Our experience in the West Bank this summer gave us a view seldom seen by Americans of Palestinian life under Israeli military occupation. Disregarding travel warnings from the U.S. State Department, we volunteered at hospitals and clinics, visited aid organizations, and traveled widely from our base in Ramallah. We talked with Palestinians of varying ages and occupations. Most seemed resigned to a bleak future, some feeling hopeless that the 40-year occupation would ever end. We observed widespread anguish and economic and social deprivation from Israeli actions.
Among the most deleterious Israeli policies is restriction of mobility. About 40 percent of the West Bank is off-limits to Palestinians. There are more than 120 settlements built on confiscated land and separate roads for the 250,000 Israeli settlers. More than 600 vehicle checkpoints and obstacles slow travel in the West Bank, an area slightly smaller than Delaware. Therefore, the former 10-minute drive between Jerusalem and Bethlehem took us one hour by a circuitous route. At checkpoints, soldiers pointed guns at us and other travelers while sluggishly checking IDs.
The largely completed wall isolating the West Bank from Israel, often termed a “fence” in Israeli news media, will extend 403 miles, over four times the length of the Berlin Wall. This concrete structure rises up to 30 feet and has higher guard towers. It is built on West Bank land and chokes some border communities. The commercial area of Bethlehem, partially surrounded by the wall, is a virtual ghost town, as few people visit famous religious sites and most shops are closed. Disregard for Palestinian property also includes destruction of olive trees, replacing orchards with barren land or rows of stumps, as we observed near Hebron.
A complex system of IDs and visas further limits where Palestinians can go. For example, many West Bankers who were born in East Jerusalem are restricted from their birthplace, only a few miles away. Ramallah physicians had to obtain Israeli permission to attend a medical conference there. A West Bank nurse, born in Gaza, has been denied permission from Israel for 10 years to visit his family in Gaza. Most West Bankers are also deprived of visiting the Dead Sea and Mediterranean beaches.
The only way in and out of the entire 2,260-square-mile West Bank for most is by a single road to Amman, Jordan. Palestinians must use taxis or buses; private cars are forbidden. Passing the Israeli-controlled crossing can take hours, and it is periodically closed without advance notice. Many Palestinians told us they feel like they are in a “prison.”
Israel controls the water and, per person, Israeli settlers use several times as much as Palestinians who rely on rooftop reservoirs when the Israelis turn off the supply, as we experienced in Ramallah. Thriving vegetation in the settlements we saw contrasts with stark village landscape nearby. The only soccer field in Ramallah is bare dirt. A U.N. worker told us she worked with the Israel Defense Force for over two years before getting permission to bring electricity to a remote village (Jiflik) in the Jordan Valley.
Compulsory military service for men and women yields a continuous supply of young troops. They have unrestricted entry into the West Bank and destroy property – a soldier told us his job is to “bulldoze Arab homes in Nablus” – as well as threaten, arrest, injure or kill Palestinians with impunity. A nurse explained that when his 8-year-old sister displayed a Palestinian flag in resistance to an Israeli incursion, the soldiers locked him up for three days of beatings merely because he was her oldest brother. Parents recounted their recurrent fear and anxiety about the safety of their children.
Despite conscientious medical practitioners, much care that is standard in Israel is unavailable. Ordinary supplies are limited, current medical publications are scarce, EKG machines and respirators are antiquated, and modern intensive care is rare. Sanitary conditions and staffing levels at government hospitals are poor. A U.S.-based agency, the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund, has to send physician teams to the West Bank and bring many injured children to the United States for care.
The Palestinians we met react to this life of deprivation, fear and humiliation with quiet resignation, saying, “The situation is very bad, and this is how we must live.” Many seem clinically depressed. Were it not for strong family ties and support, they could not manage. Despite their hardship, they treated us with overwhelming kindness and generosity. We never felt threatened or afraid.
Israeli policies in the West Bank seem designed to eliminate Palestinians by making life so difficult for them that they leave. A Palestinian Red Crescent official told us that Israel discourages foreign humanitarian workers from coming to the West Bank because “they don’t want the world to see what they are doing.” Our experiences amply support President Carter’s description of Palestine as an “apartheid” state. In pursuit of its self-defense, Israel should not be permitted to act at the expense of the basic human rights, dignity and survival of the Palestinians.
In the words of a noted Israeli physician, Dr. Zvi Bentwich, “When Israelis ask me about the Palestinians, I tell them they live like us, they suffer like us, they laugh and cry like us. They are just like us, but they suffer more than us.”
George Longstreth is a gastroenterologist at Kaiser Permanente and professor of medicine at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine.
Karen Longstreth is a registered nurse and past-president of the San Diego chapter of the United Nations Association. Both spent time this summer working in hospitals and clinics in the West Bank.