Targeting Palestinian children: broken legs, shattered futures

by the Bethlehem team, 

Imagine there are two 12-year old boys standing by the side of the road. Both pick up a similar size rock, and hurl it towards a passing tourist bus. Both have done wrong, there’s no doubt about that, but the consequences these two youngsters, from neighboring areas, may face will differ hugely, depending on their ethnicity and nationality.

16.11.15 Bethlehem, Tuqu, Military presence next to Tuqu school, Photo EAPPI/S. Rehell

16.11.15 Bethlehem, Tuqu, Military presence next to Tuqu school, Photo EAPPI/Suvi. R

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Khallet Annahlah: Israelis, Palestinians & Internationals Working Together Against the Occupation

EAs and members of Combatants for Peace walking together at the demonstration. Photo EAPPI/L. Hilton.

EAs and members of Combatants for Peace walking together at the demonstration. Photo EAPPI/L. Hilton.

by Liam, Bethlehem team

“Swiss Cheese land”

The Bethlehem Governorate is one of 16 administrative governorates in the West Bank. It covers an area of 658km2  with approximately 210,484 people as of 2014.

With the 1995 Oslo II Accord agreement, the West Bank was split into 3 non-contiguous areas with Area A (theoretically) in full Palestinian control and comprising 3% of the West Bank, Area B under Palestinian civil control but Israeli military control, 23-25% of the West Bank, and Area C completely under Israeli control, currently over 60% of the West Bank territory. This fragmentation, with some referring to the West Bank as “Swiss Cheese land”, was meant to be for an interim period of 5 years, until 1999, but the Bethlehem Governorate, as with all of the West Bank, is still divided, although with slightly different percentages, into these administrative “islands” of Areas A, B and C classification.

In addition, 10km2 of the Bethlehem Governorate have been illegally annexed by Israel as being within its “Greater Jerusalem” designation. This intricately complicated division, usually left not signposted, leaves only 13% of the 658km2 of the Bethlehem Governorate under full or partial Palestinian Authority control.

“A Palestinian Walking on their Own Land is a Demonstration”

What do these numbers mean in reality? Take Khallet Annahlah, a small rural village with rich fertile land close to Bethlehem. On the 16th April, one of our first duties within the Bethlehem team was to attend an incident there. We met with a local Palestinian nonviolent activist named Hassan, from the nearby village of Al-Masara, as well as members of Combatants for Peace (CfP), an Israeli and Palestinian organisation set up in 2005 from former combatants of both sides who have decided to relinquish their weapons and work together in nonviolent approaches towards ending the occupation and a just peace for both sides.

With Hassan & CfP, we walked on the farm of Mohammed Khalil where a new Israeli settler tent had appeared, in the land that he was born on and now fears will be confiscated – either by settlers or the Israeli authorities. The tent was put up in the middle of the day, with unabashed impunity, on a hill across from the already established “Blue Tent”, so-called due to the settler choice of colour. The first tent appeared 6 months ago and now has developed into a caravan-tent lodging big enough for one or two families.

Hassan then took us further along and we entered the farmland of Ziat Zenat though we couldn’t make out where his farm actually was as, on 11 April, the Israeli army bulldozed all of his stone terraces that were used to grow a variety of herbs, such as sage.

While speaking with Ziat, 3 Israeli settlers in a white car saw us on a hill opposite with binoculars and made a phone call. Within 10 minutes, 4 army vehicles had rushed on the scene, each full of soldiers – at least 13 in total – with the settlers following behind. The settlers and soldiers were all heavily-armed and the Commander of the soldier’s unit was seen laughing and shaking hands with the settler behind the wheel of the car. We have come to learn that it is not unusual to see soldiers and settlers fraternising together. A soldier, originating from Los Angeles who has been in Israel for 3 years, questioned us over our presence despite being with the landowner on his land, and accused Hassan of trying to do a demonstration.

Hassan protested:

“A Palestinian walking on their own land is a demonstration”.

A court case on the 24th April declared 300 dunams (3 hectares) of the area as “State Land” but this is currently under appeal so no action should have been taken by Israeli authorities to destroy Ziat’s stone terraces. The declaration of private Palestinian property as “State Land” is a former Ottoman-era policy used consistently by the Israeli authorities to claim large swathes of Area C in the West Bank if the State deems them to be “uncultivated” or without documented ownership.

According to the Israeli human rights NGO, B’tselem, only 9% of the total area of the West Bank (excluding East Jerusalem) was registered as being owned prior to Israeli occupation in 1967. Nonetheless, Israel defines “State Land” as being for the benefit of the local population, which would be Palestinian. However, since 1967, the Israeli Civil Administration own figures state that Palestinians have been allocated only 0.7% (860 hectares) of “State Land” in Area C whilst the World Zionist Organisation (WZO), which develops illegal settlements, has been allocated 31% (40,000 hectares). Approximately, 21% of the total West Bank defined as “State Land” (BT’Selem 2013); land that Palestinians have little hope of being authorised to utilise. In this way, Israeli authorities reappropriate land by misusing old laws whilst disregarding international laws regarding the occupier’s responsibilities to those occupied.

“A Demonstration without Media does not Exist”

On the 18th April, recognising the strategic importance of the area, a nonviolent demonstration was led by Combatants for Peace (CfP) member Udi with Hassan and other local Palestinians from the village to make a public statement of the illegality of the settler’s actions. When organising the demonstration, the local media are always invited to ensure that as many hear about it as possible.

CfP member, Larry, says:

“A demonstration which does not make the media, does not exist”.

An Israeli peace activist with Combatants for Peace joins the demonstration. Photo EAPPI/C. Holtan.

An Israeli peace activist with Combatants for Peace joins the demonstration. Photo EAPPI/C. Holtan.

The Israeli peace activists parked up on the road, blocking the entry to the land, and walked quickly over to the settler tent holding two Palestinian flags. Speed was of the essence as everyone knew how quickly the soldiers would be called out by the settlers. The white settler vehicle could be seen observing the demonstration and, again, within 15 minutes; the soldier’s jeeps could be seen driving towards us in the distance. Udi and the other Israeli peace activists placed the Palestinian flags over the settler tent to “reclaim” it, and its land, as Palestinian. Udi then announced through a megaphone that the settlers are on Palestinian land and that they are even outside of the artificial border Israel has created through building the Separation Barrier.

Observing the Israelis and Palestinians working together towards a common goal; it was possible to see that both members are equal with neither instructing the other – even if the law is not applied equally to them. Only Israelis can dare to place their cars blocking the road and risk putting a Palestinian flag over the settler tent because the soldiers only have jurisdiction over the Palestinians, who live under martial law, whilst the Israelis live under civil law which means that they fall under the authority of the Israeli police. This dual legal system over the same territory is inherently discriminatory and disenfranchises Palestinians.

Once the soldiers had reached the tent by foot, everyone was ordered to leave by 11am, and having achieved the objective, the demonstrators complied and returned to the village of Khallet Annahlah. Once returned, a soldier accused Hassan of assault using a word in Hebrew which is ambiguous as to whether it was a verbal or physical assault, and the soldiers seemed incensed at being prevented from stopping the demonstration. A member of CfP said that, for soldiers, “lying to them is an assault to the respect they expect”. They detained Hassan and attempted to arrest him but after an hour of negotiation by Israelis; the soldiers let Hassan go. It was clearly due to international presence and Israeli activist intervention that Hassan evaded arrest and the demonstration was a success.

Continued Protective Presence

We returned to Khallet Annahlah on 29 April, the same day settlers were ordered by the Israeli High Court to remove the illegal new tent there, to see Mohammad Ayesh, 55yrs old and his son Qasm, who own the farm next door to Ziat. Settlers had come the day before and tried to take Mohammad’s sheep and goats. He told them that they couldn’t take his animals but the settlers called the army and they detained him for 2 hours. The morning we went, at 9am, the settlers brought a horse and allowed it to eat the farmer’s crops and started constructing a barracks.

Mohammed has been fighting his case through the courts since 2004. All three farmers in the area have had their water cut off for 120 days and the Israeli authorities told their neighbour:

“We will give you water but only if you don’t associate with them [the three farmers]”.

On the 2 May, we returned once more after Mohammed had trees cut down by the Israeli authorities. Hassan explains the community’s response is a call to action:

“The settlers have taken 40 dunams, but that’s just a step on their way to take…the remaining 300 dunams [30 hectares]…We’ve decided to make non-violent and useful activities here together, to save the land”.

With the 3 families in their tiny rural village, it is easy to see the interconnected nature of the relentless number of incidents Palestinian farmers face in protecting their homes, land and livelihoods. It is also possible to see what a difference Israeli and internationals, such as yourselves, can make to ensure that their stories and acts of nonviolent demonstration are heard. CfP member Hillel told us:

“We know you [Ecumenical Accompaniers] come here and volunteer your time, working day and night, to help and we feel it’s something that we, as Israelis, should be doing. Thank you, we appreciate you”.

The Jordan Valley – The Strategy behind Demolitions and Displacement

Two villages were almost completely demolished.  These are only two of many villages facing demolition and a strategy of forced displacement in the Jordan Valley.

by Sarah, Yanoun team

Fadia demonstrating outside of the UNOCHA building in Ramallah. Photo EAPPI/S. Spiller.

Fadia addresses the protesters and journalists to tell her story of displacement. Photo EAPPI/S. Spiller.

Fadia is angry. Today, she came from Fasayel to Ramallah with many other villagers from the Jordan Valley to protest in front of the UNOCHA building to say. The Jordan Valley needs international attention. The Jordan Valley needs international support.

Since the failure of the peace negotiations and the decision of the Israeli High Court of Justice to include the Palestinians in the planning procedures in Area C, we have recorded an increased number of house demolitions all across the West Bank. We witnessed the ongoing harassment of two villages after they were almost completely demolished.

At-Tawayel: where to learn Sumud

140429_At-Twayel_ongoing house demolitions

Bulldozers pull down dwellings in At-Tawayel. Photo EAPPI/S. Spiller.

Sumud is the Arabic word meaning steadfastness or perseverance. The inhabitants of At-Tawayel / Tell Al-Khashaba embody Sumud.

In this village, five dwellings, a mosque and four animal shelters were demolished on the 29 April 2014. 300 troops and four bulldozers were deployed in order to leave 27 people, including 19 children under 17, without shelter. The tents the Palestinian Red Crescent Society (PRCS) provided on the same day were confiscated less than 2 weeks later on the 12 May 2014, when Israeli forces destroyed the three new built houses. The PRCS provided new tents, but the Israeli Civil Administration sent some representatives on the 18 May in order to take the tents away again, as well as the concrete mixer the villagers used for the renovation of the old buildings.

The people in At-Tawayel tell us that they have lived here for generations, and collapsed stone walls show a long history in this village.

A villager tells the EAs:

“We will die here in our right” emphasizing their determination not to abandon their land.

“We breed sheep, this is our main income.” he continues, “we cannot breed sheep in Aqraba [the nearby town]; there is no land for this there. All people here want to stay.”

Another essential aspect contributing to this Sumud is the solidarity At-Tawayel experiences from the inhabitants of the region. The people in Aqraba managed to raise about 320,000 Shekel to support the village and rebuild dwellings.

Abu Al-Ajaj: will despair finally get the upper hand?

On 21 May 2014, we received an emergency call came from Al-Jiftlik Abu Al-Ajaj, where Israeli authorities demolished 36 structures, leaving 52 people, of which 28 children, homeless as well as 4000 sheep and 15 calves without shelter. Another 12 people, including 3 children, where affected.

The farmers explain to the team that they had come from Hebron to live here in the 1970s.

We are peaceful people”, they say, “we breed sheep, this is our income.” Facing the disaster, Usama, one of the displaced people exclaims: “This area is not demolished; it is an earthquake of the democratic state [of Israel]!”.

Unlike in At-Twayel, the villagers in Abu Al-Ajaj still seem under shock when the team visits them some days later. They seem not to find the energy to stand up to the violence anymore. An old man continues to ask what to do: leave or stay?

On call for UNOCHA, the EAs visit Abu Al-Ajaj on a daily basis for a week and witness great fear of further demolitions among the villagers. This fear also prevents them even to set up some improvised shelter. In May, the temperatures rise already much in the Jordan Valley, and neighbouring villages provide water tanks. Unfortunately, the water is not enough to cover also the animals’ needs; lambs and goatkids die under the burning sun and the eyes of helpless locals and internationals.

Eviction Strategy in Area C

The affected and threatened villages are all situated in Area C, which is under complete control of the Israeli authorities and covers about 60% of the West Bank. The demolitions are often justified because they affect so called “illegal constructions”, though, according to B’Tselem, the Israeli authorities rejected the vast majority of applications for building permits in Area C submitted by Palestinians: “From 2009 through 2012, a total of 1,640 applications were submitted. Only 37 – a mere 2.3% – were approved”; which means that the Palestinians living in Area C have almost no possibilities to build housing and animal shelters legally.

An emergency tent shelter provided by PRCS. Even these are being destroyed and confiscated by Israeli authorities. Photo EAPPI/S. Spiller.

An emergency tent shelter provided by PRCS. Even these are being destroyed and confiscated by Israeli authorities. Photo EAPPI/S. Spiller.

In his article published on the 20 May 2014 in the Wall Street Journal, the Israeli economy minister Naftali Bennet reveals the strategy behind this intended impediment of expansion of the Palestinian population:

Annexing Area C would limit conflict by reducing the size of the territory in dispute, which would make it easier to one day reach a long-term peace agreement.

Col. Einav Shalev, operations officer of Central Command and a subcommittee of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, reportedly explained how this was to be done:

Military training in live-fire zones in the West Bank is used as a way of reducing the number of Palestinians living nearby, and serves as an important part of the campaign against Palestinian illegal construction.

Thus it becomes obvious that the recorded demolitions are part of a whole strategy aiming at the eviction of the Palestinian population from Area C.

A System Working Against International Humanitarian Law

At-Twayel and Abu Al-Ajaj are only 2 examples among many communities which have faced repeated demolitions in the Jordan Valley. But Palestinians do not surrender quite easily. The farmers and shepherds of the region have decided to join forces in order to organise their peaceful resistance.

This is why Fadia and the others have come to Ramallah today. They want international attention. They want their story to be spread in the hope that this will help to prevent further displacements. They hope that international political pressure will help push the Israeli government to change its politics and to respect international law.

Article 49 of the Geneva Convention states “(…) the Occupying Power may undertake total or partial evacuation of a given area if the security of the population or imperative military reasons so demand.” And requires that “The Occupying Power undertaking such transfers or evacuations shall ensure, to the greatest practicable extent, that proper accommodation is provided to receive the protected persons, that the removals are effected in satisfactory conditions of hygiene, health, safety and nutrition (…).”

Fadia, Abu Sakr, Usama and the other villagers are obviously victims of abusive transfers. The “illegality” of the buildings can hardly been considered as a security threat and there is no identifiable imperative military reason for the demolitions. Further, not only the authorities fail to provide the inhabitants of the demolished buildings proper accommodation, but they even confiscate the emergency shelters provided by the Red Crescent. Fadia has quite enough reasons to be angry.