On one side of a barbed-wire fence here in the southern Hebron hills is the Bedouin village of Umm al-Kheir, where Palestinians live in ramshackle tents and huts. They aren’t allowed to connect to the electrical grid, and Israel won’t permit them to build homes, barns for their animals or even toilets. When the villagers build permanent structures, the Israeli authorities come and demolish them, according to villagers and Israeli human rights organizations.
On the other side of the barbed wire is the Jewish settlement of Karmel, a lovely green oasis that looks like an American suburb. It has lush gardens, kids riding bikes and air-conditioned homes. It also has a gleaming, electrified poultry barn that it runs as a business.
Elad Orian, an Israeli human rights activist, nodded toward the poultry barn and noted: “Those chickens get more electricity and water than all the Palestinians around here.”
It’s fair to acknowledge that there are double standards in the Middle East, with particular scrutiny on Israeli abuses. After all, the biggest theft of Arab land in the Middle East has nothing to do with Palestinians: It is Morocco’s robbery of the resource-rich Western Sahara from the people who live there.
None of that changes the ugly truth that our ally, Israel, is using American military support to maintain an occupation that is both oppressive and unjust. Israel has eased checkpoints this year — a real improvement in quality of life — but the system is intrinsically malignant.
B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization that I’ve long admired, took me to the southern Hebron hills to see the particularly serious inequities Palestinians face here. Apparently because it covets this area for settlement expansion, Israel has concocted a series of feeble excuses to drive out Palestinians from villages here or make their lives so wretched that they leave on their own.
“It’s an ongoing attempt by the authorities to push people out,” said Sarit Michaeli, a B’Tselem spokeswoman.
In the village of Tuba, some Palestinian farmers live in caves off the grid because permanent structures are destroyed for want of building permits that are never granted. The farmers seethe as they struggle to collect rainwater while a nearby settlement, Maon, luxuriates in water piped in by the Israeli authorities.
“They plant trees and gardens and have plenty of water,” complained Ibrahim Jundiya, who raises sheep and camels in Tuba. “And we don’t even have enough to drink. Even though we were here before them.”
Mr. Jundiya said that when rainwater runs out, his family must buy tankers of water at a price of $11 per cubic meter. That’s at least four times what many Israelis and settlers pay.
Violent clashes with Israeli settlers add to the burden. In Tuba, Palestinian children walking to elementary school have sometimes been attacked by Israeli settlers. To protect the children, foreign volunteers from Christian Peacemaker Teams and Operation Dove began escorting the children in the 2004-05 school year — and then settlers beat the volunteers with chains and clubs, according to human rights reports and a news account from the time.
Attacks on foreign volunteers get more attention than attacks on Palestinians, so the Israeli Army then began to escort the Palestinian children of Tuba to and from elementary school. But the soldiers don’t always show up, the children say, and then the kids take an hour and a half roundabout path to school to avoid going near the settlers.
For their part, settlers complain about violence by Palestinians, and it’s true that there were several incidents in this area between 1998 and 2002 in which settlers were killed. Partly because of rock-throwing clashes between Arabs and Israelis, the Israeli Army often keeps Palestinians well away from Israeli settlements — even if Palestinian farmers then cannot farm their own land.
Meanwhile, the settlements continue to grow, seemingly inexorably — and that may be the most odious aspect of the occupation.
In other respects, some progress is evident. Mr. Orian’s Israeli aid group — Community, Energy and Technology in the Middle East — has installed windmills and solar panels to provide a bit of electricity for Palestinians kept off the grid. And attacks from settlers have dropped significantly, in part because B’Tselem has equipped many Palestinian families with video cameras to document and deter assaults.
Still, a pregnant 19-year-old Palestinian woman in the village of At-Tuwani was hospitalized this month after an attack by settlers.
Israel has a point when it argues that relinquishing the West Bank would raise real security concerns. But we must not lose sight of the most basic fact about the occupation: It’s wrong.