Friday September 12 2008
A disturbing report published this week highlights yet another facet of Israel's regime in the occupied territories that is seeing Palestinian lives ruined and families torn apart. As if the alienation of the Palestinians from their pre-1948 homelands wasn't crushing enough to those affected, the Hamoked-B'Tselem study reveals an alarming increase in forcible transfers of West Bank residents to the Gaza Strip, effectively making refugees twice over of those falling victim to this punitive policy.
Palestinians whose registered address is in Gaza are now prohibited from living in the West Bank, regardless of how long ago they made the move eastwards. Thanks to Israel's flouting of the Oslo agreements, the process of updating Palestinians' addresses on the population registry has been indefinitely frozen, making criminals of everyone who falls foul of the rule. The effect has been to separate husbands from their wives and parents from their children, and to add yet another layer of hardship to the already gruelling circumstances in which the Palestinians live.
According to the authors of the paper, the reason behind the Israel authorities' recent escalation of enforcing this law is based on a desire to do everything within their power to drive a wedge between the West Bank and Gaza, and to turn them into separate entities. This is, again, in direct contravention of the Oslo Accords, which state that the two areas are to be treated as one geographical unit; but at the same time it is entirely in keeping with Israel's strategy of cutting off Gaza as a way of punishing the Hamas government.
B'Tselem's Jessica Montell, who presented the findings at a press conference on Wednesday, pointed out that Israel is not acting alone when attempting to isolate and demonise Hamas: "The United States and Europe worked closely with Israel to form a united position towards the Hamas government, and the siege on Gaza [which] stemmed from that". Montell described the latest moves to clamp down on so-called "illegal aliens" in the West Bank as an "exacerbation" of this ostracising approach towards the Hamas leadership.
However, as was shown by way of written and video testimony from Palestinians affected by Israel's increasingly heavy-handed tactics, it is ordinary civilians who are suffering the most. Hadeel al-Bardawil, a 22-year-old mother of two, has been forcibly separated from her husband for over a year, during which time their second child (whom her husband Jamal has never seen) was born. Neither she nor her husband can convince the Israeli authorities to grant them permits to visit one another in either the West Bank or Gaza, and the impact on the entire family has been immense.
"My children now run to their uncles and call them 'daddy'", she said. "I want them to be with their father like other children; all that I ask for is to live my life in dignity with my family".
Her story is by no means unique. Another man described his plight as "abnormal – I haven't seen my daughter for over a year". When asked by the interviewer whether he had phone contact with her, he replied bitterly "We're sick of the phone; everyone always cries". Dozens of similar cases have been brought to the attention of Hamoked although, according to Montell, the number of people affected by the policy could run into "many thousands".
On top of the denial of permits for families to be reunited, there has been a spate of forcible transfers of Gaza-registered civilians out of the West Bank and into the Gaza Strip, by way of house-to-house searches and other methods of tracking down so-called "illegals".
Article 49 of the Geneva conventions expressly forbids occupying powers from "forcible transfers, as well as deportation of protected persons [to anywhere else]… regardless of the motive". Amnesty International go further in their condemnation of the practice, stating that forcible transfer also violates article 33 of the Geneva conventions, which prohibits collective punishment. However, Israel's penchant for ignoring the statutes of international law is nothing new; the current policy being only the latest in a long line of contraventions, and those enforcing it are unlikely to be swayed by censure from human rights groups and NGOs.
Instead, pressure should be brought to bear by those who, at present, are bankrolling and rubberstamping Israel's ever-more exacting regime in the occupied territories. Governments that declare themselves champions of human rights and staunch defenders of victims of abuse are, in effect, giving Israel carte blanche to proceed at will in their denial of basic freedoms to the Palestinians.
As one desperate Palestinian mother put it during her testimony, "[Why don't they just] put me in a cage? At least I'll know I'm in prison, and that I've got a problem; and then I'll give up. Where [else] in the world does a wife have to live apart from her husband for no reason?" Her life in limbo is a constant nightmare, and every government cosying up to Israel, while it attempts permanently to divide the West Bank and Gaza, is just as responsible for her plight as the Israeli authorities themselves.