9 June 2017 | Itay Epshtain
50 Years of Occupation: Displacement and Dispossession in Palestine
The nature of displacement in Palestine is unique among present day humanitarian crises, and remains directly related to the impact of protracted occupation. Now in its 50th year, the occupation continues to escalate with no end to it in sight.
Itay Epshtain, NRC Palestine Policy Advisor, reflects on the role of humanitarians and that of States in efforts to ensure peace, security and the protection of rights in this context.
I am often asked why the crisis in Palestine has persisted for so long and questioned on how it has affected Palestinians living under occupation, and the prospects for a resolution of this contentious and enduring issue. Over the past years, working for the Norwegian Refugee Council in Palestine, I have grappled with the full force of these questions, and reflected with colleagues on what shape desirable solutions may take.
First of all, it should be stated that a durable solution for Palestine refugees in line with UN General Assembly Resolution 194 of December 1948, which calls for their return to their homes in safety and dignity, remains as elusive as ever. Notably, the plight of Palestinians living under occupation for generations, and the meagre prospects for a political breakthrough, stem from the intentional failure of Israel, as the Occupying Power, to uphold its obligations in administering occupied territory for the well-being of the protected Palestinian population, short of redressing the decades of conflict.
Picture 1 (caption below)
Two emblematic humanitarian challenges arise in protecting Palestinians from displacement and dispossession in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
The ten-year Israeli siege on the Gaza Strip, imposed following the Hamas takeover there, has exacerbated its decades-long severance from the West Bank and elsewhere, and critically worsened the already-devastating humanitarian impact of the repeated escalation of hostilities. This has resulted in the destruction of Gaza’s infrastructure and disrupted the access of the two million Palestinians living there to basic services, including primary health care and education and available water and electricity.
More than 5,500 houses destroyed in Israel’s last war on Gaza three years ago have yet to be rebuilt, and 35,000 people there remain displaced, struggling to maintain their households in an economy increasingly stifled by siege. Gaza is on the brink of collapse, with limited prospects for political and physical reintegration, sustainable public services and a revived economy.
In the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, the causal links between crippling limitations on planning for the Palestinian population, property destruction, the obstruction of humanitarian aid, and the forcible transfer of Palestinians in the path of settlement expansion have culminated in a de facto annexation of the occupied territory by Israel. This ill-advised development is evident from even a cursory look at what has been taking place over the last 50 years, and should be understood as the illicit driver of increasing humanitarian needs and political stalemate.
Right now, 350,000 people in 67 communities in the West Bank are at a high risk of forcible transfer. The Israeli government has issued 11,000 demolition orders affecting 13,000 structures. These orders, if executed, would render thousands homeless. The scores of Palestinians residing in communities at risk of forcible transfer live a daily struggle to maintain their homes and their dignity, against a coercive environment created by Israel.
By definition under international law an occupation should constitute an inherently temporary and short-term action, but Israel appears to wish it to become a permanent fixture of Palestinian life. Through the severance of Gaza and the introduction of Israeli legislative initiatives to formally annex vast parts of the West Bank (along with East Jerusalem, illegally annexed in 1967), the prolongation of the occupation − in total disregard for and dismissal of international law − dominates the actions taken by Israel and drives the displacement of Palestinians.
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Looking ahead, in a climate of intentional legal indeterminacy promoted by Israel, the erosion of an agreed political vision and diminished prospects for conflict resolution, the international community − principally its humanitarian, developmental and policy actors − has a pivotal role to play.
Humanitarian aid to Palestine remains essential in addressing needs and vulnerability resulting from the policies and practices linked to prolonged occupation, conducted in bad faith. Donor States have demonstrated a firm commitment by contributing substantial aid to Palestine in recent decades. Increased investment in aid would serve to further meet chronic needs and mitigate future displacement.
In addition, further efforts are required to restore and preserve the territorial and normative space for a political resolution, while remaining cognizant that the latter might not be easily at hand and will necessitate a common voice, determination and resolve for the norms of international law to be safeguarded in this context.
The persistence of violations throughout the 50 years of occupation and the complexity of the present political environment in no way absolves third States from their obligation to ensure respect for international law. This is even more evident when considering the normative power third States possess regarding the Middle East peace process and the parties involved, and the imperative need to protect Palestinians from grave breaches of international law.
Humanitarians, myself and colleagues included, will continue to work relentlessly with Palestinians to address their needs and uphold their rights. States will be expected to induce Israelis and Palestinians to respect international law; to maintain support for humanitarian and developmental assistance; and to take decisive action to bring the protracted occupation to a swift and just end.
Feature picture caption: Itay Epshtain briefing at Al Hadidiya located in Area C in the north-eastern part of the West Bank. This community has since 2009 experienced 14 separate incidents of property destruction, including 92 residential and agricultural structures demolished by Israel. In an attempt to obstruct vital humanitarian assistance, 33 donor-funded structures were seized or destroyed by Israel during the same period. The picture was taken following such an incident in January 2017.
Picture 1 caption: In Wadi Al Jimel, a community of Palestinian Bedouin refugees from Beer Sheva is facing the threat of forcible transfer, home demolitions and continuous settler violence from the nearby settlement of Maale Adumim. The community is located in Area C, under full Israeli security and administrative control. The community is at risk of forcible transfer due to a “relocation” plan located in the area advanced by the Israeli authorities. Moussa Al Sayayleh: “We’re facing the problem of forced evictions and expulsion from our land. They want this land to add it to their settlement. Let us keep the land without court trials, expulsion and demolition. If they come and raze my house, I am ready to set up a tent, but I will not go where they want to force me to go. I would rather die here than go there. We are not afraid.” Photo: Karl Schembri/NRC.
Picture 2 caption: Rezq Ahmed, 10, from Al Mugragha, had his family house destroyed in the last war on Gaza in 2014. He is the oldest of three sisters and two brothers. “We live in a tragic situation under the blockade where our water and electricity are cut off. We only get electricity for three hours a day, so I can’t watch TV, and when we want to study at night, we can’t. I hope the blockade will end and the environment remains clean and beautiful. What scares me the most is the shooting and the war. People become displaced and houses get razed to the ground. I wish Palestine would be liberated from the occupation.” Photo: Ahmad Mashharawi/NRC.
In Wadi Al Jimel, a community of Palestinian Bedouin refugees from Beer Sheva is facing the threat of forcible transfer, home demolitions and continuous settler violence from the nearby settlement of Maale Adumim. The community is located in Area C, under full Israeli security and administrative control. The community is at risk of forcible transfer due to a “relocation” plan located in the area advanced by the Israeli authorities. Moussa Al Sayayleh: “We’re facing the problem of forced evictions and expulsion from our land. They want this land to add it to their settlement. Let us keep the land without court trials, expulsion and demolition. If they come and raze my house, I am ready to set up a tent, but I will not go where they want to force me to go. I would rather die here than go there. We are not afraid.”