~ by Katya Reed, from the occupied West Bank
(Interview with John Prideaux-Brune, Country Director for the OPT and Israel at Oxfam GB, Part 2. Part 1, on Gaza, was here.)
“You can have development under an occupation but you can’t eradicate poverty.” That thought-provoking statement came from John Prideaux-Brune, Oxfam GB’s Country Director for Israel and the OPTs, during the interview I conducted with him January 12 in his office in East Jerusalem.
Prideaux-Brune explained that impoverishment is now widely recognized to be a condition where one is denied control over one’s life. Poverty is about being denied a voice. “You can be the richest person in the world but if you have no voice you are still in poverty,” he said.
Military rule anywhere, of course, denies a voice to citizens. But rule by an occupying foreign army does so even more, as is generally recognized in the special provisions international humanitarian law makes to try to protect the welfare of people living under foreign military occupation.
In the West Bank and Gaza, the 4.3 million civilian residents have now been living under foreign military occupation for nearly 43 years– and the mechanisms for sustaining that occupation have become extremely complex over time. In the West Bank, the land mass has been sliced and diced into five different kinds of governance zones:
- East Jerusalem has been outright annexed by Israel.
- Israel has also, more quietly, extended its civil law system to the many large areas occupied or controlled by Israel’s illegal settlements, which thereby, in effect, annexes them.
- In other areas, not directly controlled by the settlement blocs, the Palestinian population comes under the undiluted control of the IDF’s ‘civil affairs’ branch. These expanses of land– which total around 60% of the West Bank’s entire terrain– were designated, under Oslo, as ‘Area C’.
- Other areas of land were designated ‘Area B’. In these patches, the (‘interim’) Palestinian Authority exercises control over civilian functions while the IDF retains control over security affairs.
- In the other small patches designated ‘Area A’, the PA is supposed to control both civilian functions and security– though in practice, the IDF still moves and operates quite freely within the cities and towns that are designated ‘Area A’.
In the interview with Prideaux-Brune, he expressed particular concern for the situation of Palestinians in Area C. In those areas, he noted, the Israeli government continues to deny Oxfam GB and their local partners permission for water storage tanks during a drought and the rehabilitation of tin shacks for impoverished Bedouin communities.
He concluded wryly that in some portions of Area C, “Pretty soon you’re going to have to have a permit to breathe”.
ISRAEL STOPS WORK VISAS FOR OXFAM & OTHER NGOS IN OPT
At around the time I conducted the interview, the Israeli authorities were introducing tight new restrictions on the ability of international humanitiarian-aid and development groups like Oxfam to operate in the OPTs. In early January the Interior Ministry announced that it would no longer grant work permits to Oxfam and other major international organizations working in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). Instead, Israel issues employees like Prideaux-Brune only ‘B-1’ tourist visas that don’t formally allow the holder the right to work, even though Israeli officials have assured these employees that Israel understands their work in the OPT will continue.
The new visa restrictions do not apply to those organizations working in Israel or the settlements throughout the West Bank, in which case NGOs are simply granted work visas for Israel. What Prideaux-Brune and others are gravely concerned about is the “slippery slope” that such policies might portend.
While at this point the tourist visas may be granted to employees on a reliable basis, Prideaux-Brune voiced his grave concern about this pattern of further constrictions on international NGOs in the OPT. Having no legal basis to work in the country you are based in increases the stress on staff and also makes recruitment much more difficult.
“YOU CAN’T ERADICATE POVERTY WHILST YOU HAVE AN OCCUPATION”
Prideaux-Brune began summarizing Oxfam GB’s work in the West Bank with a disclaimer. He emphasized that while Oxfam GB does believe it can meaningfully support Palestinian development efforts, it is well aware that no matter how expansive development efforts are, poverty will persist as long as the occupation continues.
That was when he made the comment about poverty eradication being impossible under military occupation.
But Oxfam GB, like the other international NGOs working in the OPTs, does what it can. In the West bank, it supports numerous agricultural development projects, including Palestinian efforts to export olive oil on a commercial scale. Most of its work in the West Bank is concentrated in rural areas that lie in Area C.
In Areas A and B, the Palestinian Authority is allowed to issue building permits. But in Area C, the majority of the West Bank, all planning and building matters are controlled by Israel. (See B’tselem’s recent report on how “Civil Administration Chokes Palestinian Construction”.)
Prideaux-Brune clarified that the Israeli’s requirement for a permit for Palestinian building is not against international law. In fact, the Fourth Geneva Convention requires that an occupying power has a responsibility ensure the welfare of the people it occupies, which may include the facilitation of building and planning matters in occupied territory. (Of course, no military occupation in the whole history of the Geneva Conventions has ever lasted as long as this one. Its very prolongation makes it look much more like a classical colonial venture than a military occupation.)
Prideaux-Brune told me,”We’re not against requiring a permit from the governing authority… But it’s how they are implementing it that is the problem.”
Israel claims that it is only implementing the same law Jordan used in the West Bank before 1967. However, Prideaux-Brune pointed out that “the interpretation of the law changes fairly frequently. No one knows what it says exactly.”
ISRAEL TO OXFAM: CEMENT FLOORS FOR TIN SHACKS ARE ILLEGAL
When Oxfam GB began working with an impoverished Bedouin village living in tin shacks, they understood that any new construction without a permit – which are nearly impossible to procure – would be prohibited. Oxfam GB assumed, however, that minor rehabilitation of these families’ shelters would be permitted.
Oxfam GB therefore helped to lay down cement floors within these shacks in October 2008, and this shack rehabilitation project continued until March 2009. “They were still tin shacks – its just that now they were tin shacks with cement floors,” Prideaux-Brune said.
But then, a settler group named Regavim started distributing a video that alleged the cement floors built without a permit violated the Area C building restrictions.
To Oxfam GB’s dismay, the Israeli government adopted the same argument and last spring they ordered the demolition of all of the tin shacks that were provided with cement floors.
To this day Oxfam GB has not received demolition orders. As Prideaux-Brune points out, “they have such a backlog of things they want to destroy.”
Still, just the threat of such large scale demolition is enough to freeze development projects in Area C. Donors are reluctant to fund any such development knowing that if a permit is sought the project will likely be denied. Since Israeli interpretation of the Area C laws are so unpredictable, it can be paralyzing for relief organizations to fit their development efforts into projects that don’t require Israeli permits.
Then, if an organization does try to apply for a permit for a development project, it will likely take months or years to get a response, at which point funding for the project could run out. In Area C, applications for building permits are usually denied after a lengthy waiting period.
Under the changing interpretation of the law, flattening the land or laying a pipe on the ground might also now require a permit. Such restrictions have an immense chilling effect on development work since “no one wants to fund something that will be immediately destroyed”.
“Digging a one millimeter trench would probably require a permit at this point,” Prideaux-Brune speculated.
BUILDING WATER STORAGE TANKS DURING A DROUGHT DEEMED ILLEGAL
Prideaux-Brune relates the story of when Oxfam GB did apply for a permit for a modest development project in the West Bank: building water storage tanks.
Oxfam GB supports agricultural development efforts in Jiftlick, a Palestinian village in the Jordan Valley. Jiftlick receives most of its water from a pipe that is mostly turned off during the day, exacerbating the water shortage during the frequent periods of drought. Oxfam GB hoped to build a 300 square meter concrete water tank underground so that Jiflick residents and farmers could have a reliable water source during the day. Palestinian residents would not be able to take more water, rather, they would merely be able to more dependably retrieve their allotted share of water during daylight hours.
Oxfam GB applied for a permit to build these water storage tank in December 2007, and to this day has not heard back on the status of their application.
In spring of 2009 it became clear that the very low rainfall during the preceding winter would result in severe water shortages in the Jordan Valley, so Oxfam GB changed tactics.
Oxfam GB applied for Israeli permission to implement a temporary short-term fix to prevent worsening humanitarian conditions. While officially development projects on humanitarian grounds are permitted without a permit, they still require the onerous process of getting Israeli permission. Oxfam GB asked to connect smaller fiberglass water tanks to the water supply, and were told by the Israeli authorities they would receive an answer in a matter of weeks.
However, as Prideaux-Brune explains, the process was far more difficult than expected:
“In the end it took nine months for them to come back and say ‘no we could not proceed without a permit’. Therefore we have dropped that idea and are back trying to get a permit for the permanent solution we originally proposed.”
To recap, Oxfam GB applied for a permit to build a water storage tank in Jiftlick over two years ago. Foreseeing drought conditions, Oxfam GB asked to implement a temporary fix on humanitarian grounds. After the drought came and went, Israel denied permission for a temporary fix. Over two years later, Oxfam GB has not received word on whether it can build a permanent water storage tank.
One more illustration of the fact that, as Prideaux-Brune so eloquently put it, “you can’t eradicate poverty whilst you have an occupation”.