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Israel’s Open-Aired Prison and Parallels under the Azerbaijani Regime

23 January 2023
Sofia Gevorgian

With its only entrances and exits to Israel effectively blocked by the Israeli government, Gaza has been dubbed “the world’s largest open-air prison.” Israeli armed forces also man hundreds of checkpoints to hinder movement in the West Bank of Palestine, isolating these two populations within de jure Israel. Similarly, nearly 1500 km away, Azerbaijani authorities, hand-in-hand with the Russian government, have created a trap and fueled a humanitarian crisis similar to that of the Palestinians. Only here, they are targeting, blockading, and ethnically cleansing Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh, indigenously called “Artsakh,” thus creating the largest open-air prison by land area.

The land of Israel has undergone a series of demographic changes from holding a Jewish majority until the 5th century C.E., to a Christian majority in the 12th century C.E., to a Muslim majority until 1947, and then a Jewish majority upon the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.

In response to anti-Semitic behavior in Europe in the late 19th century rose Zionism, the concept of establishing a Jewish state in the land of Israel. However, a distinct culture of Palestinian Arabs were living in that region, called “Palestine,” under Ottoman rule. With the crumbling of the Ottoman Empire after WWI, Britain occupied this land in 1918 and created Mandatory Palestine. Having previously established the Balfour Declaration, Britain then began facilitating the immigration of Jewish people to this region. In 1947, the UN adopted the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine that partitioned the Palestine Mandate to create an independent Jewish state, independent Arab state, and a special international status for Jerusalem.

However, Arab leaders rejected this proposal as it violated their right to self-determination, and so an Arab military coalition invaded this land, starting the Arab-Israeli war of 1948. Here, Israeli forces pushed past the Partition Plan’s borders of a Jewish state and took nearly 60% of what was designated to the Arab state, as well as a portion of Jerusalem. Titled “Nakba,” this “Catastrophe” marks the expulsion of 700,000 Palestinians from their homes and the destruction of 500 of their villages.

In 1967, amid tensions between Arab nations and Israel, Israel launched the Six-Day-War when it seized Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, Palestine’s West Bank and Eastern Jerusalem (under Jordanian control), and Syria’s Golan Heights. In 2005, Israeli forces pulled out of Gaza militarily during the Disengagement, so Israel does not consider Gaza occupied. However, it has imposed sanctions, has control over Gaza’s airspace and territorial waters, and most notably, controls the only crossing between Gaza and Israel, allowing for frequent closings, rejection of permits, and isolating it from all tourists. Thus, Gaza is under blockade.

Today, the UNSC and the world’s highest court, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), refer to lands under post-1967 Israeli control in the West Bank and East Jerusalem as “the Occupied Palestinian Territory.” Since 1967, the Israeli government and companies have been building settlements in these territories to further ingrain the standing of Jewish people over those lands. These settlements are illegal under international law, for instance, Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which states “the Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.” But still, little has been done to stop this expansion. Instead, Israeli Defense Forces are deployed in these regions of settlement to protect the Jewish people as they move into or destroy Palestinian homes, further increasing tensions. Moreover, many international organizations support these settlements, especially 80% of Evangelical Christians based in the U.S. who believe the Bible says that the Battle of Armageddon will begin only when God’s chosen people return to their land (VICE).

The constant strife between Palestinians and Israeli authorities, both political and physical, has only bred instability. In 2021, violence erupted after Palestinian families were to be evicted from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem; Palestinians threw rocks at Israeli police during protests, and then the Israeli stormed Al-Aqsa Mosque with tear gas, rubber bullets, and stun grenades, highlighting the stark power imbalance between Arabs and Israelis in Israel. Most recently on December 30, 2022, the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution calling the ICJ to assess the “legal consequences arising from the ongoing violation by Israel of the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination.” In response, Israel revoked the Palestinian National Authorities FM’s VIP travel permit, and the Israel security minister has also banned “Palestinian flag-flying in public” (The Guardian). Israel maintains that it is necessary to defend themselves from the terrorist organization Hamas, which is the militant ruling-authority of Gaza, but that viewpoint has led to the decisive mistreatment of Palestinians in both Gaza and the West Bank.

The world highly commends Israel for its innovation, strength, and democracy while largely discounting Israeli expansion into Palestinian lands and slandering of Palestinian rights, especially in terms of housing, security, and freedom. In parallel, Azerbaijan, a close friend of Israel, is following in its footsteps.

Ever since Europe weaned itself of Russian gas post the invasion of Ukraine, oil-rich Azerbaijan has risen to fill its void. However, while being praised as a “reliable energy supplier” who “will be a crucial partner for our [European] security of supply” (Ursula von der Leyen), Azerbaijan, which has a Freedom House freedom index lower than Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, has managed to distract the world from its horrific human rights violations of Armenians in Armenia and Artsakh.

2023 map of Artsakh in yellow

The Republic of Artsakh is a de facto country east of Armenia and has held an indigenous ethnic-Armenian majority for thousands of years. This territory was incorporated in Azerbaijan SSR as the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO), and when the Soviet Union dissolved, NKAO declared independence under Article 2 of the Soviet Law of Secession. However, Azerbaijan SSR, and today, the Republic of Azerbaijan, rejected Artsakh’s independence and has since been pursuing control over this land through intimidation and physical force.

Three wars later, with the most recent being in 2020, Azerbaijan has taken over 40% of what was once NKAO, clearing these lands of Armenian history, churches, and also its people; like Israel pressures or outright evicts Palestinians from their homes, Azerbaijan does the same on lands it comes to capture. Pursuing its narrative that Azerbaijanis are the ones native to that region, their president Ilham Aliyev has gone as far to say that Armenia’s southern province Syunik, also called Zangezur, “is the land of our ancestors: the whole of Zangezur – East and West Zangezur. It is now being said in Armenia that Ilham Aliyev is making territorial claims…I said that it is the land of our ancestors, that we must return there, we will return and we are already returning there. No-one can stop us. We will definitely return, because there is no other way.”

The irredentism continues with brutality as they remove Armenians from lands under Azerbaijani control. In September 2022, Azerbaijan invaded sovereign Armenia, and there, executed 7 POWs. Also, looking at Artsakh, Hadrut is void of Armenians, but two years ago, it held an ethnic-Armenian majority, as it had for thousands of years; in 2020, Hadrut came under Azerbaijani rule, and immediately, their military killed the disabled, elderly couple who had not left their village.

While the Azerbaijani government on one hand claims that the people “conditions will be created for those who want to live under the flag of Azerbaijan” and that “like the citizens of Azerbaijan, their rights and security will be ensured,” it then turns with grandiose statements such as, “if they [Armenians] do not leave our lands of their own free will, we will chase them away like dogs and we are doing that.” A similarity can be seen with the Palestinians, for even when only looking at the last few years, “Israel killed five times as many Palestinians in 2022 than it killed in the same period in 2021” (Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor). In both regions, the minority population is consistently under attack by a much larger and stronger force.

However, the glaring parallel between these countries of Israel and Azerbaijan is their apartheid control by blockade. Israel has had Gaza under blockade for decades and thus controls Gaza’s resources, including the basic necessity of water, which according to Amnesty International, 90-95% of Gaza’s “water supply is contaminated and unfit for human consumption.”

Lachin Corridor (December 2022)

Since December 12, 2022 until at least the date of this publication, Azerbaijan, with Russia, has blockaded Artsakh from the rest of the world. After the 2020 war, Artsakh is surrounded by Azerbaijan and has a single road, the Lachin Corridor, connecting Artsakh to Armenia. As per the ceasefire agreement, this road would be manned by Russian peacekeepers. However, Azerbaijani citizens and military officers under the guise of “eco-activists” shut down this road, even with the irony of oil being Azerbaijan’s main export. This road is Artsakh’s lifeline; it facilitates transport of goods, fruits, vegetables, and medications to Artsakh. It is also the only road for civilian transportation since Azerbaijan has threatened to shoot down any planes landing in Artsakh.

Under the blockade, Artsakh is rationing electricity with rolling blackouts of 6 hours a day, and Azerbaijan has simultaneously taken to regularly cutting gas flow to Artsakh for extended periods of time, even as winter temperatures are below freezing. Due to a lack of access to medical care, a man has died, and the ICRC has managed to transfer only a few critical patients out of Artsakh to Armenia. Furthermore, as a result of the critical shortage of food, not only has the government implemented a coupon-rationing system, but schools and universities are also shut down due to supply shortages. Without the immediate opening of the Lachin Corridor, the 120,000 Artsakh citizens are inching toward an utter humanitarian disaster under a looming intent of ethnic cleansing. After all, Aliyev in January 2020 stated that “whoever does not want to become our citizen, the road is not closed, it is open. They can leave, they can go by themselves, no-one will hinder them…The road is open.”

Grocery stores empty of perishable fruits and vegetables in Artsakh (December 2022)

The world is failing to act and end the Artsakh blockade since Europe is relying on alternative sources of gas. However, they also fail to realize that Russia is still benefiting under sanctions. Azerbaijan is an ally of Russia; not only did they sign an agreement of deepening diplomatic and military cooperation two days prior to the invasion of Ukraine, but Azerbaijan is currently reselling Russia’s oil, hence avoiding sanctions through Azerbaijan.

Though Armenians have a historic presence in Israel, especially Jerusalem which holds an Armenian Quarter, there is a consistent badgering Armenians; vandalization of the churches or spitting at clergymen is commonplace. But most significantly, from 2016-2020, Israel accounted for 69% of Azerbaijan’s arms imports, which were crucial in Azerbaijan’s victory over Artsakh in 2020 (SIPRI).

Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem (January 2023)

Considering the current condition of Palestine, it is clear a power imbalance that has allowed the Israeli authorities to abuse their power, just as is the case with the Azerbaijani government. Accordingly, they will both continue to act with impunity unless global leaders act to protect minorities choking under pressure and practicing their right to self-determination.


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