In bars and cafes across Israel, the air is thick with cannabis smoke. For years, smoking weed has been socially permissible in Israel despite being technically illegal. Patio tables in cities like Tel Aviv are dotted with people openly rolling joints and lighting up without a second thought. Ironically, smoking pot is tolerated in more public places in Israel than in countries like Canada, where recreational cannabis is legal. In Israel’s trendy cafes and middle-class Jewish neighborhoods, police often turn a blind eye.
As is true of many of the freedoms enjoyed by Israeli citizens, however, the open consumption of cannabis stops at Israel’s separation wall, beyond which Palestinians are economically, militarily, and legally denied many of their most basic rights.
While there is a budding cannabis culture in the West Bank — tobacco stores there openly sell weed paraphernalia like rolling papers and grinders — Palestinians, who live under military rule, face serious legal jeopardy if they are caught firing up.
In the dusty occupied hills west of the Jordan River, segregation shapes the smoking experience of Palestinians as much as every other aspect of Palestinian life. For Israelis, the police’s relaxed attitude toward weed carries over to the occupied West Bank. Rather than face military justice, Israelis living in Jewish West Bank settlements are protected by an entire legal system built on inequities so rife that it has contributed to Israel being accused of the crime of running an “apartheid” system.
“This is done as part of a comprehensive policy to privilege one people at the expense of another.”
The disparity in treatment for Palestinians and Israelis when it comes to cannabis constitutes a facet of this system that might be called weed apartheid. A Palestinian and Israeli breaking the same law in the same place in the West Bank, for instance, will be dealt with by different security forces and processed in different legal systems.
“You have an underlying reality in which Jewish Israelis, no matter where they live, are governed under a single regime and have the same legal rights,” said Omar Shakir, Human Rights Watch’s Israel and Palestine director, “while at the same time Palestinians living in the same territory are governed under different sets of legal rules.”
Shakir was deported from Israel because of his work with Human Rights Watch, an organization that has accused Israel of the crime of apartheid. He said the discrepancies in legal treatment of Palestinians and Israelis in the occupied territories for minor crimes such as cannabis possession stand as an embodiment of Israel’s system of segregation.
Israel, he said, “has to use creative legal mechanics to apply criminal law individually to Jewish Israelis living in a territory, while Palestinians living in the same territory are governed under draconian military law.” He added, “This is done as part of a comprehensive policy to privilege one people at the expense of another.”
Even former Israeli military officers acknowledge the reality of the dual legal systems for cannabis. “In many circumstances there is parallel jurisdiction and then it is a question of policy as to where that is applied,” said Lt. Col Attorney Maurice Hirsch, a top official at the right-wing group Palestinian Media Watch, who served as Israel’s chief military prosecutor from 2013 to 2017.
Hirsch was the top lawyer in a system in which cases get argued in front of military officers rather than civilian judges and convictions can send Palestinians civilians to military prisons. He contends that much of the time, however, a Palestinian arrested for cannabis in a case where there is no perceived Israeli victim will be handed over to the Palestinian Authority police.
The former prosecutor gave an example of two people in the West Bank, an Israeli and a Palestinian, who get caught with cannabis. “The Israeli will be subject to a fine according to whatever the process may be,” said Hirsch, who also served as legal council for the right-wing pro-Israel organization NGO Monitor. “The Palestinian will not be dealt with by the Israeli law enforcement.”
The Oslo Accords split the West Bank into three areas. Roughly two-thirds of the West Bank is Area C, under full Israeli control. Area B is divided between Israeli security and Palestinian administrative control. Area A, which denotes major Palestinian population centers, falls under the administrative and security control of the Palestinian Authority, the body that administers limited Palestinian self-rule in the occupied territory.
In practice, however, the bifurcated legal system exists across the West Bank: Israel’s military can operate freely in all parts of the territory, regardless of who’s officially in charge, which means that Palestinians in Area A can still be subject to Israeli military law. Israeli civilians, on the other hand, are always subject to Israel’s civil justice system; even if they are detained by Palestinian police, they cannot be prosecuted by the Palestinian Authority and must instead be handed over to the Israeli authorities.
While Palestinians can be handed over by Israeli forces to the Palestinian Authority, for more serious drug offenses considered to have an impact on Israel — like cannabis smuggling or large-scale cultivation — they are likely to end up in military court where conviction is almost a forgone conclusion. (The Israeli military, Israeli national police force, and Palestinian Authority police all declined to comment for this article or provide any statistics on cannabis-related offenses.)
No matter which system they end up in, Palestinians charged with cannabis-related crimes face harsh sentences. Hirsch noted with pride that the Palestinian Authority’s stiff anti-drug laws are taken from Israeli military law. Palestinians charged with minor possession by the Palestinian Authority, for instance, regularly face three- to six-month prison sentences.
For Palestinians, weed apartheid in the West Bank is all downside. Not only do they live under a harsher criminal justice regime for cannabis, but access to quality bud is also a complicated process. Ali, a 30-year-old West Bank Palestinian who asked that his real name not be used for fear of legal repercussions, used to rely on friends from occupied East Jerusalem to connect to a dealer and then risk crossing a checkpoint to bring him the contraband.
Because Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, along with Palestinian citizens of Israel, are allowed to travel freely between the West Bank and Israel, they had access to the same weed as Jewish Israelis. Palestinians from the West Bank, however, need permits to cross the checkpoints that separate them from both East Jerusalem and Israel.
When Ali became fed up with choosing between the risk and the inconsistency of the product, he decided to grow himself. Saving seeds found at the bottom of a few eighth bags, he grew plants in his closet and then crossbred his own strain called “Umm Ali” — denoting a familial relationship in Arabic — with a mix of other strains. “I know of at least three people who are growing. Most are just growing plants in their windows,” Ali said. “It’s more stable than dealing with dealers.”
Palestinians aren’t the only ones growing on the West Bank. Because the Palestinians can’t prosecute Israelis, some have set up major grow-ops in Palestinian Authority-controlled cities like Ramallah, Qalqilya, Hebron, and Jenin to serve Israeli — but not Palestinian — market demands. When the Palestinian Authority busts these West Bank grow-ops, it is often only the Palestinians involved who face consequences. Without repercussions, the Israelis soon return to reestablish their operations.
“They can bust the grow-ops, but they are back a week later because the PA can’t prosecute them,” said Ali.
The Palestinian police’s penchant for abuses often helps get the Israeli growers off the hook, Ali suggested. “Even if the PA gives the Israelis all the evidence,” Ali said, “the people can just say they were tortured or beaten up by the PA.” Hirsch, the prosecutor, acknowledged that Israeli courts have often thrown out evidence provided against Israelis by the Palestinian Authority for not meeting Israel’s civilian court standards.
The Palestinian court system, however, has fewer safeguards to enforce evidentiary standards, so the Palestinians caught up in the busts can still face consequences.
Pulling up on the East Jerusalem side of the Qalandia checkpoint with a car full of weed, Arik parked in the shadow of Israel’s wall, the hulking barrier separating the areas of Israeli civilian control from those administered under military authority. Arik is a cog in an online machine that provides hundreds of thousands of cannabis consumers in Israel — and its West Bank settlements — with recreational bud.
With a few clicks on their phone on Telegrass, a series of channels on the encrypted chat app Telegram, and an hour’s wait, Israelis can access a dealer with the strain of their choice.
“We go everywhere in Israel.”
Arik came to the checkpoint because it was as close to Ramallah as he was willing to go for a sale. Requesting anonymity because dealing cannabis is illegal, Arik described his last trip to Ramallah: He had arrived armed in an Israeli military jeep to carry out a nighttime arrest raid. His trip via Telegrass, though, was his first time to one of Israel’s main checkpoints for Palestinians. Palestinians have no such luxury: The checkpoints are a mainstay of their lives, whether they are from East Jerusalem and can travel freely, or from the West Bank and lucky enough to have a permit to go to Israel proper.
“I don’t cross the wall,” said Arik, glancing at a tall, concrete watchtower while placing three 10-gram Ziplock bags of indicia and sativa strains on the front seat of his car. The passing military jeeps — just like those he used to ride in — don’t faze Arik, even though the soldiers would clearly see his cannabis if they’d just glance over. “Delivering to the West Bank is too dangerous for Israelis.”
Though Arik earnestly believes that he doesn’t cross the wall and that he doesn’t travel to the West Bank, it’s not exactly true. He will deliver to settlements. The Israeli Jewish colonies in the West Bank are considered illegal by the international community but are treated by Israel as part of the country.
Arik uses checkpoints designed for Israeli settlers rather than Palestinian traffic and, once in the West Bank, mostly takes segregated roads that exclusively serve Israelis. To him, the 900 Israeli shekels total — about $280 — he gets for the bags of gorilla glue, pink kush, and purple skunk is an Israeli transaction inside Israel — whether it’s a sale to settlers in the West Bank, occupied East Jerusalem, or in Israel itself. He said, “We go everywhere in Israel.”
The lush green buds covered in frosty crystals that can be ordered up on Telegras represent a major cannabis culture shift in Israel. Not much more than a decade ago, most of the cannabis came in the form of traditional bricks of hashish, shipped along clandestine Arab-world trade routes and arriving in the hands of neighborhood dealers.
That started to change in 2010, recalled Ben Hartman, an Israeli American journalist who has written extensively about cannabis in Israel. Then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government began a campaign to keep African asylum-seekers from entering the country, leading to a refortification of Israel’s southern border with Egypt. Hartman explained how during this time, a border fence popped up along the desert frontier with Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. The increased patrols not only shut out desperate refugees fleeing persecution in Sudan and Eritrea, but also curtailed the trade in hash from Egypt.
Supply of the notorious Lebanese blond and red hashish had decreased considerably following the end of Israel’s occupation in southern Lebanon in 2000, and then again after the 2006 war between the countries. A clandestine cross-border trade has continued on a small scale — bags of hash thrown over the northern fence, and bags of cash tossed back — but the smuggling routes in the south and the north of Israel mostly dried up. Suddenly, Israeli and Palestinian dealers lacked the stock to keep their customers satisfied. Prices soared, and Israelis began looking for alternatives.
Weed has long been a part of life in Israel, though historically it had been low quality and full of seeds. By the time the hash drought hit, strong, flavorful strains from the U.S. were beginning to appear in Tel Aviv. At the same time, Israel’s medical cannabis industry was expanding and the herb it provided increasingly made its way into the underground recreational market.
The large outdoor growers and their indoor counterparts took their horticultural inspiration from the best cultivators in California, said Hartman: “They saw what people were into and wanted to be part of it.”
The replacement of brown hash bricks with fresher, more pungent cannabis wasn’t complete without the revolution in distribution. Until Telegras started in 2017, finding a source required connections to dealers in one’s area. Now, a would-be stoner can summon top-notch weed from dealers on a mobile phone.
Scoring pot is considerably more complicated for Palestinians in the occupied territories. Like Arik, most Telegras dealers won’t serve West Bank Palestinians while Gaza — whose residents have been besieged by Israel for the last 15 years — is off limits to all Israelis. Instead, these customers do things the old-fashioned way: either through neighborhood dealers or by relying on person-to-person hookups in Palestinian border communities or the impoverished refugee camps for Palestinians whose families were dispossessed in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.
Working-class, ghettoized communities that are mostly under the policing jurisdiction of Israel’s army, refugee camps in the West Bank are aggressively raided to curb political activity and armed resistance. They are also known to young, middle-class Palestinians as places where security forces turn more of a blind eye to drugs.
Palestinians in the West Bank are increasingly yearning for leafy green buds, but the compressed resin of hash remains popular. The unchanged distribution system plays a large role in the throwback appetites.
Zeina, a Palestinian in her early 30s who requested anonymity so she wouldn’t be targeted for arrest, has been sparking up around Ramallah since her teens. She only switched from hash to bud just over a year ago, first turning to her friends in East Jerusalem to hook her up. The expansion over the last few years of local Palestinian growers cultivating weed for the Palestinian market also facilitated her switch because she became able to grab grass in both the West Bank and through East Jerusalem.
“My biggest issue was always being caught by the Israelis. If you are arrested, you will have to deal with the military and then also the Palestinians.”
For years, Zenia would send a friend to Anata, a village that borders Jerusalem, or the Qalandia refugee camp on the West Bank side of the wall, to grab a stick of hash. She studiously avoided direct contact with her dealer; she feared that, since the village and camp were subject to regular raids, her number might be found in his phone.
“My biggest issue was always being caught by the Israelis,” she said in her friend’s Ramallah living room, puffing on a joint of strong weed cut with rolling tobacco. “If you are arrested, you will have to deal with the military and then also the Palestinians” — the Palestinian Authority police.
Over the years, the Palestinian Authority alienated many Palestinians through its continued cooperation with Israel’s military, but its anti-drug campaigns still enjoy broad public support. Zeina said that she used to be comfortable smoking the odd joint on a quiet street. Since a crackdown in recent years on both political opposition and cannabis use, she has become nervous to smoke even in private apartments, insisting on keeping the curtains closed.
The Palestinian Authority creates and distributes leaflets that stigmatize cannabis users as lacking religion, coming from broken homes, and being uneducated. The police and courts frequently seek to make an example of arrested smokers and dealers. Yet perhaps the most resonant piece of official Palestinian anti-weed propaganda is that using or selling cannabis is an act of collaboration with Israel and helps the occupier. The message from Palestinian leadership — grounded in Israel’s modus operandi — is that arrested dealers and smokers can be easily blackmailed into collaborating with Israel.
For Ali, however, growing and smoking is an act of resistance to an apartheid system run by Israel and subcontracted to the Palestinian Authority. “Fuck their checkpoints, fuck their system, and fuck them controlling us,” he said. His grow operation stands as a rejection of differentiated rights based on ID and nationality; if Israelis can enjoy an easygoing approach to weed, so can he.
For Zeina, the carefree feeling is more fleeting. The only time she can get baked in public without feeling like she has to look over her shoulder is when she sneaks inside Israel’s pre-1967 border — leaving the territories considered occupied by international law. On that side of Israeli barriers, Zeina goes to bars run by Palestinian citizens of Israel in the mixed Israeli city of Haifa. Just as Israelis can smoke freely at bars there, so too can Palestinians. The feeling, however, ends the instant she leaves the bar and encounters the racism Palestinians experience amid Jewish Israeli society.
The temporary reprieve, though, is not freedom for her, especially when traveling to Haifa without an Israeli permit carries far greater risks. Rather, Zeina demands the right to smoke what she pleases as part of the struggle for self-determination and equality, not a regional privilege determined by her occupier.
“They are freedoms we want, too, but in our context,” she said. “I don’t want the freedom they are giving me as a colonial power.”
Correction: October 30, 2022, 10:05 a.m. ET
This story has updated to reflect that Maurice Hirsch is the former lawyer for the group NGO Monitor and currently works for Palestinian Media Watch.