As secretary general of Caritas Jerusalem, Claudette Habesch sees first hand the impact of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the lives of individual Palestinians and their families. Her organization is a Catholic charity and a member of Caritas International. After speaking at the United Nations International Conference of Civil Society in Support of the Palestinian People, which took place on Sept. 4-5, she visited America House and spoke about the obstacles to peace from the perspective of a Palestinian Christian who has lived in Jerusalem all her life.
For Ms. Habesch, what Palestinians refer to as the separation wall is symbolic of the obstacles to peace. It snakes more than 100 miles across the territory between Israel and the West Bank, in what is only the first of four phases projected by the Israeli government. The “wall” is a combination of high walls, electrified chain link fencing, barbed wire and concrete guard towers, which the Israelis say will protect them from terrorist attacks. Sensors alert Israeli soldiers if anyone approaches this barrier from either side.
The wall, she said, is “a symbol of our hopelessness—our weakness in being unable to do anything about it.” For example, in Qalqilya, a town in the northern section of the West Bank, the wall has cut off many of the town’s inhabitants from their agricultural lands and water, which lie on the other side of the wall. A manned gate controls access to the land and the wells, and “sometimes the townspeople are allowed to go through and sometimes not.” This situation, she added, has left the people in Qalqilya feeling like prisoners in their own town. Moreover, it has amounted to a form of land grabbing, according to Ms. Habesch.
The wall is only the most recent of a series of actions by the Israeli government that have made the everyday lives of Palestinians increasingly difficult. The water situation is especially painful, “enough in itself to cause a war,” as she put it. Although close to two million Palestinians live in Gaza, she explained, they receive only 20 percent of the water supply. The other 80 percent goes to Israel and the Israeli settlements.
Periodic curfews, too, seriously interrupt daily life for Palestinians. “Since the second intifada [uprising] in September 2002,” she said, “our students have lost over 1,100 days of school at all levels.” In Nablus alone, a city in the northern section of the West Bank, there were 115 consecutive curfew days in 2000. During the curfews, people are allowed out of their homes for only a few hours every few days, to buy food. But because of the curfews many Palestinians have been unable to earn enough money to purchase food. Ms. Habesch pointed to a World Bank study that found that over 55 percent of the population of the West Bank lives on less than $2 a day. In Gaza, the situation is even worse: 70 percent of the people live on less than a dollar a day.
No chance to work means no money to purchase food, which has adversely affected most Palestinians, especially children. “When we talk of malnourished children,” Ms. Habesch said, “we are talking about one of the effects of the continued occupation of Palestinian territories.” To respond to this crisis, Caritas Jerusalem and other nongovernmental organizations have provided large shipments of food staples. Because of the high levels of unemployment, Caritas has also initiated a job-creation program. “We place people in hospitals, schools and private businesses,” Ms. Habesch explained. Caritas pays their salaries for the first three months, and then the institution or business—if satisfied with the new employees’ work performance—has the option of continuing to pay their salaries. Sixty-five percent of those hired in this way have been able to keep working at their new jobs, she said.
Travel restrictions and rigidly guarded check points are further obstacles to peace and employment and also influence other aspects of Palestinians’ lives, like health. Ms. Habesch described delays in obtaining emergency medical care, delays that have in some instances been a cause of death. Recently a woman pregnant with twins was refused permission to cross a checkpoint near Bethlehem. Unable to reach the hospital that lay just on the other side, she began to hemorrhage and delivered the twins “under the eyes of the soldiers,” as Ms. Habesch put it. The twins died.
Home demolitions also cause hardship and bitterness. “If you are viewed as an activist, your home can be demolished,” Ms. Habesch said. “And if your home is considered to be in the way of a bypass road being built for Israeli settlers, it can be torn down for that too.” Over 8,000 Palestinian homes have been destroyed, she reports, including an apartment house that was demolished this past summer. These demolitions received international attention last spring when a 23-year-old American volunteer with the International Solidarity Movement, Rachel Corrie, was crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer while attempting to prevent the demolition of a house in Rafah. Rachel’s mother reports that the Israeli military has accepted no responsibility for the death; but from talking with other volunteers who witnessed what took place, she had become convinced that the driver of the bulldozer acted deliberately.
With violence and counterviolence continuing, Ms. Habesch believes that peace can come only through an end to the occupation of the Palestinian territories, an occupation that has now lasted for over three decades. In the meantime, she believes—as does Rachel Corrie’s mother—that certain steps could be taken that would reduce the violence. Among these steps would be the adoption of a U.N. resolution calling for human rights monitors. The United States and Israel, however, have twice vetoed the resolution, even though, in her opinion, “many lives could have been saved on both sides.” Her hope is that Palestinians some day will have their own sovereign state, where they can live in freedom and dignity. Such freedom and dignity, not walls, will bring peace to Jerusalem and the region.