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Country profile: Palestine

Palestinian activist Ahed Tamini is depicted on the ‘separation wall’
– she was imprisoned after slapping an Israeli soldier.  JENNY MATTHEWS/PANOS

A sign on an empty building in the West Bank city of Hebron declares, ‘this land was stolen by Arabs’. The notice was hung there by the Jewish residents of a nearby settlement, but similar signs proliferate across the region – Hebrew designations supplanting Arabic place names along the freeway to Jerusalem or maps that give illegal settlements equal prominence to historic Palestinian towns. It is against such efforts to abrogate the existence of a place called Palestine – and of Palestinians themselves – that the fragmented entity now known as the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) has struggled to assert its statehood.

A project set up and financed by the artist Banksy:
a giant key symbol, referring to homes lost by Palestinians, marks the entrance to Aina refugee camp. 

One hundred years ago, the British government was sent a receipt by its first High Commissioner for the territory to acknowledge that he had been mandated ‘one Palestine, complete’. The handover reflected one of many colonial betrayals of Arab aspirations to independence that saw Palestine’s territorial integrity dismantled over the following century. The 1917 Balfour Declaration had vouched British support for ‘the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people’ – a goal realized in 1948 with the declaration of the state of Israel.

The decades since Oslo have left little room for either diplomacy or Palestinian sovereignty

The ‘Nakba’ (‘catastrophe’), as this event is known among Palestinians, marked the beginning of a continuing project of dispossession. Over 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes, with the ensuing Arab-Israeli war forging modern political faultlines in the region. At its conclusion, the 1949 ‘Green Line’ laid down the borders between Israel and the West Bank and Gaza Strip, dividing Jerusalem. A concurrent UN resolution affirmed the right of displaced Palestinians to ‘return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours’.

Many Palestinians can still show you the rusting iron house keys they have retained as emblems of this right, though Israel’s invasion of territories across the Green Line in the 1967 Six Day War further dashed such prospects. Another generation was driven into exile as Israel cemented its occupation. Its curfews, routine raids, detentions, land-grabs and housing demolitions have amounted to a system of daily abuse and degradation for Palestinians, with some 1.5 million displaced to refugee camps in neighbouring states, the West Bank and Gaza.

Packing olive oil for export at the Canaan fair-trade organic processing plant. JENNY MATTHEWS/PANOS

It was in such camps that the seeds of the first Intifada or ‘uprising’ were sown in 1987. The means of resistance were various, from mass civil disobedience to stone-throwing youths, but it was diplomatic pressure that finally brought Israel to the negotiating table in 1991. The Oslo agreement saw Israel agree to a gradual withdrawal from the OPT and establishment of the Palestinian Authority with a view to a two-state solution.

The decades since Oslo – which have seen continued expansion of illegal settle­ments, accelerating land confiscation and property destruction, proliferating checkpoints, a second and bloodier Intifada, three large-scale military offensives in Gaza and construction of an illegal separation wall – have left little room for either diplomacy or Palestinian sovereignty.

Today, the so-called ‘deal of the century’ being touted as a peace plan by US President Trump looks like anything but a bargain, with Israeli PM Netanyahu's proposal to annex up to 30 per cent of the West Bank arguably the biggest threat to statehood Palestine has faced yet.

Palestinians may be more frustrated and dispirited than ever, but they are far from surrender. The global coronavirus pandemic saw them take to Twitter with characteristic black humour in messages such as ‘Dear World – how is the lockdown? Gaza’. Decades of occupation and de facto apartheid have made sumud or ‘steadfast perseverance’ among the most celebrated national traits. One can only hope Palestinians will retain a land on which a rich and historic culture can be practised beyond the terms of mere survival.



LEADER: Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian National Authority (PA). Ismail Haniyeh heads the Hamas administration in the Gaza Strip.

ECONOMY: GNI per capita $3,710 (Jordan $10,050, Israel $40,930).
Monetary unit: New Israeli Shekel. The Jordanian Dinar is also used in trading.
Main exports: Building materials, iron, furniture, plastics, vegetable and olive oil.

Palestine’s export regime is governed by restrictions imposed by Israel and the country remains its main trading partner. Palestine’s economy remains heavily reliant on international aid while Israeli land restrictions in the West Bank cut its GDP by an estimated $3.4 billion per year.

PEOPLE: West Bank and Gaza Strip: 5 million. Population annual growth rate: 2.41%. People per square kilometre: 794 (UK 271). Gaza is one of the world’s most densely populated polities.

HEALTH: Infant mortality: 17 per 1,000 live births (Jordan 14, Israel 3). Maternal mortality per 100,000 live births: 27 (Jordan 46, Israel 3). While overall HIV prevalence rates are undocumented, the high mortality rate among HIV-positive patients is of serious concern.

ENVIRONMENT: Palestine’s unique and productive environment has been neglected under the PA and more seriously jeopardized by the Israeli occupation through land confiscation and settlement-building, depletion of water resources, denial of access to agricultural lands, displacement and rapid population growth, wastewater pollution and desertification.

RELIGION: The majority of Palestine’s population is Sunni Muslim (93%), with a sizeable Christian minority (6%) and smaller Ahmadiyya, Druze and Samaritan communities. Most Arab Jews relinquished their Palestinian identity with the founding of the state of Israel.

LANGUAGE: Arabic (Levantine dialect) is Palestine’s native language, with small pockets of Aramaic, Samarian and other minorities. English is widely spoken, while migration and illegal settlement have brought Hebrew and other languages to the West Bank.

HUMAN DEVELOPMENT INDEX: 0.690, 119th of 189 countries (Jordan 0.723, Israel 0.906).


Packing olive oil for export at the Canaan fair-trade organic processing plant; 11-year-old Rehan helps with the family’s olive harvest in Anine village. JENNY MATTHEWS/PANOS
11-year-old Rehan helps with the family’s olive harvest in Anine village. JENNY MATTHEWS/PANOS


Country ratings in detail

Income distribution ★★✩✩✩ Poverty in Palestine is on the rise, with rates increasing by more than 10 per cent over the past decade. Some 14% of West Bank Palestinians and 52% of Gazans live below the poverty line, and the pandemic is forecast to inflate these ratios to 30% and 64%. Around one quarter overall live in a state of food insecurity.
Literacy ★★★★★ Palestine has one of the highest literacy rates in the world, at more than 96%. Education has served as a major source of empowerment, with literacy up by 10% since the 1990s. But Palestine’s education system is floundering, largely from the effects of occupation.
Life expectancy ★★★★✩ 74 years (Jordan 74, Israel 83).
Freedom ★✩✩✩✩ Palestinians as a population are subject to severe restrictions on freedom of movement, political organizing and access to religious worship, as well as routine assault, political detention and unrelenting surveillance by Israeli security forces. Politics in the OPT remains shackled to Israel. The increasingly repressive rule of the Islamist Hamas party that seized control of Gaza in 2007, alongside corruption and collaboration by Fatah leaders in the West Bank, have redoubled the burdens of occupation. Even before the current radical annexation plan, the PA has severely limited administrative control over the occupied West Bank, swathes of which remain under Israeli jurisdiction.
Position of women ★★✩✩✩ Despite the social visibility of Palestinian women and girls, there is a vast disparity when it comes to their formal rights and equality (access to abortion, for example, remains illegal). Occupation and humanitarian crises have exacerbated existing gender inequalities.
Sexual minorities ★★✩✩✩ LGBTQI communities in Palestine bear the brunt of social and religious conservatism with no form of legal protection (in fact, retrograde British Mandate laws still applied in Gaza criminalize male same-sex activity.)

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