Stuck in Israel’s stranglehold

Men sit stop the ruins of a demolished house.

Men sit stop the ruins of a demolished house in Duma. Since the start of 2023, some 132 structures were demolished across the occupied West Bank, according to the United Nations. 

Wahaj Bani Moufleh ActiveStills

On a recent bright sunny morning, a group of ramblers picked their way across a narrow dirt path through the hills and valleys of Beit Rima, a village northwest of Ramallah in the occupied West Bank.

Unseasonable rain had left the land pristine and free from dust. Olive trees climbed the hillsides, intermingling with Mediterranean oak trees that, unlike their European counterparts, have no competition for sunlight, so grow wide instead of tall.

Fig trees were coming into bloom and wild thyme grew rampant and was picked freely, later to be served with olive oil, garlic, lemon and finely chopped carrots.

A white jeep broke the idyll. Ambling slowly past, the driver stopped to ask the group, in accented Arabic, where they came from. A terse answer, “Ramallah,” elicited only a thin smile from the driver and his front seat passenger, another young man. A third passenger was sitting behind tinted windows in the back.

The jeep moved slowly on, like a dark cloud passing the sun, leaving walkers momentarily chilled. The presence of settlers – for that they certainly were even if no weapons were visible – was a reminder that for all its beauty, this landscape is at the heart of a struggle between self-proclaimed divinely entitled “landlords” and a native population that has cultivated these hills for centuries.

“Sociocide,” said one of the walkers, a retired Birzeit University professor of political science. “This is what they are doing.”

Last of the founders

Sociocide, genocide, ethnic cleansing. All are terms freely and frequently deployed by Palestinians in the West Bank to describe what they see happening to them.

“It’s a slow genocide,” said the local head of an international nongovernmental organization in one of a handful of cafés discretely open during Ramadan’s fasting hours. “They [Israel] are taking the land and confining the people to ever smaller spaces.”

There are few good options for Palestinians to fight back.

Any physical resistance is met with brutal and disproportionate military violence and collective punishment.

The Palestinian Authority’s strategy of security coordination with Israel – in effect being a security subcontractor for the occupation – while relying on international actors to intervene has been a failure. The US, EU and others have shown time and again that they are prepared to simply let Israel get on with it.

“Everything is stuck. Everyone is waiting for something to change,” said the head of the nongovernmental organization. He suggested the most likely time would be when the nearly 90-year-old Mahmoud Abbas, head of the Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organization and leader of Fatah, departs the scene.

The last of the “Abus” – the paternalistic nom de guerre favored by and bestowed upon the PLOs historic leadership – the end of Abu Mazen’s tenure could spell a power struggle among those with pretensions to lead after him, according to one former PA minister.

“Like any gang, a succession leaves a struggle for power. That is the most likely scenario. Whether it turns violent remains to be seen,” said the former minister, who argued that none of the pretenders could rely on the same stature as Abbas might have enjoyed since replacing Yasser Arafat in 2005.

Not everyone agrees how pivotal the time after Abbas will be, however. One source, close to the Palestinian security services, said what matters most is who is the choice of Israel and, by extension, the US.

“Whoever the Americans want, we’ll get,” he said, predicting that a choice – Hussein Sheikh – had already been made and the spoils pre-divided.

But what will they get? What power does any PA leader inherit? What spoils?

When the bubble bursts

In parts of Ramallah – “the bubble,” as it is often referred to – it is sometimes possible to forget the political reality. A constant construction site where large apartment towers of 20 floors or more, oversized hotels and brand new office buildings seem to spring up overnight, is transforming the skyline and what was once a sleepy Christian resort town into a throbbing, traffic-jammed metropolis.

Or so it seems. This is an economy captive to Israel and built on debt, foreign donations and empty promises.

“You can feel when wages have been paid,” said a small factory owner at his home just off Ramallah’s Old City one afternoon, pointing out the importance of public sector wages. “Suddenly there is a market.”

A grey concrete military watchtower hovers over Palestinian traffic

The “matrix of control” is in evidence everywhere in the occupied West Bank, here a watchtower at the entrance of the village of Beit Ummar

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Wages are not always paid. The Palestinian Authority is the single biggest employer in the West Bank and Gaza, paying the salaries of some 150,000 people. But foreign budget support has declined precipitously, from a high of $2 billion or 27 percent of GDP in 2008 to a measly $317 million, or just 1.8 percent of GDP, in 2021.

And with two-thirds of gross domestic revenue coming from clearance revenues, which are collected by Israel on behalf of the PA, Israel has a unique stranglehold over the PA budget that it exercises freely.

Since legislation was passed in 2018, for instance, Israel has deducted money the PA pays to families of those killed, convicted or detained by Israel after alleged attacks.

As a direct result of the lack of funding and the withholding of taxes, the PA has been unable to pay full salaries for public sector employees consistently over the past years, and is currently paying 80 percent of public sector wages to manage the shortfall.

Unsurprisingly, public employees aren’t happy. School teachers have been on strike since February and polling consistently shows that the public is overwhelmingly supportive of the strike action.

The matrix

Taxes are only part of the control Israel holds over the Palestinian economy in the West Bank.

Just as onerous are what human rights and international organizations call Israel’s “matrix of control.” This is a series of overlapping restrictions on Palestinian movement that include a Byzantine permit system, roadblocks and military checkpoints, walls and settlements that leave Palestinians not only unable to move freely, but dramatically restricts access to the West Bank’s natural resources and arable land.

Israeli control over Area C of the West Bank deprives Palestinians of 63 percent of its agricultural resources. Israel also maintains total control over the West Bank’s water resources.

The UN says the matrix has divided areas A and B of the West Bank – the some 40 percent of the total area that is under limited PA control – into 166 separate “islands.” The overall matrix costs the West Bank economy an estimated 25 percent of GDP annually, or some $50 billion in total from 2000 to 2020.

With his factory in Nablus, the Ramallah-based proprietor is at the mercy of the matrix. Able to go there only when roads are open, or – at the time of speaking, when the Huwwara checkpoint, a bottleneck for Palestinian traffic heading north, is less exposed to settler violence – he said he will usually sleep on the factory floor in order to ensure his presence for extended periods.

“Everything we do is completely determined by the occupation,” he said.

At the moment, Israel is allowing more workers than usual, normally day laborers, to enter Israel, noted the nongovernmental organization head. That allows much needed cash to enter the Palestinian market but also creates another dependency.

“Remittances from workers in Israel have nearly replaced the foreign donation shortfall,” said the former minister.

Those remittances are threatened whenever Israel imposes a closure on the West Bank. The fate of Gaza is instructive. Israel banned all workers from Gaza between 2007 and 2019, to predictable effects on the economy there.

And workers in Israel face exploitation, in part due to a “power imbalance” with employers. This is exacerbated by restrictions on movement and their own “lack of a voice” inside Israel or in settlements, according to the International Labor Organization, where Palestinian trade unions are not allowed to operate.

Policing themselves

Not only is this another lever of control for Israel, it means Palestinian laborers also have to police themselves to avoid any repercussions for their or others’ ability to work. Israel regularly shuts crossings and checkpoints in response to acts of armed resistance as a form of collective punishment.

“There is no choice for people working in Israel,” said the nongovernmental organization head. “So when Israel enforces closures it has an immediate effect.”

And with regulations demanding they obtain biometric ID cards from Israel in order to get work permits, enforced by facial recognition technology, workers’ records can count against them.

Another factor is the availability of cheap credit that has led many to take out loans to buy houses or cars, noted the factory owner. It is no longer just the threat of home demolitions – another collective punishment Israel deploys freely – that puts pressure within families to restrain relatives: now the need for debt repayments also deters acts of resistance.

“You can’t pay your debt when you’re in prison or dead,” said the factory owner.

Four settlers armed with sticks and an axe walk down the road in Huwara

Huwwara is a chokepoint for West Bank traffic and has been a frequent target of settler violence.

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The PA’s security coordination with Israel, of course, is the most overt way Palestinians police themselves. It is also deeply unpopular. Security coordination absent a political endgame was always a strategic mistake. It was always unpopular. Now, absent any glimmer of a political horizon, it is absolutely loathed.

A whopping 87 percent of respondents to a recent poll, for instance, think the PA should not act against armed groups like the Lions Den springing up in Nablus and Jenin and other areas of the West Bank, cities that are gradually and inexorably falling out of PA control.

The PA’s participation in the February meeting in Aqaba, involving security officials from Jordan, Egypt, the US and Israel, was widely derided, while 84 percent said they expected Israel to break any agreements reached there, as Israel promptly did with the understandings reached at the subsequent Sharm el-Sheikh summit.

The PA’s credibility is shot to pieces, said a former restaurateur who now works with children dealing with the trauma of detention – Israel detains hundreds of minors every year, often in nighttime raids. It is currently holding 160 children.

“Nobody believes anything they say,” he said about the PA, while dismissing as “money laundering” all the new construction in Ramallah.

“Even they don’t believe it anymore. The next intifada will be against the PA. It’s rotten to the core.”

Borrowed time

It is not just in polling that the PA fares badly. During a raid on Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa last month, when armed Israeli police broke through the wall of an adjacent clinic to enter the 1,300-year-old mosque at the compound to detain hundreds of worshippers, those targeted did not just chant against Israel.

They also chanted against the “traitor Abbas,” according to one of those present.

Shorn of any political outlook, devoid of ideas, economically powerless and detested by its own people, the PA would seem to be on borrowed time. Nevertheless, this borrowing may continue for a while yet.

Israel wants to weaken the PA but not cause it to collapse, said the former minister.

“It’s the last vestige of the peace process, and serves a useful function in keeping up that charade,” he said.

Moreover, he added, while international actors are fully aware that the situation in the occupied West Bank and Gaza is unsustainable, there is as yet no serious diplomatic alternative to the “global consensus” over a two-state outcome that the world has so far failed to put anything other than words behind.

The collapse of the PA would also cause severe economic disruption for many people, said the factory owner. “No one likes it, but many rely on it.”

There is fear too of the uncertainty that would follow. The security source said, however, he suspected that a transition of power would take place without too much disruption.

“They will put someone in charge and there will be no difference. There will be no elections or any other political legitimacy. But that’s already the case.”

Perched on top of a hill above the Beit Rima walkers’ route is the Beit Arye settlement and its red-roofed villas with their private swimming pools where settlers on average use three times more water than Palestinians, drawn from the West Bank’s scarce water resources.

It’s easy to tell where the land of the village ends and where the security zone around the settlement begins. There is a military road dug into the hillside behind a barbed wire fence. The land behind it is bare. There are no olive trees or oak trees growing wide. The UN estimates that some 2.5 million trees have been uprooted since the 1967 occupation to make way for settlements or the separation barrier and sabotage agricultural production.

There is a rock climbing wall there though, the retired professor noted, nodding his head upwards. And as the walkers amble past, someone is attempting to climb the sheer rock face that leads up to the settlement.

“Sociocide,” the professor repeated, with a shake of his head. This was Israel’s slow plan for ethnic cleansing. “They are not only stealing the land. They are trying to destroy our way of life.”

Omar Karmi is associate editor of The Electronic Intifada and former Jerusalem and Washington, DC, correspondent for The National newspaper.