Sunday, July 29, 2012

Eight Things I Wish All Americans Knew About Palestinians

For ten months of the last year I lived in Amman, Jordan as a Fulbright Teaching Fellow at the University of Jordan.  During that time, and in two previous short research trips, I met not only Jordanians but also ethnic Palestinians living in Jordan – some with Jordanian citizenship, some without – and Palestinians who were living in the West Bank and Gaza. I also had the opportunity to visit both Israel and the West Bank on several occasions, and to see for myself many of the issues at play – in Jerusalem, in the Israeli cities of Tel Aviv and Jaffa, and in the West Bank areas of Bethlehem and the South Hebron Hills.  My experiences left me with a strong belief that there will never be peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and in the Middle East more generally -- where the status of the Palestinians is a perpetual  political question-- unless and until the legitimate grievances of the Palestinians are understood,  acknowledged and addressed.

 It also seems to me that one of the major stumbling blocks to even opening up that conversation is that most Americans know very little about the Palestinians, or the nominally-Palestinian land upon which many of them live under military occupation by the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). To make matters worse, Americans are often offered only the Israeli perspective on issues regarding the Palestinians.  There is little to no  reporting in the American press about the conditions that Palestinians are subject to in the occupied Palestinian Territories (oPT), the non-violent campaigns --including, several months ago the largest and longest prison hunger strike in history  – that Palestinians have launched to try to change their circumstances, nor the violence done to Palestinians by not only soldiers of the occupation, but increasingly and with impunity, settlers living on Palestinian land they have appropriated.

This essay is my own attempt to challenge my fellow Americans to learn more.  Some people may read what I have written and disagree with either the facts as I have presented them or the context.  While I do not claim to be an expert, I have had many more opportunities than the average American to talk to Palestinians (as well as Israelis and Jordanians who are their neighbors) and to see first-hand many of the manifestations of the occupation in the West Bank and in Jerusalem.  I hope what I have written here will not be the last word on the subject, but an opening for much more discussion and debate.
Here then, are eight things I wish all Americans knew about the people we refer to collectively as “the Palestinians”.

1.        Who the Palestinians are. One of the first things I’ve realized when talking to students and others, is that people in the United States are often not quite sure who, exactly, the Palestinians are. They often erroneously  associate the mere word with the word “terrorism” or with conflict with Israel.  Republican Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich got a few headlines last year with his remarks that Palestinians don’t actually exist, but of course they do.  By Gingrich's logic, Canadians  and Americans as former parts of the British Empire are also "invented peoples" and equally undeserving of their own states. Palestinians are the descendants of the culturally and linguistically Arab people who lived in what are now Israel and the occupied Palestinian Territories  at the time that Israel became a state recognized by the United Nations in 1948.
On a personal note, I have been told by some of my American students that they've never met a Palestinian, so I couldn't resist introducing two of the most wonderful Palestinians (and people in general) anyone could ever hope to meet.  In the top photo is Shamo, who works with Friends of the Earth Middle East - Palestine office.  Here she is taking my former student Kate around the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, her hometown.  When Shamo heard that Alexsis, Kate and I were staying in a hotel during our 2010 research trip she insisted we move to her place and took us all over the region to look at projects of Friends of the Earth and meet with local Palestinian villagers.  The second picture is of my fabulous student Mary (wearing blue), sitting with her equally fabulous Health, Environment and Human Rights classmate, Noura.  Mary is a Palestinian from the Gaza Strip.  She and her twin brother earned scholarships to attend the University of Jordan, while the rest of her family still lives in Gaza.  Mary is passionately devoted to human rights and development for everyone, and through her patient and thoughtful answers to my questions I learned a great deal about the lived experience of Gazans under the occupation.


2.       Why there are so many Palestinian refugees. Part of the reason that the term “Palestinian” is perhaps tricky for Americans to wrap their minds around, is that most people would agree that Palestinians operate in that  conundrum of being what political scientists refer to as a “nation” without a state.  Very broadly speaking, when Israel was granted statehood by the United Nations the area known as Palestine was partitioned into Arab and Jewish states, with Jerusalem being designated an “international” city.  The countries of Jordan, Egypt, Iraq and Syria did not accept this and attacked Israel. Israel won the war, but in the process, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were pushed out of Israel into what are now called the occupied Palestinian Territories of the West Bank and Gaza or into neighboring countries, and forced into refugee status. This war is seen by Israelis as a war of independence and by Palestinians as the “Naqba” (the Catastrophe).   

  A series of peace treaties left the areas now known as the West Bank and Gaza under the control of Jordan and Egypt respectively.  However, in 1967, the Israel launched a pre-emptive war against Syria, Jordan and Egypt (referred to in Israel as the Six-Day War).  In this war, Israel took the areas of the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza from Egypt (they later returned the Sinai to Egypt as part of the Camp David Accord), the West Bank and Jerusalem from Jordan and the Golan Heights from Syria.  Many Palestinians in these areas were again pushed out, creating a second wave of Palestinian refugees. The UN agency that deals with Palestinian Refugees, UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency), defines refugees as "people whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict." But even in their own work with the 58 official refugee camps in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, they acknowledge that ten of the camps had to be constructed after the 1967 conflict. When it started in 1950 UNRWA estimated that it served around 750,000 Palestinian refugees. Today there are almost 5 million official Palestinian refugees qualifying for their services, with about one-third (1.4 million) still living in the camps that were set up back in 1948 and 1967.

Almost four million Palestinians still live in the occupied Palestinian Territories, but the majority of ethnic Palestinians live outside of them.  About five million Palestinians live in Arab countries, 1.2 million live inside of Israel (most are citizens and are known as “Palestinian Israelis” or “Arab Israelis”) and 0.6 million live in other foreign countries. 

3.       Where the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem are. When we speak of the occupied Palestinian Territories, we are talking about two pieces of land separated from each other. The West Bank refers to land that is on the western side (bank) of the Jordan River.  The Gaza Strip is literally a strip of land that used to belong to Egypt and now borders it.  As the map below shows, Jerusalem sits on the border of Israel and the West Bank.  In the UN separation in 1948, West Jerusalem went to Israel and was about 38 square kilometers.  The remaining East Jerusalem is only about 6 square kilometers.  Following the 1967 war Israel annexed an additional 70 square kilometers from the West Bank to add to West Jerusalem. The West Bank is home to approximately 2.5 million Palestinians, the Gaza strip 1.6 million and East Jerusalem  0.2 million.

Here is what these areas look like:

In the very simple map above, the Palestinian Territories are in orange, and one of the problems of creating a state for the Palestinians from them becomes immediately obvious – they are not connected and there is a travel ban in place between Gazans and people who live in the West Bank.  The map also demonstrates how small the Gaza strip actually is, which demonstrates one of the great hardships of the Palestinians.  In that small strip of land live over 1.6 million people, making it one of the most densely populated places on the planet with almost 10,000 people per square mile. During periods of siege, the borders to Israel and Egypt and the shoreline have all been tightly controlled, making trade, travel and basic services such as water, electricity and waste disposal difficult to impossible for the people trying to live normal lives there.

4.       What the Occupation is. As noted above, the Gaza Strip, West Bank and East Jerusalem are all referred to as “occupied territories” because they are under the military control of Israel.  Technically, there is controversy on this point.  Israel actually considers East Jerusalem part of Israel because it annexed it when it annexed the additional part of West Jerusalem in 1967.  Although the Israeli Supreme Court has upheld the annexation of East Jerusalem, and Israel does  not grant Palestinians in East Jerusalem full citizenship (they are only “permanent residents”), no other country in the world has recognized this annexation. The Gaza Strip is also technically no longer under occupation because Israel withdrew its troops and all its settlements in 2005.  However, all the borders of Gaza, including its coast and airspace are totally controlled by Israel.  Finally, the status of occupation of the West Bank was made more complex by the 1993 Oslo agreement.  Under the agreement, the West Bank was divided into Areas A, B, and C.  Both security and administration in Area A is controlled by the Palestinian Authority.  The Palestinian Authority has administration over Area B, but Israel has all security authority and Area C is totally controlled by Israel.

  Below is a map showing the areas, with Area C in brown.  In all, 61% of the West Bank is Area C (completely controlled by Israel) and only 18% is Area A (under complete control of the Palestinian Authority).


5.       What a settlement is. The term “settlement” refers to civilian Israeli communities that have been built in the Occupied Territories.  Currently, there are settlements in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.  According to international law (specifically the Fourth Geneva Convention) settlements are illegal, and this position has been confirmed by the International Court of Justice and most recently, a 2012 statement by UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon.  Israel has rejected these ideas, and there are currently about 120 settlements formally supported by the Israel government and dozens more “outposts” not formally recognized by the state.  The 1993 Oslo Agreement included a promise by Israel to freeze settlement activity, but since 1993, the settler population has grown from some 116,300 to 289,600 in the West Bank and from  152,800 to more than 186,000 in East Jerusalem according to former US Ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer.

The settlements of the West Bank comprise much of Area C and are connected with roads that may be accessed only by settlers and other Israeli citizens.  Israel has built these roads, but Palestinians cannot use them. Although the development of official settlements continues apace, and all the settlements sanctioned by the government of Israel are provided  with roads, electricity and running water, the Palestinians living in the neighboring areas cannot access any of these resources, and in fact must petition the state of Israel to build this infrastructure for themselves.  These petitions are routinely denied, and I have personally visited Palestinian villages (in May, 2012) where people live in tents (because they are not allowed to build permanent homes), have no running water or electricity (because they are not allowed to create these systems, even to use them in their tents) and have had their wells sealed by the IDF so that they have no choice but to go to the nearest Palestinian town to buy water at ten times the cost of what is charged within Israel.

One of the tasks of the occupying  IDF soldiers is to protect the settlers from the Palestinians.  However, the opposite is not true, and the IDF is neither trained nor ordered to protect Palestinians from Israeli settlers, who can and do harass and violently attack Palestinians and their property and crops.  One notorious example is Hebron, which was a Palestinian community of 35,000 when a settlement of 800 Israelis purposely located itself in the city center, and IDF forces instituted severe restrictions on Palestinian movement and commerce.  According to a report by two Israeli human rights groups, B’Tselem  and the Association for Civil Rights, between 1994 and 2007, thousands of Palestinians were forced to leave and 1,829 Palestinian businesses went under. The remaining Palestinian community has attempted to keep its marketplace alive, under extreme duress from settlement residents who live in housing that is literally above the marketplace. The merchants have been forced to erect a “roof” of chicken wire over the market to shield themselves from the garbage that is hurled at them from the settlement housing above.

6.       What the separation wall is. The separation wall (referred to as the “Apartheid Wall” by Palestinians) was begun ten years ago, with Israel stating that it would serve as a security barrier against Palestinian acts of terrorism aimed at Israeli civilians.  However, the route of the wall (not all of it has been built yet) is not along the line demarcating Israel and the West Bank.  It is more than twice the length of the Green Line (the recognized border between Israel and the West Bank), and 85 percent of it actually lies within Palestinian territory, taking about 8.5% of land that is part of the West Bank.  Included in the additional land are many of the settlements referred to in the previous point, farmland belonging to Palestinians and water sources.

The Separation Wall is also responsible for the creation of “seam communities”, which are Palestinian communities trapped between the Green Line and the Separation Wall.  The people of these villages are entirely enclosed behind the wall and can only go outside of it through small gates manned by IDF soldiers who determine when the gates are open.  If their farmland is outside, they must bring all their farming equipment in and out of the gate every single day.  They can harvest only when the gates are open, and their work day is determined not by their needs, but by soldier decisions of when to open gates.  The same is true for school children who travel in and out, and for people having medical and other emergencies.

7.       What all of this means in the day to day life of Palestinians.  The combined presence of the occupation, the settlements and the separation wall come together in mutually-reinforcing ways that conspire to make everyday life miserable, dangerous and impoverished for the Palestinians. Here I list just a few of the many things I learned about or saw for myself in the last three years:

*Restrictions on movement. One of the most devastating impacts for Palestinians in their daily lives has been restrictions on their movements  in large and small ways.

 Israel closed both Palestinian airports (one in Gaza, one near Ramallah) in 2001, so Palestinians can only fly to other areas of the world via Jordan or Egypt.  This, of course, assumes that they can go to Jordan or Egypt, which requires permission from Israel to cross the borders.  I’ve crossed between Jordan and the West Bank at the single border crossing open to Palestinians on four different occasions.  Palestinians are processed separately from non-Palestinians, are transported on separate buses (no one is allowed to take their own cars over the border), and I’ve personally witnessed the humiliating and arbitrary treatment that Palestinians face in simply trying to enter or leave their own homeland.

Within the West Bank is a dual road system.  Settlements are connected with well-maintained, direct roads which settlers may use freely.  Palestinians are relegated to circuitous, poor roads littered with temporary and permanent checkpoints.  The ability of Palestinians to pass through the checkpoints, like their ability to go through the security wall, is at the discretion of the IDF soldiers who staff them.  As a result, for the Palestinians everything takes longer and is less predictable.  A trip that would take an hour for an Israeli settler might take three for a Palestinian living in the same area.  Or it might not happen at all, if a checkpoint is closed or passage is denied.

*Home demolition. The Israeli Committee Against House Demolition (ICAHD) estimates that since the occupation began in 1967 approximately 26,000 Palestinian structures have been destroyed by Israel.  In recent years, approximately a third of these have been homes. There are three general categories of home demolition: punitive (6%), administrative (23%) and military (47%) Punitive home destructions are done as punishments to people associated with the household for actions ranging from attacking Israelis to political organizing.  Although this policy is seen as a deterrent, studies have shown that home demolitions generally result in more violence (including suicide bombers) not less.  Administrative demolitions are carried out against Palestinians who did their constructions without legal permission; these homeowners are trapped in a Catch-22 nightmare, however, since in Area C, 94% of all building permits submitted by Palestinians are denied.  Finally, military demolitions are carried out by the IDF as a means of clearing land for a stated military objective.  In the past week, for example the Israeli Defense Minister has ordered the demolition of 8 villages in the South Hebron Hills for the sake of Israeli Defense exercises.  I visited several of these villages in May.  Some of them are actually tent cities, because the residents have been unable to get permits to build houses there, although the nearby settlements (which share the same land area but will not be cleared for the sake of the same military exercises) have had no problem building homes or having Israel provide them with roads, electricity or water.
In the two pictures below you can see one of the many structures that is now slated for demolition within this tent village. Note the mobile water tank that the village takes to the nearest town to pay to have filled.  Behind these are the Israeli settlement, which you can see more clearly in the second photo.  Although, as the first photo illustrates, they both occupy the space that the IDF has deemed necessary for military exercises, only the tent village will be demolished.

*Incarceration. As of June 2012, there were almost 4500 Palestinians incarcerated in Israeli prisons.  Of these 285 were under administrative detention, a policy that Israel has allowing a Palestinian to be arrested without any charge and held for any period of time at all. There are also about 200 Palestinian children in detention, most of them prosecuted under the military law used against Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. A large proportion of them were convicted for stone-throwing, an activity which is also performed with impunity by settlers of the same age who target Palestinians walking byAccording to a report released by Friends of Humanity International in 2011, the Palestinians are the most incarcerated people in the world, with over 40% of Palestinian males having experienced detention at some point in their lives.
In 2012 incarcerated Palestinians went on the largest and longest prison hunger strike in history. Some of the strike leaders had fasted for over two months' time, and over 1,600 prisoners fasted for a full month until the strike ended in negotiations with Israel in mid-May They were protesting the policies of administrative detention, extended solitary confinement, and denial of visitation of family members for prisoners from Gaza.  I was living in Jordan during the strike, which was widely discussed (and supported) by my Jordanian students and colleagues.  When I tried to discuss it with my friends in the US, most had heard nothing at all about it.  

*Water. This is one case where the numbers speak volumes. Daily per capita water use in the West Bank is 73 liters (the World Health Organization sets the minimum a person should have at 100), and  Israelis (including residents of the settlements) consume three and a half times this amount daily. In Gaza, the situation is even worse; a 2010 report issued by the UN Environmental Program (UNEP) and various NGOs found that fully 95% of the water in Gaza is unfit for human consumption.  This is due in part to the siege on Gaza begun in 2007 that prohibited the importation of materials needed to fix and maintain the water and waste water treatment facilities there.  Though the siege has eased, the ban has been maintained.

The inequalities in water are immediately apparent to visitors to the West Bank.  Driving down a road open to foreigners (but not Palestinians), one sees settlements with not only running water but landscaped yards and swimming pools next to Palestinian villages with primitive dry wells.  Under the Oslo Agreement (which was supposed to be a temporary framework), all Palestinian water projects must go before a board that gives Israel veto power.  In interviews I conducted with two students in summer 2010, we learned that the fact that Israel almost always vetoes proposed water projects makes donor countries unwilling to support them as well.  The Separation Wall has made the situation worse, bringing numerous above and underground water sources over to the Israeli side of the wall and driving Palestinian farmers reliant on these water sources out of business.  When their land goes fallow because they cannot water it, it becomes subject to seizure by Israel, which claims the right to any land not being cultivated by Palestinians.
The picture below shows the water source of a tent village we visited in the South Hebron Hills.  Though it always went dry in the summer, the water is now completely unusable because the IDF crushed and threw a block of rusted metal into the well so that people would not be able to drink the water in order to enforce a ban on developing water sources in the area.

*Economic and human development. Not surprisingly, the impediments to movement, demolition of homes and seizure of land, deprivation of water and other fundamental abuses of rights that occur daily under the occupation have devastated the economy of the occupied territories.  The areas are legally and logistically unable to develop infrastructure – roads, airports, water and sewage treatment, communications networks – to connect Gaza and the West Bank, the Territories to the outside, or even communities within the regions.  Farmers and manufacturers must compete with subsidized settlements that have not only the benefits of water, government-provided services like electric lines and roads, and the provision by the government of the land itself, but also the ability to farm and manufacture under conditions of their own choosing.  In addition, the settlements can take advantage of the cheap labor of farmers who have lost their own land and must now make the choice of working on the settlements or living in abject poverty.  Under such conditions it is hardly surprising that according to Palestine's 2010 Millennium Development Goal Progress Report, 34% of Palestinians live below the national poverty line -- 23.6% in the West Bank and 55.7% in Gaza.  Even these numbers are kept artificially low by humanitarian assistance.  If this assistance were withdrawn, the poverty levels would be estimated to rise to 45.7 in the West Bank and 79.4 in the Gaza Strip.  The same report notes that food insecurity, is also high, with 25% of those in the West Bank and 61% in Gaza qualifying as food insecure, while unemployment has doubled since 1999.

8.       Ways to be a part of the solution.  This post has already gone far longer than I ever meant it to, and so, instead of writing another lengthy section, I will close very briefly by saying that there are many, many organizations and information sources for people interested in learning more and contributing to a just and lasting solution that will benefit both the long term interests of Palestinians and Israelis.  Rather than trying to create a list, I will mention and thank the two organizations most responsible for igniting my own interest and further research on these issues, Friends of the Earth Middle East and Breaking the Silence.  The groups are very different, but they both have inspirational founders, courageous staff and volunteers, and visions for change grounded in educating larger publics about the ways in which current policies are systematically denying the rights of Palestinians and making lasting solutions to shared problems an impossibility. These groups, and the Palestinian friends and their supporters who I've met in the past three years inspired me to learn more and speak out on behalf of injustices that are happening every day.  There is a wide spectrum of opinion among Palestinians, Israelis and their allies about the best means of finding lasting solutions to the problems outlined here (and others that I've left out). But a first step, I would argue, is to ensure that all voices are heard, and particularly those Palestinian voices that have not been heard, especially in the United States, though these issues affect their lives and futures most directly at all.


  1. Trish, this is an amazing post,and one that is greatly appreciated. Way too many Americans are either willfully or blissfully ignorant of the terrible situation that the Palestinians face. Plus, truthfully, it's hard to imagine the Israelis themselves ever enjoying true peace and security as long as this situation continues.

  2. Thank you so much for an informative essay on this issue. I am one of those Americans who is (unwillingly) mostly ignorant of the situation in Palestine and I truly appreciate your effort to inform people of the hardships the occupation creates in the everyday lives of Palestinians.

  3. Thank you Trish for this open and forthright essay. If more Americans knew about the true situation of the Palestinians perhaps the country would not be so quick to rally for Israel at a moment's notice all the time.

  4. This is an important post in many respects. But it seems a bit odd to me that you have not mentioned the nakba or the ethnic cleansing of 1948 that was planned and executed (known as Plan D) in order to remove the indigenous population from Palestine. This is the root cause of the situation and why there are 7.2 million Palestinian refugees who have the right to return to their homes and be compensated for their losses under UN Resolution 194. These are the most fundamental facts, also which most Americans don't know. I also wonder why you chose to direct people interested in doing something to non-Palestinian organizations. Why not direct people to the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement, the largest and most important movement working for a just solution ( or Badil (, which has a terrific array of resources for people who really want to learn about what happened and what they can do. There are numerous Palestinian organizations one could mention, but these would get anyone working in the right direction.