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New peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians have focused on security arrangements. Yet, as the first of our series reveals, for ordinary Palestinians in the occupied territories, human rights should top the agenda
The West Bank is a place of barriers: tall walls of stone, concrete or wood panels topped with barbed wire and electrified wire fences of the kind used to confine animals. Across stony fields of red-brown soil stretch deep ditches, mounds of earth and coils of barbed wire. The Israelis say the barriers are needed for security but their effect is to confine the Palestinians to ever-shrinking portions of land.
Along gleaming highways barred to Palestinians are scenes of construction as new Jewish settlements are created or existing ones enlarged. Less visible from the main roads are images of destruction; heaps of rubble and corrugated iron left behind after Palestinian homes built on Palestinian land have been demolished.
I found a scene of utter desolation in the rural village of Tal Al Smadi in the Jordan Valley, where a Palestinian family of eight sheltered under sheets of plastic held up by metal poles beside the twisted metal and broken concrete that was once their house. The youngest child, a boy of two, kicked dust and chased the lambs.
The owner of the house, Huzan Drajmeh, related how just over a week earlier, around 200 soldiers of the IDF – the Israel Defense Forces – had arrived to enforce a demolition order. He said the soldiers had also destroyed shelters for the family’s sheep, making it hard for the animals to survive the freezing nights.
It was, he explained, the seventh time the house had been demolished since the family first built it in 1983. Demolition orders have been served on 38 other houses in the village, which like all of the rural areas of the West Bank is designated “Area C”, bringing it under the control of the Israeli Government.
Hazaa Shaban, vice chairman of a local farming cooperative, put the situation thus: “The Israelis are fighting us, but it is not a conventional war with weapons. They are depriving us of water and fertiliser for our crops and taking our land. We are being forced to become cheap hands for Israeli farmers.”
The Jordan Valley was one of the areas I visited during a trip organised for journalists by Christian Aid to highlight the work of its partners supporting the Palestinians living there.
Earlier this year, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz quoted an Israeli Government document that puts the Palestinian population of the West Bank at 2.5 million. Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip began after it seized the territories in the Six Day War of 1967. In 2004, the International Court of Justice advised that Israel’s occupation is in violation of international law.
Since 1967 Israeli settlements have proliferated on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem, sometimes on an unregulated basis, but more usually encouraged and financed by the Israeli Government. Uprisings by the Palestinians, waves of terrorist bombings and rockets fired by Hamas from the Gaza Strip have led to ever-greater security crackdowns by the Israelis.
The pace of settlement building in the occupied territories has accelerated under the far-right/centre-right coalition headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In a new edition of his book A History of Modern Israel, Colin Shindler estimated that the state budget for 2011-12 allocated more than 2 billion shekels (£349 million) for the settlements.
All the organisations supported by Christian Aid oppose the occupation. One of them, Breaking the Silence, was founded in 2004 by a group of former Israeli soldiers, including an Orthodox Jew, Yehuda Shaul. It takes testimonies from Israeli military veterans in which they recount their experiences in the occupied territories. So far 950 veterans have told stories of operations that they say are less to do with security and more Israeli shows of strength. They say the soldiers’ first duty is to protect the settlers and if settlers attack Palestinians – something they claim happens regularly – they cannot stop them.
Avihai Stollar, the group’s testimony collection coordinator who served in an infantry unit from 2001 to 2004, said virtually all his training consisted of learning to fight another army when active service actually consisted entirely of policing civilians. He recalled a speech by a commander to the new soldiers in which he said there was no better feeling than killing a terrorist and how at the end the commander showed the new recruits photographs of dead Palestinians. After this initiation he and other 19-year-olds were sent to the West Bank city of Hebron where their duties consisted of standing idle in posts or carrying out patrols.
“On patrol, you stop someone, push them against the wall, ask for ID, frisk them, you go inside their house at night-time,” said Stollar. “We would take out big knives and take a house apart. We’d slash sofas and break furniture. Sometimes a house would be selected at random. If someone complains they get beaten up, sometimes we’d cover their eyes, cuff them and put them in a room for hours.”
Another Breaking the Silence worker, Nadav Bigelman, 25, who served in Hebron from 2007 to 2010, grew up in Jerusalem and was part of a liberal family that opposed the occupation. He said that, like most Israelis, he had no idea of the reality of life on the West Bank just 15 minutes’ drive away.
Mr Bigelman described an exercise known as “mapping”, which consisted of searches of Palestinian homes within a unit’s designated area and was usually carried out at night.
“At first you wipe the mud from your boots but by the time you get to the fourth house at 5 a.m. you just want to go to sleep,” said Mr Bigelman. “You realise people don’t care about the mud because you are bursting into their houses in the middle of the night. In the end you feel numb.”
Mr Bigelman shuddered as he told of how he had evicted an elderly couple from their house close to an Israeli settlement on the grounds that they had renovated it without permission from the Israeli authorities.
“It was a beautiful house with two old people. Twenty-five soldiers went to take them out and we welded the door shut,” he said, adding that his main motivation for opposing the occupation was his concern about Palestinians’ human rights, but there was another reason too: “We need to stop the occupation for Israel’s soul.”
At the Qalandia checkpoint, well outside the Green Line marking Israel’s 1948 boundaries, more than 2,000 workers from the Palestinian town of Ramallah cross to go to work in West Jerusalem, mainly on construction sites and factories. From 6 a.m. most days, men wait for an hour or more to get through.
Tempers flare if a man tries to jump the queue and push in to the first stage of the checkpoint, a tunnel, with thick metal bars, so narrow that individuals have to pass in single file. Scuffles and more serious violence regularly break out, to which the IDF responds with tear gas and rubber bullets.
Also monitoring the checkpoint is an Israeli group, the Blue and White Human Rights Association, whose director is a lawyer, Calev Myers, who describes himself as a Zionist and who emigrated to Israel 22 years ago from the United States as a child with his parents.
“There is a silent majority on both sides who really want peace but there are extremists on both sides who threaten to become more vocal,” said Mr Myers, suggesting that one possible way forward would be to offer Israeli citizenship to all Palestinians in Area C. “If this were to happen 30 per cent of the population would stop becoming a threat. They should stop talking about land and start talking about people.”
Granting Israeli citizenship to Palestinians in Area C might give them the same rights as the Israeli settlers to live there, but it might also lead to Israel annexing the entire area. The Palestinians I met in Area C appeared less interested in a concession of this kind and more concerned about asserting their rights of ownership in their own separate state.
Surveying his relatives’ demolished house in the Jordan Valley, Bilal Banioeh, 25, said: “We will stay here for sure. We were born here, we will die here. It is our land.”
The farmers: ‘Security is just an excuse to drive us out of business’
Christian Aid’s partner the Agricultural Development Association (Parc) is aiming to create 100,000 jobs for Palestinians on the West Bank over the next five years, writes Elena Curti. Parc sees the project as vital to the future of Palestinians’ survival in the territory because if they do not cultivate their land for 10 years they lose their right of ownership and it can be annexed by the Israelis.
In the Jordan Valley, which makes up 20 per cent of the West Bank, Parc is helping Palestinian farmers gain access to water and diversify from the cultivation of olives and citrus fruit. A year-round crop cycle is possible with produce including dates, guava, tomatoes, aubergines, cucumbers, cauliflower, broccoli and cut flowers. Major efforts are being made to open up markets. So far, 300 tons of tomatoes have been sold to Saudi Arabia, and guava and eggs to Jordan. Such progress has been against the odds. According to Parc’s director general, Khalil Shiha, Israeli settlers’ farms in the Jordan Valley make US$620 million (£379m) a year. They control access to water and electricity and use the latest farming techniques.
In the village of Froush Beit Dajan, the leader of the village council, Anwar Ismaeel, said five out of the eight village wells had run dry since the Israeli Water Authority had dug three very deep wells for the settlers. The settlers’ farms were extracting 400 million cubic metres per hour in the summer months, with a fish farm among their initiatives. Palestinians, he added, had to pay five times what the Israelis pay for water. The village population had shrunk from 7,000 in 1967 to just 1,200 today, with most people going to work on Israeli farms.
In Ajour, an official of a local co-operative, Nemr Shaban, said that Palestinian farmers were banned by the Israelis from using chemical fertilisers and metal pipes for security reasons. The use of manure was also banned. Israeli checkpoints made it impossible to access external markets. Shaban said that Palestinian farmers were going out of business while the settler farms benefited from a range of subsidies, adding: “Everything is related to security but it is just an excuse to drive us out of business.” In a development welcomed by Christian Aid, the British Government's UK Trade and Investment website this week warned businesses against any dealings with Israeli settlements on the occupied territories, reminding them that the settlements “are illegal under international law, constitute an obstacle to peace and threaten to make a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict impossible”.
The ghost town: ‘Hebron’s deserted commercial centre is controlled by the Israelis’
For Jews and Muslims, the Palestinian city of Hebron in the southern part of the West Bank has a religious significance second only to Jerusalem, writes Elena Curti. It contains the Cave of the Patriarchs, reputedly where Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were buried.
Its once-vibrant commercial centre used to be crowded with shoppers and farmers taking animals to the livestock markets. Yet since 2000 the area has been a ghost town, its streets silent and deserted but for soldiers on patrol or the odd stray dog. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) nailed down the shutters and closed the road to Palestinians as part of their task to protect extremist Zionist settlers who live close by.
The settlements were initially opposed by the Israeli Government but the settlers have been tenacious and the Government reluctant to take a hard line. Through a series of compromises, the settlers have been given the right to remain and to expand the settlements. The city has a history of violence between Palestinian militants and Zionists going back to 1929, when 67 members of the Jewish community were massacred. There have been many horrors since, perpetrated by both sides.
Among the most notable was the massacre of Palestinians at the Cave of the Patriarchs in 1994 carried out by an Israeli doctor, Baruch Goldstein. Wearing his IDF Reserve uniform and carrying his army-issued assault rifle, he opened fire, shooting dead 29 Palestinians and injuring 125 before he was overcome and killed. An inquiry subsequently found that Israeli soldiers who were at the scene had firing instructions forbidding them to shoot at Israeli citizens and so stood by as the gunman murdered the Palestinian pilgrims.
Goldstein is buried in a park built by sympathisers outside Hebron. His tombstone bears an inscription describing him as a holy man and seventh-generation rabbi.
Many Palestinians have moved out of the Hebron’s commercial centre and those that remain live behind windows protected by wire mesh, allegedly because settlers throw stones at their windows.
On a guided tour of the city centre, Avihai Stollar of Breaking the Silence pointed to a paint-spattered block of flats inhabited only by a deaf Palestinian woman, known by soldiers as “the Mute”, and her children. Veterans have testified to Breaking the Silence that the woman and her family are regularly spat at by the settlers, who allegedly also throw paint and stones at the family.
Hebron’s deserted commercial centre is the half of the city controlled by the Israelis, known as H2. The other half, H1, is exclusively Palestinian and is administered by the Palestinian Authority. Nevertheless a giant menorah dominates HI and above it an IDF tower dominates the hillside.
For more information about Christian Aid’s Christmas appeal, or to make a donation, visit christianaid.org.uk/christmas or call 020 7523 2493.