20th Aug 2019


EU freedoms denied Palestinians, enjoyed by settlers

  • Hebron, a city in the West Bank, is divided between Palestinians and Israeli settlers (Photo: Nikolaj Nielsen)

Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza means illegal settlers are more free to travel to and trade with the EU than Palestinians living at home.

The restrictions on Palestinian movement are on show in Hebron, a city in the West Bank.

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  • A wire mesh protects the Palestinian vendors from rubbish tossed at them from above (Photo: Nikolaj Nielsen)

They are even more visible in Gaza, where Israeli forces have locked away people and their businesses from the outside world.

Hebron mosaic

On a rooftop in Hebron's old city centre, Hisham Sharabati, a Palestinian resident, pointed to a settler compound where Israeli soldiers who held guard there were playing basketball.

He then pointed to a hilltop behind an Islamic cemetery where another Israeli settlement - one of many - has taken root in the ancient city, where King Herod built a temple over caves said to have housed the prophet Abraham.

Sharabati, who showed EUobserver around on a recent visit to the town, walked to the edge of the roof and motioned to the Al Shohada Street below.

There was another Israeli military checkpoint 50m away, while the doors of Palestinians homes facing the street had been welded shut by the Israeli army.

"Palestinians can walk to the tree on the right, we can walk from the south part to there," he said, picking out the mosaic of security do's and don'ts.

Abuse, arrest, or violence awaited those who defied the restrictions, he added.

Israel has erected 20 checkpoints, over 40 roadblocks, and other obstacles to movement in a city home to some 40,000 Palestinians in the past 25 years.

Hundreds of Palestinians shops were closed by Israeli order in what was once a thriving souk.

Today, a wire mesh hung above the few remaining street vendors to protect them from rubbish tossed down at them by settlers.

"Sometimes they [settlers] put urine in a plastic bag and when the bag hits the screen, it leaks down," Sharabati said.

Later, at a checkpoint below the Ibrahimi Mosque, a young Israeli soldier demanded to know the nationalities of the visitors in Sharabati's group.

"This is what we have to live with. They consider me as an 'occupier'," he told EUobserver.

Occupation history

Israel conquered the West Bank and Gaza in the Six-Day War against Arab states in 1967.

The settlements are illegal according to the EU and the UN, but more than 600,000 settlers have moved to the West Bank over the years.

Some 100 settler outposts are illegal even under Israeli law, but Israel's right-wing leader, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has given a green light to further expansion.

He has even discussed annexation of Palestinian territory, amid broad support for Israel from US president Donald Trump and several EU states.

Israel officially withdrew from Gaza in 2005, and does not regard itself as an occupying power - but left the two million Palestinians who live there walled away from the wider world by its military, naval, and air-force systems.

The occupation is a catalyst for violence, EU diplomats based there have said.

Israeli soldiers use deliberately heavy-handed tactics on a mission "to make our presence felt", according to a former military officer, Yehuda Shaul, who served in Hebron and who now runs an Israeli NGO called Breaking the Silence.

In late January, Israeli settlers in the West Bank shot dead a 38-year old Palestinian and injured another nine. Earlier this month, a Palestinian stabbed to death an Israeli soldier near a different settlement.

Documenting what happens there is also risky.

Mohammed Azza, a Palestinian photographer and freelance journalist who lives in the Aida refugee camp, near the city of Bethlehem in the West Bank, told this website that the Israeli army there routinely kicked in people's doors as part of its urban warfare training.

Three years ago, he almost died for taking photos of a soldier who shot him in the face with a metal-encased rubber bullet.

Gaza life

In Gaza, Hamas, the militant group which controls the strip, and others have been sending kites and balloons with explosives into Israel since last spring.

Exasperated young people have been holding weekly protests at border fences, while others have clashed with Hamas itself in a sign of growing instability.

There were also tit-for-tat rocket attacks and air strikes in March this year, causing further casualties.

But between the eruptions of violence, the Gaza lock-down also has a devastating effect on men and women's daily lives and aspirations.

Meme Ghaliani, who opened a small shop in Gaza City in early 2017 is among those who feel like victims of Israeli collective punishment.

With a "Girl Power" slogan embroidered in white across her black sweater, she defied the conservative mores of the Hamas regime.

Born and raised in Gaza, Ghaliani and around a dozen other women opened the Olive and Grapes store and scrape by with the help of international charities, such as Oxfam.

The shop was stocked with large black dates, coffee, spices, and hand-stitched embroidery, neatly arranged in small packages and bottles on brightly coloured shelves on EUobserver's recent visit there.

But few people in Gaza, which has soaring poverty, could afford to buy them, Ghaliani said.

"We are not allowed to export our products because of the [Israeli] blockade," she added.

"Money won't come to us. We have to work hard for it, especially the women of Gaza," she said.

Gaza women

Israel does allow some people with trader permits to leave Gaza, but not many, and few among them are women, figures showed.

Women held just five out of the 320 currently valid senior-trader permits at the start of last year.

At the same time, women's unemployment in Gaza hovered at some 80 percent.

The EU maintains that Gaza and the West Bank belong to a future Palestinian state.

But the Israeli settlers who live there illegally can move around freely and visit the EU without visas, while Palestinian people, such as Sharabati, have to follow security mosaics and jump through hoops to do the same.

In order to enter the EU, Sharabati would require a visa plus two Israeli permits - one to leave the West Bank and one to enter Israel's Ben-Gurion airport, which were far from easy to obtain.

He could try to reach the EU via Amman, but he would have to get Palestinian, Jordanian, and Israeli permission to go there.

For Mossi Raz, a left-wing Israeli MP, the EU travel regime de facto supported Israel's actions in Palestine.

"In many ways, the Europeans are supporting this occupation policy of Israel. I think this [visa rules] is the main way," he recently told EUobserver in Tel Aviv.

The EU should impose a visa regime on Israel for the sake of equivalency, Raz added.

"If you ask a visa from an Israeli, is [that] 'hostile'? The US asks visas for Israelis," he said, justifying the move.

The EU's trade regime with Israel had a similar effect.

Settlers in Palestine export around €230m of goods a year to the EU, according to World Bank estimates, alongside the €30bn or so a year in exports from Israel.

EU shops are meant to label settler products, under a voluntary code that was agreed a few years ago.

But even if that turned off some potential customers, the settler-EU trade still dwarves the €16m a year of total Palestinian exports to the EU and the next-to-nothing that reaches Europe from Gaza.

Fundamental rights

Freedom of movement is a basic right in international law, but the EU commission denied to respond when asked by EUobserver whether its visa policy helped Israel to deprive Palestinians of that right.

The ruined souk in Hebron shows what happens when those rights are taken away.

"The empowerment of women and girls are [also] fundamental human rights", the EU's ambassador to Israel, Emanuele Giaufret, said at an event to mark International Women's Day in early March.

"This is true for all women, no matter which part of society they come from," she said in Jerusalem, where women such as Ghaliani from Gaza do not get to go.

This trip was organised by Oxfam, who had no editorial input into EUobserver's coverage

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