Report from Ramallah: surviving the Israeli siege

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Since the onset of the Intifada in September 2000, the Palestinian people have fought courageously to end the 35-year Israeli occupation and achieve self- determination. Palestinians launched the current uprising after they lost faith in the U.S.-shepherded peace process, a charade behind which Israel confiscated more land, constructed bypass roads, military installations and settlements, and continued to demolish houses, raze crops, and make arrests. At the same time, Israel entrenched the closure policy that severely restricts Palestinian travel.

Israeli repression against the Intifada has systematically escalated throughout the past two years. The current humanitarian situation is nothing less than catastrophic, and threatens to affect Palestinian society for years to come.

The statistics of oppression. As these lines are written, over one million Palestinians are confined under all-day curfews, while the entire West Bank has been divided into 64 isolated enclaves. The network of checkpoints, military installations, trenches, walls and barbed wire makes movement among cities, villages and refugee camps nearly impossible, turning Palestinian communities into veritable prisons.

A study done for the U.S. Agency for International Development found that 30 percent of Palestinian children under the age of six are chronically malnourished. Half the women of childbearing age suffer mild to moderate anemia, while half the population depends on outside food assistance. A World Bank report noted that 70 percent of Palestinians are living in poverty, defined as less than two dollars a day. The Palestinian Ministry of Health estimates that the number of women giving birth at home has risen from three percent to 30 percent, while the number of those giving birth with the help of skilled health workers has dropped from 97 percent to 67 percent.

Those hardest hit are villagers and the people in the refugee camps. Villagers depended upon access to the cities to find employment, market their crops, receive medical attention, and obtain teachers. Refugee camp residents have been unable to reach their places of work in Israel and thus disproportionately fill the legions of the jobless. Unemployment stands officially at 78 percent in the Gaza Strip and 60 percent in the West Bank.

Sumoud: steadfastness. The Israeli military invasion emptied the Palestinian Authority (PA) of its role and content by targeting everything from its security branches to the ministries of health, public works and education. In response, Palestinians have been forced to launch an undeclared campaign of sumoud, steadfastness, as they struggle to keep their families alive without surrendering their legitimate rights.

There is no need to romanticize this campaign, but small, innovative projects inspired by the sheer need for survival have cropped up on a local level. Palestinians are starting small family enterprises, collecting and selling secondhand goods or running backdoor falafel and hummus stands. The number of street peddlers has increased. People plant small plots of land with basic vegetables and more frequently harvest pigeons, quail and rabbits.

The boycott of U.S. and Israeli products begun at the start of the Intifada also has redirected the Palestinian economy toward more self-sufficiency, although this is often severely hampered by Israeli closures and curfews. Even smokers have changed their habits, buying local roll-your-own tobaccos instead of corporate-label cigarettes.

These efforts, which largely take place locally and without external intervention or planning, reflect Palestinian attempts to make do in the terrible living conditions. But they are also an indication of the Palestinian sense of leaderlessness, given that the traditional bodies designed to protect people’s minimal rights — the PA, political parties, and nongovernmental organizations — have not been able to fulfill their role.

Pressure for accountable leadership will grow. On one level, this recognition of leaderlessness has had a dispiriting effect upon society, because at the time when people are in most need, they have been forced to fend for themselves. On another level, the breaking down of illusion is sure to have a liberating effect over time, spurring Palestinians to demand more accountable and democratic institutions whose agendas are set according to popular needs and national goals.

This demand is likely to develop as a reaction to the corruption, hollow social programs, and bankrupt political and developmental initiatives that have been the hallmarks of government, NGOs and parties during the past 10 years. This has been true for entities across much of the Palestinian political spectrum, which for too long have raised traditional but empty slogans and emphasized military resistance, while abandoning the social, developmental, economic and educational needs of their constituencies.

Traces of the demand for better leadership have begun to appear in Palestinian discourse as part of the overall demand for “reform.” Unfortunately, however, the genuine reform debate has been stalemated for the time being by U.S. and Israeli insistence on a different kind of “reform,” one that emphasizes complete capitulation to imperial interests and an end to resistance of the occupation. The PA in particular has used the threat of these external pressures to stall movement on genuine reform.

Considering the great difficulty of current conditions, however, delay in demanding real reform can only be temporary. The limits of Palestinian society’s tolerance are set at the boundaries of its very survival — a limit fast approaching, given the brutality of the current Israeli oppression.

Toufic Haddad is coeditor of the English-language magazine Between the Lines, an alternative monthly based out of Jerusalem and Ramallah. For more information, or a free trial copy, contact btl@palnet.com.

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