Published: October 2002
Lines in the Sand: Deadly Times in the West Bank and Gaza
By Andrew Cockburn
Revered by three faiths, the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron functions as both synagogue and mosque, sometimes in the course of a single day. In times of intense Israeli-Palestinian conflict, however, authorities close off this West Bank shrine, believed to hold the remains of three pairs of biblical patriarchs and matriarchs: Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Leah.

Despite their hold on the world's attention, the Gaza Strip and West Bank territories, occupied by Israel since the Six Day War in June 1967, cover relatively tiny areas. Gaza, home to 1.1 million Palestinians and 7,000 Israeli settlers (who occupy 25 percent of the land), is only 26 miles (42 kilometers) long. A north-south drive through the center of the West Bank on Road 60, which connects the historic cities of Jenin, Nablus, Bethlehem, and Hebron, takes four hours. Traversing one of the modern east-west highways that cross between the Jordan River and the so-called Green Line, which marks the West Bank's border with Israel, should take 30 minutes.

But for most of the people who live here, time and distance are measured differently. The 2.2 million Palestinian inhabitants of the West Bank and East Jerusalem are effectively barred from most of Road 60 along with many other roads carefully engineered for the use of the 376,000 Israelis who have settled here over the past 35 years. Palestinians contemplating the 25-mile (40-kilometer) journey from Ramallah to Jericho, for example, must be prepared to spend an entire day, sometimes days, negotiating the various Israeli roadblocks and checkpoints along the way.

The many peoples who have lived on this land in past ages have not always been so much at odds. A cache of letters uncovered in a cave in the Judaean desert on the southern fringe of the West Bank 40 years ago chronicles the daily life of Babatha, a second-century Jewish woman. Babatha describes Jews and Arabs coexisting without friction. Just a hundred years ago Jews, Christians, and Muslims living in Jerusalem routinely attended each other's religious festivities. That kind of harmony eroded and disappeared in the 20th century with the rise of nationalism—Jewish and Arab—in the region.

Escalating hostilities led to intervention by the United Nations, which, in 1947, produced a plan for the partition of the area, named Palestine, between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. The plan awarded slightly more than half the land to a Jewish state with the remainder allotted to the Palestinians. Although the Jews accepted the plan, Palestinians and the Arab states rejected it.

The following year, on May 14, Israel declared independence, offering itself as a haven from anti-Semitism for the world's Jews. An ongoing war between Jews and Palestinians was thereupon joined by neighboring Arab states. When the war ended in January 1949, Israel controlled 78 percent of Palestine, and 750,000 Palestinians became refugees.

The territory known as the West Bank—the hill country to the west of the Jordan River—had been designated under the stillborn UN scheme as the heart of the Palestinian state. During the war Jordan occupied this area while Israel focused on protecting early settlements and capturing Jerusalem. When the war was over, the West Bank and East Jerusalem were in the hands of the Jordanian forces; Egypt controlled the Gaza Strip; Israel controlled West Jerusalem.

Nineteen years later, in the 1967 Six Day War, Israeli forces speedily overran Gaza and swept across the West Bank, establishing a new frontier for Israel on the Jordan River. While the Israelis annexed East Jerusalem, they were less certain about what to do with the rest of the newly occupied West Bank and its million or so inhabitants. Although some Israeli leaders favored granting limited self-government to the more densely populated Palestinian areas, others were determined to settle Israelis amongst the Palestinians. Their aim was to make it impossible for any future Israeli government to pull out from what they proclaimed to be Israel's land by divine right.

Initially such Israeli settlements—then as now illegal under international law—were few and sparsely populated. By 1977 there were only 4,500 Israeli settlers in the West Bank (with another 50,000 in East Jerusalem). But following election of the conservative Likud Party government that year, the settlement drive went into high gear. Among other initiatives to clear land for this purpose, the new Israeli government declared that established landowners unable to produce legal title (which most Palestinians in the West Bank did not possess) could have their holdings seized as state land.

To encourage settlers to move from Israel or abroad to the settlements, successive Israeli governments offered generous subsidies, such as tax breaks and cut-rate mortgages. Even for those not drawn by visions of occupying the biblical land of Israel, these were attractive inducements. Living in cheap and commodious housing, inhabitants of the larger settlement blocs close to the Green Line could enjoy a comfortable suburban lifestyle within an easy commute to jobs inside Israel itself. According to the Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem, 42 percent of the land in the West Bank is now controlled by the settlements.

By 1993 more than 115,000 Palestinians were commuting to jobs in Israel and earning higher wages than they would have in their traditional occupations as farmers, traders, or artisans. However, around the same time, the Israeli government, responding to Palestinian attacks on Israelis, began placing severe restrictions on these workers' mobility, to the detriment of the Palestinian economy.

Israel, in turn, was becoming increasingly reliant on the West Bank for water. A third of its entire supply was being drawn from aquifers under the highlands of the territory. Since 1967 all water resources in the territory have been put under Israeli state control. Palestinians who need to drill a well, or repair an old one, need a permit. Such permits, which require approvals from a variety of Israeli committees and departments for a single well, are rarely granted.

Today, Israelis consume five times as much water per head as Palestinians, many of whom must rely entirely on water trucked in from distant wells during the dry summer months. According to B'Tselem, inhabitants of the settlements, where swimming pools are plentiful and crop irrigation common, use even more water.

The 1993 Oslo Accords sparked the first moves by Israel to alleviate, at least partially, the effects of the occupation. Uri Savir, the chief Israeli negotiator, later wrote that it was during the peace talks leading to the Oslo Accords that he first learned that "a West Bank Palestinian could not build, work, study, purchase land, grow produce, start a business, take a walk at night, enter Israel, go abroad, or visit his family in Gaza or Jordan without a permit from us."

As part of the accords Israel agreed to withdraw its forces from the West Bank and Gaza, save those needed to guard settlements, over the course of five years, at the end of which the two sides would negotiate a final settlement leading to an independent Palestinian state.

In the interim, the territories were internally subdivided. In Area A the Palestinians had full control. Area B was under Palestinian administration with the Israelis retaining security control, while Area C remained under full Israeli control. However, each of the islands of territory under full or partial Palestinian control was divided by Area C territory, which might in some cases be a strip no more than 380 yards (350 meters) across—narrow enough for a tank to block. Security restrictions, progressively tightened since September 2000, have made movement to and from Palestinian enclaves ever more difficult and time consuming and, whenever the Israelis clamp down, impossible.

For a time the peace process that began in 1993 did bring an end to direct Israeli occupation in major Palestinian towns such as Nablus, Jenin, and Ramallah, all of which experienced a brief flicker of prosperity. But by March 2002, 67 percent of Palestinians in the occupied territories were living under the poverty level of two dollars a day.

Contributing to this decline was a sense of despair that since the mid-1980s had hastened the rise of Palestinian extremist groups. With the ineffectuality of the Palestinian Authority (PA), as Yasser Arafat's administration is called, and with every setback in the peace process, these groups have grown stronger. Suicide bombers attack Israeli civilians; the Israeli military assassinates suspected terrorists and restricts the movements of Palestinians; and the cycle of violence and hatred continues.

Meanwhile, since 1993, the number of settlers on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem has risen from 247,000 to 376,000. Most of them live in three large blocs that both hem in the Palestinian cities and divide them from each other, jeopardizing the cohesion of any future Palestinian state. On the western side of the West Bank, for example, the settler city of Ariel separates the major Palestinian towns of Qalqilyah, Nablus, and Ramallah. Farther south another bloc of settlements stretches east to within eight miles (thirteen kilometers) of the Jordan River, cutting the West Bank in two and dividing the 200,000 Palestinians of East Jerusalem from Ramallah to the north. Southwest of Jerusalem yet another major settlement cluster sits between Bethlehem and Hebron.

In talks aimed at reaching a final agreement—in 2000 at Camp David and in early 2001 in Taba, Egypt—Israeli negotiators reportedly offered to hand over almost all the West Bank to full Palestinian control. Israelis were divided between those who resented such concessions and those who saw the settlements as an impediment to peace. In any event, Palestinian negotiators rejected the proposal, noting as their rationale that the proposed Palestinian state would be composed of disconnected parts, cut off from each other (and control of the water resources) and, crucially, from the vital economic center of East Jerusalem—from which Palestinians living outside the city are barred without special permission.

In March, following an onslaught of Palestinian suicide-bomber attacks against Israeli civilians, the Israeli army reoccupied many Palestinian-controlled areas and placed most of them under semipermanent curfew. The peace process, already stalled, went into abrupt reverse. Both sides now utterly distrust each other, and, even with PA elections coming in early 2003, the prospects for a Palestinian state worth the name are remote. The brighter days described in Babatha's second-century letters seem irretrievable. It's doubtful that Jews and Muslims, who only a century ago attended each other's religious festivities, will be doing so again anytime soon.