Fifty years after being occupied, the West Bank has become a labyrinth of checkpoints, settlements and Israeli-only roads, leaving less and less space for Palestinian life – and almost nothing to bargain with.
EAST JERUSALEM / WEST BANK — Huriyeh Ali Abdallah held her one month old daughter in her arms as she ran from village to village looking for shelter. Behind her soldiers closed in on the house she'd lived in since she was 13 years old. A war had broken out just hours earlier, engulfing the region in chaos, and no one knew which way to flee.
"We started to see the tanks on the streets, and the planes were dropping bombs on Jerusalem," she told TRT World in an interview, a half century later.
It was the morning of the historic 1967 war, later to be known as the Six-Day War, and Abdallah was a young woman. Now, aged 73, her family encircled her as she sat on her favourite chair. Her voice wavered as she brought out memories and songs like family heirlooms she was passing on to a new generation.
For Israelis, it was Nes Gadol, the great miracle prophesied for centuries that calls for the reunification of Jerusalem and the return of the Jewish people. For the Arab world, it was the Naksa, an Arabic word for "setback", which plunged Palestinians into decades of military occupation.
Today, more than any other time since 1967, real prospects of a "two-state solution" are bleak. Under the guise of ensuring its security, Israel has maintained its stranglehold over the West Bank for 50 years, and as the peace process played out slowly and painfully in a loop before an international audience, the occupation entrenched itself further and further into the land. Without a sudden and dramatic U-turn in policy and intent, in a few years there will be nothing left of Palestine.
For Abdallah and her family, the occupation has become a permanent reality.
"Naksa? We are in a Naksa every day," she said. "It's not only for fifty years, it's since 1936, when the Jews started sneaking into our lands. We left our country when the foreigners came. They first claimed they were guests who would stay for two months and then leave. But none of them left."
Abdallah was four years old when the State of Israel was created in 1948. Her hometown of Sar'a was evacuated by Jewish militias holding families at gunpoint. It's the story of the 700,000 others displaced by force or UN mandate. Like Abdallah, many of them ended up in one of the more than 100 refugee camps in Gaza and the West Bank.
She now lived with 35,000 other refugees in Qalandia, a makeshift town hugging the Separation Wall and the entrance to Jerusalem. In the mornings and evenings, the village is a gridlock of cars and pedestrians waiting to cross a military checkpoint to the other side. In many ways it was a metaphor for Palestinians in the West Bank, painfully within reach of Jerusalem but denied its promise of employment and unrestricted travel.
"In 1967, if they understood our people and gave us our rights, returned Jerusalem and stayed only at the borders, there wouldn't be a problem today. What has happened in the past wouldn't have happened, and we wouldn't have lost a Palestinian life or a Jewish life."
Life and death in Qalandia
Nearly everyone in Qalandia has a story of a family member detained by Israeli forces for throwing rocks or protesting, or shot during one of the now-weekly military raids. Standing on the roof of Hureiya Abdallah's house, her grandson Khaled twirled his finger in the air and hummed, describing the whirring sound Israeli drones make while flying overhead.
"The drones always come just before a raid," the 21-year-old said.
"[The soldiers] come through the wall into the camp in the middle at night, without warning, and there are clashes. There are arrests, there are shootings, especially here in Qalandia."
He pointed down from the rooftop, tracing the usual route of the patrols through the checkpoint up the main road unmarked white trucks drive into the tight alleyways, then a dozen soldiers emerge and sweep through the village.
When the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993, it was under the premise that full autonomy over the West Bank would return to the Palestinians within five years. Twenty-four years on, the Israeli government still retains full military control over 61 percent of the land, or what's known as "Area C". It still controls security over "Area B", which makes up another 22 percent. What's left to the Palestinian Authority is "Area A", 18 percent of the West Bank and even then, Israeli raids in the area are frequent.
The raids intensify if there's an attack on a soldier, or if the army suspects one of the youth has hidden a weapon. Sometimes young men are seen leaping from roof to roof, with a soldier in pursuit.
Last month, three of Khaled's childhood friends were killed.
"The situation is getting worse. No one is able to cope with the wall or the occupation," Khaled said.
Khaled himself carries a bullet lodged inside his right thigh, a souvenir from a protest he once took part in. On some days he can still feel the cold of its steel casing, but mostly it doesn't bother him that much. What does bother him is a growing malaise about his future in this village.
"At this point in my life I should have a career and steady work, a car I can move around with, a prospect, but no. Everyday I leave the house, go to the same store, see my friends, that's it. It's hard to find work, especially regular work. Everything's restricted here," he added.
Because he and some of his family members are on the government's security radar, it is increasingly unlikely he will be able to apply for a work permit to cross into Jerusalem. Without it, his life in Qalandia is a slow decay.
"Some of us are looking for work. Some of us are in jail. Some of us have been injured in clashes. Some of the people my age just stay awake all night and sleep during the day, because there is nothing else for them to do."
I can see the beach from my house
On hot summer mornings the concrete expanse outside Al Aqsa, the sprawling mosque in the heart of the Old City in Jerusalem – and Islam's third holiest site – becomes a furnace, trapping everyone in the dry heat. Hundreds of thousands of fasting pilgrims surround the iconic mosque to attend Friday prayers during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, having travelled hours by road and checkpoint line to get there.
During this time of the year the Israeli government grants visiting permits for the Al Aqsa to some living in the West Bank, with conditions. Sometimes the holy site is restricted to women and children and men over the age of 40, and Palestinians will arrive hours in advance and walk on foot to reach the mosque grounds. Some are seeing it for the first time.
When the Friday sermon began, three weeks ago, the imam didn't mince words.
"All of you who waited hours at checkpoints just to be here, you are proving to the Occupation that none of us will ever forget about this place. You're making it impossible for them to erase us from this land," he said.
Among those listening was Mohamed al Khatib and his best friend, from the small village of Bil'in just outside Ramallah. It's the first time since the Second Intifada in 2000 the 45-year-old lawyer had been able to enter Al Aqsa, though they were here today for a different reason.
"From the roof of my house in Bil'in I can see the sea, but I'm not allowed to go there. I used the opportunity that we were allowed to enter into Jerusalem, and me and my friend escaped and went to spend the day by the beach," he said.
It would also be the last time for a while. Two weeks later, an attack on an Israeli soldier outside one of the gates in Jerusalem would prompt Israel to ramp up security, and revoke the permits of 250,000 Palestinians to visit Al Aqsa.
Like most Palestinians, Khatib described his life as difficult, and restrictive. He felt constantly like a prisoner trapped between walls and barriers. On his drive to work in Ramallah he avoids any security checkpoints, but to go anywhere else means navigating through a complicated and ever-changing network of them.
"There's a number of different types of checkpoints. Some are set up between villages and towns. Others are set up between towns and the main roads connecting them. A third kind are the permanent checkpoints surrounding the West Bank at the entrances to the Separation Wall."
He described the checkpoints using the Arabic word hajiz, meaning "barrier", and said that was what it is in reality. It isn't a point where people's belongings are searched for security reasons; each checkpoint is a physical restriction on where a Palestinian can travel. In the West Bank, there are now more than 100 barriers.
"If you go to an airport and there's a checkpoint, that's for your security, and you go through with your dignity respected. But an Israeli checkpoint is humiliation."
Worse than the checkpoints is the feeling of slowly being surrounded by Israeli settlements, another form of hajiz. Each settlement comes with a checkpoint, an Israeli-only road that leads to it, army watchtowers, and regular patrols by soldiers to protect the settlers from attacks. That protection is often abused by settlers unafraid of using deadly force themselves.
Construction of settlements began shortly after the 1967 war, all in breach of international law. Today there are over 100 official settlements, and dozens of settlement outposts not authorised by the government. A recent investigation found the settlement population had grown by 55 percent since 2005, and today nearly half live outside the designated settlement blocks.
"They take over our land and bar us from access to our own resources. Then they set up checkpoints and barbed wire around their borders to stop us moving in or out," said Alkhatib.
"All of this is eating up the land in the West Bank – the settlements, the checkpoints, the restricted roads, the Separation Wall. It's become a web of networks choking our land that we have no access to."
When there isn't a will
It has become increasingly difficult to imagine an Israeli government demolishing thousands of settlement homes, as well as evacuating more than 300,000 illegal settlers from the West Bank and finding them other places to live within Israel. That's what it would take for a two-state solution to be implemented. But just last month the government green-lighted the construction of a new settlement, the first since 1992, called Amichai.
In his final month as the US secretary of state, John Kerry said the two-state solution was in "serious jeopardy" because of the rate of settlement construction. No sooner had Kerry made these comments than they were brushed off by Netanyahu as "obsessive" and "skewed against Israel." Kerry's stance was then further undermined by then president-elect Donald Trump, who made certain to show which side he was positioning himself on.
We cannot continue to let Israel be treated with such total disdain and disrespect. They used to have a great friend in the U.S., but.......— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 28, 2016
Donald Trump's tweet, and Kerry's speech, were partly in response to UN Resolution 2334, passed in late December to denounce Israeli settlement construction in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. It was passed 14-0 by the Security Council, with the US breaking with its 40-year history of vetoing such efforts by abstaining.
Months later, on the eve of the 50th anniversary of 1967, Israeli human rights organisation B'tselem issued an international call for action. Without more pressure from the rest of the world, the Israeli government will have little incentive to comply with the resolution.
"There's a 5th clause in the resolution calling on member states to differentiate their dealings between the Occupied Territories and Israel. Every three months there needs to be a review," said B'tselem spokesperson Amit Gilutz.
"There are many countries that are very friendly to Israel that support medical facilities and human rights, and have so much leverage to influence Israeli policy."
This won't bring an end to the occupation, he said, but it would be a step in the right direction.
"From our perspective, there needs to be a political will before there's a solution. Within the Israeli public, Israel has been very successful about creating an illusion there's a conflict. There isn't. We are controlling them, they are not controlling us. So there's no will for Israel to change the course that it's on."
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has repeatedly accused Israel of completely failing to uphold the terms of the Oslo Accords, and continuing to violate both the agreement and international law. Politically, there seem to be no signs the government or the Knesset are even considering returning Palestinian land at any point in the future. More than 30 percent of Area C is now defined as "state land", 60 percent lies within settlement council areas, and 14 percent has been defined as "nature reserves".
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was elected in 2015 after claiming there would never be a Palestinian state under his watch. And early this year, Israeli President Reuvin Revlin addressed a press conference and called for the full and permanent annexation of the West Bank.
"I believe that Zion is ours and that Israel's sovereignty should be [extended] to every site," Revlin said.