BY NAJLA M. SHAHWAN
SEP 22, 2023 – DAILY SABAH
The drastic and unjustified restrictions imposed by Israel on Palestinians’ movement in the occupied territories only exacerbate the situation
An updated mapping exercise by the United Nations recently revealed that 645 movement obstacles are spread across the West Bank.
The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has documented an increase of about 8% compared with the 593 obstacles recorded in its previous closure survey of January and February 2020.
The U.N.’s count included 49 constantly staffed checkpoints; 139 intermittently staffed checkpoints; 304 roadblocks, earth mounds and road gates; 73 earth walls, road barriers and trenches; and 80 additional obstacles of various types within the Israeli-controlled area of Hebron (H2). Out of all the obstacles verified, 339 prevent or restrict access to main roads, city hubs, services and farmland, with a severe impact on Palestinians besides the 712-kilometer-long Israeli barrier (65% of which is built) and runs mostly inside the West Bank, posing a major movement obstacle for people.
Israel divided the occupied Palestinian territories into three separate unrelated areas: the Gaza Strip, which it has held under blockade for more than a decade; the West Bank, where it exercises full military control; and East Jerusalem, which it has annexed to its sovereign territory.
Israel began tightening restrictions on the movement of Palestinians to and from the occupied territories since the first Palestinian uprising in 1987, when it abolished the so-called “general exit permit,” through which Palestinians used to travel between the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Israel.
In 2000, during the Second Intifada, also known as the Al-Aqsa Intifada, Palestinians needed an Israeli permit to travel outside of and within the occupied areas. However, during the past decade, Israel has tightened these procedures in an unprecedented manner.
The process of obtaining a travel permit requires long, bureaucratic procedures that may extend to weeks or months and are often denied.
Restricting movement is one of the main tools that Israel employs to enforce its regime of occupation over the Palestinian population. It restricts the movement of Palestinians, between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, into East Jerusalem, and abroad.
In the West Bank, Israel controls all entry and exit points, including those leading to East Jerusalem. Israel also controls Palestinian travel inside the West Bank as the military has also installed iron gates at the entrances to the vast majority of West Bank villages, allowing it to isolate them within minutes and with minimal personnel. Inside Jerusalem, Israel has installed checkpoints that cut the Palestinian neighborhoods on the other side of the Separation Barrier off from the rest of the city. This forces more than 140,000 Palestinian Jerusalemites to cross busy, crowded checkpoints to enter their own city (over 361,700 Palestinians and 234,000 Israeli Jewish settlers live in East Jerusalem). Only Palestinians are restricted in this manner, while settlers and other civilians – Israeli and foreigners – are free to travel.
Palestinians’ freedom of movement lies completely at the mercy of Israeli whims, reflected via the instructions given to its soldiers at the local Development Coordination Office (DCO) and the way in which they implement them. This state of affairs forces Palestinians to live in constant uncertainty, making it difficult to perform simple tasks or make plans. A Palestinian leaving home in the morning cannot know whether he or she is going to make it to work – on time or at all – or to keep a medical appointment, visit family or attend a lecture. They might make it or might be delayed at a checkpoint for hours, detained and humiliated by soldiers. They may have to turn around and go back the way they came or even get arrested. Moreover, barriers to movement appear and disappear with no notice making everyday travel an uncertain, lengthy and indeed sometimes worrisome ordeal.
The Israeli movement restriction measures are implemented through a complex and multilayered system of administrative, bureaucratic and physical constraints that permeate almost all facets of everyday life. Aside from the basic right to freedom of movement, the rights to health, education and family, among others, are severely compromised and prevent the prosperity of the Palestinian people, frustrating their economy and its development potential.
In several reports on the issue, the World Bank found that these restrictions are a major factor impeding economic stability and growth in the occupied territories. Movement and access restrictions affect every aspect of Palestinian lives, harming their ability to avail of the rights that they are guaranteed. On the other hand, the permit system and the separation of territories into distinct areas of control have created enclaves that have fractured the connection of Palestinian society, and areas in which Palestinians are free to move are becoming increasingly smaller as restricted areas expand. Cumulatively, these violations undermine the right of Palestinians to self-determination and to an adequate standard of living.
In cases of extreme necessity, international law allows limited restrictions on freedom of movement, provided that these restrictions are proportionate and do not entail discriminatory measures or result in other violations that affect a wide range of civilians who do not pose security threats to individuals or groups.
The severe Israeli restrictions on the Palestinian movement remain unjustified and go beyond the appropriate measures taken for security reasons. However, most of these restrictions on Palestinians are disproportionate, discriminatory and exercised as a punishment for exercising the right to freedom.
For his part, Israel’s far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir has openly admitted that his right to move around unimpeded is superior to the freedom of movement for Palestinians in the occupied West Bank. “My right, the right of my wife and my children to move around Judea and Samaria is more important than freedom of movement for the Arabs,” he recently said in an evening interview with Channel 12 News, using the biblical term for the occupied territory.
Ben-Gvir, known for being a Palestinian-hating religious far-right provocateur, is in control of Israel’s Border Police division in the occupied West Bank. He lives in Kiryat Arba, one of the most radical Zionist settlements in the occupied West Bank.
Israeli journalist Nir Gontarz said Ben-Gvir’s comments were hardly surprising. “He simply described reality as it is,” Gontarz wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter. “This reality was created by leftist and right-wing (Israeli) governments.”
In the application of movement restrictions, Israel has acted in total disregard of its obligations under international law, disregarding Security Council resolutions and the opinion of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) along with the rules of international humanitarian law and international human rights law. Freedom of movement is a right guaranteed under human rights laws in many instruments, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Fourth Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, and the commentary of the Geneva Convention on Freedom of Movement.
From the rule to the exception
Through the implementation of its policies, Israel has reversed freedom of movement for Palestinians in the occupied areas from the rule to the exception. Moreover, these restrictions are not justifiable through necessity, not implemented for the benefit of the occupied population and are extremely disproportionate to any justifying aims.
Instead, the restrictions have been imposed to the benefit of settler populations through discriminatory infrastructural projects, zoning regulations and resource requisitions, resulting in the forced expulsion of many Palestinians from their homes. The discrimination of civilians in this aspect has been institutionalized through the implementation of an ethno-nationally based military legal system and the control of the Israeli civil authority over more than 60% of the West Bank.
The future prosperity and self-determination of the occupied territories rely on the freedom of movement of its population not only for economic reasons but also for the preservation of its culture, the maintenance of its social cohesion, and the insurance of the basic rights of Palestinians. The continuation, expansion and severity of movement restrictions through Israeli policies has a drastic and damaging effect on the Palestinian population, and, should such policies continue to be applied in the same manner as they currently are, there is genuine cause for concern about the future.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Palestinian author, researcher and freelance journalist; recipient of two prizes from the Palestinian Union of Writers