Summer of demolitions
By Itay Epshtain, ICAHD
07.09.11 (First published in Palestine News, Autumn 2011)
Hours after his modest home was demolished by Israeli bulldozers, Khaled Abdallah Ali Ghazal stands astride the wreckage in the scorching desert heat and vows to hold on. “We have nowhere else to go, we will rebuild,” he says. For hundreds like him in the Jordan Valley, this is the reality of what the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions calls “the summer of demolitions.”
The Jordan Valley has always captured the imagination of travellers and pilgrims who alluded to its biblical representation as lush, fertile land. And indeed, the area enjoys abundant water as a third of the West Bank underground aquifer lies beneath it. However, the unholy reality of the Jordan Valley is one of segregation and land-and-water resource apartheid.
While illegal Jewish settlements dot the landscape with thriving date plantations and vineyards, Palestinian communities are struggling for shelter, drinking water and rudimentary healthcare and education. In Israel’s policy of colonization, the summer of 2011 has set an all-time high in the expansion of settlements at the expense of Palestinian communities.
Running the length of the West Bank, the Jordan Valley covers almost 30% of the land with a total area of 2,400 square kilometers. Prior to the 1967 occupation, some 250,000 Palestinians lived there but, according to a recent survey by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, fewer than 65,000 remain today.
The Jordan Valley falls under total Israeli control, in accordance with the Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement of 1995, known as the Oslo II Accord, classifying it as Area C. Under the Oslo Accords, powers and responsibilities related to zoning and planning in Area C should have been transferred to Palestinian control but that has not happened and Israel has made it clear that it intends illegally to annex the region and rid it of its Palestinian inhabitants.
In the last eight months, house demolitions and forced evictions have increased fivefold, in comparison with last year. A total of 184 structures, predominantly family homes, have been demolished, displacing hundreds and dispersing communities. This escalation comes after a spate of settler aggression in attempts to seize lands from Palestinian communities.
One such community is Fasayil al-Wusta where a large-scale demolition took place earlier this summer when 21 structures – 18 homes and three animal pens – were demolished by the Israeli Civil Administration, leaving homeless and exposed to the harsh desert environment 103 people, including 64 children. During the demolition, accompanied by the brutality of a 50-strong Border Guard force, community elder Ali Salim Abiat was injured. No provision for relocation or compensation was made to the victims of the demolitions.
Fasayil al-Wusta is home to a Palestinian-Bedouin community whose members originate from the area of Bethlehem. It is wedged between the settlements of Tomer, Yaift and Patzael, whose residents covet land cultivated by Palestinians for the expansion of their plantations. After the demolitions, the Palestinian community was dispersed, allowing the settlers to get their way.
North of Fasayil al-Wusta, lies the al-Hamra checkpoint, isolating the Jordan Valley from the rest of the West Bank. In 2006, Israel imposed a ban on Palestinians not residing at the time in the Jordan Valley from freely travelling to the area. The restrictions on access are enforced through 18 barriers, six trenches and earth mounds running a total of 50 kilometres, plus four agricultural gates, supposedly designed to allow Palestinian communities disconnected from the water grid to transport water to their fields and homes.
The measures employed by Israel, in stark contrast to international human rights law, have resulted in thousands of dunams being rendered inaccessible to Palestinian communities who now live destitute in a once opulent area.
Abu Saker, of al-Jiftlik village, describes what it takes to supply drinking water to his family: “To buy water, I drive my tractor three hours in each direction, while our well is for Jews only.” The agricultural gate, officially open three days a week for just 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes in the afternoon, is in practice rarely open at all while Palestinians have to queue for hours to access water, health care or education.
Such punishing policies are being applied to yet another community at the Jerusalem periphery, Khan al Ahmar, home to a Palestinian-Bedouin community of 1948 refugees. They face imminent displacement if the Israeli authorities go ahead with plans to demolish their homes and school in the coming weeks. Khan al Ahmar is one of 20 Bedouin communities in the area which have become victims of ethnic cleansing as Israel attempts to forge contiguity between Judaized East Jerusalem, the 40,000 strong settlement of Ma’ale Adumin in the centre of the West Bank and the settlements in the Jordan Valley.
The Israeli authorities view the Bedouin communities like Khan al Ahmar, which together comprise more than 2,300 people, as “interfering” with the planned expansion of Ma’ale Adumim, Kfar Adumim and other settlements, and to the construction of the West Bank barrier.
The Khan al Ahmar Jahalin school, established by the community, is the only school to provide primary education to children of the Arab al-Jahalin Bedouin tribe. Built in 2009, the eco-friendly school is made of used tyres and mud bricks and provides education for over 70 students. The Israeli Supreme Court recently rejected a request by settlers of Kfar Adumim to close the school; however the case has set the clock ticking for its demolition.
For a viable Palestinian state to be established, the Jordan Valley represents an essential land reserve, agricultural hinterland and strategic economic infrastructure. Not only that, the area provides the potential state’s sole land entrance.
However, since its 1967 occupation, Israel has coveted the Jordan Valley both for its economical potential and for its strategic importance in forestalling a viable Palestinian state. It justifies its presence in the area as necessary for security – in his May speech to the US Congress, Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu asserted that in any final status agreement which may be reached with Palestinians, Israel would retain control over the Jordan Valley.
So in the last decades, and more so in the six years since its withdrawal from Gaza, Israel has colonized the area by establishing what it considers irreversible “facts on the ground” through settlements and military bases.
Some 25,000 of the remaining 65,000 Palestinians in the area live in Jericho, in what is essentially an open-air prison, hemmed in by checkpoints and barriers on all sides. The rest live in rural communities where their once abundant agricultural cornucopia has been desertified as nearly all water sources are reserved exclusively for the settlements.
Israel now controls over 90 percent of the Jordan valley through 36 settlements housing more than 9,000 settlers, as well as through closed military zones and declared nature reserves. Meanwhile house demolitions, forced evictions and property confiscations, exacerbated by settler violence and the economic effects of movement restrictions, have left Palestinian communities struggling to make a living.
The summer of demolitions now sees the Palestinians of the Jordan Valley living in constant fear of displacement and dispersion, while Israel secures its supremacy and control of that troubled land.
Itay Epshtain is Co-Director of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD).