Occupation by bureaucracy
By Saree Makdisi
Online Journal Guest Writer
Jun 26, 2008, 00:08
A cease-fire went
into effect in Gaza last week, offering some respite from the violence that has
killed hundreds of Palestinians and five Israelis in recent months. It will do
nothing, however, to address the underlying cause of the
spectacular violence may draw the world's attention to the occupied Palestinian
territories, but our obsession with violence actually distracts us from the
real nature of Israel's occupation, which is its smothering bureaucratic
control of everyday Palestinian life.
This is an
occupation ultimately enforced by tanks and bombs, and through the omnipresent
threat, if not application, of violence. But its primary instruments are
application forms, residency permits, population registries and title deeds. On
its own, no cease-fire will relieve the beleaguered Palestinians.
Gaza is virtually
cut off from the outside world by Israeli power. Elsewhere, in the West Bank
and East Jerusalem, the ongoing Israeli occupation comprehensively infuses all
the normally banal activities of Palestinians' everyday lives: applying for
permission to access one's own land; applying for what Israel regards as the
privilege -- rather than the right -- of living with one's spouse and children;
applying for permission to drive one's car; to dig a well; to visit relatives
in the next town; to visit Jerusalem; to go to work; to school; to university;
to hospital. There is hardly any dimension of everyday life in Palestine that
is not minutely managed by Israeli military or bureaucratic personnel.
occupation of everyday life enables the Israelis to maintain their vigilant
control over the Palestinian population. But it also serves the purpose of
slowly, gradually removing Palestinians from their land, forcing them to make
way for Jewish settlers.
Just in 2006, for
example, Israel stripped 1,363 Jerusalem Palestinians of the right to live in
the city in which many of them were born. It did this not by dramatically
forcing dozens of people at a time onto trucks and dumping them at the city
limits, but rather by quietly stripping them, one by one, of their Jerusalem
This in turn was
enabled by a series of bureaucratic procedures. While Israel continues to
violate international law by building exclusively Jewish settlements in East
Jerusalem, it rarely grants building permits to Palestinian residents of the
same city. Since 1967, the third of Jerusalem's population that is Palestinian
has been granted just 9 percent of the city's official housing permits. The
result is a growing abundance of housing for Jews and a severe shortage of
housing for non-Jews -- i.e., Palestinians.
In fact, 90 percent
of the Palestinian territory Israel claimed to have annexed to Jerusalem after
1967 is today off-limits to Palestinian development because the land is either
already built on by exclusively Jewish settlements or being reserved for their
Denied permits, many
Palestinians in Jerusalem build without them, but at considerable risk: Israel
routinely demolishes Palestinian homes built without a permit. This includes
over 300 homes in East Jerusalem demolished between 2004 and 2007 and 18,000
Palestinian homes in the occupied territories demolished since 1967.
One alternative has
been to move to the West Bank suburbs and commute to Jerusalem. The wall
cutting off East Jerusalem from the West Bank, and thereby separating tens of
thousands of Jerusalem Palestinians from the city of their birth, has made that
much more difficult.
And it too has its
risks: Palestinians who cannot prove to Israel's satisfaction that Jerusalem
has continuously been their "center of life" have been stripped of
their Jerusalem residency papers. Without those papers, they will be expelled
from Jerusalem, and confined to one of the walled-in reservoirs -- of which
Gaza is merely the largest example -- that Israel has allocated as holding pens
for the non-Jewish population of the holy land.
The expulsion of
half of Palestine's Muslim and Christian population in what Palestinians call
the nakba (catastrophe) of 1948 was undertaken by Israel's founders in order to
clear space in which to create a Jewish state.
The nakba did not
end 60 years ago, however: It continues to this very day, albeit on a smaller
scale. Yet even ones and twos eventually add up. Virtually every day, another
Palestinian joins the ranks of the millions removed from their native land and
denied the right of return.
Their long wait will
end -- and this conflict will come to a lasting resolution -- only when the
futile attempt to maintain an exclusively Jewish state in what had previously
been a vibrantly multi-religious land is abandoned.
always require threats or actual violence; a genuine peace will come not with
more separation, but with the right to return to a land in which all can live
as equals. Only a single democratic, secular and multicultural state offers
that hope to Israelis and Palestinians, to Muslims, Jews and
Saree Makdisi is
professor of English literature at the University of California, Los Angeles
and author of "Palestine Inside Out: An Everyday Occupation."
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