West Bank and Gaza divided 20 years later

As the anniversary of the Oslo Accords approaches, division and stalemate on talks continue.

Israel has forcibly deported numerous Palestinians back to Gaza for being in the West Bank “illegally” [AFP]

Ramallah, Occupied West Bank – Andaleeb Shehadeh has not entered a West Bank classroom in more than a decade.

“[My] studies are not available in Gaza, or in any other country in the region,” Shehadeh told Al Jazeera over the phone from the Gaza Strip. “I can have a permit for two days, three days, one week in the West Bank. Two weeks ago, I was in the West Bank for five days. But to study, it’s another issue.”

Shehadeh began a Master’s degree in gender, law and development at Birzeit University, near Ramallah, in 1999.

One year later, the Israeli authorities imposed a sweeping ban on Palestinians wanting to travel from the Gaza Strip to the West Bank for educational purposes.

Since then, the 48-year-old mother of four, who works as executive director of the Community Media Centre in Gaza, has been barred from finishing her degree.

Last year, the Israeli Supreme Court upheld the ban.

“[They want] to force Gaza people, Palestinians, to stop dreaming of the unity of Palestine – West Bank, Jerusalem and Gaza Strip – and to stop the communication between the Palestinians as one nation,” Shehadeh said.

“It’s my right to be [in the West Bank] for studying, for visiting, for staying, for any reason … It’s my country.”

‘Single territorial unit’

Under the Oslo Accords agreement – signed between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) 20 years ago on September 13, 1993 – the two sides agreed the West Bank and Gaza Strip would be treated as a “single territorial unit, whose integrity will be preserved”.

Israel, however, has instated a policy of forced separation between the occupied Palestinian territories, in contravention of the agreement, and more importantly, its obligations as an occupying power under international law.

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This includes the International Declaration of Human Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which stipulates that an individual has the right to “liberty of movement and freedom to choose his residence”.

Freedom of movement is also important since it allows individuals to exercise other protected rights, including the right to education, health, and regular family life, among others.

According to Jaber Wishah, deputy director at the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR) in Gaza, the separation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip has caused deep divisions within Palestinian society, and continues to harm social, economic, cultural and political life.

“The Israeli policy [is] in order to keep [Palestinians] segregated and isolated, and to minimise the possibility of political unity and social unity, as well,” Wishah told Al Jazeera. “[It is also] to gain more time in order to finish with the segregation wall, with the confiscation of land, and to impose the realities on the ground, which will prevent any possibility to set up an independent Palestinian state.”

“The main policy of Israel is not different from the colonial policy: divide and rule.”

The physical separation between the two Palestinian territories has been exacerbated by the ongoing Palestinian political division. The Islamic movement Hamas governs the Gaza Strip, and the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority controls the West Bank.

Hamas won Palestinian legislative elections in 2006. Fatah – Hamas’ political rival and the main party in the Palestinian Authority – launched a bloody, US-backed coup against the group in Gaza. The split between Hamas and Fatah endures, with the Palestinian territories now divided into two separate governments.

The infighting among the Palestinians has done little to push the Oslo Accords forward.

Gradual closure

Between 1967 – the year Israel began occupying the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem – and 1991, Israel applied a policy of “general exit” permits for Palestinians seeking to enter Israel, or travel between the Palestinian territories.

In 1991, two years before the Oslo agreement was signed, Israel cancelled these “general exit” permits, and instead forced Palestinians to apply for personal permits in order to leave the West Bank or Gaza Strip.

The economy is choked and fragmented and normal life is being interfered with in a very, very fundamental way.

by - Sari Bashi, Director of Israeli human rights group Gisha.

The ways a Palestinian can receive an exit permit have been increasingly limited, and are subject to strict Israeli security and political considerations.

Today, for example, exit from Gaza is restricted to “exceptional humanitarian cases” – primarily, Palestinians seeking medical treatment – and merchants or business people.

“Families are separated. Students cannot reach their studies,” Sari Bashi, director of Israeli human rights group Gisha, told Al Jazeera. “The economy is choked and fragmented and normal life is being interfered with in a very, very fundamental way.

“It’s not about security. It’s about a policy to separate Palestinians into two populations: one in Gaza, one in the West Bank.”

According to Gisha, Israel now issues some 3,000 permits to Palestinians leaving Gaza through Erez crossing each month.

This number represents only one percent of pre-Second Intifada levels; in September 2000, more than 500,000 Palestinians left Gaza through Erez.

“More than 70 percent of people living in Gaza are refugees from what is now modern day Israel,” Bashi said. “They have family, they have historical connections to Israel, and also the West Bank. That’s not something that is going to go away because politicians are blocking movement.”

Families divided

Article 28 of Annex III in the Interim Agreement (1995) stipulated that the Palestinian Authority would be in charge of the Palestinian population registry, and of registering the addresses of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The Authority was then mandated to transfer this information to the Israeli authorities.

After the outbreak of the Second Intifada, however, Israel froze the process of updating its registry of Palestinian addresses, including address changes for Palestinians who have moved from Gaza to the West Bank.

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In 2007, Israel then forced Palestinians from the Gaza Strip – who are living in the West Bank with their families – to obtain a “permit to remain in Judea and Samaria [the Israeli term for the West Bank]”.

This permit can be obtained only with the approval of  Israeli military authorities, and if the applicant has lived in the West Bank for at least eight years, is married and has children, and has an Israeli security clearance, and it is based on the registered – and largely, non-updated – addresses.

Unable to meet these requirements, Israel has forcibly deported numerous Palestinians back to the Gaza Strip for being in the West Bank “illegally”.

Palestinians from the Gaza Strip are prohibited from moving to the West Bank for the purpose of family unification.

This reality has forced Palestinians from the West Bank to move to Gaza to be with their loved ones, a move that Israel encourages, and even facilitates.

This includes Palestinian prisoners released from Israeli prisons, only on the condition they relocate to the Gaza Strip for a set period of time, or indefinitely.

Of the 1,027 Palestinian prisoners released in a prisoner exchange agreement in 2011, Israel deported 40 prisoners to other countries, and 163 to the Gaza Strip.

“The Israeli policy is to expel, to transfer, Palestinians from the West Bank into the Gaza Strip … They consider the Gaza Strip as [an area] to expel citizens,” PCHR’s Wishah said.

“Uncertainty is the main feature of [Palestinian] political life, commercial life, social life, daily life. Uncertainty is more dangerous than danger itself. Once people are living in complete ambiguity and uncertainty, this is very, very disastrous thing.”

View from Israel

Many Israelis also criticize the lack of progress towards peace that was promised in the Oslo Accords. Uzi Landau, Israel’s former internal security minister now tourism minister, described Oslo as “a historic failure”.

In an opinion piece in the Jerusalem Post, he argued that Israel has made many concessions, including withdrawing from Palestinian and Lebanese territory, allowing the Palestinian Liberation Organization to relocate from Tunis to the West Bank, and releasing “hundreds of terrorists” from Israeli prisons.

Landau said he could not recall any concessions in return from the Palestinians.

“Since it [Oslo] was signed, we have been subjected to forceful barrages of attacks carried out by terrorists. Bombs have exploded on the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, on buses and in commercial centers,” Landau wrote.

“More than 1,000 people were murdered and the thousands of people who have been injured were witness to this terrible mistake.”

Landau suggested the best way forward was to learn past lessons from Oslo’s failures, and “reach an interim long-term agreement that would allow the Israelis and Palestinians to live side by side“.

“We need to take a good look at these last few years and make a true reckoning,” said Landau.

Source: Al Jazeera