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Steel in the Soul and Hope for the Future

AUTHOR:  Ernesto Páramo

Since the Palestinian elections back in January and the emergence of Hamas as the undisputed representative of the Palestinian people, a new era in the struggle for liberation is upon us. The Palestinian people have spoken, but the neo-con establishment and the governing classes in Washington, London, Paris, Berlin and elsewhere are not listening. To them, an election in the third world is democratic, free and fair only when the candidate they favour gets to power and, of course, this is not what happened here.

For a long time the Israelis and Washington demanded change and greater accountability from President Arafat and the PA, but they always made absolutely sure that the Palestinians were not able to implement changes or make any progress, even if they wanted to. They said that they could not deal with Arafat because he was corrupt and undemocratic, so they removed him (permanently) and got Mahmoud Abbas elected. They said that they wanted him to be a “partner for peace”, but instead of building him up, they undermined his regime at every opportunity and he was about to be set up by Sharon with another very “generous offer” before the hand of fate intervened.

The results of these elections reflect a need for change from the corruption and ineptitude of the past governments. Since its creation some 10 years ago, the Palestinian Legislative Council has been unable to address the needs of the people. As the occupation solidified its grip under the auspices of “peace agreements,” which were nothing but a betrayal of all Palestinian people, and the creation of new illegal settlements continued unabated, the quality of life deteriorated exponentially for Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. Poverty levels soared, unemployment reached unheard heights and the lack of security approached unbearable depths.

Despite the brutal pressures of occupation and corrupt self-rule, Palestinian civil society has demonstrated its resilience in the face of repressive conditions. Scores of people wait for new life to be infused into social institutions under a reformed government that embraces the empowerment of the people. The road will be long and difficult, and it will be littered with mine fields. For this reason we need to remember the realities on the ground that brought us to this moment in time and understand that these massive changes in the political landscape are not an accident, and for once, not engineered by external-alien forces either.

Ever since 1967, Israel established 152 settlements in the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and until recently in Gaza that have been recognized by the Interior Ministry. In addition, dozens of outposts of different sizes have been set up. Many of these outposts are settlements for all intents and purposes. They do not have official recognition but they do have military protection.

Israel has established in the Occupied Territories a separation-discrimination regime, in which it maintains two systems of laws, and a person’s rights are based on their national origin (whether they are Jews or Arabs). This regime is the only of its kind in the world, and brings to mind dark regimes of the past, such as the Apartheid regime in South Africa, but not exclusively.

As a matter of State policy, Israel has stolen many thousands of dunams (one dunam = 1,000 m²) of land from the Palestinians, on which it established the settlements in which hundreds of thousands of Israeli civilians now live. Israel forbids Palestinians to enter these lands, and it uses the settlements to justify countless violations of Palestinian rights, such as the right to housing, to make a living and, of course, freedom of movement. The significant changes Israel has made to the map of the West Bank makes a viable Palestinian state impossible. However, in the long term, when everything is said and done, Ariel Sharon will go down in history as the man who killed the possibility of a “Two State” solution, stone dead.

The settlers, on the other hand, benefit from all the rights given to the Jewish citizens of Israel that live inside the Green Line, and in some cases they even have additional rights. Israel has spent a great deal of effort and capital in the expansion of the settlements – financially, legally, and bureaucratically - they have turned the settlements into civilian enclaves within areas of military rule, and have given the settlers a preferred status. To perpetuate this situation, Israel has continually trampled on Palestinian human rights.

Especially obvious is Israel’s manipulative use of the law to create a semblance of legality for the settlement enterprise. As long as Jordanian law assisted Israel in advancing its goals, it seized the argument that international law required that an occupying power apply the law in effect in the territory prior to occupation, construing international law in a cynical and tendentious way. When Jordanian law did not satisfy fully this need, Israel did not hesitate to revoke it through military legislation and develop new rules to meet its ends. In doing so, Israel has trampled consistently on international agreements to which it is a party and which are intended to protect the human rights of people under occupation.

Israel has used a complex legal and bureaucratic mechanism to take control of more than fifty percent of the land in the West Bank. This land has been used mainly to establish settlements and create reserves of land for the future expansion of those settlements.

The principal tool to take control of the land is to declare it “State land”. This process started in 1979, and is based on the manipulative implementation of the Ottoman Lands Law of 1858, which applied in the area at the time of the partition of Palestine. Other methods employed by Israel include the seizure for military needs, the declaration of land as “abandoned assets,” and the expropriation of land for public needs. Each of these is based on a different legal foundation.

No matter what method is used to take control of the land, all the parties involved have always known these actions to be part of a mechanism intended to serve just one purpose: the establishment of civilian settlements in the territories. Accordingly, the precise method used to transfer the land from Palestinians to Israel is of no importance. Moreover, since this purpose is forbidden under international law, the methods used to secure it are also unlawful.

The Israeli government has applied most aspects of Israeli law to the settlers and the settlements, thus affectively annexing them to the State of Israel. This has taken place in spite of the fact that the West Bank is not part of the State of Israel, and the law in effect there is Jordanian law and military legislation. This annexation has resulted in a regime of legalized separation and discrimination. This regime is based on the existence of two separate legal systems in the same territory, with the rights of individuals being determined by their ethnic origins.

Twenty-three Jewish local authorities operate on the West Bank: three municipalities, fourteen local councils and six regional councils, including 106 settlements recognized as distinct communities. In addition, twelve settlements have been established in the area annexed to the Municipality of Jerusalem in 1967---areas in which Israeli law has been officially imposed.

The areas of jurisdiction of the Jewish local authority, most of which extend far beyond the built-up areas, are defined as “closed military zones” in military orders. Palestinians are forbidden to enter these areas without a special permit from the Israeli military commander, although Israeli Jews and Jews from all over the world are all permitted to enter without any hindrance of any kind.

A fundamental task of any government is to enforce the law and protect the life, property, and rights of the people under its authority. For Israel, this duty applies not only to Israeli citizens residing within the state or territories under Israeli control, but also to all Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories.

When Palestinians attack Israelis, the authorities use all means at their disposal to retaliate, including many that are incompatible with international law, or any civilized society and constitute gross violations of human rights; such as the use of murder squads, missile and bomb attacks on civilian targets by military helicopters and combat aircraft, summary executions, beatings, shooting of children who are stone throwers, mass arrests and many other kinds of collective punishments.

In contrast, when Israeli civilians attack Palestinians, the Israeli authorities employ a policy of leniency towards the perpetrators. This policy is reflected in the actions of law enforcement officials — the Israeli Occupation Forces and the Israeli Police Force — which do nothing to prevent harm to the life and property of Palestinians, and to stop the violent attacks by settlers while they are taking place. All law enforcement agencies and judicial authorities demonstrate very little interest in uncovering the very substantial violence that Israeli civilians commit against Palestinians. During the al-Aqsa Intifada, the number of attacks increased very substantially.

Israelis, individually or in organized groups, carry out the attacks on Palestinian property to frighten, deter, or punish them; using weapons and ammunition they receive from the IOF (Israeli Occupation Forces). The actions against Palestinians include blocking roadways for the sole purpose of making life and commerce impossible. The settlers also shoot solar panels and water tanks on the roofs of buildings, torch cars, break windows and windscreens, destroy crops, poison farm animals, uproot olive and fruit trees, steal crops, abuse stall owners and shop keepers in the markets, shoot at adults and children with live ammunition. Many of these actions are intended to force Palestinians to leave their homes and farmland so that the settlers can take control of them, others are just blind hatred. Many instances of abuse by settlers and the army are not even reported, because they have become the norm.

However, with Hamas in power we can be sure that there will be no repetition of the betrayals of the past -- Madrid, Oslo (Arafat’s darkest hour) and the Road Map. On the other hand, it is up to Fatah, whether they want to take an active and constructive role in the building of a future with peace and dignity for their people or retreat in arrogance and dye a painful political dead. Whatever happens, at the end, it is just possible that there will emerge: One, Free, truly Democratic, Secular State with equal rights for Jews and Arabs and all other Citizens.

Ernesto Paramo is an activist and member of Tlaxcala.