by Manasa Narayanan
Violence and suffering manifest in various different ways. While a lot of the time violence leads to bloodshed, sometimes the blood is unseen or spills rather slowly. It should not be taken as absence of violence; it is just a different kind of violence, subtler and therefore in some ways difficult to encapsulate and rally against. It is one such form of violence that forms the basis of this piece: the developmental crisis in Israeli-occupied Palestinian territory. Israeli-occupied Palestinian territory is quite a mouthful for a region’s name one might think. But it represents and carries the burden of a region and the people that make it.
Whenever one talks about the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict, it has become a standard prefix to state that it’s complicated. It indeed is. The events, the actors, the motives are numerous and complex. And yet it might as well be a simple story of power, boundary-driven (us-them) beliefs and loss of many-many innocent lives.
As an outsider to all that is unfolding lately, one condemns the Israeli state for its treatment of Palestinians in the conflict-ridden regions. And when some go in other reckless directions to engage in anti-Semitic talk and action, you condemn that too. On all sides (if there are sides), there are those with enormous amounts of power and those that suffer because of the reckless use of such power. On the side of the Israelis, there is the militarily superior government and on the Palestinian side, the Hamas (militant organisation) and to a lesser extent, the Palestinian Authority (PA). These institutions/organisations are calling the shots that ultimately result in consequences for people living all across the region. Of course, this is not to say that the ones with the reign here are all equally powerful. The Israeli military is known to be far more equipped and sophisticated. But again, irrespective of sides, there are those that seek a sense of justice through violence or at least claim that, and those that face the repercussions of such justice-seeking even if not party to such practices personally. It is such politics, of power and narratives of vengeance and justice, that have been quite responsible for the developmental violence in Palestine, if I may call it that.
Dabbling into a bit of history is important to understand the present circumstances. The region today considered Israel and Palestinian regions (West Bank and Gaza Strip) were all under Ottoman rule till 1917. From 1918 onwards, that is after the end of WWI, the region (then known as Palestine) was under British mandate in the direction of the League of Nations1. The League of Nations can be seen as a predecessor of the United Nations, formed in the pretext of stopping major conflicts from happening. Given the Second World War did happen in the next decades, suffice to say the League failed its objective.
In any case, the British mandate in Jerusalem ended in 1948. At this time, two groups were already scrambling for territory and control – the Arabs who resided in the region before the British took over and the Jews who came in to build a Jewish state for themselves when the region was under British mandate. To this, the United Nations provided a two-state solution to partition Palestine into two; one part going to Jewish settlers and one to Arabs – wherein both groups could form independent nations.
The British mandate itself included plans for the building of a Jewish state and this nation project also had the support of major powers like the United States. So, when the British left, the Jews declared the formation of the Jewish state of Israel, in adoption of the Partition Plan. But the Arabs retaliated to this and the Arab Israeli War was fought in 1948. The Arabs, known also as Palestinians (taken after the region’s name), were then displaced and moved to areas like the West Bank and Gaza Strip at the time, and even to neighbouring countries. And since then, over the years, various conflicts have taken place between Israelis and Palestinians – although it is important to keep in mind that there are Palestinians still residing in Israel and Israelis living in now what is occupied Palestinian territories too.
The regions came to be occupied Palestinian territory after the 1967 War, known commonly as The Six-Day War. During this War, Israel occupied areas of the West Bank and Gaza Strip where a lot of the Palestinians resided. It is these regions that are called Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories and the focus of this article. Since 1967, Israel has been asked to move out of the region and relinquish control numerous times by the UN Security Council. But to this day it still occupies the regions. This occupation, considered illegal by many, is partly responsible for continued tensions.
The past year, Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories have been making headlines for various reasons. One of them has to do with vaccination politics that emerged after the pandemic, wherein Israel was blamed for not supplying vaccinations (even blocking transport according to some news reports) to Palestinians living in occupied areas. Israel denied any wrongdoing and justified its actions by stating that the Palestinian Authority was responsible for the vaccinations of Palestinians. Then, in the last couple of months there have been renewed tensions that started with news of Palestinians being evicted from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem, followed by an attack by Israeli forces on people who had gathered at the Al Aqsa Mosque one May evening. This led to a full-blown conflict resulting in launching of strikes by both sides. Hamas (militant group situated in occupied territories) launched the first airstrike following an ultimatum it gave the Israeli government in which it asked Israeli forces to be removed from the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Palestinian neighbourhoods in Jerusalem. Following Hamas’ strike, Israel also retaliated with more airstrikes. However, given Israel’s advanced military facilities, there has been a lot more damage to life and property on the Palestinian side.
This ultra-concentrated narration of the region’s conflict history (including recent history) clearly points to the presence of continued physical violence through the decades. But underneath all that gory war damage, there is also suffering endured slowly and painfully.
While the immediate death and destruction gets reported, the prolonged consequences of war and conflict go somewhat ignored. A researcher from the Institute of Palestine Studies notes on their website, the institute aims to “reframe and measure the effects of political violence on the living beyond apparent physical health, uncovering the wounds inside, the invisible traumas of war that, cumulatively and over the life course, can lead to visible and diagnosable disease”. This reminds us of much ignored long-term woes of the people that war leaves behind.
Reiterating this, a research study moving beyond immediate trauma effects, examines the link between health outcomes, “political violence” and “human insecurity and resource adequacy” in occupied Palestinian regions. It found that while political violence was directly linked to “trauma-related stress”, the consequences of insecurity and lack of resources (that resulted from prolonged conflict and occupation in the region) has led to far more wide-ranging health consequences – impacting additional health and functioning related variables along with trauma and depression. This goes to show that not only does political violence have an immediate effect on the health of people, but also affects their physical and mental functioning more widely through the years because of the nature of conditions in which the people come to live and survive post conflict.
This effect is not just visible in health-related variables but also other developmental indicators. When it comes to employment too, the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt) perform badly. According to a UNTAD report brief from September 2019 titled Palestinian socioeconomic crisis now at breaking point, “one in three Palestinians” are unemployed. The Palestinian region, specifically Gaza, is seeing dropping per capita income and their economy has shrunk terribly. Poverty rates are also high, with rates being as high as 53% in Gaza. The report primarily blames the occupation of these territories for this dismal situation, along with factors like fall in “donor support” and “deterioration of the security situation”. The occupation cuts off the regions and throttles it from developing. The report states that in the West Bank region there are “705 permanent physical obstacles (that) restrict the movement of Palestinian workers and goods”. So, given these restrictions and unending conflict, the region has suffered for the better part of a half century.
Another worrying aspect is to do with the occupied regions being treated as a “sacrifice zone” – basically being regions where Israel undertakes “hazardous” and environmentally damaging practices. These and many other developmental variables point to a bleak and tragic picture of a developmental crisis in the region – due to the conflict and occupation. These slow destructive elements are a tragedy of their own kind.
As I write this piece, I cannot help but remember my own visit to Israel some years ago. As we drove and journeyed through the region, making our way from Jerusalem in the center to Haifa and Akko in the north, and then to Tel Aviv a bit down below, I marvelled at the perfectly built roads and the smoothly run trains. Within cities, I admired the bus services and how seamless the traveling was. And yet, at the back of my head, I was well aware that not far away were regions that saw a lot of conflict. There were territories ailing from years of violence that did not probably have such perfectly built roads. There were people there who did not have it seamless. That there were school going kids who did not end up actually going to school a lot.
I distinctly remember having a certain feeling when I was in Jerusalem. I was standing on the terrace of one of the buildings that had a view of the entire Old City. At once I took in the Muslim, the Jewish, the Christian and the Armenian quarters that stuck close to each other within the walls. While it was all one unified space to my eye, was it segregated spaces for others? It all looked so beautiful from up there. The sky, the wind, the erring quiet. And I kept thinking why does all this beauty and peace have to be compromised? Why were so many people in the region not getting to experience what I felt there, that brief moment? That feeling of peace. Was it too much to ask? As I made my way and wandered around the Al Aqsa Mosque, the Wailing Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, I was feeling sublime. And somewhere also some guilt that I was not able to share it equally with everyone who called the region their home.