Amit Gilutz, spokesman for the Israeli Center for Human Rights Information in the Occupied Territories (better known as B’Tselem), the Israeli humanitarian organization fighting to highlight the crimes of Israeli occupation of the Palestinians, talks about the reality of the apartheid.
My first question has to do with the B΄Tselem itself. Could you provide us some context for your action on the issue of Israel’s occupation?
B’Tselem is a human rights organization, it has been founded during the hight of the first Intifada, in ’89, when a group of Israeli academics, journalists and jurists realized that there is not enough credible and verified information that comes out of the occupied territories to the public, both in Israel and outside Israel. And so, the founded B’Tselem as a research and information center, which to this day is our main sort of function. We collect data, statistics, investigate particular incidents, write reports about the phenomenon, give a more in depth analysis of developments in the reality in the occupied territories and make that information available for the rest of the world, for everyone, coming out from the very basic notion that in order to change reality you need to know it and understand it first if you wanna be effective in the change you wanna bring about.
B’Tselem has changed over the years. It’s for me personally one of the exciting aspects of being part of this group specifically that it keeps [B’Tselem] looking at the way that it functions within the grater reality and it keeps looking for ways to amplify our voice and to be more effective in what we do. Some of the changes that have happened over the years are that for example, 2016 B’Tselem started cooperating with the military investigation system. Up to that point, for about 25 years, it has been used to trying coordinate for example between Palestinian victims and the investigation system of the military. But over so many years of doing this kind of cooperation we have accumulated huge amounts of very detailed information about this system works. And we came to conclusion that is actually a whitewash mechanism. Rather than protecting the Palestinians victims it protects the perpatrators, those who shot them or hurt them. So, we cut off this cooperation. Another example of the kind of dynamic thought process in B’Tselem is this report that we issued in January which determines that the threshold needed to define Israel as an apartheid regime has been crossed.
B’Tselem issued this report in January determined that the threshold needed to define Israel as an apartheid regime has been crossed. Let me ask you, legally how this apartheid has been established and to what extent continues to apply? Could you give us an example of the legal and administrative aspects of the apartheid regime?
The kind of classical perception in the past that Israel is a democracy within what is called ‘’Green Line Israel’’ meaning the Armistice Line that was declared after the end of the war in 1949 and since 1967 it has the occupied territories as a temporary attachment, that needs to be resolved through negotiations. But what are we saying –and Human Rights Watch also said similar things in a thorough report that was published last month– is that you have to ignore a lot of facts in order to keep this perception at this point and time. You have to ignore the fact that these territories are being held by Israel for 54 years now. Just the very notion of an occupation inherently means that it is a temporary situation, not something permanent. But we have been holding these territories for 54 years and it’s become very clear that Israel’s intentions more than ever are to keep those territories indefinitely without ever changing that. You have to ignore the fact that there are more than 600.000 Israeli settlers that live in the occupied territories against of course the international law (the transfer of the occupying power into the occupied territories is a breach of the Geneva Convention).
Two kind of more recent events that took place, one of them is the nation-state law, which enshrines into a basic law (which is the closest thing that Israel has to a constitution) the supremacy of the Jewish population over Palestinians, in sense that only Jews have the right for self-determination. The other recent development was the open chatter during the Trump administration about further annexing officially more parts of the West Bank, which of course means out in the open –‘’no questions asked’’- that we are actually here to stay. And the most fundamental thing that is ignored if you still think Israel as a democracy with an attached occupation, is that throughout the entire territory that Israel controls (occupied territories but also Israel itself), there is a basic principle that guides policy-makers of this regime, which is to create and maintain and perpetuate Jewish supremacy over Palestinians. This is true in different ways, it’s imposed in different ways and it manifests in different ways in Gaza versus West Bank versus East Jerusalem versus inside Israel, but it is true as a guiding principle in the entire area between the river and the sea.
You are saying that this guiding principle is common even inside Israel, not only in Gaza or West Bank.
Exactly. It manifests differently, because the legal system, the means of control are different and this is part of Israel’s success actually, because we are talking here about the scheme of ‘’divide and rule’’. So Israel intentionally has broken and continues to break up the Palestinian space and the Palestinian society and divides them into these different categories because it makes it easier to advance it’s own project of keeping as much of the land as possible with as few Palestinians on it as possible. So, we are concentrating Palestinians on these enclaves, where they are disconnected from the resources they need in order to develop and thrive and we take over these resources for ourselves.
In the document we discuss four pillars of these apartheid policies. Land is the first pillar, and this is true in the West Bank as it is true inside Israel. If you think about inside Israel, then the vast majority of the land is controlled by the state, 90%, and only 3% is allocated to Palestinians although they make up –we talk about the Palestinians citizens of Israel- the 20% of the population. Since the establishment of the state, Israel founded around 700 towns and cities for Jews and not a single one for Palestinians, except from a few townships in the South that are designed to concentrate the Bedouin popupation, which is the Arab semi-nomadic population in the Negev desert. So, the only exceptions when we finally design something for Palestinians it’s in order to control the more easily. Of course, in the West Bank Israel use all kinds of mechanisms, official and unofficial, to take over land, declaring state lands and national parks and military training zones and settlements of course to remove Palestinians, to forbid them accessing or using this land.
Another pillar of apartheid regime is citizenship, where Jews around the world, ever if they weren’t born here -they may have no connection to this place- they can automatically be granted citizenship, even get some social benefits when they immigrate to Israel. On the contrary, Palestinians are simply barred from immigrating to Israel, even if they were born here or their parents were born here.
Then, movement restrictions. Those are more injurious and they manifest much more severe in the occupied territories. Palestinians who are citizens of Israel enjoy freedom of movement, but the Palestinians who live in the occupied territories are restricted. The more restricted area as you may know is the Gaza Strip, which Israel has blockaded for 14 years now, which means that controls everything and everyone that moves in and out of the Strip, which essentially became an open-air prison. The 2 millions Palestinians that live there can not leave the Strip, except in very, very particular circumstances that Israel dictates. In the West Bank the restrictions are also incredibly severe, not to the degree of living under a blockade, but there are dozens of checkpoints, there is the separation barrier, and for the Palestinians who live in the West Bank a big part of these movement restrictions means they are losing time and they live in uncertainty. You can not know if the checkpoint it’s going to be closed or open, am I going to be able to get to the doctor, to see my family or merchandise for my store? You live in total uncertainty.
The last pillar is political participation, where those Palestinians who are citizens enjoy political rights, it’s true that they can be elected in Knesset, they have representatives in the Knesset, but still there are disenfranchised in many different ways and they are delegitimized by the most powerful policy-makers and representatives in the Knesset over the years. But, at the same time the political rights of the five millions Palestinians who live in occupied territories are simply denied to them. When apartheid becomes very clear is when you understand this point that people for generations now live under a system where they don’t get to dictate, they don’t get to participate in a political decision mechanism about the most basic aspects of their lives. How much water are they going to have, is electricity going to be running.
For East Jerusalemites is a slightly different category, because it’s the only part of the West Bank that was officially annexed by Israel immediately after the war, but it did not grant citizenship to the Palestinians East Jerusalemites, rather they became permanent residents, a status more similar to that of the tourist who lives here for a longer period of time. That means that they don’t get to vote to the Knesset but they can vote for the municipality of Jerusalem. But is a status that it can easily revoked, Israel has revoked thousands of permanent residents status of Palestinians.
Could you explain to us the everyday life of a Palestinian in occupied territories? The prevailing image that comes to our minds is a few Israeli soldiers attacking to Palestinians. But what about the settlers and their part on the occupation?
I think it’s important to understand that there it’s not just a tangible incident that you can say ‘’this person was attacked, this person was shot’’, it’s really about controlling people’s lives. It’s really controlling who gets to be able to build a porch on their house. Beyond the direct violence, like a soldier shooting a person or settlers beating a person, that is easy to talk about it and we can and must talk about it, there is a structural violence, bureaucratic violence, the violence of me deciding to manage your life against your will and my plan is to keep that for ever. I will try to break that into specific examples, but I think it’s important to understand that the sum is larger than the parts, there is a totality here.
Talking about the different categories separately, I will start with East Jerusalem, West Bank and then Gaza. In East Jerusalem, as I said, Israel treats Palestinians as anwanted guests in their own homes, despite the fact that they were there even before the state was established in many cases. Israel has drawn the outline plans in such a what that is very difficult for Palestinian neighborhoods to expand. Let’s take for example a neighborhood a year ago. 90% percent of the land belonged to the Palestinians residents have been taken over by Israel and now there is a police base, a part of the university and a national park there. This is just one example, this is true almost everywhere in East Jerusalem. So, East Jerusalemites are locked up in this overcrowded area, meanwhile decades have past and population grows naturally, but they have nowhere to expand. On top of that, it’s incredibly difficult to get a permit from the Jerusalem municipality to build anything legally if you are a Palestinian, you have a chance of maybe 2-3% of getting a permit. And then the municipality will issue a demolition order that in many cases it will demolish your home. There are hundreds of demolitions in Jerusalem every year, thousands of Palestinians are left without a home. This is part of this policy of suffocating the Palestinian population and make their life miserable so that they are forced to live.
In the West Bank, Palestinians live under direct military rule, there are two separate legal systems. There is Israeli civil law, that protects only the settlers and there is military law that is much more harsh and is only designed to rule the lives of the Palestinians. If you look at the map of the West Bank, which I recommend for the readers because I think it’s very enlightening to see it, you can see the Palestinians, the vast majority of the population, is concentrated on 165 little islands that are disconnected from one another and disconnected from resources, this is very similar model to the Bantustan’s in Apartheid South Africa. Supposedly, there is self-governance there for the Palestinian Authority to a curtain extent, but it’s important to understand that this authority works within the Israeli occupation, everything that it does has to be approved by Israel essentially. Like we discussed earlier in terms of movement restrictions they are highly severe and of course the military use excessive force unarmed protesters for example or just in general, and it does so with impunity. It is very important to understand that there is no mechanism in place capable or willing to investigate such cases.
Let me say briefly about Gaza that we talk about the site of a humanitarian catastrophe that is a result not of a natural disaster but of deliberative Israeli policy, a policy of disconnecting Gaza from the West Bank and breaking apart Palestinian society this way. Israel says ‘’we left Gaza, we have nothing to do with it, we are not there anymore’’. Well, the truth is that we almost control everything and everyone that goes in and out of the strip to the level of the calorie. The architects of this policy of the blockade when they designed it they were calculating the average calorie consumption that will be available for Gazans. If we control how many calories people can have on average then we control their lives.
The very essence of what we call biopolitics.
Exactly. The medical system there is collapsing, people now after the recent bombardment have electricity for 3-4 hours a day -before the recent bombardments it was 8 hours on-8 hours off – and they don’t know when they are going to get electricity, so their lives has to be arranged around this. Almost all of the water there is undrinkable, is dangerous it’s salty and contaminated.
Another issue, an issue that now has been in the news because of Sheikh Jarrah, is that Jewish pro-settler Israeli NGOs work together with state mechanisms in collaboration to use Israeli law, which allows only for Jews to reclaim property that used to belong to other Jews before 1948.
You mean that the Israelis have priority when it comes to reclaim their properties and homes even if someone else lives there for over 70 years?
It’s not that they have priority, it’s than only Jews have that option. Palestinians don’t have that right, they can’t reclaim their property. Palestinians are not allowed to. There isn’t one law that dictates it so, there is a combination of three laws, but what those three laws together mean is what happens now in Sheikh Jarrah, in the Old City, where these NGOs reclaim property, the state mechanisms allow them to reclaim it and then there is a legal process in the court and eventually the courts justify the claim and the police comes and simply by force kicks out the Palestinian family and it is immediately populated by settlers. There are close to 100 such families in Silwan alone.
Now, the settlers that move to live where the Palestinians used to they live in the midst of a palestinian polulation, that is very naturally hostile to them, because they are not coming as neighbors. They live in this fortified, heavily surveilled fortress-like units and they are accompanied by security guards that are paid in part by the state. In Silwan for example just for them to go to take their child to the kindergarten to the morning and brink it back they are accompanied by guards. What this means is that there is a lot of friction in the neighborhood, because there is more security to protect the settlers, not to protect the Palestinians, and so there are more arrests and attacks and harassment and so on.
The previous days we saw demonstrations around the world against the occupation. What’s the need for international action against Israel’s policies towards Palestinians? Is there the necessary coordination of those elements in order to achieve a better outcome?
I would say it is absolutely necessary at this point for the international community to realize that more condemnation, more expressions of concern are not going to do anything. What is needed is action, decisive action to change these policies, there is no other non-violent way out of this reality. People have to realize that we are not talking about a democracy, we are in fact talking about an apartheid regime, imposing on millions of Palestinians inferiority because this is the meaning of regime that promotes and perpetuates supremacy of the other group. Of course, besides of what the governments do, it’s crucial for the peoples of the world to put pressure to the governments to this direction.