Israel’s Discriminatory Treatment of Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Part 3

Separate and Unequal

Freedom of Movement

Israel has imposed an extensive network of movement restrictions on Palestinians, including checkpoints, roadblocks, and the separation barrier, in many cases solely or primarily for the benefit of settlers. As a result, large sections of the West Bank remain barred to Palestinians except those with special permits or residency in those areas. This segregation of territory limits the movement of Palestinians and effectively isolates them in residential pockets from which entry and exit is restricted and can be extremely difficult.

In contrast, settlers enjoy virtually unfettered freedom of moment, with easy access to roads, built for them at considerable expense, that bypass Palestinian populated areas and connect settlements to the Israeli road network, other settlements, and major metropolitan areas inside Israel. In some cases, Palestinians are not only barred from these roads, but are effectively cut off from their lands and other villages and cities. According to the Israeli rights group B’Tselem, as of August 2009, Palestinian vehicles were completely prohibited from traveling on 105 kilometers of West Bank roads, and only permitted vehicles, VIP card holders, and ambulances could travel on another 180 kilometers of roads. The primary road construction projects that Israel has undertaken for the benefit of West Bank Palestinians are “fabric of life roads”—usually underpasses beneath settler bypass roads that allow Palestinians to move between enclaves.

Settlers also typically enjoy easy passage through checkpoints, or travel on roads without any checkpoints, whereas Palestinian travel is inhibited by more than 500 earth mounds, checkpoints, and roadblocks, as well as by the separation barrier. According to numerous media, UN, and NGO reports, Israeli soldiers often fail to open the checkpoints and gates in the separation barrier that they are manning, or subject Palestinians to arbitrary and humiliating treatment.[10] Israeli restrictions on movement have led to the “gradual funneling of Palestinian traffic onto a secondary road network,” the UN reported in June 2010.

The World Bank noted that movement restrictions on Palestinians contributed to a 60 percent decline in per capita GDP from 1999 to 2008, and argued that “a fundamental reassessment of closure, and a restoration of the presumption of movement, as embodied in the many agreements between [Israel] and the Palestinian Authority,” was necessary to allow “the Palestinian private sector be able to recover and fuel sustainable growth.”

In many West Bank areas, Israeli authorities allow Jewish settlers to travel freely but require Palestinians to present permits, usually for security reasons, which are often difficult to obtain. This is particularly salient in the areas of the West Bank that lie to the west (i.e., on the “Israeli side”) of the separation barrier. Israel began to construct the barrier during the second intifada for the stated purpose of preventing Palestinians from entering Israel to carry out suicide bombings or other attacks; however, 85 percent of the wall’s route falls inside the West Bank. A report by the Israeli NGO Bimkom found that the barrier’s path “almost totally ignores the daily needs of the Palestinian population” and is “focused almost exclusively on the desire to maintain the fabric of life of Israeli settlers.” Israelis may enter and exit these areas—including East Jerusalem—freely, without passing through checkpoints or presenting identification. An estimated 7,800 Palestinians live in these “seam zone” areas where the barrier has been completed (not including East Jerusalem) and an unknown number of others own agricultural lands there.

Palestinians may enter the seam zone only with special permits from the Israeli military, which must be renewed and are granted only to persons who can prove “permanent residence” in the area. The UN found in November 2006 that Israeli military authorities had denied 60 percent of Palestinian applicants permits to access land they owned in these “seam zone” areas. Palestinians may enter the seam zone through fewer than half of the 67 special gates that are spaced at intervals in the 425 kilometers of the separation barrier’s 709-kilometer route constructed to date, and that are often open only seasonally or for limited hours each day (this report does not consider in detail unlawful restrictions on freedom of movement imposed by Israel’s separation barrier, which have been reported extensively).

Palestinians wishing to enter Jewish settlements, usually for work purposes, also must obtain individual permits from an IDF commander, according to a military order that declares settlements to be closed military zones only to Palestinians. In cases of agricultural settlements, Israeli authorities allow settlers to transport agricultural goods directly and freely from the settlement to locations in Israel, from where they are often exported abroad. Palestinian farmers must unload and re-load their produce at checkpoints inside the West Bank, and when they cross checkpoints into Israel. The delay and labor involved raises costs, and may damage the products.

The Israeli government argues that its restriction of the freedom of West Bank Palestinians’ freedom of movement is justified on security grounds. For instance, the Israeli rights group HaMoked petitioned against the “seam zone” policy, which requires Palestinians to obtain special permits to access their lands in areas of the West Bank located between the Israeli separation barrier and the 1949 armistice line (the “green line”), while Israelis and foreigners visiting Israel need no such permits. In its response to the petition, the state argued:

… it is contended that the declaration on closing area and the accompanying orders constitute systematic discrimination…. This contention ignores the fact that the said declaration and orders were issued after Palestinian residents from the region carried out dozens and hundreds of deadly terrorist attacks on a purely racist bias against Israel and Israelis; thus, substantive security reasons required a distinction be made between Palestinians and other persons who move about in the territory.[11]

However, the Israeli policies in question restrict the movement of all Palestinians, rather than being targeted to particular persons deemed to present security risks. Further, these policies as implemented often require Palestinians to bear the entire burden of security, their own as well as the settlers’; for example, the IDF requires Palestinians who own agricultural lands near settlements to obtain the IDF’s agreement to “coordinate” visits to these lands, ostensibly to prevent settlers from attacking Palestinians, and only grants such coordination during a few weeks per year.

In two cases where the Israeli military barred Palestinians from using the roads due to Palestinian attacks that killed Israeli drivers during the second intifada, the Israeli high court has recently ordered the re-opening of “settler-only” roads. In other cases, Israeli courts ordered the military to re-route sections of the separation barrier. In such cases, the court’s rulings have been based on findings that the burden imposed on Palestinians was “disproportionate” to the security or other benefits to settlers. However, whereas the high court has directly addressed discrimination against Arab citizens of Israel, it has failed to address the discriminatory nature of the restrictions imposed on Palestinians in the West Bank, with the result that its rulings have addressed the impact of the implementation of policies that treat all Palestinians as security risks, but not the discriminatory nature of the policies themselves (see “Israeli jurisprudence on discrimination,” below). In addition, in several cases, the Israeli military has failed to implement court decisions requiring it to reduce harms affecting thousands of Palestinians, even years after the verdicts were delivered.[12]

As the UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination noted in 2007, Israeli policies “targeting a particular national or ethnic group, especially through the wall, checkpoints, restricted roads, and permit system, have … had a highly detrimental impact on the enjoyment of human rights by Palestinians, in particular their rights to freedom of movement, family life, work, education, and health.”


Water has long been a scarce resource in the semi-arid region, and is under increased threat of over-extraction; a symbol of the pressure on regional water resources is the fact that the level of the Dead Sea is dropping by one meter per year. Israeli authorities have controlled West Bank water resources since they seized the land from Jordan in 1967, and continue to control completely all Palestinian access to water resources in the West Bank, including in Areas A, B and C. Israel provides Jewish settlers with access to water for domestic and agricultural use that it denies Palestinians. This policy has benefited the Jewish settler economy while damaging that of Palestinians, whose agricultural sector has lost up to 110,800 jobs compared to its potential with adequate access to water resources, according to the World Bank.

Jewish settlements—which use a significant proportion of the water to produce agricultural goods for export by a government-run private export company, Agrexco—are serviced by wells in the West Bank (largely in the Jordan Valley), and by the Israeli national water network (Mekorot), which itself extracts water flowing from aquifers lying beneath the occupied West Bank.[13] Even many unauthorized settlement outposts are connected to the national water network. In general, Israeli subsidies for settlers, including those for settlement agriculture products, help offset costs of water and other utilities.

Average Israeli per capita consumption of water—including water consumption by settlers—is 4.3 times that of Palestinians in the occupied territories (including Gaza), according to the World Health Organization. In the Jordan Valley, an estimated 9,000 settlers in Israeli agricultural settlements use one-quarter the total amount of water consumed by the entire Palestinian population of the West Bank, some 2.5 million people.

Over-extraction of water by Israel has caused a drop in the water table in the West Bank, which contributed to a 4 percent decrease in the total amount of water Palestinians extracted from 1995 to 2007, even as the Palestinian population increased by as much as 50 percent, according to the World Bank. According to UN estimates, some 60,000 Palestinians currently living in Area C lack any access to running water and must pay high prices – up to one-sixth of their income – to bring in water tankers, which in turn require special permits from the Israeli authorities.

In 1995, according to the Oslo accords, Israel granted the PA a role in developing and regulating the use of some water resources in the West Bank, by creating a joint Israeli-PA water commission with equal representation for both sides, which must approve West Bank water projects. However, the commission’s history indicates that in reality Israel and the PA are not equal partners. As of April 2009, the World Bank reported the commission had approved all but one Israeli-proposed projects in the West Bank, but only half of the projects (by dollar value) proposed by the PA for the benefit of Palestinians, of which only one-third had been implemented or begun implementation.

One reason for the unequal approval of projects is that Israel often proposes infrastructure projects that will provide water to Palestinian communities only if pipes are first laid to service Israeli settlements. Fewer projects are implemented than approved because, in addition to approval by the joint water commission, Palestinian water projects in Area C must also be approved by the Israeli Civil Administration, which often cites security grounds for refusing requests, such as ruling that Palestinian wells would be drilled in areas considered too close to settlements. Moreover, the majority of Palestinian projects that have been approved involve improvements to water networks rather than drilling new wells or increasing the amount of water available to those networks; as noted, total Palestinian water consumption has decreased over the past decade even as the population has grown.

Israeli planning restrictions and military orders have forced Palestinians in Area C to spend up to one-sixth of their income to purchase water at significant expense from small, portable water tankers; water restrictions have severely affected Palestinian Bedouin communities, many of which have no reliable access to water sources. In one case discussed in this report, Israeli authorities cut water pipes leading from a spring to a Palestinian farm in the northern Jordan Valley, which now has no access to water other than via expensive tankers. The spring now supplies water for a nearby settlement through pipes that run through the farmer’s land, which he cannot touch.

The creation of water infrastructure to service Jewish settlers, and the diversion of water resources away from Palestinians, is discriminatory. Israel’s unequal provision of access to water resources is unjustified by any reasonable security concern or other necessity (severe water shortages affecting tens of thousands of Palestinians, notably in Area C, also violates Israel’s obligations as an occupying power to ensure the welfare of the occupied population).

Its policy of exploiting the occupied territory’s natural resources to benefit its own citizens violates its obligations under customary international law to alter such laws and policies in the occupied territory only where doing so benefits the local population, does not permanently deplete resources, or is required by reasons of strict military necessity (to the knowledge of Human Rights Watch, Israel has not invoked the justification of military necessity regarding its exploitation of natural resources in the West Bank, and recently ordered a temporary halt to quarrying activities by Israeli and multinational companies in the West Bank after a petition filed by Yesh Din, an Israeli human rights NGO.) The effects of Israel’s discriminatory restrictions on access to water, including prohibitions on well drilling, access to the Jordan River, and the destruction of water pipes, tanks, and cisterns, have been so severe that they have forcibly displaced residents of several Palestinian communities, which also amounts to a serious violation of the prohibition against involuntarily transferring residents of an occupied territory from their homes.

Land Confiscation

Palestinians interviewed for this report stated that Israeli authorities had confiscated their lands without compensation and transferred their ownership to settlements, or protected and supported settlers who had taken their lands without official authorization or recognition. The law of occupation permits the confiscation of private property only in cases of urgent military necessity. Human rights law permits confiscation of property only where it is non-discriminatory and proportionate to justifiable need, and where fair compensation is paid; the instances documented in this report fail to meet these criteria.

Israel has confiscated West Bank land through a variety of means. For example, it has designated 26.7 percent of the West Bank “state lands,” based on laws and procedures that make it extremely difficult for Palestinian residents to prove their ownership of an area, even when they have resided there for generations. Other Israeli laws and practices have made it virtually impossible for Palestinians to register ownership on their own initiative (which they attempt most often in response to attempts to expropriate their land). Israeli plans and maps that in some cases provide the legal basis for confiscation or demolition orders are written only in Hebrew and stored inside a settlement, which, as with other settlements, Palestinians need a special military permit to enter.

At the same time, Israeli authorities have transferred confiscated lands to the control of settlers. As noted, Israel has granted 70 percent of Area C to settlements and confiscated large areas to build road networks for settlers. No Palestinian land use is allowed in areas controlled by settlements, in closed military zones, in nature reserves, or in areas not zoned for Palestinian construction.

Even where Israel recognizes Palestinian land rights, owners may be unable to exercise them: for instance, in numerous cases where Palestinian-owned olive groves lie near a settlement, Palestinians are able to access them for only brief periods twice or three times a year, requiring Israeli military coordination and escorts. Israeli NGOs have also found, based on government documents, that numerous Israeli settlements have been partly built on privately owned Palestinian property, violating Israeli and international law.

The legal bases for land confiscation, the processes by which Israel confiscated lands, and the difficulty involved in appealing the confiscations are described in the “Background” section below. Many of Israel’s numerous alterations, through military orders, of applicable land laws and regulations in the West Bank violate the limitation of its authority as an occupying power to alter local laws except as necessary to maintain and restore order. Israel’s unjustified confiscation and transfer of property from Palestinians to settlers—the basis for demolitions and other measures that create forced displacement—is discriminatory and violates the prohibition on confiscation of property, except for reasons of military necessity.


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