A Tourist’s Guide to the Occupation
As a visitor to Bethlehem, you are in an important historic and religious city that has been under Israeli military occupation since 1967. This occupation affects the daily life, freedom, and future of the people in Bethlehem and all of historic Palestine. We invite you to learn more about this situation by reading the overview below. Inside the Bethlehem Peace Center, you can get a brochure to take with you and a postcard of the 4-part map.
People have lived continuously in the land of historic Palestine for thousands of years. The earliest peoples to form cities were the Canaanites, the ancestors of today’s Palestinians. For the past 5000 years, Palestine has been ruled by many groups, including the Egyptians, Philistines, Hebrews, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Ancient Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arab Caliphs, and the Ottomans, who ruled from 1517 – 1918.
As the Holy Land, Palestine is important to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. These religions were adopted by the indigenous peoples and all three have had a continued presence of followers in Palestine.
Zionist colonial project
Like other minorities, Jews in Europe (Ashkenazi Jews) suffered discrimination and persecution. In the late 1800s, a small group of Ashkenazi proposed creating a state for Jews-only in line with the political ideology of Zionism, which, then as now, was opposed by many Jews. After considering different locations, the Zionists decided the Jewish state should be in Palestine and the native population driven out. Zionism capitalizes on the myth that the Ashkenazi are descendents of Jews evicted from the Holy Land two thousand years ago. In fact, European Jews are mostly descended from mass conversions to Judaism, including of the Khazars around the 8th century.
In 1880, Zionists from Britain started the first colony in Palestine. World War I ended (1918); Britain reneged on its promise for Arab independence and took over Palestine. Britain backed the Zionist colonial project and allowed Zionist colonists to come to Palestine under British protection. As more Zionists arrived and their colonial intentions became known, tensions increased with the native Palestinians, whose protests were violently suppressed with the help of the British. By the end of World War II (1945), nearly 368,000 Zionist colonists had immigrated to Palestine, making up about 20% of the population.
In November 1947, without consulting the Palestinian people, the United Nations proposed giving 55% of Palestine to the Zionists for a state (see map), although the Palestinians owned over 90% of the land. The proposal was rejected and fighting broke out. With a much larger and better armed fighting force, the Zionists began attacking Palestinian villages. Many Palestinians were massacred or driven from their homes from 1947-49 in what Palestinians call Al-Nakba, The Catastrophe. An estimated 850,000 Palestinians were forced to leave and became refugees. Over 530 Palestinian villages were seized then destroyed or taken over.
In May, 1948, Israel declared itself a state on 78% of Palestine. Israel planted fast growing pine trees to cover some of the destroyed Palestinian villages. Jewish immigrants, mostly from Europe, moved into the houses that were left standing. Jordan annexed the West Bank, including East Jerusalem; Egypt took control of the Gaza Strip.
Over four decades of Occupation
In June, 1967, Israel attacked its neighboring countries and, with its vastly more powerful military, captured and began occupying Palestine’s West Bank and Gaza Strip, Syria’s Golan Heights, Lebanon’s Shabaa Farms, and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. The Sinai was returned to Egypt in 1979; Israel continues to illegally occupy all of the other areas today.
Israel now fully controls at least 60% of Palestine’s West Bank, including the land it has confiscated for illegal settlements, Jewish-only roads, the apartheid wall, and military zones, roads, and bases. Israel’s illegal land and resource confiscation and occupation has destroyed Palestinian homes, farms, businesses, and lives. The Israeli military imposes immobilizing curfews, assassinates Palestinians, and invades communities at will, abducting and imprisoning Palestinian civilians, including children. About 2.5 million Palestinians live in the West Bank.
Although Israel pulled its illegal settlements out of Palestine’s Gaza Strip in 2005, it continues to regularly bomb Gaza and maintain a land, sea, and air blockade so severe that in August 2012, the United Nations stated Gaza would become unlivable by 2020. About 1.5 million Palestinians live in Gaza.
Illegal Israeli Colonial Settlements
Immediately after it occupied the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, Israel began to build settlements in direct violation of the Geneva Conventions, which prohibit occupying powers from transferring their civilian population to the lands they occupy. As of mid-2011, there were at least 236 illegal settlements and “outposts” in the West Bank, all built on stolen Palestinian land and occupied by half a million Jewish-Israeli colonists, many of whom are new immigrants. Already condemned by numerous U.N. resolutions, the settlements were declared illegal in 2004 by the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
The majority of sewage produced by Israeli settlements is untreated and is dumped onto Palestinian areas, contaminating land and water. Israeli settlers attack Palestinians, killing and injuring them, destroying their olive trees, polluting their drinking water, poisoning their livestock, and damaging their property.
Illegal settlements have been built on the hills around the Bethlehem district. Looking north from the entrance to the Church of the Nativity, one can see the large settlement of Har Homa built on Jebal Abu Ghneim. In 1997, Israel began cutting down the forest, flattening the hill top to build the continually expanding Jewish-only colony.
The Apartheid Wall
In June, 2002, Israel started building a massive apartheid (separation) wall in the West Bank, ostensibly for “security.” Its real purpose is to steal more Palestinian land and consolidate Israel’s hold on its illegal settlements. The militarized wall cuts deeply into Palestine’s West Bank; 85% of it is built on West Bank land. Building the wall has destroyed Palestinian homes, property, and businesses and separated villages from each other and from their orchards, fields, and water supplies.
In some areas the wall is an 8-meter high cement mass (the Berlin Wall was 4 meters) and in others it is an 80 -150 meter swath of razor wire, sand, electric fencing, dirt, and military road. As of the summer of 2012, 520 kilometers of the wall had been built out of a planned 810. If completed, the wall will illegally annex 46% of the West Bank.
In 2004, the International Court of Justice in The Hague ruled that the wall was illegal and that Israel should dismantle it, and make reparations for all damages caused by its construction. Defiantly, Israel continues to build its apartheid wall.
Here in the Bethlehem district alone, close to 16,000 acres of land have been taken by Israel for the wall, by-pass roads, and expanding illegal settlements. The ugly wall has devastated what was once a thriving business district as you enter Bethlehem from Jerusalem.
Checkpoints & Road Closures
Through a system of fixed checkpoints, unannounced temporary “flying” checkpoints, physical obstructions, locked gates, and Jewish-only roads inside the West Bank, Israel violates Palestinians’ human rights by severely restricting their freedom of movement.
Vehicles and pedestrians can be stopped and searched at any of the check points, which can be closed without warning. The checkpoints delay and sometimes prohibit Palestinians from conducting their normal lives: going to work, going to school, visiting family, etc. They are also lethal; people have died because they were not allowed through checkpoints to receive medical treatment.
In February 2012, there were 98 fixed checkpoints in the West Bank, nearly all between Palestinian towns and villages or leading into Jerusalem. In March 2012, there were 340 reported “flying” check points. In May 2012, there were 450 reported barriers erected to prevent Palestinians from using normally traveled routes. These road closures serve to isolate communities and substantially increase travel distances and costs.
If you came to Bethlehem on a tour bus, you were allowed in and will leave through a gate controlled by the Israeli army. Bethlehem’s citizens are not allowed to go through this gate unless they are among the very few who have a Jerusalem identification card. The people of Bethlehem who have special hard-to-get permits from the Israeli army may enter up a cattle-chute type structure into a soldier-guarded enclosed area; they may be searched, questioned, and turned back.
Human Rights violations
Human rights violations are central to Israel's illegal occupation. These include arbitrary arrests, abuse, torture, assassinations, restriction of movement, home demolitions, wholesale land theft, and denial of right to livelihood, education, and health.
Since 1967, about 700,000 Palestinians, including children, have been imprisoned for resisting the occupation. They are political prisoners. Adults and children are subject to Israeli “administrative detention," meaning they can be held without charge or trial indefinitely. Trials are only held in a military court where the charges and evidence can be kept secret from the accused.
As of September 2012, there were 4,606 Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli prisons and detention centers, 194 were children. This number fluctuates and has been considerably higher in past years. Torture is routine and it is very difficult, often impossible, for prisoners’ families to visit.
In 2012, many prisoners participated in hunger strikes, calling attention to their inhumane conditions. Nearly all West Bank and Gaza Palestinians have been personally affected by Israel’s imprisonment policy, either through their own imprisonment or that of a family member, friend, or colleague.
Refugees and Population Transfer
There are over seven million Palestinian refugees worldwide, a third still live in 58 refugee camps throughout the Middle East. Palestinians are the largest and longest enduring refugee population in the world.
The first Palestinian refugees were those ethnically cleansed by Zionist militias and then the Israeli army in 1947-49. In December 1949, the United Nations passed Resolution 194 which guaranteed Palestinian refugees the right to return. Defiantly refusing to obey the U.N. mandate, Israel instead allowed almost 700,000 European Jews to migrate to Israel and live in the homes and lands it had stolen from Muslim and Christian Palestinians and restricted to Jews only.
Israel’s prejudiced immigration policy continues to deny Palestinians the right to live in their homeland. At the same time, Israel guarantees that Jews anywhere in the world can immigrate to Israel based only on their religion, regardless of whether their foreparents had ever lived there.
During the 6-day war in 1967, the Israeli army again caused the mass eviction of an estimated 300,000 West Bank and Gaza Palestinians, who became refugees.
Palestinians refugees continue to struggle for their right to return.
Here in Bethlehem, there are three refugee camps, Dheisheh, Aida and Azza; visit them!
Most likely, you came to Bethlehem from Jerusalem, a city that is part of the West Bank but off limits to virtually all Palestinians, including the people you see here in Bethlehem. Like in apartheid South Africa, Jerusalem Palestinians inside Israel must carry special Israeli-issued identification cards. They are allowed to visit the West Bank, but if they marry a Palestinian who does not have a Jerusalem ID, their spouse cannot live with them in Jerusalem. A Jewish-Israeli can bring their spouse from anywhere in the world to live in Jerusalem (unless that person is Palestinian). Although Palestinians have lived continuously in Jerusalem for thousands of years, Israel is now trying to ethnically cleanse them through home demolitions, land theft, building restrictions, harassment, and blockage of family unification. Jerusalem is ringed with illegal settlements, part of Israel’s goal to take the entire city.
Apartheid inside Israel
Palestinians who remained inside the newly declared state of Israel were subjected to military rule until 1966. Today, there are about 1.5 million Palestinian citizens of Israel, approximately 20% of Israel’s population. They are predominately Muslims and Christians who live as second class citizens, facing legal, economic, and social discrimination without the same rights or benefits as Jewish-Israelis.
Ninety-five percent of the land inside Israel is for lease or use only by Jews. Palestinian citizens of Israel have not been able to expand their communities; their ability to build is severely restricted; and 40,000 of their homes have Israeli-issued demolition orders. Some Jewish-Israelis have violently attacked Palestinian citizens of Israel and their places of worship and some have stood up for their rights.
Through its military occupation, including the apartheid wall, illegal settlements, bypass roads, military zones, checkpoints, and road closures, Israel maintains a stranglehold on the Palestinian economy, resulting in underdevelopment, high unemployment, and widespread poverty. Israel controls and taxes all goods that enter or leave the West Bank or Gaza. Palestinians are severely restricted from developing their own manufacturing or other businesses. In 2011, nearly 58% of West Bank and Gaza Palestinians lived in poverty; half were food insecure.
Israel has taken over a huge part of the West Bank agricultural production, making Palestinians dependent on food imports where they once were self-sufficient. Since 2000, Israel has uprooted over 1.5 million trees, including 300,000 olive trees in the West Bank and Gaza, destroying the environment and Palestine’s most important agricultural product, olives.
Through its occupation, Israel now controls over 80% of the tourism to Bethlehem, depriving Bethlehem businesses of millions of dollars in income every year. As a tourist, you can help the Palestinian economy by patronizing West Bank hotels, restaurants, vendors, and tour services.
Israel controls 82% of West Bank water, taking it from the underlying aquifers. Palestinians are prohibited from drilling new wells or deepening existing wells that no longer reach the water table. The shallow Gaza aquifer was depleted by Israel’s illegal settlements and polluted during their removal. Israeli trap wells prevent the aquifer from being replenished. Gaza’s water infrastructure has been devastated by numerous Israeli military attacks.
Before 1967, Bethlehem supplied its own water from wells; now Israel has taken control of those wells and Bethlehem has to buy its own water back from Mekerot, the Israeli water company. Israel cuts off water periodically to Palestinian towns, including Bethlehem, especially during the summer so that illegal Israeli colonies can have unrestricted flow.
Israel’s On-going War against the Palestinians
Since 1948, Israel has used its army, the fourth most powerful in the world, to mount at least eight massive attacks against Palestinians. These include 1956 (Gaza), 1967 (West Bank, Gaza); 1978 & 1982 (Lebanon), 1985 (Tunis), 2002 (West Bank), 2006 (Lebanon), and 2008/09 (Gaza). These attacks have killed tens of thousands of Palestinians, overwhelmingly civilians.
In 2008-2009, Israel bombed Gaza, killing over 1400 people, a third of them children, wounding over 5000, destroying homes, schools, mosques, offices, and hospitals. Israel continues to bomb Gaza on a regular basis, killing Palestinians and destroying more homes and infrastructure.
In April and May, 2002, the Israeli military invaded West Bank cities including Bethlehem, terrorizing the occupants, destroying property and infrastructure. The army held the Church of Nativity under siege, housed its soldiers in the Bethlehem Peace Center, and held the people of Bethlehem under a strict curfew for 40 days. There are bullet holes from the invasion on the sides of this sign board.
As have native peoples throughout history, the Palestinians have resisted colonialism and occupation in many forms. As an occupied people, this is their right under international law.
Starting in the late 1800s, the Palestinian resistance has included demonstrations, legal actions, strikes, civil disobedience, armed struggles, boycotting, community organizing, and simply the choice of people to remain in their land.
In December, 1987 all of Palestinian civil society rose up against the relentless Israeli occupation and oppression in the First Intifadah. In response to a sham peace process which followed the Oslo accords of 1993, the Second Intifadah erupted in September 2000.
The response of the Zionist paramilitaries and then the Israeli military to all forms of Palestinian resistance has been savage: violence, repression, murder, imprisonment, torture.
In July, 2005, Palestine civil society called for a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel, modeled on the international effort which eventually brought down the apartheid regime in South Africa. For more information, see www.bdsmovement.net and www.pacbi.org.
People around the world are helping Palestinians in their struggle to live freely with full human and civil rights inside all of historic Palestine. Hundreds of international activists have volunteered in Palestine; thousands are working to end their governments’ support of Israel’s apartheid and occupation. Join them!
Partial list of Sources:
Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel (www.adalah.org);
Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association (www.addameer.org);
Al-Haq Palestinian Human Rights Organization (www.alhaq.org);
Alternative Information Center (www.alternativenews.org);
Alternative Tourism Group (www.atg.ps);
BADIL Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights (www.badil.org)
B'Tselem - The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories (www.btselem.org/settlements);
Electronic Intifada (www.electronicintifada.net);
If Americans Knew (ifamericansknew.org/history/ref-nakba.html);
International Solidarity Movement (palsolidarity.org);
Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions (www.icahd.org);
Married to Another Man, Ghada Karmi;
Palestine Remembered (www.palestineremembered.com);
Sharing the Land of Canaan, Mazin Qumsiyeh;
Stop the Wall (www.stopthewall.org);
The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, Ilan Pappe;
The Other Side of Israel, Susan Nathan;
The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (www.pacbi.org);
Who Profits (www.whoprofits.org);
This Tourist’s Guide is dedicated to Palestinians everywhere. Special thanks to the Bethlehem Peace Center, the Municipality of Bethlehem, and the many volunteers who contributed their time and resources to this effort. The content of this board is the responsibility of the authors.