Apartheid in the territories
PARIS As Palestinians and aid agencies try to piece together life on the West Bank and reform Palestinian institutions in the wake of Israel's March invasion, Israel is putting in place a de facto apartheid system in the occupied territories that will only undermine international peace efforts and lead to further escalation and conflict.
According to the minutes of two recent meetings, Israeli army and government officials told representatives of donor countries that all major cities in the West Bank will be closed off and Palestinian travel between towns will no longer be possible without a permit issued through the Israeli military.
Such permits will be valid for one month and allow for travel between 5 a.m. and 7 p.m. Movement of Palestinians to Israel and East Jerusalem will be prohibited. Similarly, the movement of Arab Israelis to the Palestinian territories will be prohibited.
The movement of goods between Palestinian cities within the West Bank as well as from Israel to the West Bank will be subject to the "back-to-back" system: Goods will have to be unloaded from incoming trucks and then reloaded into local trucks. Enforcing the new system will partition the territories yet again, into eight separate areas.
Only humanitarian goods will be allowed into Gaza, with goods for donor-funded projects permitted entry only on a case-by-case basis, coordinated in advance.
These punitive measures will accelerate the severe decline of the Palestinian economy, which has already shrunk by a third between September 2000 and December 2001, in addition to the 25 percent decrease during the seven-year Oslo peace process. According to international agencies, the Israeli invasion of the West Bank in March cost the Palestinians $4 billion more, including $360 million in damage and billions in lost earnings. The entire Palestinian gross national product in 1999 was $3.5 billion.
The new measures will slow or bring to a halt many productive activities and will further raise unemployment, already running above 50 percent in the towns and 70 percent in the refugee camps. The closures will also deepen poverty in the territories, where more than 50 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, with many families living on the equivalent of $2 a day or less.
In recent weeks international attention has focused on Palestinian political reform as a way out of the impasse. But improving Palestinian life and institutions will prove impossible under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's bantustans plan.
The functioning of central authority will be hampered by Israel's measures. Popular participation in central decision-making processes in order to hold the Palestinian Authority accountable and transparent will be practically impossible, as people's circulation, political exchange and assembly is banned. Effective power may actually gravitate toward local militias, creating a more fragmented and unpredictable political environment.
Sharon has made peace negotiations contingent on Palestinian reform - while his army, by enforcing a state of siege, is making sure that no such reform can be implemented. The real intention behind the actions of Sharon's security cabinet of settlers, religious fundamentalists and diehard generals seems to be to protect and expand the illegal settlements in the Palestinian territories.
Settlements are the reason why Israel's closures are imposed not on the entire territories, but rather on each and every Palestinian camp and urban center. Specific closures have been among the more inhumane and disruptive elements of Palestinian life and development, as tanks, not agreements, draw the border lines.
The occupation is affecting Israel no less. Religious fundamentalism and radical Jewish nationalism are increasing their hold over the country. As the settlers' ideology becomes ever more influential in the Israeli establishment and army, the settlements are becoming the most damaging obstacle to peace.
Settlers and religious fundamentalists oppose withdrawing from the occupied territories or dismantling a single settlement, and believe international law is not applicable in the case of the occupied territories, whose land they consider their heritage. The adoption by the Likud Party of Benjamin Netanyahu's populist rejection of a Palestinian state has shown the strength of the settler community in the governing party.
The new Israeli closures will protect the settlers' expansion but not Israelis, as they transform the autonomous territories into eight big prison cells. Mounting deprivation, oppression and daily humiliation will only fuel the fires of revenge and conflict and undermine attempts at reconciliation. In the process, more terrorism is to be expected from Palestinians, as well as from the settlers.
Ending the occupation is indispensable for instituting a real democratic process and empowering the Palestinians to make Arafat and the rest of the authority accountable for charges of corruption and nepotism. As well as allowing the Palestinians to exercise their right of self-determination, ending the military occupation is also needed to normalize life in Israel.
Putting an end to Israeli apartheid will pave the way for democratization and reform, not the other way around. Listening to East Timor's democratically elected president speak of the responsibility of statehood and democracy after the country achieved its independence Monday, it was evident that the Palestinians must be allowed the same opportunity in order to translate their collective freedom into personal liberty and dignity.
The writer, who teaches international relations at the American University of Paris, is author of "Palestine/Israel: Peace or Apartheid." He contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.