Eased Israeli restrictions divide Palestinians
RAMALLAH - Israel’s measured easing of restrictions on Palestinian movement were met with guarded reaction in the West Bank, where residents have long complained of hardships and humiliation they endure on the hands of their military occupiers.
Some dubious Palestinian observers openly scoffed at the Israeli steps, saying they were either an Israeli bargaining chip to blackmail some Palestinians or a sham to split Palestinians.
For the first time in 15 years, Israel allowed in cars that belong to a small number of Palestinian physicians working in the Jewish state. Other doctors working in Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem hospitals expect similar perks. Israel banned all Palestinian cars from entering its territory and East Jerusalem since the break out of the second intifada in September 2000.
“Israel wants to cut the road in front of Palestinian efforts to re-evaluate political, economic and security relations,” said Khalil Shahin, a research director at Masarat think-tank in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Shahin was referring to plans by the Palestinian Central Council, a top political body, to consider re-evaluating all relations with Israel.
“The goal is now to make some segments of society, like doctors, workers and others feel that they have gained something in the last period and that any decisions by the Palestinian Authority will make them lose these new privileges,” Shahin said. Some people’s benefits will be badly affected by any political change, he said.
Meanwhile, Israel will “extensively increase these eased measures for Palestinians and it seems that there’s a cost for the decision to build pressure from within,” Shahin told The Arab Weekly in an interview. He emphasised Israel was only interested to maintain the current status quo.
In April, Israel announced that older Palestinians would be allowed to cross into its land without permits. Palestinians usually go to Israel for health treatment, work or to pray in Muslim holy shrines, including Jerusalem.
Announcing the measures, Yoav Mordechai, head of an Israeli army unit in charge of civil administration in the Palestinian territories, said in a statement that men over the age of 55 and women over 50 would be allowed to go to Israel without permits. The statement also lowered the age limit of Palestinians applying for work permits from 24 to 22. Large numbers of Christian Palestinians are often given permits during the Christmas and Easter seasons to go to Israel in a measure that started a few years ago.
The complex system of permits for Palestinian access to Israel is not new. It has been employed for several years to instil division among Palestinians.
The system identifies Palestinians according to area, religion, age, work, and relatives’ involvement in acts Israel deems illegal. The pressure for people to remain “clean” in Israeli records is used as a bargaining chip to pressure those who hope to go to pray in Jerusalem, find jobs or enjoy travel access to particular areas.
Many people remain deprived of the permits system for “security reasons” and others claim Israel had asked them to collaborate in exchange for permits.
Thousands of people cross the Qalandia military checkpoint to Jerusalem on a daily basis on a journey described “strenuous”. Long hours waiting in harsh weather and queuing at security checkpoints will still apply for the older people.
In light of political complexities, some told The Arab Weekly that any measure will ease the daily stress is welcome.
Sayida Hani, a mother of five, is the sole provider for her family. As she pushed the metal revolving security door at Qalandia checkpoint, the hardest part of her day was over. She was granted a one-day-permit to accompany her diabetic husband to the hospital. The 39-year-old woman told The Arab Weekly that she hoped Israel would extend the permits to younger people, too.
“I hope to get a permit myself to get a job inside Israel and support my family, even if I work in cleaning houses,” Hani said.
As part of the package, Israel released three months of Palestinian tax revenues, enabling the Palestinian Authority to pay public employees’ salaries in full.
As per the signed agreements following a framework of a peace deal, Israel usually collects the tax on behalf of Palestinian Authority, which has no control over the borders, and transfers it every month. However, the Israeli government decided to withhold the payments in protest of the Palestinian Authority’s decision to join the International Criminal Court (ICC). Israeli officials said the decision to release the frozen funds was recommended by Israel’s defence minister, army and security agency. Israeli security institutions have a closer connection to the realities on the ground in the Palestinian territories. Keeping Palestinian areas calm is in Israel’s best interest, according to observers.
Earlier, Israel allowed 90 Palestinian policemen to deploy for the first time in 15 years in four crime- and drug-infested Arab suburbs of Jerusalem in a move that critics said would relieve Israel of policing unruly Arab districts, dangerous even to Palestinians. The areas are strategically situated just outside Jewish neighbourhoods, where narcotics and stolen cars are finding their way in with the help of Israeli smugglers.
Abdel Majid Swailem, a regional studies professor at Quds University, said the Israelis “realised that criminal activity has become more severe in these areas and that Palestinian police is needed to maintain safety and security.” Swailem said the deployment has little political significance and only serves the Israelis. “Unpaid Palestinian workers, especially the armed security forces, might direct their guns to Israel if they can’t find money to live and feed their children,” said Shahin.
He explained that Israel is fretful that too much pressure might cause the Palestinians to explode.
“They think that unpaid salaries could drive people to the edge. Israel is interested in keeping a limited-governing authority in the West Bank and securing the siege on Gaza so they ease a checkpoint here or there to prevent an explosion,” he said.
“Israeli officials have repeatedly talked about efforts to manage the conflict rather than solving it and it’s in their best interest to weaken the Palestinian Authority but not dissolve it.”