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Nick Frayn reports from the West Bank, where freedom for Palestinians is still not part of the deal

The latest deal in the Middle East peace process was greeted with a sigh of relief, if not the jubilation provoked by the original Oslo Accords of 1993. Under the Wye Memorandum Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority gains full or partial control over a further 27 per cent of the West Bank, in return for promises to crack down on radical Islamic activists.

But what difference will this deal make to those Palestinians who have to put up with the day-to-day frustrations and humiliations of life in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip?

I spent the summer studying at Birzeit University in the West Bank and witnessed Palestinians still struggling for such basic goals as the right to study or work where they choose. During the five years since the Oslo Accords they have seen their situation deteriorate rather than improve. More than once I heard the astonishing claim that 'life was better during the Intifada' - the state of open warfare between the Palestinians and the Israeli authorities that was ended by Oslo.

The Oslo Accords were supposed to result in the treatment of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as a 'single territorial unit'. In fact, since 1993 freedom of movement has been increasingly restricted. The Wye deal guarantees safe passage between the two, but these promises have been made many times before, only to turn up again as bargaining chips in the next round of negotiations.

The Gaza Strip has, to all intents and purposes, been sealed off. This has devastated the social and economic life of Gaza, where unemployment now tops 50 per cent. It has also made the situation increasingly difficult for young Gazans who want to study at West Bank universities.

Many Gazans apply to West Bank universities, both because higher education provision in Gaza is poor and because, like many teenagers elsewhere, they want to leave home and gain some independence. Na'il, a student on my social sciences course, applied to Birzeit as the most prestigious university in Palestine. He was the first to get a place in higher education from his family of 14 who live in Jabaliya refugee camp. But once accepted at Birzeit he found his troubles were only just beginning.

Since 1989 Gazans have needed an Israeli-issued magnetic strip card (which stores information about 'security' and movements) in order to leave Gaza. To travel to the West Bank (a distance of about 100 kilometres) they need a permit that allows them to move across Israel. On top of this, Gazans need a residency permit to stay for an extended period in the West Bank (and vice versa): three separate permits to go to university.

Problems exist at all stages of this process. Magnetic strip cards are arbitrarily confiscated at the checkpoints out of Gaza, and permits for travel across Israel are often valid for a very short time. But the residency permits cause the most trouble. They are granted by the Civil Administration, which oversees Israel's occupation of the territories. Applicants are subjected to lengthy 'security checks' with apparently random outcomes. Some students refused permits on 'security' grounds are later cleared, but there is no right to appeal; 'security' information cannot be contested for 'security' reasons. Even at the end of this process permits may take months or even a year to materialise.

Na'il lost his first semester while waiting for his permit to arrive. Eventually he, like many others, decided it was better to travel illegally. He used a friend's ID card to enter Jerusalem, thinking it was better to wait for the elusive permit somewhere he could at least begin his studies. However, after returning to Gaza for the summer and reapplying for permission he lost the first semester of the next year waiting. When the Gaza Strip was closed following bomb attacks in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem all permits were cancelled and Na'il lost yet another semester.

By this point, having completed only one semester in two years, Na'il gave up on the system. He was fortunate and managed to get smuggled out of Gaza by Palestinian police sympathetic to his situation. Other students travel first to Egypt, then to Jordan in order to enter the West Bank. Some hide under trucks. While I was at university there, a group of new students arrived who had managed to cut through the electric fences at Erez checkpoint on the border between Gaza and Israel.

But once in the West Bank students are daily at risk from arrest and 'deportation' back to Gaza. After explosions in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in 1996 the Israeli army launched night raids on the villages where Birzeit students live. They arrested 280 students, 40 of whom were Gazan. One of the students was imprisoned for 18 months for being in the West Bank illegally, and the others found themselves back in Gaza the next day. When the Israeli authorities crack down like this many students literally take to the hills, living rough in the olive groves and terraces.

The Gazan students' situation seems unlikely to improve under the new deal. Just a week after the signing of the new agreement Arafat's Palestinian Authority police were making good their commitments to Israel, not only clamping down on supporters of Hamas (and placing their wheelchair-bound spiritual leader Sheikh Yassin under house arrest), but even raiding Arafat's own Fatah faction headquarters in Ramallah in an attempt to confiscate weapons. Meanwhile, Israel is to build 20 new military bases in those areas of the West Bank where it maintains full control.

Against the odds life goes on in the West Bank; but occupation is occupation, no matter who administers it.

Reproduced from LM issue 116, December 1998/January 1999



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