By David Rothfield
Illegal outposts threaten the Shilo Valley
My recent, two day visit to the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) included a déjà-vu experience, visiting a site that I first visited in 1978, the site where Jewish settlers had then, just established the colony of Shilo. The settlement was named after a biblical site nearby and it overlooked a broad and fertile valley of the same name. In 1978, I traveled there with many hundreds of Peace Now activists to protest the establishment of this Jewish colony in a thriving agricultural area in the heart of Palestinian territory. Not only was Shilo considered illegal under international law, it was a blatant provocation to the Palestinians, designed to challenge their hold on the land and to dispossess Palestinian farmers.
In April of this year I returned to the Shilo Valley accompanied by a small team of Israelis and Palestinians associated with Machsom Watch and Yesh Din. Today, Shilo is just one of a string of 16 settlements that have since surrounded the Shilo valley. Most of them are officially regarded as illegal outposts, even by Israel. My hosts brought me to the Palestinian village of Turmus Ayya, one of four villages in the valley whose land has been invaded by encroaching Jewish settlement.
In Turmus Ayya, I was introduced to Mahmoud El Arag, whose family owns about 140 hectares of land in four separate plots in the valley. Mahmoud tells us that the outpost of Adei-Ad, established without government sanction in 1998, was set up partly on his family’s land and partly on what Israel calls ‘public land’.
As soon as the settlers established their presence, the army declared the area seized, plus a buffer zone around the outpost, to be a closed military area. The Palestinian farmers were thus forbidden entry to their own land by the army, in order to shield the illegal settlers. More land around the buffer zone was declared a zone of restricted entry. Palestinian farmers were permitted to enter that restricted area but only twice a year for a limited period, either for cultivation or harvesting. But as I learned, the area influenced by the presence of the settlers extended even beyond the areas of restricted entry.
Mahmoud explained that the settlers move around, armed and masked, intimidating farmers in various ways. There have been incidents of physical violence including stone throwing at farmers as well as vandalism and theft. Sometimes shots are fired to scare farmers away. He told us that on occasions, the army has delayed the granting of permits to enter restricted areas for the olive harvest. The farmers have eventually arrived to find the olives already harvested, stolen by the settlers.
Mahmoud later took us to an orchard where he showed us olive trees that had been poisoned or otherwise vandalised. Next to the orchard was an abandoned field where we could see sheep grazing. The sheep belonged to the settlers. We had just gotten out of our vehicle to survey the scene when we saw another vehicle coming down the hill opposite, from the outpost, heading towards us. As the vehicle approached us we could see the driver had a scarf covering his face. A rifle was visible on the dashboard. I took a photo. The vehicle continued past us to the top of the next hill where our vehicle stood, turned around and returned back the way it had come. We returned to our vehicle.
Mahmoud’s extended family used to grow seasonal crops such as lentils and chickpeas, in addition to growing almonds and olives. Now, as a result of the restrictions in cultivation and the harassment by settlers, they can no longer grow seasonal crops. Hence the un-worked field where we saw the settler’s sheep grazing. Such un-worked land can be reclassified, according to Ottoman law, as ‘public land’.
I asked whether the farmers can lodge complaints with the authorities against the settlers. Neta, the CEO of Yesh Din and a lawyer, explained the difficulties involved. The army tells them to go to the civilian police. However, in Area C, which is under full Israeli control, the police stations are located inside Jewish settlements where Palestinians usually cannot enter. Even when they can reach the police station, all manner of difficulties can be confronted, such as the absence of a translator, or lack of requested documents. So they need help from third parties, such as Machsom Watch, Yesh Din or B’Tselem, in order to complain against the settlers.
Even when lodged, the investigations usually don’t go very far. The complainants usually are unable to adequately identify the perpetrators. Most likely, the police will close the file, citing ‘lack of sufficient evidence’ or ‘perpetrator unknown’ as the reason.
Yesh Din has documented 96 incidents of a criminal nature that occurred near Adei-Ad. Only a handful of the cases were satisfactorily investigated and produced an indictment. The details appear in two publications by Yesh Din which also expose state involvement in the illegal settlement business. They chronicle moves to have illegal outposts such as Adei-Ad dismantled and evacuated, either due to diplomatic pressure or following a successful court challenge. As described, such moves invariably are not completed, not enforced or are partly carried out after negotiation only to be subsequently ignored and reversed. The outposts become simply a covert means of taking over land with state connivance. Furthermore, funding for the outposts invariably comes from government or quasi-government funds, such as the Settlement Division of the World Zionist Organisation, acting on behalf of the Israeli Government.
Between the years 2008 and 2013, a shift occurred in government policy. Following two petitions brought against the Government by Peace Now over that period, the Government has been forced to declare to the Supreme Court whether or not it will enforce evacuation orders by the Court. In order to avoid making such a declaration, the government is now in the process of retroactively approving all such outposts and formalising their status under law.
The dilemma over fighting for a measure of justice in the courts
I asked Neta whether those working to ease the severity of the Occupation on the Palestinians, sometimes wonder which side they are really serving. Neta told me that indeed many of them do find themselves in a real dilemma. Yesh Din’s legal adviser, Michael Sfard, has expressed this dilemma in a paper he wrote (download this paper here).
In the paper, Sfard asks himself whether the human rights lawyer, by occasionally winning a case against the Occupation authorities, is actually losing. It is those successes, he observes, that actually make the occupation tick. “Is my existence a barrier to injustice and human rights violations,” Sfard wonders, “or am I nothing but a collaborator of this huge mechanism, which needs me to occasionally soften its hard edges …”.
Sfard cites petitions that have been lodged for Palestinians in the Supreme Court, over the routing of the separation fence and the provision of crossings through the fence for farmers to reach severed parts of their land. On the one hand, Sfard regards the very erection of the fence as contravening international law. Furthermore, when only Palestinians require a permit to cross the barrier, it is a new version of apartheid, he says. On the one hand, human rights lawyers feel an obligation to assist those unjustly affected, where possible, to ease the burden imposed on them. To do so, however, the petitioner must accept the narrative of the abuser, namely its claim for ‘sole authority’ over the subject at hand. The case will revolve around finding a balance between Israel’s security needs and the Palestinian’s right to access his land. Yet when a win is achieved, and the barrier re-routed, or gate-opening hours extended, they are actually enhancing the workability of the ethnic separation resulting from the existence of the barrier.
We drove back from the OPT to Israel, crossing the barrier at the infamous Qalandia checkpoint. Our car, bearing Israeli rego plates, was waved through. Palestinians, lucky enough to have obtained a permit, walked with any luggage they had from the car-park on one side to the turnstiles, where they queued to pass the necessary checks. Once through, they would need to board another vehicle, to continue on their journey into Israel.
The Bedouin helped by renewable electricity
The South Hebron Hills is a rugged, semi-arid to arid region that has been home to several thousand Bedouin farmers and shepherds for many generations. They eke out a livelihood in difficult terrain and under spartan conditions, enjoying few creature comforts.
Last April, I visited this remote, wind swept region with Harold Zwier. We were guests of Community Energy Technology Middle East (COMET-ME), an Israeli-Palestinian NGO that installs renewable electricity and clean water supply systems for these remote communities. The elevation and the wind meant that, even on this dry spring day, we needed our winter coats to protect us from the biting cold.
Just as in other parts of the Occupied Palestinian Territories, these indigenous communities are overshadowed by recently built Jewish settlements. But in this region, the contrast between them is even starker. I approached the area along a modern highway that serves to join several new Jewish settlements to Israel. From the road you can see the modern housing and gardens as well as workshops and large farm structures, housing poultry and dairy herds in the settlements. They are connected to Israel’s electricity grid and have running water and even swimming pools. All made possible by Israeli taxpayers, but to the detriment of the local population.
The indigenous Bedouin communities have no such services or amenities. They are denied permits to build or develop and risk having so-called illegal structures demolished. Most families still live in tents or caves.
Harold and I arrived at the COMET-ME base of operations along a rudimentary, rocky access road to a hillock on which a small, solidly built structure stood. Elad and Tamar, key staff in this small organisation that operates with funding from some European governments and charities, were there to greet us. A wind turbine that generates electricity for the base and some neighbouring dwellings dominates the site. Some of the rooftops also had solar panels on them.
Elad tells us that prior to 1967 the Bedouin would spend the harsh winter months living in the towns. Now, however, they must remain on their land year round, to avoid losing their claims in favour of the settlers. They graze sheep and goats and also grow olives and some field crops. A few work in Israel or teach at local schools. They are forbidden to build without a permit and the Israeli authorities rarely grant such permits.
COMET-ME grew from a volunteer-based initiative aiming to facilitate the social and economic empowerment of the poorest and most vulnerable Palestinian communities who are not connected to the grid and have no running water. The first installations were carried out in 2006.
The energy source of choice in this environment is wind. So far, some 20 wind turbines, 2.5 KW each, have been installed. Although now, 16 of them are under threat of demolition. Elad tells us that, as a result, they are now installing only solar PV panels on or adjacent to existing structures.
We go down a flight of stairs carved in the rock, to a cavern below. Here Elad shows us the control board for the energy system and the energy storage console. It looks high-tech and impressive. We also see the workshop where the energy systems, including the wind turbines, are built.
In 2014, COMET-ME began to venture into water pumping, treatment and distribution. Currently, all villagers need to draw and carry water manually from underground family cisterns to supply domestic and livestock needs. Water quality from the cisterns is not good. Now, after running two pilot trials, they have started to roll out a refined system that incorporates controlled pumping, filtration and distribution elements. Naturally, the system is powered by the supplied renewable energy.
Not only has life become a little easier for those who now have a reliable power source available at the flick of a switch, it has also become more productive. Dairy farmers can now keep dairy produce such as cheese refrigerated, shepherds can bring reticulated water to their flocks and children can do their homework after dark.
These improvements to living conditions however, do nothing to alleviate the ongoing harassment, vandalism and violence perpetrated by the neighbouring Jewish settlers. For them, the presence of the Bedouin is a source of annoyance they are doing their best to rid themselves of. Criminal acts perpetrated include arson and kidnapping. We were told of an incident where settlers complained to the Civilian Administration of the smell emanating from a large, outdoor bread oven that burnt dung as fuel in the Bedouin village adjacent to the Jewish settlement. The Civilian Administration ordered that the oven be dismantled. Lawyers acting for the Bedouin managed to have the demolition order overturned by the courts but after a lapse of time, the oven was demolished anyway with no warning.
The inhospitable South Hebron Hills seem a world away from the fertile Shilo Valley. But both are arenas for the same conflict. On one side are those who have lived here for centuries with roots deep in the ground. On the other are the new colonists, sent by their government with a mission to conquer the land. In the middle are the peacemakers. Their task is daunting. They are constrained by ‘the rules of the game’.
Meanwhile the separation barrier has isolated the major part of the Palestinian West Bank territory from Israelis who now feel a greater sense of security. What happens on the other side of that barrier, it seems, no longer matters to most Israelis.
By David Rothfield