by George Stein
On 17th October 2012, JVS volunteers joined two women from the Israeli organisation Machsom Watch in their visit to Hamra and Tayasir checkpoints in the Jordan Valley.
This visit was prompted by a recent document issued from the Israeli ‘Ministry of Defence,’ on the 3rd of October, promising to lift restrictions of movement on Palestinians desiring to pass through checkpoints in the Jordan Valley, especially those permitting entrance into the Jordan Valley from areas A and B. Machsom Watch wanted to observe how this document will manifest in Palestinian’s everyday reality.
They explained that prior to this ‘change’ in policy, Palestinians were restricted from travelling to and from the Jordan Valley – only those with a vehicle registered to owners who are living in the Jordan Valley were permitted entry through the checkpoints. This has been part of Israel’s greater strategy in isolating the Jordan Valley, pressuring residents to leave their villages and eventually to annex the area, which Israel has always claimed is territory it will never cede.
Our first stop was Hamra checkpoint. One of the women from Machsom Watch was concerned about a queue of cars forming at the checkpoint. From our encounter with Hamra checkpoint, it is clear that the checkpoint continues to operate as an opportunity for Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) to harass Palestinians travelling in their own land, as well as a display of power that the soldiers exert over those wishing to pass. The IOF check the IDs and vehicles of those passing from areas A and B to the Jordan Valley, but not the other way around, for those entering areas under Palestinian Authority control.
However, the IOF continue to assert their dominance by waving through drivers one by one and disallowing entry to those who approach too quickly or too closely. The first car was waved through, readily, deemed ok to pass. The next car followed suit, but had not adequately waited for the go ahead and was promptly ‘punished’: forced to reverse the car and start again, disciplined like a school child, subject to the whims of the soldier in charge. This happened a number of times as we watched the traffic pass through the checkpoint.
From Hamra we drove north along Allon Road (Road 578). As we passed close to the colony of Ro’i, we observed a gate with the name ‘Guchiya,’ which functions to further separate the villagers in the Jordan Valley from one another. The gate is hidden amongst man-made stretches of dirt mound, which function as a wall. One of the women from Machsom Watch explained that the gate is meant to open three days a week, but in actuality this is a rare occurrence, and a few times she has spent the night waiting at the gate with farmers wishing to return to their homes.
She explains that everything is blocked here. It makes life impossible for the villagers. Children often have to live with relatives on the other side of this Eastern Separation Wall, so they can get to school each day. The Occupation Military Administration denies Palestinians their right to have schools in the 95% of the Jordan Valley that is designated as Area C (under full occupation control). Thus families have a ‘choice’. They can either send their children long distances to a school in one of the five ‘Area B’ villages in the Jordan Valley, or attempt to send them to the nearest school to their village, with the obstacle of the Eastern Separation Wall to overcome. Most of these families have very limited income, and there is no public transport for Palestinians in the Jordan Valley. In addition, children are frequently harassed by both Israeli settlers and the Israeli Army when walking to school, so the first of these options is just not possible for them.
Um Zuka Nature Reserve
Along the same stretch of road, we were taken to an area designated ‘nature reserve’ – an area which does not resemble a natural reserve, but rather a neglected, desolate region, an obvious cover for land confiscation. If Palestinian cows and farmers enter this land, they are fined large sums of money. Sometimes during the summer, when there is no straw for livestock, Palestinians will search for food here. One man had twenty four cows confiscated for doing this. Six of his cows died and he had to pay 1500 shekels to retrieve the rest.
Two signs are erected side by side, the only structures observable in the area. One prohibits lighting fires in the area. The other declares the land a ‘military firing zone.’ Such is the arbitrary, hypocritical, oxymoronic nature of the IOF.
‘Ein Al Hilwa
We arrived in ‘Ein Al Hilwa where we enjoyed tea with a family who live under the constant threat of the violent colony nearby, Maskiyot. Settlers from there torment villagers by beating them, stealing their animals, making false claims to the police and army about them – sometimes leading to their arrest. We spoke to the family, who told us that a neighbouring family has just received a demolition order on their house, to be implemented in three days. But this doesn’t mean much. He has had a demolition order on his house for a long time, this whole area has. Every village has a demolition order and no one knows when it will be carried out. “They usually come early in the morning”, the woman from Machsom Watch explained.
Along the road to Tayasir checkpoint, the woman from Machsom Watch explained:
“No stone is accidental; everything is planned. This road is blocked with the sole purpose of isolating communities in Area C. Such a beautiful area, being so contaminated.”
With some 95% of the Jordan Valley under Israeli control (50% is controlled by Israel’s illegal settlements, and the other 45% is military bases, ‘closed military zones’ and ‘nature reserves’) communities are cut off from schools, access to hospitals and travelling to markets can take hours – hours in which food will go rotten, if it is even allowed through the checkpoint.
Land grabs along the road are clearly delineated by colors indicating how much water different populations, whether they be lands colonised or lands cultivated by Palestinians, receive. The 9,000 settlers living on Palestinian’s land are surrounded by lush green areas, while the land of 52,000 Palestinians is largely dry and yellow because Palestinians are restricted from digging wells and access to water is curtailed as a measure to pressure Palestinians into leaving the Jordan Valley.
Characteristic of the northern part of the Jordan Valley is the frequency of big blocks declaring the area a ‘closed military firing zone.’ These ‘declarations’ are not merely scattered along the road, they are deliberately placed next to dwellings and communities that have inhabited the area for centuries. Palestinians have been restricted from building houses ever since the area was occupied in 1967. Many now live in tents, but their rightful claim to the land will not be stopped by the IOF and their checkpoints, road signs, blocks and systematic policies of isolating the Jordan Valley.
At Tayasir, we found that restrictions of movement and security checks are in still place, contrary to the recent policy, which promised to open the checkpoints to Palestinians travelling to and from the Jordan Valley. Unlike Hamra checkpoint, at Tayasir Palestinians must show their ID to soldiers when travelling both ways. We asked the soldiers why this is the case, citing the recent letter from the Israeli ‘Ministry of Defence,’ but they said they had not heard of such a thing. When Machsom Watch offered to show them the letter, they said they didn’t want to see it, it makes no difference.
“Are you afraid?” one of the women asked.
“The truth. Here it is.”
So ultimately, this letter meant nothing to the situation on the ground.
Back at Hamra checkpoint
On return to Hamra, we found long queues on both sides of the checkpoint, some twenty cars waiting. We placed a call to the Israeli Military Administration, but in any case, it seemed that the IOF decided arbitrarily to take a short afternoon break, and, stationed in their air-conditioned room, they sat waiting for as many cars as possible to collect as a way of exercising power, controlling and harassing Palestinians travelling in their own land.
Before heading back to the Friends Meeting House, we shared tea, coffee and updates with a family whose home overlooks Hamra checkpoint. They told us that a new military road is being build on top of a hill close to their village. They are worried, because often this kind of construction means that the family will be forbidden to take their sheep near to this area, where they commonly graze.
We realised the importance of documenting what is actually happening on the ground here. An Israeli security service employee, whilst comfortably seated in an air-conditioned office in Tel Aviv, may sign a piece of paper authorising the opening of checkpoints in the Jordan Valley, but the reality of life for Palestinians living here may be completely different.
(this post originally appeared at Jordan Valley Solidarity on 20 October 2012)