Twenty Years On, Palestinians in the West Bank No Longer Waiting for Change from the Top

Twenty Years On, Palestinians in the West Bank No Longer Waiting for Change from the Top

The Bab al-Shams encampment in the E-1 area overlooks Ma'ale Adumim, a settlement in the Israeli occupied West Bank. Image source: Lazar Simeonov/Al Jazeera.
The Bab al-Shams encampment in the E-1 area overlooks Ma'ale Adumim, a settlement in the Israeli occupied West Bank. Image source: Lazar Simeonov/Al Jazeera.

This August will mark twenty years since the signing of the Oslo Accords, the first peace agreement between a Palestinian group and Israel. While the parties have signed a handful of agreements since then, arguably none have had an impact on the daily lives of people living on that land. Even the Israeli that was in charge of negotiating the Oslo Accords now calls it a “farce,” and urges the Palestinians to unilaterally withdraw from it. “The extremists' gutting of the Oslo agreement has been complete,” he said last year. “One simply cannot continue with an interim agreement for more than 20 years.”

The state of Israel was declared in 1948. Many local residents were displaced, and a war quickly ensued, leaving neighboring countries with control of most of what was meant to be a Palestinian state. In 1967, nearly twenty years later, Israel captured a large portion of this land in another war. There have been subsequent conflicts, but none have altered the territory alloted for a Palestinian state on any appreciable scale.

Today, a massive armed conflict is unlikely to happen anytime soon, and any new official agreement like the Oslo Accords seems elusive.

In any case, more than 82% of Palestinians were not alive during the 1967 war, and more than half were born after the Oslo Accords were signed. Similar numbers hold true for Israelis. Change from the top is a distant memory in that part of the world.

Bil'in villagers protest the separation barrier

Last Friday, Palestinians in the West Bank village of Bil'in marked eight years of weekly protests against an Israeli separation barrier they say threatens to cut their land in half.

Bil'in is a small village where most of the 1,700 residents are farmers. In the 80s and 90s, they lost a significant part of their farmland to three Israeli settlements. In 2002, in an effort to stop suicide attacks on civilians, the Israeli government decided to build a security barrier—in some places a 25-foot high wall—that put more than 10% of the West Bank out of reach of Palestinians. In Bil'in, more than half the village would end up on the Israeli side, making it impossible for farmers to tend to their crops.

The villagers of Bil'in did not look to the Palestinian Authority for help. They didn't call on Hamas.

In 2004, the International Court of Justice declared the separation barrier to be illegal, but Israel refused to comply with the ruling. In 2005, the villagers hired an Israeli lawyer and filed a lawsuit in the Israeli High Court to have the barrier moved from their village. Every Friday, after weekly prayers, the villagers banded together and marched to the site where the barrier was being constructed to protest. It wasn't until 2007, after two years of protests, that the villagers got a partial victory: the Israeli High Court ordered the barrier to be moved, putting part of the farmland back inside the village. The weekly protests have spread along the barrier's route to communities throughout the West Bank, and have drawn widespread international attention.

Some have falsely called the protests against the security barrier the first non-violent protests by Palestinians. In any case, the barrier is not the only issue being tackled by a grassroots non-violent campaign.

Political prisoners

Last week, Israeli authorities revealed that a Palestinian prisoner, Arafat Jadarat, died in their custody. The Israelis claimed it was due to injuries he had sustained before being detained—from a high velocity tear gas canister fired by Israeli forces—but other experts believe he was tortured to death. Jadarat's death sparked massive protests by Palestinians, who felt it was the latest in a long history of mistreatment of prisoners by Israeli authorities.

According to the UN, there are around 4,500 Palestinians in Israeli detention today, hundreds under “administrative-detention,” held without charge for an indefinite period of time. They are held in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which bars the transfer of civilians out of occupied territory. And the UN says Israel violates other laws as well, like holding many in long-term solitary confinement, and barring families from visiting prisoners.

Last April, 1,550 Palestinian prisoners staged a hunger strike, some not eating for more than two months, calling for an end to solitary confinement, restrictions on family visits, and the practice of administrative-detention. After a month, Israeli authorities relented, agreeing to remove prisoners from solitary confinement and lift some restrictions on family visits.

But prisoners say the reforms were never completely implemented, and some decided to stage long-term hunger strikes. Four of them staged a hunger strike that lasted between three and six months. Last week, two prisoners agreed to end their hunger strike when Israeli authorities agreed to release them in May, but two others are continuing until the practice of administrative-detention is stopped.

Anti-settlement camps

Perhaps the most promising feature of civil resistance in the West Bank is its decentralized nature, which allows for quick, creative actions that catch Israeli forces by surprise.

Last month, hundreds of Palestinian and international activists put up dozens of tents in the E-1 area of the West Bank. They dubbed the encampment—on privately-owned Palestinian land—Bab al-Shams, or Gate of the Sun. The E-1 area is slated to be developed by Israel for settlements that Palestinians and human rights groups say will cut the West Bank in half. The Israeli army immediately moved in, threatening forced eviction. An Israeli court gave the protesters six days respite, but in the end, they were forced to leave.

But the tactic inspired others to set up camps all over the West Bank, in areas where Israeli settlements were being planned that would cut through Palestinian land. Within a month, Israeli forces had to evict five other camps on Palestinian land.

Looking forward

All of the campaigns mentioned so far were largely organized at the grassroots level, by groups that have no political affiliations, like the Popular Struggle Coordination Committee.

Palestinian government officials began showing up at the Bil'in protests only after they drew international attention. The hunger strikes by thousands of Palestinian prisoners are organized within the prisons. And the Bab Al-Shams encampment caught both the Israeli and Palestinian government by surprise.

Twenty years after the last sea-change in the West Bank, the people most affected by the Israeli occupation—farmers, prisoners, and ordinary Palestinians—may themselves lead the way towards a just settlement.