An­other con­flict zone: Poverty fu­els anger in Pales­tine

Kyiv Post - - Front Page - BY I LLIA PONO­MARENKO PONO­[email protected]­POST.COM

RA­MAL­LAH, Pales­tine — At noon on a hot day in late Au­gust, a noisy group of young Arab men in their late 20s is hang­ing around be­side a ram­shackle bus sta­tion in Beth­le­hem, a town just south of Jerusalem, be­lieved by Chris­tians to be the birth­place of Christ.

The young men sit and chat be­neath the blaz­ing sun, look­ing at the stream of yel­low cabs that rush back and forth in the garbage-strewn street.

When they no­tice for­eign­ers ar­riv­ing from Jerusalem, they start whoop­ing and shout­ing loudly in bro­ken English: “Wel­come to free Pales­tine! No Is­rael! No Is­rael!”

These young Pales­tini­ans are far from be­ing alone in their an­gry de­fi­ance.

In this an­cient Bib­li­cal town, cur­rently gov­erned by the semi-in­de­pen­dent Pales­tinian Au­thor­ity,

re­sent­ment for the neigh­bor­ing Jewish state is ev­ery­where, heard in rou­tine con­ver­sa­tions, and seen in bel­li­cose graf­fiti in the streets.

The mil­i­tary bat­tles of the decades­long Arab-Is­raeli con­flict are now far in the past, but the roots of the dis­pute have never been re­solved, and old wounds never healed.

Pales­tine to­day suf­fers from wide­spread poverty, mas­sive un­em­ploy­ment, and very low stan­dards of liv­ing — all of which breeds even more re­sent­ment and hos­til­ity to­wards the richer state of Is­rael.

But most im­por­tantly, the seeds of new wars are grow­ing from the re­sent­ment of young Pales­tini­ans, an­gered and rad­i­cal­ized by the lack of op­por­tu­nity in their lives.

Driven to de­spair, many of them even­tu­ally fol­low the ban­ners of Is­lamist fun­da­men­tal­ist groups like Ha­mas, fight­ing Is­rael in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The Is­raelis in turn re­tal­i­ate with more vi­o­lence, and blood is spilled time af­ter time in a land that three re­li­gions call “holy.”

The cur­rent con­flict in the Holy Land could be a pre­view of the fu­ture of an­other con­flict rag­ing less than 2,000 kilo­me­ters to the north, in Ukraine’s east­ern Don­bas re­gion, part of which has been oc­cu­pied by Rus­sia since 2014.

There, Krem­lin pro­pa­ganda has ex­ploited the poverty and de­spair of the re­gion, and the younger gen­er­a­tion, grow­ing up be­hind the front lines of a war un­leashed by Rus­sia, is be­ing taught to hate Ukraine.

Mu­tual dis­re­gard

Asked to ex­plain the causes of ArabIs­raeli dis­pute, most peo­ple liv­ing in both Is­rael and the Pales­tinian Ter­ri­to­ries have the same short an­swer: “It’s re­ally com­pli­cated.”

Since the found­ing of the Jewish state in 1948, this 70-kilome­ter-wide strip of land be­tween the Jor­dan River and the Mediter­ranean Sea has seen so many bru­tal bat­tles, ter­ror at­tacks, and mass ex­pul­sions that the mu­tual ha­tred be­tween the two sides makes the prospect reach­ing a win­win peace vir­tu­ally an im­pos­si­bil­ity.

Ten­sions are felt most in the West Bank, the rocky high­lands of Judea and Sa­maria, where Jewish and Arab set­tle­ments are in­ter­mixed nearly all the way east to the Jor­dan River.

Here, the Jewish wine­grow­ers of Ariel brand their Pales­tinian neigh­bors vi­o­lent zealots who pre­fer the lan­guage of the knife to civ­i­lized dialogue, while the Ara­bic car re­pair­ers and farm­ers of Nablus call the Jews il­le­gal oc­cu­pants who have brought grief and des­ti­tu­tion to their home­land.

And painful mem­o­ries keep pas­sions in­flamed.

In Is­rael, or­di­nary peo­ple still re­call in fear the pe­riod of 2000– 2005, known as the Se­cond In­tifada (“up­ris­ing”). Back then, a wave of vi­o­lence claimed some 4,500 lives — roughly three-quar­ters of them Pales­tinian.

Al­most ev­ery Jewish fam­ily has a story of a rel­a­tive or a friend who was killed or in­jured in a ter­ror at­tack com­mit­ted by an Arab sui­cide bomber at a bus stop, or near a school, in Tel Aviv, or in Jerusalem.

At the same time, many Pales­tini­ans still bear bit­ter grief over loved ones killed in re­tal­ia­tory anti-ter­ror raids by the Is­raeli army and po­lice in em­bat­tled Pales­tinian towns.

Such bit­ter­ness will prob­a­bly linger Ukraine’s Don­bas as well in fu­ture, should it be lib­er­ated from Rus­sian oc­cu­pa­tion and rein­te­grated into Ukraine.

Judg­ing from the ha­tred be­tween Jews and Arabs in the di­vided West Bank, it could take years, if not decades, for peo­ple on both sides of the present-day front line in Ukraine to over­come their mu­tual anger over the de­struc­tion and blood­shed caused by Rus­sia’s war.

So­cial prob­lems

In east­ern Ukraine, Rus­sia mo­bi­lized pop­u­lar sup­port for its 2014 in­ter­ven­tion by ex­ploit­ing the eco­nomic and so­cial prob­lems of the re­gion — and Is­lamist groups like Ha­mas use the same tac­tic in Pales­tine.

The Pales­tinian Au­thor­ity, which de jure gov­erns parts of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, but de facto con­trols only the West Bank, was estab­lished in 1994 un­der the lead­er­ship of the late Pales­tinian leader Yasser Arafat. It was sup­posed to be an em­bryo of the State of Pales­tine — but a quar­ter of a cen­tury later it has yet to de­velop into an in­de­pen­dent na­tion, even though 137 of 193 United Nations mem­ber states, in­clud­ing Ukraine, have rec­og­nized its state­hood.

Ac­cord­ing to CIA World Fact­book, some 3 mil­lion Pales­tini­ans live in the West Bank con­trolled by the Pales­tinian Au­thor­ity, plus 2 mil­lion live in the Gaza Strip ruled by Ha­mas.

The Pales­tinian Au­thor­ity still re­mains one of the world’s big­gest re­cip­i­ents of in­ter­na­tional aid. Since 1994, the U.S. gov­ern­ment alone has given $5.2 bil­lion in as­sis­tance to Pales­tine through its U. S. Agency for In­ter­na­tional De­vel­op­ment pro­gram — about the same amount Ukraine has re­ceived in a sim­i­lar time­frame.

The United Nations con­sid­ers the Jewish set­tle­ments in the West Bank, a re­gion cap­tured by Is­rael from Jor­dan dur­ing the Six-Day War of 1967, to be il­le­gal.

The con­trast of the qual­ity of life in the Jewish and Pales­tinian set­tle­ments in that area, how­ever, is strik­ing.

While Jewish towns like Ariel or Re­he­lim in the very heart of the West Bank re­sem­ble mid­dle-class Cal­i­for­nian sub­urbs, with per­fect roads, green gar­dens and well-tended houses, many of the Pales­tinian set­tle­ments are de­cay­ing slums, their streets lit­tered with garbage.

The eco­nomic in­di­ca­tors speak for them­selves.

As of 2018, the monthly min­i­mum wage in Is­rael (in­clud­ing the Is­raeli­held West Bank) was 5,300 shekels ($1,500), while the av­er­age em­ployee in the Pales­tinian Ter­ri­to­ries earned ap­prox­i­mately 1,500 shekels ($420) per month.

More­over, the un­em­ploy­ment rate in Pales­tine (in­clud­ing the Gaza Strip) in July, ac­cord­ing to the au­ton­omy’s Cen­tral Bureau of Statis­tics, hit

34.4 per­cent.

Youth un­em­ploy­ment also re­mains con­sis­tently high, ac­cord­ing to World Bank es­ti­mates. In 2017, only 41 per­cent of those aged be­tween 15 and 29 were ac­tive in the la­bor mar­ket, re­flect­ing high pes­simism re­gard­ing em­ploy­ment prospects, the in­sti­tu­tion notes in its April 2018 out­look on Pales­tine.

And in 2011, about 21 per­cent of the Pales­tinian pop­u­la­tion lived on less than $5.50 a day, way be­low the poverty line, the World Bank said.

“It’s no won­der that Arab com­mu­ni­ties in the West Bank, even those gov­erned by the Pales­tinian Au­thor­ity, are so poorly main­tained,” says Boaz Haet­zni, an of­fi­cial work­ing for the Shom­ron Re­gional Coun­cil, which gov­erns 35 Is­raeli set­tle­ments in the re­gion. “Much of their eco­nomic ac­tiv­i­ties and em­ploy­ment re­main in the shad­ows, so their tax rev­enues are very low. Nat­u­rally, the ef­fec­tive­ness of pub­lic util­i­ties and ser­vices in their cities and towns is also poor.”

Some Pales­tini­ans, how­ever, man­age to get jobs at the numer­ous Is­raeli-owned small busi­nesses in the West Bank — a sit­u­a­tion fa­mil­iar to the some 2 mil­lion Ukraini­ans who have fled the war zone in the Don­bas in search of a bet­ter life in gov­ern­ment-con­trolled Ukraine or abroad.

One of the lucky few is Su­fian Abu Khadra, an Arab man in his early fifties liv­ing near Ra­mal­lah, the pro­vi­sional cap­i­tal city of Pales­tine, lo­cated just to the north of Jerusalem.

Ev­ery day he drives through po­lice check­points across the Bib­li­cal high­lands of Sa­maria to the Ariel district to work at an Is­raeli plas­tic fac­tory, which em­ploys some 100 Pales­tini­ans.

“Of course, for most of the peo­ple in my vil­lage, it’s a dream job,” Abu Khadra says as he wipes oil from his hands with a duster.

“My son also works here. And with our salaries, we are able to feed at least 10 more mem­bers of our big fam­ily — our chil­dren, women, and the el­derly,” he says. “In Pales­tine, un­less you have good con­nec­tions in the au­thor­i­ties and busi­ness, find­ing a well-paid job is not easy.”

The big­ger prob­lem, ac­cord­ing to Abu Khadra, is that many Is­raeli com­pa­nies don’t trust Pales­tini­ans and pre­fer to not hire them, even though they of­fer cheap la­bor.

“How­ever, I must ad­mit that, as God will­ing, this mu­tual rage some­what dies down in the course of time,” he says. “Fif­teen years ago, I might have been branded as a traitor by my fel­low towns­men, but to­day many of them ask me to put a word in for them so they can get a good job.”

When asked what he thinks about the gov­er­nance of the area by the Pales­tinian Au­thor­ity, Abu Khadra gives a soft smile and re­fuses to give his opin­ion.

Walled off

The out­burst of vi­o­lence of the Se­cond In­tifada also prompted Is­rael to build a 708-kilome­ter sep­a­ra­tion bar­rier around the whole West Bank, which serves to alien­ate the Pales­tini­ans fur­ther.

This was sup­posed to be an all-out de­fen­sive line against the Pales­tinian ter­ror in­side Is­rael — but Pales­tini­ans them­selves see it as a hu­mil­i­at­ing sym­bol of racial seg­re­ga­tion and apartheid in the 21st cen­tury. To­day, Pales­tini­ans can cross the bar­rier and en­ter Is­rael only through a check­point, for no more than one day, and only if they have a spe­cial per­mit.

The most for­ti­fied part of the Is­raeli bar­rier, an 8-meter-high con­crete wall crowned with barbed wire, snakes over the Ju­daean Moun­tains, which sep­a­rate Pales­tinian-con­trolled Beth­le­hem from Jerusalem.

From the Pales­tinian side, the bar­rier is a riot of graf­fiti that lam­basts the global com­mu­nity for tol­er­at­ing this seg­re­ga­tion, and de­mands free­dom, peace, and pros­per­ity for Pales­tine in a world with­out any bar­ri­ers be­tween peo­ples.

Tourists gather in crowds be­fore the wall to view fa­mous works by anony­mous street artist Banksy — most no­tably, the iconic graf­fiti “The Man Throw­ing Flow­ers,” sym­bol­iz­ing the as­pi­ra­tion for a peace­ful strug­gle for rights and lib­er­ties.

But while the wall is full of calls for peace like “Make hum­mus, not walls,” there is an­other, more men­ac­ing mes­sage that stands out: “From the river to the sea, Pales­tine will be free.” The phrase im­plies that part of the present Is­raeli state will be “freed.”

Com­bat­ing ter­ror

The Is­raeli De­fense Forces believe that the sep­a­ra­tion bar­rier has helped com­bat ter­ror­ism all across Is­rael.

In March 2001, for in­stance, at the peak of the Se­cond In­tifada, at least 143 civil­ians were killed as sui­cide bombers sent by Ha­mas slipped into Is­raeli towns and cities and blew them­selves up in buses, cafes, shop­ping malls, or restau­rants, ac­cord­ing to the IDF spokesman Lieu­tenant Colonel Jonathan Con­ri­cus.

“That changed when we did two things,” the Is­raeli army of­fi­cial told the Kyiv Post.

“We re­gained the ini­tia­tive and ma­neu­vered in­side the Pales­tinian ar­eas, and took con­trol for a short pe­riod of time over the Pales­tinian cities from where the sui­cide bombers were leav­ing, reestab­lish­ing in­tel­li­gence ca­pac­ity in those places. We forced the ter­ror­ists to flee and to be on the de­fen­sive — to care for their own safety in­stead of hav­ing the lux­ury of plan­ning at­tacks against Is­raeli civil­ians.”

The se­cond cru­cial step was erect­ing the bar­rier, which later proved to be ef­fec­tive, Con­ri­cus said.

“Since then, Ha­mas has not been able to con­duct any sig­nif­i­cant ter­ror at­tacks, sui­cide bomb­ings.

“Not be­cause it doesn’t want to, but be­cause we’re con­stantly at­tack­ing its in­fra­struc­ture, and we ap­ply pres­sure on ev­ery­thing that be­longs to Ha­mas: fund­ing, ma­te­rial, rad­i­cal­iza­tion cen­ters in mosques et cetera.”

Com­bat­ing Ha­mas ter­ror­ism is an area in which the Is­raeli army en­joys broad sup­port and co­op­er­a­tion from the Pales­tinian Au­thor­ity in the West Bank, Cor­ni­cus added.

No en­try

But in the West Bank it is not only Pales­tini­ans who have to face hu­mil­i­at­ing re­stric­tions of move­ment in their own home­land.

When driv­ing through the hills of Sa­maria, one can of­ten meet red traf­fic signs read­ing in He­brew, Ara­bic, and English: “En­trance for­bid­den to Is­raeli cit­i­zens — it is dan­ger­ous to your life and is against Is­raeli law.”

The road ahead leads to the so-called “Area A,” which in­cludes some 18 per­cent of the West Bank and is fully con­trolled by the Pales­tinian Au­thor­ity and its se­cu­rity forces. With rare ex­cep­tions, no Is­raeli civil­ian can en­ter many im­por­tant and an­cient cities pop­u­lated by Arabs, such as Beth­le­hem, Ra­mal­lah, He­bron, or Jeri­cho — an­other painful com­pro­mise ac­cepted by Is­rael for the sake of peace.

“Some­times I feel re­ally bad about what’s hap­pen­ing in our land,” says Yair Eliash, a young Is­raeli po­lit­i­cal science stu­dent, as he looks at the mag­nif­i­cent panorama of the an­cient city of Nablus from a high hill.

For long cen­turies, Nablus was a Jewish town called Shechem, where the grave of the Bib­li­cal pa­tri­arch Joseph is said to be. But now, Nablus is un­der the Pales­tine Au­thor­ity and a no-go zone for Eliash.

“I feel sorry for the Pales­tini­ans — their life is re­ally hard,” he said.

“I have many friends among them. We all see that the peace is ab­so­lutely at­tain­able when we speak to each other not as peo­ple be­long­ing to dif­fer­ent nations, but just as friends.”

El­derly men com­mu­ni­cate as they browse used good at a junk mar­ket in the town of Beth­le­hem con­trolled by the Pales­tinian Au­thor­ity on Sept. 3. (Il­lia Pono­marenko)

A taxi cab drives through a street along­side the Is­raelibuilt de­fen­sive bar­rier in the Pales­tinian city of Beth­le­hem on Sept. 3. (Il­lia Pono­marenko)

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