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

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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.