating the occupation through concrete roadblocks (usually one-meter-high), barbed-wire fences, earth mounds and trenches (to obstruct vehicles) and metal barrier-gates.

Then, there is the Wall.

This 700 km-long wall-cum-electric fence-cum-barbed wire-barrier will dissect and encircle Palestinian territory. It is being built on confiscated West Bank land. In places, it is 30-150 metres wide. It will include electrified fencing, sniper-towers, trenches, roads for patrol vehicles, electronic sensors, thermal-imaging, video cameras and aerial drones, besides razor-wire.

It will be almost five times longer than the Berlin Wall and cut up to six km deep into Palestinian territory.

A visit to the Wall at Abu Dis, east of Jerusalem, was revealing. Jamal Juma showed us the market in Sawahre which the wall cuts into two. The village school will be on one side; the traditional cemetery on the other. Children must make a detour of 8-to-15 km to get to school-or drop out.

"Some 6,000 people have been uprooted here," says Jamal. "Some were removed because they had not paid 'dues' which they know nothing of like 'TV tax', 'ground tax', 'car tax', nor received bills for. Some 100,000 Palestinians will soon be uprooted."

The Apartheid Wall will eventually isolate 200,000 Palestinians, cut off the West Bank from East Jerusalem, and act as a shield around numerous illegal settlements.

The Wall will divide communities and the clans/extended families around which Palestinian society is organised, and disrupt hospital and emergency healthcare services. (At least 84 deaths have occurred at barriers, including of 27 children). It will also block provision of food and medical supplies (1.7 million Palestinians are dependant on UN food aid), besides causing economic havoc.

All this violates Israel's obligations under the Fourth Geneva Convention relating to protection of the civilian population in times of war and occupation, as well as recent UN resolutions.

Supplementing the enclosure-and-segregation policy are state-sponsored closures across the Israel-Palestine border. Permanent closures, which started with Oslo, severely restrict the number of Palestinians who can enter Israel for work. This amounts to collective economic punishment, banned under international law.

Closures have made the planning of individual life impossible. They have badly shredded the social fabric, disrupted patterns of residential, marital and family life, and created artificial, mutually un-integrated islands.

The occupation's heightened brutality since the Second Intifidah (September 2000) have aggravated the Palestinian crisis. Personal misery and widespread collective experience of social dislocation, grave injustice and humiliation today mark one of the most socially, educationally and culturally advanced peoples of the Middle East.

Copyright 2004 The Hindu


About the authors

Praful Bidwai

Praful Bidwai is a political columnist, social science researcher, and activist on issues of human rights, the environment, global justice and peace. He currently holds the Durgabai Deshmukh Chair in Social Development, Equity and Human Security at the Council for Social Development, Delhi, affiliated to the Indian Council for Social Science Research. 

A former Senior Editor of The Times of India, Bidwai is one of South Asia’s most widely published columnists, whose articles appear in more than 25 newspapers and magazines. He is also frequently published by The Guardian, Le Monde Diplomatique and Il Manifesto.

Bidwai is a founder-member of the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (India). He received the Sean MacBride International Peace Prize, 2000 of the International Peace Bureau, Geneva & London. 

He was a Senior Fellow, Centre for Contemporary Studies, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi. Bidwai is the co-author, with Achin Vanaik, of South Asia on a Short Fuse: Nuclear Politics and the Future of Global Disarmament, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1999, a radical critique of the nuclearisation of India and Pakistan and of reliance on nuclear weapons for security.