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Palestine Speaks

Narratives of Life Under Occupation
Mateo Hoke and Cate Malek (Eds)


Crossing into the West Bank requires passing through a series of barriers. For example, to get from Jerusalem into neighboring Bethlehem means navigating a twenty-six-foot concrete wall that spans the horizon. To pass through on foot, individuals must walk through a maze of security screenings known as "Checkpoint 300," one of numerous heavily guarded crossing points set up along the 440-mile-long, partially constructed barrier snaking through the West Bank.

As one approaches Checkpoint 300 from Jerusalem, the landscape is green, almost idyllic, filled with olive trees, wild flowers, and the occasional grazing sheep. But closer to the wall, in a militarized no-man's-land, trash and barbed wire litter the sides of the road. The checkpoint itself is marked by a squat concrete and metal structure. At the entrance to the checkpoint is a large red sign warning Israeli citizens that entering Area A—the small portion of territory within the West Bank controlled by Palestinians—is against Israeli law, and "dangerous to [their] lives."

 Beyond the Checkpoint 300 is a room, often filled to capacity, that feeds into pedestrian screening lines. Above these screening lines are metal walkways, and looking up, pedestrians sometimes find soldiers peering down at them, guns in hand, boots directly overhead. The first screening station is an ID check. Here, Palestinians must record their thumbprints electronically to prove they haven't overstayed day-long work permits. International travelers need only show their passports. Pedestrians then go through a long passageway, a monitored turnstile, a large empty parking lot, one more ID check, another monitored turnstile, and another long passageway before finally spilling out near Bethlehem.

Compared to the eerie austerity of the checkpoint, Bethlehem is pulsing with life. Taxi drivers, dwarfed by the wall behind them, offer rides to the people coming through the crossing. Vendors call out the prices of fruit and sweets. People stop to greet friends or buy cups of coffee. On this side, the wall itself is coated in layers of colorful graffiti.

The contrast between the grim realities of the wall and the brisk liveliness outside of it was one of the things that first struck us about the West Bank. Cate moved to Bethlehem in 2009 to work for a non-profit tourism group that offered walking trips throughout the West Bank, as well as other regions in the Middle East. As part of her job, she traveled on foot through major cities and rural villages, meeting Palestinians from countless different backgrounds. Cate had previously worked with Mateo on an in-depth human rights story, and the two soon realized that Cate's newfound connections in the West Bank could be the beginning of a powerful new reporting project.

Our aim from the start was to try and better understand the ways that life continues in the West Bank and Gaza despite a military occupation spanning generations.

Approaching Palestine as outsiders was a considerable challenge but also proved to be one of the strengths of the project. We sought out stories that might surprise us, so that we might also surprise our readers— no matter their backgrounds or knowledge of the region. Life in Palestine is astonishingly diverse, complex, and often contradictory. Hope flourishes right alongside stark cynicism and despair, and we found that many of the human rights abuses in Palestine take place in the mundane details of daily life. Simple things like traveling to work, sending children to school, or planning weddings can all be severely impacted by Israel's ongoing occupation of the Palestinian territories. In Western media, West Bank home demolitions and missile strikes in Gaza make headlines, but rarely are they presented in the context of everyday Palestinian life.

Even during times of relative peace, Israel's Palestinian lives are complicated in countless ways. In addition to the checkpoints and barrier walls, a feeling of insecurity permeates nearly every facet of Palestinian society. It's difficult for most Palestinians to find jobs, and of those that are available, most are low paying, menial, or dangerous. Palestinians face a continuous barrage of restrictions that include food, water, and electrical shortages; state repression of speech; detention and torture; forced evacuation; and the demolition of homes and family farms. Palestinian life is often one of forced indignity.

In the West Bank, Palestinians face a lack of mobility imposed by over five hundred checkpoints and roadblocks (like the 300 Checkpoint mentioned above) and a high unemployment fate. Thousands of men cross into Israel every day to find work. If these men cross legally with required permits, it means waking up at one a.m. in order to make it through crowded and demeaning checkpoints in time to start work at eight a.m. If they go illegally, they risk being arrested or shot as they walk long distances in order to cross the unsecured border areas between the West Bank and Israel. Since Palestine is not a state and residents don't have citi¬zenship, Palestinians can lose their residency rights and homes with little or no warning. Israeli soldiers come in the middle of the night to arrest family members, often without charges. School is often canceled due to strikes, protests, or clashes with soldiers. Palestinian governance is often corrupt, ineffective, and suspicious of signs of dissidence. Basic necessities such as water and electricity are in short supply. This is especially true in Gaza, but it's also common to run out of water in the West Bank toward the end of the summer, which means many hot and sweaty weeks without the ability to shower, do laundry, or flush toilets.

In the Gaza Strip, life is dire. As we go to press, the Israeli military continues its latest ground invasion of Gaza as part of its ongoing conflict with Hamas and Gazan militias. More than 2,100 Palestinians have been killed and over 9,000 injured—the majority of them civilians (four Israeli civilians and sixty Israeli soldiers have also been killed). This latest clash follows two other military operations since Israeli forces first left the Gaza Strip in 2005. In 2008, Israel reacted to Gazan rocket fire into its territory by initiating twenty-two days of bombings. The UN estimates that 1,400 Palestinians were killed and 300,000 people lost their homes (three Israeli civilians and ten Israeli soldiers were also killed). Israel again bombed Gaza in 2012, once again citing rockets fired into Israel, as well as other attacks from Gaza.

But even in times of relative calm, Gazans face horrifying conditions. Due to an Israeli-built barrier wall, Gaza is essentially the world's largest internment site. The wall ensures that Gaza's residents cannot freely leave, and the blockade of goods means that critical supplies such as food, medicine, fuel, and construction material cannot enter. Eight out of ten Gazans are dependent on foreign aid to survive, and human and civil rights remain under constant attack, with both Israeli and Gazan government actions continuing to demoralize and economically suffocate the entirety of the Gaza Strip.