Israel’s checkpoint ‘terminal’ in northern Bethlehem welcomes those leaving the city to ‘Jerusalem’ – even though you’re still in the West Bank. There is no ‘Palestine’ in most Western atlases – but you can see the pre-1948 map in cramped homes in refugee camps and the offices of bureaucrats. ‘Palestine’ may now often be used to refer simply to the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), but this is contested by the Palestinian refugees expelled by Israel over 60 years ago, as well as the Palestinian minority inside Israel who remained.
Since 1967, the West Bank and Gaza Strip (or OPT) have been under Israeli military occupation. Soon after Israeli rule began, the state began authorizing and facilitating the creation of Jewish settlements in the OPT, in contravention of international law. Over time, large amounts of private and public land in the West Bank have been expropriated, in order to expand the settlements, create bypass roads, and reserve areas for Israeli military training. The Palestinian economy in the OPT became highly dependent on Israel’s economy, providing a workforce and a market that could be exploited or sidelined according to fluctuating political priorities.
The Palestinian National Authority (PA), established in the 1990s and controlled by Fatah (the largest surviving wing of the Palestine Liberation Organization), was granted limited autonomy in 17 per cent of the West Bank, in territorially non-contiguous enclaves. During the height of the Second Intifada (2000-03), the PA’s infrastructure was badly hit by Israeli military action, with the economy thrown into a deep depression. Long-awaited Palestinian elections in January 2006 saw Hamas win a parliamentary majority, only to have its victory met by opposition from Israel, the international community, and elements of Fatah. The tensions between Fatah and Hamas led to the latter forcibly taking control of the Gaza Strip in summer 2007, pre-empting a suspected coup attempt.
Repeated attempts to negotiate a path to ‘national unity’ have ended in failure. In the West Bank, the current PA Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad – a former World Bank official – has focused on securing modest economic gains and establishing ‘law and order’ in the larger cities. The clampdown on criminal gangs has been welcomed but there is widespread dismay at the extent to which Palestinian security forces are suppressing internal dissent, as well as closely co-operating with the Israeli military.
Many Palestinians feel things have never been worse than they are now. The international peace process shows no sign of progress, even under the new Obama administration, and Israel continues its occupation with impunity. The Palestinian political leadership is divided and discredited. East Jerusalem is increasingly cut off from the West Bank, in a clear indication of the Israeli political consensus that the city will remain the ‘united, Jewish’ capital. The Gaza Strip remains under a state of siege, with Israel and Egypt severely limiting who and what can come in and out. Its residents were also subjected to a massive assault by the Israeli military in December 2008, with 1,400 Palestinians killed, and thousands of homes and businesses destroyed. Hamas’ rule in the Gaza Strip is unshaken, though the pressures from the ongoing siege, as well as the emergence of Salafist-leaning Islamist groups, have led elements in Hamas to attempt an incremental ‘Islamization’ of social space in Gaza.
Yet there are a few chinks of light. Palestinian society as a whole continues to display resilience and cohesion, and the well-developed democratic traditions of civil society are a vital reservoir of resourceful strength. In many West Bank villages, a nonviolent resistance movement targeting the Wall and settlements has established itself and is gradually attracting international attention. Worldwide, the Palestine solidarity movement has witnessed significant growth, notably in response to the call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions in 2005.