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It’s the show that time and the world forgot. It’s called the Occupation and it’s now in its forty-fifth year. Playing on a landscape about the size of Delaware, it remains largely hidden from view, while Middle Eastern headlines from elsewhere seize the day. Diplomats shuttle back and forth from Washington and Brussels to Middle Eastern capitals; the Israeli-Turkish alliance ruptures amid bold declarations from the Turkish prime minister; crowds storm the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, while Israeli ambassadors flee the Egyptian capital and Amman, the Jordanian one; and of course, there’s the headliner, the show-stopper of the moment, the Palestinian Authority’s campaign for statehood in the United Nations, which will prompt an Obama administration veto in the Security Council.
But whatever the Turks, Egyptians or Americans do, whatever symbolic satisfaction the Palestinian Authority may get at the UN, there’s always the Occupation and there—take it from someone just back from a summer living in the West Bank—Israel isn’t losing. It’s winning the battle, at least the one that means the most to Palestinians and Israelis, the one for control over every square foot of ground. Inch by inch, meter by meter, Israel’s expansion project in the West Bank and Jerusalem is, in fact, gaining momentum, ensuring that the “nation” that the UN might grant membership will be each day a little smaller, a little less viable, a little less there.
How to Disappear a Land
On my many drives from West Bank city to West Bank city, from Ramallah to Jenin, Abu Dis to Jericho, Bethlehem to Hebron, I’d play a little game: Could I travel for an entire minute without seeing physical evidence of the occupation? Occasionally—say, when riding through a narrow passage between hills—it was possible. But not often. Nearly every panoramic vista, every turn in the highway revealed a Jewish settlement, an Israeli army checkpoint, a military watchtower, a looming concrete wall, a barbed-wire fence with signs announcing another restricted area, or a cluster of army jeeps stopping cars and inspecting young men for their documents.
The ill-fated Oslo “peace process” that emerged from the Oslo Accords of 1993 not only failed to prevent such expansion, it effectively sanctioned it. Since then, the number of Israeli settlers on the West Bank has nearly tripled to more than 300,000—and that figure doesn’t include the more than 200,000 Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem.
The Oslo Accords, ratified by both the Palestinians and the Israelis, divided the West Bank into three zones—A, B and C. At the time, they were imagined by the Palestinian Authority as a temporary way station on the road to an independent state. They are, however, still in effect today. The de facto Israeli strategy has been and remains to give Palestinians relative freedom in Area A, around the West Bank’s cities, while locking down “Area C”—60 percent of the West Bank—for the use of the Jewish settlements and for what are called “restricted military areas.” (Area B is essentially a kind of grey zone between the other two.) From this strategy come the thousands of demolitions of “illegal” housing and the regular arrests of villagers who simply try to build improvements to their homes. Restrictions are strictly enforced and violations dealt with harshly.
When I visited the South Hebron Hills in late 2009, for example, villagers were not even allowed to smooth out a virtually impassable dirt road so that their children wouldn’t have to walk two to three miles to school every day. Na’im al-Adarah, from the village of At-Tuwani, paid the price for transporting those kids to the school “illegally.” A few weeks after my visit, he was arrested and his red Toyota pickup seized and destroyed by Israeli soldiers. He didn’t bother complaining to the Palestinian Authority—the same people now going to the UN to declare a Palestinian state—because they have no control over what happens in Area C.