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Western Sahara: intifada and occupation

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Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara has brought repression, but has also led to an intifada, says Jamal Khalil, a Saharawi activist
Issue 2066
The trappings of occupation can be seen even on the coast of Western Sahara
The trappings of occupation can be seen even on the coast of Western Sahara

The Moroccan government has occupied Western Sahara since 1975. It moved in following the withdrawal of Spanish colonial forces.

This was supposed to be the end of colonisation for the Saharawi and we were supposed to be given autonomy.

But Spain, Morocco and Mauritania made a secret pact to divide Western Sahara – with Morocco getting the northern half and Mauritania the southern half.

The Western Saharan Polisario organisation was created in 1973 to wage a military struggle against Spain. Now it had to fight against Morocco and Mauritania.

It was a liberation movement calling for the freedom of Saharan people.

Many Saharawis had been forced into neighbouring Algeria as refugees. There they built refugee camps, naming them after cities in Western Sahara.

They waged the war from the camps. In 1978 Mauritania signed a pact with Polisario to cede the southern parts of Western Sahara, but Morocco moved in to take over the whole of the country.

Polisario fought a war from 1979 to 1991 against Morocco. Then a peace process was launched that was supposed to lead to a referendum on Western Sahara.

But each time there has been an agreement on this, Morocco has tried to derail the process. There is an argument about who would be allowed to vote in a referendum.

Saharawis argue that a census made by the Spanish authorities before they left should be the basis of who is allowed to vote. But Morocco wants to include the settlers who have entered Western Sahara.

There are now 350,000 settlers in Western Sahara – twice the number of existing Saharawis. Morocco wants to keep control through changing the demographics.

Morocco has said that it will give limited autonomy to Western Sahara, but Saharawis want the right to self-determination.

The ongoing negotiations between Polisario and the Moroccan authorities are not very promising. If Morocco blocks the negotiations there seems to be no other way out than another round of war.

In May 2005 the Saharawi people launched the biggest intifada, or uprising, against the Moroccan authorities yet seen. It started in the capital Layoun but spread to the other cities


It continues today. Three or four times a week there are actions somewhere in the occupied territories.

People fight against the police, throwing stones, hanging Polisario flags – six hundred people have been imprisoned as a result.

But Morocco has faced a lot of pressure from international human rights groups, which has forced it to release prisoners.

There is also employment discrimination against Saharawis. The Moroccan settlers are given all of the jobs in the key phosphates and fishing industries. They control Western Sahara’s wealth.

During the disturbances the settlers help the police rather than staying neutral.

Morocco built a huge wall around Western Sahara, known as the “Sandwall” to stop Polisario guerrillas infiltrating the area. It also planted one million landmines.

Many in the population are nomads with animals. From time to time they die because of landmines.

Morocco is a US ally in the “war on terror”. Because of this George Bush’s government is pro-Morocco. There are promising reserves of oil in the Western Saharan territories.

This is one of the reasons why Morocco continues the occupation. The US has become involved because of the oil reserves.

The Saharawi people are living within a blockade. We call on the international community to safeguard our people’s rights.

The people of Britain should put pressure on Morocco to cease its violation of our human rights.

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