Surely the most remarkable thing about last week’s election in Israel was the fact that, even as Israeli citizens were enjoying their right to vote, their army was enforcing a lockdown that kept over 3 million Palestinians confined to their homes for three days. Few Israelis seemed to notice the irony that the central act of their participatory democracy required for its execution the collective punishment of millions of people in total disregard for international humanitarian law. And by choosing to grant Likud its handsome victory-doubling its seats in the parliament from 19 to 37 — the Israeli electorate has given its strong endorsement to the open-ended policy of violence and brutalization represented by the Sharon government.
Taken together, these facts remind us again that one of the keys to peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is held by the Israeli voters, who are free to exercise a right that their occupation denies to the Palestinians, and hence free to determine, up to a point, the immediate future that both peoples must share. The Palestinians have never chosen to live under military occupation; the Israelis have now chosen to extend that occupation, to strengthen it, and to feed it with the misery, suffering and humiliation that it requires on a daily basis. Most Palestinians have no choice but to continue their legitimate resistance, though in the meantime others will probably vent their rage in those mindless and bankrupt gestures-of which suicide bombing is the ultimate expression-which only the most impossibly desperate circumstances could produce. In response the Israelis will undoubtedly make those circumstances more desperate still.
By any measure, life for the Palestinians in the Israeli occupied territories was already on the edge of the impossible. Since June, when Israel reoccupied the West Bank, almost a million Palestinians there have been living under a system of closures and curfews that confine men, women, and children to their homes for weeks on end and have completely disabled normal life. A network of 90 army checkpoints-the progeny of the Oslo peace process-isolates each town and village from the others, so that, even when curfews are lifted, movement for Palestinians within the West Bank is almost impossible. Israelis, on the other hand, can move around at will among the settlements that they have established in violation of the Geneva Convention and numerous UN Security Council Resolutions, and between those settlements and Israel proper. The contrast between natives and settlers in the West Bank is nowhere clearer than in Hebron, where, in order to ensure the freedom of movement of some 400 illegal Israeli settlers, the city’s 130,000 Arabs can be confined to their homes at a moment’s notice. The tiny Israeli settlement-which comprises a third of a percent of the city’s population-effectively controls a third of the city’s space.
Unimaginably, the situation in Gaza is even worse. As though it were not bad enough that the 1.5 million Palestinians of Gaza are crammed into the territory’s most barren land-making it the most densely populated area on the planet-the 7000 Israeli settlers there are spread out into settlements whose location deliberately disrupts the territorial contiguity of the 65 percent of Gaza nominally under Palestinian control.
Thus the 35 percent of Gaza given over to the settlers (who constitute less than half a percent of the territory’s population) is used to turn on and off the movement of Palestinians among their towns, unpredictably isolating workers from their meager jobs, children from their schools, parents from their children, farmers from their fields, merchants from their markets, and patients from the hospitals meant to serve them (27 Palestinians have died at these Israeli checkpoints in recent months, forbidden, at the slightest whim of bored Israeli guards, from reaching emergency rooms).
This is not to mention the ongoing violence inflicted by the Israelis, whose frequent assaults and bombardments exhibit a wanton disregard for human life (as seen for example in the July bombing in Gaza, in which, to eliminate one man, an Israeli F-16 dropped a one-ton bomb on a crowded neighborhood in the middle of the night, killing 17 others, half of them young children); nor the ongoing house demolitions, mass arrests, random assassinations, destruction of trees and crops, and the immiseration produced as a result. Various agencies, including USAID and most recently the British charity Christian Aid, have been warning of the dramatic deterioration in living standards among the Palestinians, some two thirds of whom now live on less than $2 a day, with their children facing malnutrition, and with men, women and children alike facing a life of confinement, harassment, dismemberment and death.
Although this is precisely the life that the Israeli electorate has voted to continue, it is a life that the Palestinians have no choice but to resist.
The writer is Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at The University of Chicago.