When you ask Palestinians about the economy of the West Bank the comment you hear regularly is that since the beginning of the second Palestinian uprising, known as ‘Al-Aqsa Intifada,’ in September 2000, the economy has gone into ‘freefall’. Having lived for three months in Yanoun, a tiny village in the governorate of Nablus in the West Bank, within sight of the barren pink-hazed hills of Jordan, I can write about how this ‘freefall’ is affecting people’s lives.
In Yanoun the greatest economic stress is caused by the actions of the Israeli settlers living in the nearby outposts of the settlement of Itamar. The settlement began in 1985 as a tiny village ten kilometres away from Yanoun, but by 1996 various constructions had been built on the hills surrounding Yanoun and the ‘competition over land’ had begun. It was in that year that a shepherd out tending his sheep was attacked by a settler and the physical and psychological pressure on the village began. More buildings appeared on the crests of the horseshoe of hills that embrace the valley floor where Yanoun is located. Men out working on fields with their flocks or pruning trees, would be attacked and beaten by armed settlers and told not to come to this part of their lands again. Some villagers were also threatened in their homes by armed settlers. With searchlights placed in the settlement outposts on the surrounding hills and directed towards Yanoun, the village felt they were being watched day and night.
In this way the villagers were gradually frightened off their land, losing land up the valley behind the village houses or being warned off from grazing their animals in the hills to the west. Finally, last month soldiers of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and armed settlers drove into fields to tell Yanoun shepherds that they could no longer use the lower slopes of the surrounding hills “or the villagers will be hurt”. The IDF, as the army of the occupying power, is responsible for the safety of the villagers of Yanoun under international law. Thus you would expect them to be protecting the villagers, however they usually either stand back and watch the settlers’ harassment of the villagers, or, as in this case, they ‘accompany’ the settlers.
This intimidation limits grazing and buying in fodder is very expensive. People are afraid to prune or plough under the fruit trees on which so much of their livelihood rests – fig, almond and especially olives. If the trees are not properly tended and the ground is not ploughed the crop is progressively reduced. This year a farmer was forbidden by the settlers to pick any of his almond crop. The farmers have papers to show their ownership, some of them going back to Ottoman times. One farmer estimates that 90 per cent of his land has been stolen.
A villager who used to have a paid job and a good car can no longer find work outside the village. Like most other men in the village he had to sell the car and buy a ‘banger.’ He is now a full time shepherd. The other day his son became ill and the father took him to the doctor in the nearby town. The medicines prescribed did no good, so after a few days the parents decided to take the boy to the hospital in Nablus. To make this journey, only 20 minutes away if direct roads could be used, a lengthy, circuitous route must be taken, which involves passing numerous checkpoints. The direct road has been blocked to Palestinians by settlers. The journey time is variable depending on how many checkpoints there are that day and how long the soldiers keep people waiting. Queuing at checkpoints is a bad enough experience and always a tense time, but in the heat and with a sick child it is even more unpleasant. At the hospital the father was told that the boy should be kept in for observation. This was too expensive and instead the father decided to buy the recommended drugs and bring the boy back the next day. The cost of travel, the drugs and the danger and difficulty of the journey had to be weighed against what the family budget could bear. Fortunately, his son is better now.
Our neighbours, an elderly mother and her two daughters, work from morning to night. They harvest fruits, make cheese and yogurt, mill grain, they keep hens, grow small vegetable crops, which need watering twice a day, they preserve almonds and bake bread. They also do sewing and mending as well as keeping a small shop selling sweets. Recently they showed us their photo album, dating back about twenty years. How different things were then. Some pictures showed them on holiday in Haifa, Israel, wearing smart clothes, smiling and looking relaxed. Their brother sat proud and cross-legged on the bonnet of a nice red car. Wedding photos gave us a glimpse into the much happier past of the families we have come to know in Yanoun, but there are no more holidays and they cannot travel into Israel anymore. There are no more smart clothes, the red car is replaced by a ‘banger’ and there are fewer smiles. The effort to make ends meet, the long hours of work, the strain of the occupation and the nagging worry of problems caused by settlers makes Yanoun a troubled place.
When I, as an EA, travel around I too have to wait at checkpoints, show my documents and push my way through metal turnstiles under the eyes of armed soldiers. However, as an ‘international’ I am fast tracked, unlike Palestinians who must wait while their documents are processed and their bags are searched. Smartly dressed on their way to work, to study, to shop or to visit family, some say that they are made to wait just because the soldiers want them to. Teachers who have classes to go to can be kept standing for hours. Businessmen miss appointments and taxi-drivers who queue to take people to their destinations also have to wait.
It is not difficult to see what such wasted hours do to an economy. It is difficult though to see how the economic stranglehold of the occupation will be loosened or how the restrictions imposed by settlers will be lifted without a radical change in the policies of the occupying power.
Ecumenical Accompanier, Yanoun