As the UAE and Bahrain normalize relations with Israel in exchange for the ostensible suspension of de-jure annexation, Palestinians in the West Bank continue to face the perils of segregation under the Israeli occupation. A glance into how road, water and land policies segregate lived realities in the occupied West Bank.
On September 15, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain became only the third and fourth Arab countries to normalize relations with Israel, as Benjamin Netanyahu and the foreign ministers of the two Gulf states signed the so-called “Abraham Accords” under the auspices of Donald Trump on the White House lawn. Although the two oil-rich Arab states’ incentives for normalization were primarily economic, Israel agreed to suspend its plans of annexing parts of the occupied West Bank “in exchange”. The formal extension of Israeli sovereignty over sizeable chunks of the West Bank had been Netanyahu’s top priority until the second wave of Covid-19 and ensuing social unrest took center stage in Israel in the summer of 2020.
While halting Israel’s annexation plans might, at first sight, seem like a win for Palestinians, the Israel-UAE/Bahrain deal urges anyone interested in genuine conflict resolution in the holy land to look further and examine the current status of relations between Palestinians and Israelis in the occupied West Bank. Even if annexation is off the table, for now, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank is alive and kicking. “The goal must not be to prevent annexation, but to achieve equal rights” says Muhanad Alkharraz, Executive Director of Taghyeer, the Palestinian national nonviolence movement. Indeed, this sentiment has been echoed by Palestinians and Israeli moderates alike with Ha’aretz columnist Anshel Pfeffer noting that for most Palestinians “it does not matter if you call it occupation or annexation.” To understand what lies beneath these statements, one must analyze the existing regimes that curtail Palestinian freedoms in the West Bank and segregate them from Jewish Settlers, Israelis and also Palestinian/Arab residents of Israel. These dynamics of segregation become particularly apparent in three spheres of access to mobility and natural resources: roads, water and land. These three spheres serve as examples of the wider dynamics of segregation, permeating everyday life in the West Bank.
Segregated Roads and Impaired Mobility
Not only is the West Bank confined by a 500-kilometer-long separation barrier, which West Bank Palestinians are only allowed to cross with a permit from the Israeli authorities, it has also witnessed the gradual establishment of a segregated road system. After the Oslo II Accord (1995) carved up the West Bank into Areas A, B and C, Israel began building bypass roads around Palestinian cities in Area A – a move that critics have viewed as an attempt to create Israeli-only, Palestinian-free enclaves in wide swathes of the West Bank. More recently, in October 2019, Israel opened Route 4370 between the Jewish settlement of Geva Binyamin and Jerusalem. Route 4370 has been criticized as Israel’s “apartheid road”, because it features an eight-meter-high concrete wall that separates cars with Israeli number plates (yellow) from those with Palestinian ones (white). While the Israeli transport ministry claims that Route 4370 allows for commuter traffic from settlements into Jerusalem to run more smoothly on the “Israeli lane”, it prevents West Bank Palestinians from entering the holy city. Even with a permit to enter Israel, Palestinians living in the West Bank are only allowed to enter Jerusalem on foot through a couple of crossing points in the separation barrier. Palestinian residents of occupied East Jerusalem have cars with Israeli number plates and can thus move more freely between Jerusalem, Israel and the West Bank, exemplifying attempts at fragmenting Palestinians residing within and beyond the separation barrier.
Segregating traffic makes Palestinian life in the occupied territories less visible to Jewish settlers, allowing for the suburbanization of the large Israeli settlement blocks around Jerusalem. This benefits the mobility of Jewish settlers within the West Bank, thereby making their life in the occupied territory more convenient. Inversely, it disrupts the daily life of Palestinians who frequently find themselves stuck in hour-long traffic jams on underfunded Palestinian roads. Israeli Human Rights Center B’Tselem notes that Israel also routinely closes access-roads to Palestinian villages for days, virtually cutting them off from the outside world altogether. This spatial segregation is further maintained by a myriad of over 60 military checkpoints throughout the West Bank (22 in Hebron alone). International organizations (OCHA, OHCHR), NGOs (Machsom, B’Tselem) and Palestinians alike have reported systematic arbitrariness and unnecessary harassment by Israeli security personnel at these checkpoints. Segregated roads and obstacles to free movement aptly illustrate the different realities facing Palestinians and Israelis in the West Bank. However, they are not the only spheres of segregation, as evidenced by the vastly divergent levels of access to natural resources like water and land.
Parallel Water Realities: Abundance and Scarcity
According to Amnesty International, the UN and the Palestinian Water Authority, the average Palestinian living the West Bank receives around 80 to 90 liters of water per day, which is well short of the WHO-recommended minimum of 100 liters. Rural areas, especially in the north, may receive as little as 20 to 40 liters per person per day and are forced to buy more expensive water from water trucks or shops, in order to cover their most basic needs. This water scarcity takes a heavy toll on Palestinian agricultural production. On the flip side, the average Israeli settler consumes above 400 liters of water per day, allowing for the development and use of state-of-the-art irrigation systems. This discrepancy lays bare the unequal distribution of natural resources between Palestinians and Israeli settlers in the West Bank. Over the past 60 years, Israel has championed water technology in the chronically dry Levant, becoming the runaway global leader for wastewater treatment and desalination.
Under the Oslo II accord (1995), water usage in the West Bank is governed by the Joint Water Committee (JWC), an ostensible power-sharing institution between the Israeli and Palestinian water authorities – at least in theory. In practice, however, the asymmetric power relation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) prevents equitable water cooperation, let alone distribution. The JWC framework grants both sides veto power over JWC water projects in the West Bank, but typically only Palestinian projects rely on Israeli consent. The reason for this is simple: The PA depends heavily on international donors who demand that water projects be run through the JWC. Israel, on the other hand, does not rely on international funding, thus allowing it to conduct its water projects outside the JWC – without Palestinian consent. As such, the stalling of the peace process has led to chronically unequal water infrastructure and supply.
In an attempt to alleviate the perils of lopsided water distribution, civil society NGOs like Taghyeer and Ecopeace have not only sought to educate international audiences but have also devised innovative approaches to improve the water situation for Palestinians. For instance, Taghyeer’s Director Alkharraz, together with an Israeli partner, invented a method to remotely detect water purity and the remaining water quantity in water tanks. Due to the intermitted water supply, water tanks are widespread throughout the West Bank. Instead of having to climb up the meters-high water tank to check its content, Alkharraz’s WATA system places low-cost sensors in the tank, which transmit real-time information on its water content to the user’s smartphone. Alkharraz’s remote-detecting system is an example of Palestinian innovation borne out of the dire conditions under occupation.
When discussing water, one must remember its inherent link to agriculture – and therefore to land. More water allows for more modern and far-reaching irrigation systems. In fact, Palestinian agriculture has witnessed a historic decline post-Oslo. The percentage of agriculture as a share of Palestinian GDP fell from 25% in the late-80s, over 14% in the mid-90s to under 5% in 2018. Agriculture is inextricably linked to land ownership and land ownership is key in the West Bank.
Land Ownership and Expropriation
Since conquering the territory from Jordan in 1967, the land has played a crucial role in Israel’s policy in the occupied West Bank – for two reasons: security and ideology. Security considerations, echoing the notion of “defensible borders”, pertain to continued Israeli military presence in the Jordan River Valley and on strategically important hilltops. Initially devised by Defense Minister Yigal Allon shortly after the 1967 War, the concept of “defensible borders” has been a staple of Israel’s doctrine since the 1970s, carried by both sides of the Zionist political spectrum (Labor and Likud). In terms of ideology, especially the Zionist right considers the lands of the occupied West Bank, which they call “Judea and Samaria”, to be an integral part of “Eretz Israel”. The Gush Emunim movement, constant settler-violence against Palestinians and the presence of Israeli settlers near Abraham’s Tomb in Hebron’s Old City serve as ample evidence for the ideological vigor of the Zionist right.
In Hebron alone, 1’500 IDF soldiers protect – and segregate – 800 Israeli settlers amidst a city of 200’000 Palestinians. Hebron holds special importance as one of the four holy cities of Judaism. Today, there are over 800’000 Jewish Settlers in the occupied West Bank, 400’000 of whom live in occupied East Jerusalem and its suburbs. Transferring one’s civilian population into occupied territory is prohibited by Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Israeli judges have repeatedly argued that Jewish settlement in the West Bank was voluntary and therefore does not violate Article 49. These paragraphs do not aim to resolve this debate, but to illuminate the policies by which Israel has gained land ownership in the West Bank – and to show to what extent Israeli settlers benefit from these policies. There are four principal methods through which Israel has taken over Palestinian land.
First, customary international law allows for the temporary seizure of private land for military purposes. From 1969 to 2019, Israeli military commanders ordered over 1’150 such land seizures in the West Bank, taking over more than 100’000 Dunams (25’000 acres) of Palestinian land, roughly the area of Disney World. Not all of this land is being used for military purposes. According to a 2019 study by Israeli NGO Kerem Navot 40% of the land has been allocated for settlements. The Israeli Supreme Court has sporadically evacuated settlements for being built on military land such as the highly publicized evacuation of Elon Moreh in 1982. However, the majority of settlements on land seized for military purposes remain to date – based on the claim that even civilian infrastructure can fulfill security purposes. The 1982 evacuation of Elon Moreh leads us to the second method of land expropriation.
When it became clear that military seizures were not a free pass for settlement construction, Israeli policymakers and military strategists invoked the Ottoman Land Code of 1858. Under this law, all uncultivated land further than 1,5 miles away from any town or village was legally considered “dead” (Mawat) and granted to the state. Thus, privately held Palestinian land that fulfilled the criteria for Mawat-Land fell to the Israeli state, unless the Palestinian owner could prove ownership. Proving ownership was tricky because, in 1967, only one-third of private Palestinian land was registered with the Jordanian authorities. Landowners had to prove ownership with a certificate dating back to the Ottoman or British era, or with proof of purchase under Jordanian law. According to B’Tselem, around 40% of the area of the West Bank has been declared “state land” under the Mawat-Land clause of the Ottoman Land Code of 1858. Of these “state lands,” over 99% have been allocated for settlements and only 0.24% for Palestinian use.
Third, the Absentees’ Property Law allowed Israel to take custody of land that had been abandoned by Palestinians before, during, or after the 1967 war. Technically, Israel would have to give these lands back to their original owners if they returned, but often they had already been granted to settlers in the meantime. The absentee property law (together with the Legal and Administrative Matters Law of 1970) has mainly been used to expropriate buildings and land in East Jerusalem, especially in the neighborhoods of Silwan and Sheikh Sharrah. Fourth, Israel has expropriated land for public needs like roads and infrastructure. This method has mainly been used to build roads to settlements and bypass roads around Palestinian towns. These four methods of land expropriation aptly illustrate that there are not only two parallel societies in the West Bank, but that the more powerful one has and continues to steadily encroach on the occupied one.
Recalibrating the Debate
The segregated dynamics with regards to roads, water and land ownership indicate the pervasiveness of the disparate realities facing Palestinians and Israelis in the occupied West Bank. What is more, the two populations are held to different legal systems. Although annexation would certainly have constituted a decisive step symbolically, the real-life effects of segregated realities under the backdrop of an asymmetric power relationship already exist and have become deeply entrenched since 1967. While Palestinians living in to-be-annexed parts of Area C would have indeed become even more vulnerable to evictions, house demolitions and losing their lands, these perils de facto already exist. For the majority of Palestinians in the West Bank, annexation would have exacerbated segregation but changed little in their everyday lives. As such, public debate should not naively hail the so-called “Abraham Accords” between Israel and the two Gulf States a success for peace in the Middle East, let alone for improving the situation of the Palestinians.
Instead, public debate in Israel and around the world must focus on the policies and dynamics that already segregate life in the West Bank today. Certainly, annexation would have further curtailed Palestinian human rights, but simply “preventing” annexation does little to improve the current situation under occupation. In fact, in October 2020, the Israeli civil administration for the occupied territories approved 5’000 new housing units for settlements on occupied Palestinian land – a record-high since 2012. Muhanad Alkharraz from Taghyeer says: “We will not just wake up one day and everything will be annexed. It is a gradual process, over many years that involves many little steps.” De jure annexation might be off the table for now. However, the dynamics that have made it a viable political option – and therefore a valuable diplomatic bargaining chip – are precisely those that have gradually brought about an increasingly elaborate system of segregation.