Occupational hazards in the West Bank

 
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By Khaled Diab

While the world’s attention was turned to Gaza, stealthier military manoeuvres in the West Bank were pushing more Palestinians off their land.

Wednesday 12 December 2012

Bedouin children in the northern West Bank face a precarious future. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

As we turned off the road, there opened up before us a vista of the most exquisite and rugged splendour. Hugged on both sides by majestic mountains, the valley we drove through stretched as far as the eye could see with barely a manmade structure to distort the view, unlike in much of the rest of the occupied Palestinian territories.

A few kilometres in, we finally arrived at our destination, which was about as remote as you could possibly get in the densely populated West Bank: a tiny Bedouin community in Wadi al-Maleh in the northern Jordan Valley. As we pulled up, we were first greeted by dozens of goats, followed by the children, then the adults, mostly women, because the men were out at a funeral.

Behind the idyllic beauty of the scene, there lurked an ugly reality. First, there was the community’s obvious poverty: living in makeshift tents, with no electricity and with water at a premium because it has to be trucked in, not to mention the children who have to walk about 10km each way to the nearest road so that they can go to school, which eats at least a couple of additional hours out of their day, and means they set out at sunrise and often return just before sunset.

But all this pales into insignificance when compared with the imminent threat facing the community – mostly made up of a clan called Turcoman – of being pushed off the land they have lived on and worked since they were displaced during the 1948 war from the coastal areas of what is today northern Israel. Wadi al-Maleh is home to several such threatened communities, some Bedouin and others sedentary farmers, each numbering around 50-100 people.

The Bedouins I met there – whom I had come to train in ways of better communicating their plight – told me that they had received demolition and eviction orders from Israel’s Civil Administration and that a number of tents had been torn down by the army to show that it meant business. One said that they had even been threatened with the confiscation of their economic mainstay, goats, if they did not up sticks. “Where are we going to go and how are we going to survive without our goats?” the community’s matron figure asked in distress.

The ostensible reason for this community’s planned displacement is because the Bedouins live in whatIsrael has declared to be a closed military zone, a designation which applies to about a fifth of the total surface area of the West Bank, affecting some 5,000 residents. The locals reported that the Israeli and American militaries had recently taken part in joint manoeuvres on the other side of a nearby mountain.

Across the Jordan Valley, numerous communities received eviction orders just ahead of the joint exercises. Although the orders do not specify the nature of the training exercises, activists are convinced that the manoeuvres in question are the joint US-Israeli ones. If this is the case, this would make the United States complicit inIsrael’s illegal use of occupied land.

Under international law, Israel has no right to designate any part of the West Bank as a military zone because this, like settlement building, is not permitted on occupied land, despite the inventive efforts of government-appointed Israeli legal experts to argue away the existence of the occupation and frame it as little more than a Palestinian preoccupation.

Wadi al-Maleh may be a remote community, but its situation is far from isolated. All over Area C of the West Bank – which, according to the Oslo accords, is under full Israeli military and civil control – and in East Jerusalem, homes are being demolished, people are being evicted and communities are slowly disappearing, and at an increasing rate.

So far in 2012, over 550 Palestinian-owned homes and other structures were demolished in these areas, displacing more than a thousand people, the UN reports. Similarly, last year, Israel demolished 622 structures, more than 40% than the year before, displacing almost 1,100 people, more than half of whom were children.

Since I moved to Jeusalem last year, I have visited numerous threatened communities, and I always depart with a sense of bewilderment at how people can survive in such circumstances. Many are engaged in years-long legal battles to be allowed to stay where they are, or are haunted by the spectre of losing their homes.

They live with the uncertainty that their children may well not have a school to attend later in the term, while they are often unable to work because of movement restrictions or because they cannot reach their land. Others are largely cut off from the rest of society by the wall, while many face regular harassment from settlers.

While lack of mobility is tough for anyone, it takes a particularly bad toll on the Bedouins, who feel it is their heritage, even their birth right, to roam free, and I have heard numerous complaints from them about how caged in and trapped they feel. On a more practical level, this also affects their livelihood, as they have little land left on which to graze their livestock.

The sense of powerlessness this creates can leave enormous emotional scars. “We feel constant guilt towards our children, and wonder if they ask themselves, ‘Why did you bring us into this world?’” admitted one father in Izbat al-Tabib, a village near Qalqilya, which suffers from most of the problems I outlined above. “We feel powerless to improve the situation of our children or even to protect them. Can you imagine how difficult that is for a father to bear?”

These words shook me hard. Yes, I could imagine how devastating it would feel to raise our three-year-old in such unenviable conditions, but I thanked my lucky stars that all I was being asked to do was to imagine, and not actually to experience, the soul-destroying reality of witnessing my son being denied his childhood.

Youth is also no barrel of laughs, when you have no prospects, no job, nowhere to go, and perhaps even no one your age to hang out with. “At night, I ask myself, ‘What have I done today?” I realise nothing,” confesses Salama, a young Bedouin who lives on the outskirts ofJerusalem. “Sometimes, I just want to do something, so I knock something down and rebuild it.”

On a more political level, Area C is the only contiguous territory in theWest Bank, which is not only home to the majority of Palestinian agricultural land but would also provide the bulk of the space upon which a future Palestinian state would be built.

By building in Area C and in East Jerusalem, Israelis driving the final nail in the coffin of the two-state solution, and with the United Statesnot only providing $3 billion in free military hardware to Israelbut also apparently co-training in the occupied West Bank, Washingtonis supplying the hammer. This is not just a tragedy for Palestinians but problematic for Israelis, as Israel’s own statistics now show that Jews have become a minority between the Mediterranean and the Jordan.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 3 December 2012.

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