Why Palestinians are leaving, part 2

Israeli security checkpoint. (photo: Mary Pneuman)

The facts on the ground.

By Mary J. Pneuman / Bishop’s Committee for Justice and Peace in the Holy Land

[Ed. note: After returning from a recent trip to the Holy Land, the author has updated her previous writings. We offer The Promised Land or the Land of Promise Revisited here in serial form.]

Israel has the distinction of being the only country in the world that each year detains and prosecutes in military courts between 500 and 700 children, some as young as 12 years, most often for throwing stones, In February 2016, 440 children were in the military system, a quarter of them between 12 and 15 years. The Israel Prison System stopped releasing data after May 2016.

Restrictions on economic development and trade

Many Palestinians now work for the Israelis — most often in construction. About 60,000 of an estimated 100,000 have work permits that allow them to work in the settlements or over the Green Line. Most of those who do not have permits work in menial, low-paid jobs and take the risk of working illegally because unemployment is now so high in Palestine. As such, these workers have little control over their working conditions or compensation.

The productive sectors, including agriculture, manufacturing and tourism are on “artificial respiration” according to Ha’aretz (Nov. 2016). Agricultural and industrial output was now only about 15% of the economy. Because of Israeli restrictions on development, control of land and water resources as well as transportation and trade, regulation of the import and export of materials and goods, Israel has significantly impacted the sustainability of the Palestinian economy. Amira Haas writing in Ha’aretz in 2013 on restrictions that weaken competitiveness of Palestinian business vis-a-vis Israeli farmers, manufacturers and hi-tech companies quoted an outgoing World Bank director saying that “. . . unleashing the potential from ‘withheld land’ — access to which constrained by layers of restrictions and allowing the Palestinians to put these resources to work would provide whole new areas of economic activity and set the economy on the path to sustainable growth.”

While we were there in 2016, Ramallah was experiencing a rapid population growth because of the limited development and economic opportunities in the smaller nearby villages. As a result, there were fewer jobs and a downward shift in wages, and we were told that there was an unemployment rate approaching 50%. Unable to make a living, many small land owners were forced to sell their land to developers, and Ramallah was in the midst of a real estate boom that was driving housing prices too high for many families to afford. More and more people were trying to start small businesses or becoming “traders,” but few were making much of a living. Rapid buying and selling of real estate had created inflated prices, and we heard that many builders and buyers were in debt over their heads. We could see that many of the new apartment buildings were empty concrete shells — one estimate was that there were about 40,000 empty units, many of them owned by the bank. Contributing to the inflationary spiral are foreign residents and wealthy Palestinian expats who buy land for speculation and are building lavish mansions on the property. Many of these homes are maintained by caretakers, while the owner comes back for visits and vacations.

During our short time with the high school students at the Arab Evangelical Episcopal School in Ramallah (AEES) we heard many expressions of frustration with the failure of the Palestinian Authority and the international community (especially the US) to bring about the end of the occupation. At AEES, some of the young people with whom we spoke seemed to reject the traditional value of respect for education and were turning away from education as the answer. Several asked why go on to college when there are so few employment opportunities for highly educated Palestinians in their homeland? With a bit of cynicism, some asked why not just live for the day and make merry while they can?

Still, there was a feeling of hope at Evangelical Technological and Vocational Training Center in Ramallah (ETVTC). This program, a ministry of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem, offers, alongside a traditional high school course of study, a specialized two-track program that includes vocational training and internships that prepare their graduates for work in information technology and hospitality industries. To date, this school has been successful in placing many of their graduates in commercial enterprises in the West Bank.

To help stem the sale of Palestinian land, our friend Ahmad, whom we first met when he was a graduate student in urban planning and sustainable development at the University of Washington, has developed a model demonstration farm on his family’s land in a village near Ramallah. Now a professor at Birzeit University, Ahmad is teaching his students how to create a sustainable living from organic farming. He believes that this is one way to enable Palestinians to resist the pressure to sell their land and permit them to stay on their land. By conserving and recycling water, enriching the soil by integrated crop-livestock management and raising food crops and animals that are ecologically appropriate to the environment, the farmer can at the same time create products that can be sold commercially, such as honey, and become largely self-sufficient and independent. Ahmad has created a virtual land of milk and honey on his rocky desert hillside.

During our stay in the West Bank in the spring of 2016, we were invited to see Rawabi, a new residential development under construction near Ramallah and billed as a “Palestinian settlement.” Riding the crest of the real estate boom, the wealthy developer, Bashar Masri, who became wealthy as a builder in other parts of the Middle East and is an American citizen educated in the US, is creating a modern self-contained “city” designed to accommodate nearly 40,000 Ramallah ex-urbanite hi-tech workers and mid-career professionals. The city, about half completed (Washington Post, 5.17) is being two-thirds financed by Qatari backers and has been a major employer in the region. The land was purchased from thousands of owners, using right of “eminent domain” for some of the properties with the help of the PA. This has created some resentment among local residents, who question the loyalties of the developer. Because access is through Area C, Masri needed permission from Israel to proceed, and it took four years to build a road, a single two-lane highway which can be closed off at any time. As the many settlements in the area are drawing down the aquifer, there is an acute shortage of water. Israel has balked at supplying the development with water, and as negotiations proceed, many potential buyers have cancelled their orders.

Restrictions on Palestinian civil rights and military justice

According to Human Rights Watch, Palestinians face systematic discrimination because of race, ethnicity and national origin. Amnesty International agrees (Middle East Monitor, 2016). The vast majority of Palestinians in Jerusalem are considered permanent residents, but not citizens of Israel. They may vote in municipal elections, but not in national elections, so they have no political representation in the Knesset. Palestinians living in the West Bank cannot vote in national elections; settlers in the West Bank have full rights of Israeli citizenship, as well as a vote in national elections. The nature of the many civil and human rights abuse in the occupied territories is beyond the scope of this report. For detail, go to the Country Report on Human Rights practices issued by the US State Department in March 2017.[1]

Israel has a dual legal system in the occupied territories — civil for the 600,000 settlers and military courts for the 4.5 million Palestinians, with a 99.74% conviction rate. Israeli military courts can arrest and detain under “administration detention” for up to six months without charge, renewable indefinitely for six month periods. Throwing rocks by children can lead to imprisonment. Under this arrangement, legal representation can be denied. One of the more notorious detention centers, Ofer Prison, near Ramallah, was the site of the death in 2015 of a young Palestinian[2] demonstrator from the Episcopal Technological and Vocational Training Center in Ramallah. Young people who demonstrate at this prison, often because of the detention of children as young as 12 years, are at risk of being arrested or shot. In our conversation with students at the AEES high school, a third-year student described his near miss with a live bullet, and we learned that the husband of a teacher from the same school had been behind bars for many months without charge. Over the years, many young Palestinian demonstrators have lost their lives, but until the recent cold-blooded killing of a Palestinian protester near Hebron, very few Israeli soldiers have been charged or brought to justice.

As reported in “No Way to Treat a Child” in April 2016,[3] Israel has the distinction of being the only country in the world that each year detains and prosecutes in military courts between 500 and 700 children, some as young as 12 years, most often for throwing stones, In February 2016, 440 children were in the military system, a quarter of them between 12 and 15 years. The Israel Prison System stopped releasing data after May 2016.

In May 2017, according to the AFSC, there was an increase in the number of Palestinian children confined for an average of 16 days, some in solitary confinement. In addition to isolation, the use of abuse and threats has been documented, and more than 90% of the children held in solitary confinement provided a confession. The use of isolation to create a psychological willingness to “confess” is in violation of international law. In the vast majority of cases (97%) the children had no legal representation or parent present before interrogation. Some children plead guilty as the fastest way to get out of prison, and most receive plea deals of less than 12 months. Israel transfers over half of the child detainees from Palestine to prisons inside Israel, again in violation of international law. In February 2017, DCIP and AFSC delivered 11,000 signatures standing against ill treatment of Palestinian children to the US Department of State.

Read the full paper here →

[1] https://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/hrrpt/2016/nea/265502.htm.

[2] This student, we learned recently, was a cousin of a Seattle area resident who is active in Palestinian advocacy work.

[3] A joint project of the Defense for Children International – Palestine (DCIP) and the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC).

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