Israel’s Policy of Fragmentation Harms Palestinian Hopes for a Sovereign State

Recent reports by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, and others have labeled Israel an apartheid state. This term does not mean that Israel should be compared to apartheid-era South Africa, but rather that it fulfills the international requirements for having committed the crime of apartheid. And in fact, the situation in Israel is in some ways far worse than what existed in South Africa.

One of the salient features of Israel’s apartheid system is a sophisticated scheme of fragmenting Palestinians into distinct groupings, all ruled by the Israeli power structure. but under different legal and administrative schemes that govern all aspects of their lives. While Jewish Israelis living abroad or in the occupied Palestinian territories have the same rights and are subject to the same laws and obligations as those living in Israel, Palestinians in different areas live under different Israeli governing schemes depending on where they reside and what legal status they have been assigned. Israel has instituted this fragmentation in order to facilitate Israel’s continued colonization, to dissolve whatever unified national identity Palestinians still have, and to deny Palestinians’ right to an independent and sovereign state of their own.

Fragmentation Is a Deliberate Policy

Although this fragmentation developed over time and took advantage of different political situations, it has been carried out in a deliberate fashion whereby Palestinians are assigned a position, carefully noted in population registries and documented in mandatory identity cards. This status cannot be easily changed, even by marriage, though a person may lose their given status under certain conditions. Deliberate attempts have been made to treat and negotiate with each group of Palestinians in a different and distinct manner, and Israel has avoided, as much as possible, allowing joint action, development, or commercial ties between the different segments of Palestinian society.

Although this fragmentation developed over time and took advantage of different political situations, it has been carried out in a deliberate fashion.

During Israel’s Oslo negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which purported to represent all Palestinians, the status of East Jerusalemites and refugees was deferred to what was called “final status negotiations,” which never took place. PLO Chair and later President of the Palestinian Authority (PA) Yasser Arafat was conscious of the effort to fragment Palestinian areas and thus insisted on treating the occupied territories “as a single territorial unit,” as indeed was stated in the Accords. But despite the agreement in principle, this was violated in practice.

During the Second Intifada, Israel closed the “safe passage” between the West Bank and Gaza Strip that had been mandated by the Oslo Accords, and has never reopened it. It also reneged on a written promise to permit and even strengthen the development of Palestinian institutions in East Jerusalem. Thereafter, Israel insisted on total separation between Gaza and the West Bank, which continued after Hamas won elections in Gaza in 2006. This fragmentation went beyond a “divide and conquer” strategy and instead developed into a sophisticated system of population control.

Five Groups of Palestinians

The most important feature of Israel’s fragmentation of Palestinian society has to do with freedom of movement and residence. Five groups of Palestinians have been created and are treated hierarchically. Israel has insisted on dealing with each community separately, using different laws and administrative structures and making it difficult for Palestinians to move from one category to the next. The five categories of Palestinians in this system are as follows:

First, Palestinians who are Israeli citizens. These are the Palestinians who in 1948 managed to remain within the state of Israel and who were granted Israeli citizenship, although they were forced to live under Israeli military rule until 1966 (shortly before the June War in 1967) and were restricted in their travel between different locales. Many of their villages were unrecognized and lacking in basic services, and the community was systematically discriminated against and viewed with suspicion. Yet as holders of Israeli passports they enjoyed relative freedom of movement, as well as the right to vote in elections for the Knesset. There was an implicit understanding among all of Israel’s Zionist parties not to include them in any government coalition; but that taboo was broken with the Bennett-Lapid government (2021–2022), when the Palestinian United Arab List (Ra’am) was allowed into the short-lived coalition. Israel does not include these Palestinians, whom it refers to as “Israeli Arabs,” in any of its negotiations with Palestinian leaders elsewhere, or with the international community. Also, they are frequently excluded from public opinion polls, such as a recent poll regarding happiness, which placed Israel 4th worldwide, but which only listed Israeli Jews as participants.

Second, East Jerusalem Palestinians. When Israel applied its “law and administration” to an expanded Jerusalem municipality, it initially left the status of Palestinian East Jerusalemites uncertain. It did not issue them Israeli passports and does not consider them citizens. The Israeli High Court later filled what it perceived as a lacuna in the law by declaring their status to be that of permanent residents, not citizens, and stated that the law applying to them is the Law of Entry into Israel. This curious category allows these Palestinians to travel and work in Israel, but a number of steps have been taken to keep them separate from Palestinian Israeli citizens and to also keep them separate from Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The Israeli authorities, who at first reluctantly allowed East Jerusalemites to participate in elections for the Palestinian Authority, later reversed the decision and made it clear that the PA does not represent them.

The Israeli authorities, who at first reluctantly allowed East Jerusalemites to participate in elections for the Palestinian Authority, later reversed the decision and made it clear that the PA does not represent them.

Even cultural activities that Israel alleges have connections with the PA are prohibited in East Jerusalem. Israel sometimes treats these Palestinians as part of Israel (but not as citizens) and at other times as part of the occupied territories. East Jerusalemites often feel orphaned since no political entity represents them, especially following the closure of the Orient House and other Palestinian organizations such as the Palestinian Chamber of Commerce, and because of the pressure that has been put on Palestinian and foreign development agencies serving West Bank Palestinians to move their offices out of East Jerusalem.

While East Jerusalemites have more freedom of movement and employment opportunities than Palestinians in the following three categories, their status in Israel is fragile, especially since they can lose their residency if they reside outside of “Israel,” even if just a few miles away in the Bethlehem and Ramallah suburbs. Without contact with the rest of the West Bank, the city of East Jerusalem is constricted, and its 350,000 inhabitants often feel alone, with no administrative or political representation. Those attempting to safeguard their residency status must prove that Jerusalem is the center of their life and activity by living within its boundaries. But lacking building permits, which are deliberately limited by the Jerusalem municipality, they are often crowded into illegally constructed high-rise apartments that are technically within the annexed area of Jerusalem, but outside the separation wall.

Third, West Bank Palestinians. The rest of the residents of the West Bank live under direct military rule. Much of their municipal and internal functions have been transferred to the PA, which sometimes acts as their state or “state in the making.” They cannot gain access to East Jerusalem or Israel (or travel to Gaza or abroad) without permission from Israel. Israel often treats the West Bank as the entirety of “Palestine,” and the PA as its sole political interlocutor. West Bankers are also further fragmented into those who live in Area A (containing the most densely populated city centers), Area B (the villages), and Area C (the rest of the West Bank, which comprises 62 percent of the total area and is directly run by the Civil Administration of the Military Government, though its population is often treated as if it is under the civilian control of the PA). Area C also contains most of the agricultural area of the West Bank, as well as numerous Israeli settlements. West Bankers need permits to enter Jerusalem, Israel, and the settlements, and to travel to Gaza or abroad. Even greater fragmentation is evident in and around the city of Hebron, which is divided into two areas: H1 and H2, with PA control limited to H2, and with severe restrictions placed on residents in H1 due to the expanding proximity of Jewish settlers in the heart of the city around the Ibrahimi Mosque.

Fourth, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. While the residents of Gaza are theoretically in the same category as West Bankers, the reality is that since the elections of 2006, which Hamas won, the entire Gaza Strip has been under a brutal Israeli siege, to the extent that it has even been referred to as the world’s largest open-air prison. People and goods cannot enter or leave without Israeli permission, which is modulated at its discretion. Control is not only limited to products and people, but also to basic necessities such as fuel (including to produce electricity), building materials, and food, which is regulated according to what Israeli authorities have calculated as the per capita caloric intake required to keep the population on the verge of starvation. The rule over the Gaza Strip by Hamas, which Israel and much of the western world consider a terrorist organization, has provided Israel with the pretext of treating Gaza and its civilian population as a “hostile entity.”

Israel regularly carries out incursions, shoots into the strip, and carves out a poorly defined and ever-shifting “security zone” inside the strip where Palestinians who enter risk their lives. The security zone is treated as a “free-fire zone,” wherein Israel can shoot to kill, including by using an automated system of machine guns. In addition, the entire Gaza Strip is under constant drone and aerial surveillance. People and goods may also enter or leave the Gaza Strip through a narrow crossing at the Egyptian border, but this point of access is controlled by Egypt in coordination with Israel.

Fifth, Palestinian refugees. Two-thirds of the Palestinian people are refugees who have no status that Israel recognizes. Most live in Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, and carry whatever travel documents they can obtain from their host countries. Some have managed to obtain foreign passports, which provide them with freedom of movement and work opportunities abroad. But Israel severely restricts their entry into its borders, even if they carry foreign passports, thereby blocking them from visiting relatives, and in some cases, their birthplaces. Due to its practice and ideology of settler colonialism, Israel believes that Palestinian refugees have no rights in Palestine/Israel, and must seek their future in other countries. Israel denies any responsibility for their status or their properties, which the State of Israel confiscated following its founding in 1948 using its Absentee Property Law and gave to Jewish emigrees. This status was endorsed by former President Donald Trump’s so-called peace plan, which specifically states that these refugees should be settled wherever they are, and that Israel has no legal or moral responsibility for them.

Fragmenting the Future

The deliberate fragmentation of these five groups of Palestinians is further entrenched by regulations prohibiting overnight stays for those who are granted travel permission. And Israel has even passed laws prohibiting family reunification for Palestinians who marry, thereby making it a challenge for Palestinians from different areas to even live together if they marry. Israel has also been threatening individuals and families whom it views as “disloyal” with the loss of their status in one of the more privileged categories and banishment to an area that is less privileged (for example, to Gaza or the West Bank, or through outright deportation). Sadly, the Israeli High Court has generally approved such measures and has not interfered in these practices or this categorization.

Understanding this fragmentation is particularly important given the collapse of the two-state solution and the increasing realization that all that remains is a one-state reality.

Understanding this fragmentation is particularly important given the collapse of the two-state solution and the increasing realization that all that remains is a one-state reality. Israel controls the entirety of historic Palestine through its army, the Knesset, and the regulation of borders, cyberspace, water and land resources, currency, utilities, and most importantly, population registry records. Within its borders, the Jewish population has all the power and privileges, while the Palestinian population is forced to endure this complex system of varied controls. The fact that Israel has not formally annexed all of the territory of Palestine is largely due to its desire to continue this elaborate process of fragmentation and to avoid the complications that would come with formal annexation, precisely as they relate to the Palestinian population.

It is this more than anything that explains Israel’s continued use of the two-state language and paradigm, even though no one in Israel today is seriously contemplating the creation of a Palestinian state or relinquishing power, control, and sovereignty over any part of the entire area that Israel governs, occupies, or blockades. It also explains the greater use of legislation highlighting the Jewish nature of the state, an identity that was always implicit, but which, after being codified in law, has raised the specter of racism and discrimination, and has led to explicit charges of apartheid from the human rights community. Most importantly, it provides a cynical excuse to totally ignore Palestinian refugees and the 2.3 million Palestinians in Gaza, and to treat Palestinians who are Israeli citizens as an internal Israeli question and not as part of the Palestinian Arab nation.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured image credit: Shutterstock/Imagebank4u