I recently met a Palestinian man living in the West Bank whose family is originally from Gaza, although they have not lived in Gaza for years. Palestinians from Gaza are not “legally” allowed to live, study or work in the West Bank or east Jerusalem without Israeli permission, despite the fact that Gaza, the West Bank and east Jerusalem are supposed to make up the future Palestinian state; according to the Oslo Accords there should be free movement between them. This man is here so he can be near his fiancée, but lives in continual fear that at some point he will be stopped at a checkpoint and his Gaza origin will be identified. If this were to happen, it is very likely he would be “deported” to Gaza, despite the fact that his immediate family no longer lives there. Because of this, he rarely travels outside of Ramallah.
There are approximately 25,000 Palestinians living in the West Bank who have Gaza as their place of residence on their ID cards, many of whom have lived in the West Bank for years. In recent weeks, Israel has deported a number of Palestinians from the West Bank to Gaza raising fears among those with Gaza origins that they might be targeted in this wave of deportations. Berlanty Azzam, a student at Bethlehem University received a blitz of media attention a few weeks ago when she was stopped at a checkpoint. Her Gaza address was identified on her ID card after which she was handcuffed, detained for six hours, blindfolded, driven to the Israeli-controlled Erez crossing into Gaza and dropped off, a mere two weeks away from her graduation.
The Israelis claim she was in the West Bank illegally, meaning that she had no official permit to be here. However, there was no Israeli permit system by which she could legally enter the West Bank in 2005 to undertake her studies at Bethlehem University, and the restrictions on movement in between Gaza and the West Bank have only become tighter since Hamas seized power, a trend that evolved in the wake of the first Intifada.
To further illustrate this trend, in 2000 there were 350 students from Gaza studying at Birzeit University in the West Bank, of which many were ultimately deported. By 2005 there were only 35 students from Gaza studying at the university – today there are none. The Israeli government maintains publicly that they support the two-state solution, but this seems a dubious claim in light of the growing separation between Gaza, the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
The 1967 borders in theory are supposed to be the territories on which the Palestinian state will eventually emerge with east Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital. Yet the separation between them grows with every passing day. They are increasingly functioning independently from each other and are treated as though they are independent entities, as evidenced by Israel’s deportation policy and the closure of Gaza.
The separation of the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza serves Israel in numerous capacities, and can be seen as a classic attempt to “divide and rule,” a tactic Israel has long employed in dealing with the Palestinians. This tactic is also evident in the fragmentation of the West Bank due to the settlements, the Wall and the Jewish-only bypass roads that serve the settlements, along with its separation from east Jerusalem. The result is a discontinuous territory with no viability, which is generally blamed on the Palestinians and Israel’s need for security.
Israel maintains that the closure and blockade of Gaza is necessary for exactly this reason, pointing the finger at Hamas who they have labeled a terrorist organization, and have thus refused to recognize or negotiate with. This argument may suffice for the less informed, however the separation of Gaza was institutionalized in the early 1990’s, in the midst of the first Intifada and just before the Oslo era got underway, and long before Hamas came to power. The separation culminated in the erection of the Israeli controlled Erez border crossing between Gaza and Israel as a result of the signing of the Oslo Accords.
Moreover, Israel believed that an Islamist organization like Hamas would refuse to take part in peace negotiations, and would serve to undermine the process. Israel surely saw this as an advantage, particularly in light of handing over the Sinai Peninsula back to Egypt as a result of the Camp David Accords; Israel more than likely wanted to avoid having to make similar territorial concessions with the Palestinians, and probably welcomed the arrival of Hamas as a political force that could weaken and undermine the PLO’s ability to negotiate effectively.
Thus the policy of divide and rule should be seen for what it is – an institutionalized Israeli strategy intended to prevent Palestinian unity, whether due to Israeli meddling in Palestinian affairs or its exploitation of internal Palestinian divisions and follies. Either way, it allows Israel to act unilaterally and resist negotiating a solution based on the 1967 borders. Furthermore, it allows Israel to annex more land in the West Bank the longer the conflict draws on. Keeping the Palestinians in a position of weakness and preventing them from acting with one unified voice has allowed Israel to do this. Palestinian divisions, both geographic and political allow Israel to dominate all agreements and negotiations. The last thing Israel wants is Palestinian unity, and the current failure of the Palestinian political leadership to reconcile plays right into Israel’s hands.
The man I met recently will more than likely leave the West Bank soon rather than risk being deported, leaving behind his fiancée and stepping into a future which leaves their status uncertain. Berlanty Azzam’s ability to finish her degree at Bethlehem University also remains uncertain. Meanwhile, as time passes the separation of Gaza, the West Bank and east Jerusalem becomes more of a reality, while the prospects for a two-state solution dwindle rapidly. For the sake of Palestine, I can only hope they will find a way to overcome their own internal divisions. In the meantime, we should not be fooled by the Israeli government’s declaration of support for a two-state solution.
Britain Eakin is a Writer for the Media and Information Program at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.