This Blog….

This blog records some of the work I was involved in while a member of the EAPPI team in Bethlehem in 2014. All the pieces were written at that time about issues we encountered. Until this post the blog has not been updated since I finished my placement.

This post combines links to the few articles on this blog together into one post in chronological order to make it easier to navigate.

From Canal Bank to West Bank – Introduction

House Demolition – Al Khader

Massive Israeli Land Confiscation

The Bedouin of Arab al Rashayida, Military Firing Zones and Forced Transfer

Al Jab’a – an already squeezed village now losing even more land.

UNESCO heritage site under threat

Khallet Annahlah – our work with an illegal outpost that is a threat to peace

A look at some of the settlements and outposts in the Bethlehem area … and the dangers they pose.

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A look at some of the settlements and outposts in the Bethlehem area … and the dangers they pose.

Bethlehem City is hemmed in from the north by the separation wall and by the settlements of Gilo and Har Homa. Along the West of the city runs the separation barrier and the ever growing settlements of the Gush Etzion bloc. Along the eastern edge of Bethlehem is an Israeli road which limits growth of the city in this direction. At the moment the South remains open, but recent settler activity and outpost growth has started in the south of Bethlehem, choking Bethlehem but also choking any hope of peace. In a previous blog I discussed Khallet Annahlah and now I want to discuss other setttlements in the area.

Shedma was originally Ghosh Gharab military base but the Isareli Army pulled out in 2006 leaving the base empty. Situated in Area C the base is under the full control of the Israeli Military. The local Palestinian municipality applied to the Minister of defense to build a hospital and a playground, and this request remains with the military having never been approved or rejected. In response to this the area was taken over by settler organizations such as The Women in Green (Their website here Info on the group here) who have worked to maintain a presence in the area and keep it in Jewish hands.

06082014 Shdema Settller Grafiti

Graffiti giving directions to Shdema

While there is no permanent presence in the form of an outpost there are regular events and here and it remains a key priority for the group. The Women in Green claim that this is an important location as it guarantees the security of Teqoa settlement and the road and is part of the land of Eretz Yisrael which should be a jewish state. Developing it allows then the development of Jewish links from Jerusalem, through Har Homa and Shdema to Teqoa protecting this jewish land. As can be seen from this map posted on a Women in Green website Shdema is key to linking the settlements of Har Homa and Teqoa and cutting of any growth for Bethlehem, illustrating why such settlement projects undermine a two state solution.

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Map from the Women in Green website showing importance of Shdema in linking Teqoa and Jerusalem and showing how Bethlehem will be hemmed in from the east.

Peace Now (an Israeli organisation campaigning against settlements) have reported that Teqoa settlement continues to grow and that new caravans have been placed in the area. Any growth in this settlement is of serious concern, both due to its location far from both the Green Line and the separation wall, and because the local Palestinian Village of Tuqu’ has already faced violence and intimidation in the past from Settlers which will only grow as the population grows. When we visited Tuqu’ the settler graffiti was still visible in the town, and the front of the village has been covered in Israeli and settler flags – marking the place as their territory in a challenge to local Palestinians . For me it was reminiscent of the painted kerbstones seen in some parts of Northern Ireland, however here it is as if you paint your neighbours’ kerbstones your own colours as an act of intimidation. In previous years there has also been attacks on Palestinians by settlers and attacks on the village’s agricultural land along with both settlers and soldiers preventing Palestinians reaching their own land.

01092014 Tuqu village entrance with flags

1482014 settler graffiti in Tuqu

Pictures of Israeli Flags at the entrance of the Palestinian Village (left) – Settler Graffiti inside the village (right)

As well as the actions of the settlers the village of Tuqu’ has during my time here suffered more and more raids from the Israeli Army, who come into town and cause protests which are responded to with tear gas, sound bombs and rubber bullets. One of our first trips to the village was to meet and 11 year old boy who had been shot in the face with a rubber bullet. . There is also a heavy presence of the military at the schools of the village, claiming that children are throwing stones at cars. This team is regularly present at the girls school and junior school due to the intimidating presence of the army and the negative effect it has on the very young children . The Mayor of Tuqu’ has also reported that the main road to village, which has a permanent army post, has been closed by the army recently on several occasions, always without explanation or reason, part of the ongoing harassment of the village as a whole.

25082014 Tuqu school run army outside school gate intimidating children

Children walking to school past Israeli Soldiers

Like Khallet Annahlah discussed in a previous post these settlements are east of the Separation Wall making any growth here not only illegal as all settlement are under the 4th Geneva Convention but also a significant threat to peace. As seen by the map above the aim is to have a clear route from Jerusalem to Teqoa. The building of settlements at Khallet Annahala would open up the possibility of creating a road across a bridgehead of Area C, completing a circle around Bethlehem from Efrata to Khallet Annahlah on to Teqoa and up, via Shdema and Har Homa into Jerusalem, creating concrete facts on the ground that will ultimately de-rail any hope of peace.

Khallet Annahlah – our work with an illegal outpost that is a threat to peace

While the recent announcement of the confiscation of 4000 dunams  is bad news for the already squeezed Palestinian communities and for any peace process, there are other actions in the area that even more threatening. The land around the Palestinian village of Khallet Annahlah and the activity of settlers who have built an outpost there is a greater threat to any sustainable peace.

E2 from PEace now

 Map of Bethlehem area showing settlements – From Peace Now – Click to enlarge

This site, which covers 1,341 dunams, was first declared state land in August 2004, making it part of the land of Efrata settlement with a plan to build 2,500 housing units on this site. The Palestinian landowners appealed this decision in the Israeli courts and the case has continued since then. In October 2013 a new outpost was established on the site, and in July 2014 a new road was illegally opened by the settlers in the outpost in the middle of the night. The previous Bethlehem team were witness to several incidents in the area such as destruction of local Palestinian farms and attending important joint Israeli Palestinian demonstrations in the area – for details see here.

At the start of September 2014 the Israeli High Court made a decision dismissing all the claims made by the local Palestinians. The landowners had sought to have the declaration overturned but there arguments were dismissed, with some significant facts not even being considered by the High Court. However the court raise some technical legal questions and has suggested returning the case to the appeals committee to have these answered and has sought the Israeli State’s consent to do this and no decision has yet been made, as such the future of the declaration remains uncertain and could yet take several years. For detailed discussion on the case and the ruling see here.

While the Palestinians sit in a legal limbo waiting for a decision from the court the settlers have shown by their actions that they mean to take this land regardless of what the court says and have been developing it as if they already own it. The site has grown from an agricultural area into a small outpost and the occupants have been increasing the number of buildings on the site, building illegal roads, and aggressively patrolling this area with their own armed security. In the last week our team accompanied a contingent from Combatants for Peace, an Israeli peace organization, and the Palestinian Authority on a tour of the area, when we were confronted by settlers who assaulted some members of the group. The settlers throughout this time have acted with the close support and protection of the Army, as can be seen in the report from the previous Bethlehem team detailed above.

While these, and all settlements in the West Bank are illegal under the Geneva conventions, this is a worrying development with serious implications for a just and lasting peace. The area under question is east of the established route of the separation wall, and as such marks an expansion not just of the number of settlers but also an expansion in the size and geographical reach of the not just Efrata but also the whole of the Gush Etzion settlement block. This would also block off Bethlehem from the south and given that Bethlehem is already blocked in from the north (by the wall and settlements), from the west (also by the Gush Etzion bloc) and from the east (by an Israeli bypass road) this would be a complete encircling of Bethlehem. Both the expansion of the bloc and the encirclement of Bethlehem would make any two state solution and land swap impossible to achieve, if this settlement is finally built it will kill any hope for peace. Worryingly, there is settler activity in other areas around Bethlehem making the situation worse which I will look at look at in my next blog post.

 

Peace Now and Combatants for Peace, given the importance of this piece of land for future peace negotiations, have both been active on the issue of this piece of land. They have a petition here to sign and share.

 

If this was the actions of one small group of settlers this would still be a significant problem, however there are many other groups of settlers working across the Bethlehem area to build other outposts and expand existing settlements all of which contribute to the cutting of Bethlehem and the undermining of any possibility of peace.

 

 

UNESCO heritage site under threat

In the far corner of the Bethelehem Governate is the village of Battir. Battir is a very special place, one rich in history and heritage going back to pre Roman times. Indeed this heritage and culture is so rich that it has been awarded the title of UNESCO World Heritage Site – details of the area and the project can be found on the UNESCO site here. Bethlehem Team 53 have been linking with local contacts in relation to this site and to recent development in relation to the continued building of the Separation Wall.

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UNESCO World Heritage site of Battir

Alongside its ancient heritage the area has more recent history too as the village sits perched on the edge of the Green Line, the 1949 Armistice line that represents the internationally accepted border. Along this line the Israeli government has planned to route the separation wall, building it through the heart of the UNESCO World Heritage site, destroying what has been recognized as deserving of special recognition and protection.

The building of the wall will have a significant negative impact on the area in a variety of ways. Firstly the wall would have a significant negative impact on the flora and fauna of the area and undermine its strength as an agricultural area. The village is bordered on one side by an Ottoman empire train line that in the ceasefire agreement in 1949 was held by the Israelis but the lands on the other side remained the property of the villagers who to this day farm and cultivate the land. The building of this wall will cut off the villagers from their land and from their source of income and food. The wall would also destroy the history and preserved untouched heritage of the village.

It is claimed by the Israeli government that this wall is needed for security purposes. While this claim is frequently made about the wall in general it is particularly untrue in this region. Since the Armistice of 1949 there has been no violence or security problems in this area, there has never been any interference with Israel or with the trains and the train line. Locals tell us that Israel has installed a network of cameras that scan the area and use a variety of cameras including infra-red cameras to police this area is an effective way, when they go to work their feilds within minutes soldiers have arrived having been alerted by the cameras.

On July 29th the Israeli court heard further petitions on the case in the light of the UNESCO decision, and put the issue back to the Cabinet to decide. The Attorney General of Israel has argued that regardless of the UNESCO status that Israel can and should continue with the building of the separation wall. However we have been told by our local contacts that at a cabinet meeting in mid September a vote on the issue was postponed and the cabinet have decided not to decide, at least not decide at this point in time. As such the future of the area remains in jeopardy.

The separation wall has been declared illegal in an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice . Should this section of the separation wall be built it will not only be overriding human rights, it will also have the dubious honour of destroying world cultural heritage.

 

 

 

 

 

Al Jab’a – an already squeezed village now losing even more land.

After the Gaza ceasefire was agreed the Israeli government once again turned its attention to the West Bank and announced what Peace Now has called the largest land confiscation in 30 years. The land to be seized covers a large area in the Gush Etzion settlement block and directly impacts on several of the villages that Team Bethlehem cover. I have discussed this issue in a previous post you can read here, but we have also  travelled to the affected villages to meet with local contacts and see first-hand what is happening. Al Jab’a is just one of these villages and the story told here is repeated across the area.

When we first called our contact Sheikh Nasser he stated that he didn’t think it would affect Al Jab’a saying to us “they have already taken so much, we have nothing left to give”. Sheikh Nasser explained to us that they feel the village is under siege already. Most of the village is area B but parts are area C, and of the 110 houses 18 have demolitions orders against them. The “welcome to Al Jab’a sign the village put up was also in Area C and was duly removed by the Israeli Army. The road linking the village to the next closest village of Surif was closed off by the Israeli army some years ago leaving the villages cut off from each other.

Despite the grim reality, Nasser agreed to meet with us and show us the village. By the time we had arrived the information had started to come out and the impact on Al Jab’a had become clear – in the words of Nasser “now they are coming back to take the little we had left – this hurts, our village is like a big jail”. The confiscation would allow the nearby settlement outpost of Bat Ayin and Gava’ot to expand out as far as the green line, encircling Al Jab’a and cutting it off even further from the rest of Palestinian life.

02092014 view north from al jaba showing bettar illit Wadi fukin on right and lands to be taken in frontA view from the top of Al Jab’a looking our towards Wadi Fukin and the settlement of Betar Illit. almost all the land is this picture has been or will be confiscated.

 

Nasser himself was losing all his agricultural land that belonged to his family on the outskirts of the village and he took us out to show us the land and the military signs on his land. Much of the land had already been in effect denied to them because any time they tried to work on it they would be chased off by the military who would tell that that it was no longer allowed for them to use this land. Nasser as he stood on his land said to us “you save for 10 years to buy one dunnam and then they come and take 4000 in the blink of an eye”….

02092014 Sheich nasser next to confiscation sign on his land

Shiekh Nasser showing us the land confiscation sign on his land.

Nasser introduced s to Abu Harras, another resident of Al Jab’a who has had in the past 1000 olive trees cut down by the Israeli military. When he replanted them, they came again and said that he had a choice – to cut them down himself or they would cut them down again and send him the bill for this ‘service’. Abu Harras showed us his British Mandate era deeds for his lands, and produced volumes of paperwork relating to previous court battles over his trees and his land, all of which will be lost regardless under the new confiscation order.

02092014 pcostello - al jaba british registred land deed

British Mandate Era Deeds for the land being confiscated.

The settlements that Israel build are illegal under the 4th Geneva convention, Article 49. This fact has been reinforced by several UN resolutions declaring them not only illegal but a barrier to peace. This land confiscation and the subsequent growth will choke Al Jab’a, and pile the pressure on an already struggling village, as Nasser said to us “there is almost nothing left, will they only be happy when we are all gone?”

There is some confusion now, with rumours that the land confiscation isn’t going ahead. However, the locals in Al Jab’a point out that they have been driven off their land already by the army and the settlers. In fact, the fields already have basic water and electricity infrastructure in them ready for building. The locals of Al Jab’a believe that the Israeli government means to take this land one way or another, and if not now they will do it in smaller batches when no one is looking. As we left, Nasser said to us “Israel has a right to defend herself, but this is not Israel and this is not defence, go back to your own homes and leave us to ours”.

02092014Water infrastructure alread existing and ready for settlements al jaba

Water infrastructure already in place waiting for settlement expansion

The Bedouin of Arab al Rashayida, Military Firing Zones and Forced Transfer

While based in Bethlehem we spend a lot of time out among the villages that surround the main city, some stretching out to the edges of the Bethlehem Governorate, into the Jordan Valley. One of these far flung villages is ‘Arab ar Rashayida, a Bedouin community out in the Bethlehem wilderness in the Jordan Valley. Here we met with Hajj Ali Oudh Rashayida and his family, a Bedouin farmer whose lands and livelihood are both at risk.

07082014 Al Rashiyda Bedouin camp Hajj Ali Hajj Ali Oudh Rashayida

The family first came to the area when they were moved off their lands during the 1967 war, at this time they were settled in the nearby village of Tuqu. In 1975 they were given a house that was one 3m room and nothing else for the whole family. They left this and returned to their Bedouin lands around Rashiyda and continued their traditional farming and nomadic lifestyle. The family live in basic structures, rotating around several sites on their lands depending on the seasons, each time bringing their animals with them. There is no water and no electricity. They are looking for the development of a water pipe to a central place for families in the area, but they are unable to get the approval for this and do not have the money to build it for themselves.

The family told us that their land has long been declared part of a firing zone, a military training zone that is under Israeli state control which demands that the land be cleared and empty for military training. As a result of this they don’t have permission to build anything, not even to erect a tent. The future for the family is uncertain; the army can come at any time to demolish their homes, expel them from their lands and take away their animals without any further notice. This has been the fate of other Bedouin communities living within Israeli government imposed “firing zones” across the West Bank, especially the length of the Jordan Valley. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN – OCHA) reports that 56 percent of the Jordan Valley has been declared a firing zone and is slowly being emptied of its Palestinian and Bedouin population leaving the land empty and under Israeli military control.

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Marker designating Firing Zone beside the family’s encampment

International Humanitarian Law expressed in the Geneva Conventions places an obligation on an occupier to protect civilians and to administer the territory in a manner that ensures their welfare and basic need. International law also prohibits the destruction or confiscation of private or public property, unless for reasons of military necessity, as well as forbidding the forced displacement or transfer of civilians. The treatment by the Israeli government of Bedouin communities and the use of firing zones to confiscate and to clear the land is in gross violation of international law.

Israel claims that the firing zones are required as an operational necessity for their military, allowing training and practice on land that is similar to land they will be fighting on and enabling them to prepare properly. However, there is in fact no military necessity – such needed land exists within Israel, enabling the state to satisfy its operational necessity without confiscating Palestinian land and without destruction of Palestinian property. The position of Israeli authorities is further undermined by the fact that Settler outposts within firing zones rarely face demolition despite being in breach of military orders as much as the Palestinian and Bedouin communities.

For now the family sit, waiting for what they know will come but without knowing when it will happen. Communities the length of the Jordan Valley face expulsion, their land being cleared of any trace that they once lived there. Firing Zones are just one more tool used by the Israeli state to confiscate land in flagrant breach of international law.

Massive Israeli Land Confiscation

The confiscation 4000 dunams (990 acres) of Palestinian lands near Bethlehem of was announced on Sunday 31st August, all the land being in the area of the existing Gavot and Betar Illit settlements. Israeli NGO Peace Now has stated that this is likely to allow Gavot to extend as far as the Green Line, further cementing the reality of the settlements and further undermining peace negotiations. Whatever happens, villages that have already found life difficult will come under even greater pressure. Peace Now have stated that the recent announcement by Israeli authorities of a significant land confiscation in occupied Palestine shows that Israel is not serious about a sustainable and long term peace.

My team are currently working in the wider Bethlehem area and we are working among the communities affected by this order, villages such as Nahhalin, Al Jab’a, and Wadi Fukin. These communities at present face significant difficulties including threats and intimidation from settlers, damage to agricultural land and produce and a choking of natural growth through the Israeli controlled planning system. In Nahhalin locals showed us pictures and video footage of sewerage pipes from Betar Illit leaking out onto Palestinian farm land. The effluent seeped into the land, destroying olive trees and agricultural land. Trees that survived this were later cut down or burnt by local settlers. In 2012 settlers threw a Molotov cocktail at a taxi from Nahhalin, badly injuring the driver and five passengers including two 4 year old children (link to news story – http://www.jpost.com/National-News/Firebombing-injures-6-Palestinians-near-Bat-Ayin). Al Jab’a village have also had its olive trees cut and damaged to prevent local Palestinians working the land. In Wadi Fukin, caught between the Green Line and the growing settlement of Betar Illit, we met with the local school teacher who told us that their playground was demolished as it did not have a permit to be built and that the village has no room to grow, forcing people to leave the area.

This is the present reality of life for many people in Palestine. Now, with the announcement of the land confiscation and the inevitable settlement growth that will come, these problems will only get worse.

The Israeli government says that it is simply following the letter of the law. Using Ottoman Empire laws the Israeli government assumes all land to be state land unless proven otherwise. Equally if land is not worked for three years it can be declared state land, the Israeli state says it is simply enforcing the law and nothing more.

This justification however ignores several key issues related to the use of Ottoman laws and the declaration of state land. Under the Ottoman Empire most land was unregistered, the British tried during the mandate era, as did the Jordanians during their tenure, to register all land in Palestine. The Israeli authorities ended land registration for Palestinians in 1968, meaning that most of the land remains unregistered and that it has been made difficult for Palestinians to establish title. This allows the Israeli government to use Ottoman law while denying Palestinians access to protection under the same law, giving the Israeli authorities ample opportunity to confiscate this land. Equally, Palestinians are often deliberately prevented from accessing their land and from working their land. The separation barrier contributes to this, as does the obtuse permit system that goes with it. Settler violence and intimidation is also frequently used to prevent Palestinians using their land so that it becomes at risk of confiscation. Again the law is used against Palestinians while at the same time any protection under it is denied to them. A more fundamental problem is the very fact that these decisions are made under Ottoman Law, as Ottoman law is discriminately only applied to Palestinians, and not to settlers in the same area in the West Bank who live under Israeli law.

 

An occupying power has a responsibility to protect the local population and promote its welfare; as such the discriminatory application of law by Israel in occupied Palestine violates the core international humanitarian law principle of the protection of the occupied population. Furthermore, under this same principle, state lands in an occupied country should be used for the benefit of the local population; using the lands for the settlement building breaches not only this legal obligation but is also a transfer of the occupier’s population into an occupied territory, which is itself illegal under Article 49 of the 4th Geneva convention. Article 27 of the 4th Geneva convention states that the an occupying power has a responsibility to protect against threats and acts of violence towards civilians and their property, the existing failure to protect Palestinians from settler violence constitutes a breach of Article 27 which will be exacerbated by the increased settlement expansion.

 

If Israel is truly interested in peace it must respect international law and stop building settlements and stop confiscating Palestinian land to build them.

 

Using violence, harassment and intimidation and confiscating land by way of declaration of state land are but two of a wide variety of policies we have seen used by Israeli authorities to take over land and displace the Palestinian population. In future posts I will look at the other methods, such as declaring land to be a military firing zone – a tactic used locally against the Bedouin community in ‘Arab ar Rashayida whose story I will tell in my next blog post.  As a team we will be linking with and supporting local villages with this issue and I will provide updates for each of the villages.