What I saw, heard, and felt in the Occupied Palestinian Territories last November was not the narrative we hear Stephen Harper parroting — that Israel is only exercising its right to defend itself. I saw home demolitions, water denied, settlements encroaching on Palestinian land, displacement of peaceful farmers and a wall that in no way can be considered anything other than a prison wall, forcing an entire nation of people to exist in an open sky prison.
Several Canadians, along with British and US participants joined the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) to witness and learn together. The ICAHD is a human rights and peace organization, established in 1997, that focuses on the Israeli policy of demolishing Palestinian homes.
Our tour began in occupied East Jerusalem and included visits to the Jordan Valley, Bethlehem, Ramallah, Hebron, Jaffa, Lod, and Tel Aviv. Jaffa, Lod and Tel Aviv are within Israel and those stops show the struggles of the Palestinian minority (20% of the population) living in Israel. All other stops on the tour were within the Occupied Palestinian Territory, where we witnessed the struggles of Palestinians living under occupation.
I’d like to rebuke the typical alarmist concerns about travelling to the occupied territories that we are continually met with in the West. I felt safe in the occupied territories, in fact safer than I would in most large international cities. The people are lovely and welcoming. I encourage anyone with the ability to travel to join a tour and witness for themselves the facts on the ground. Rest assured that the ICAHD will provide an amazing experience with expert guides.
The Occupied Territories
The Occupied Palestinian Territory is divided into Areas A, B and C. The divisions are based on the Oslo Accords of 1993 and were intended to represent the order in which Israel would withdraw its occupation. The withdrawal has never happened. As with other negotiated conditions, Israel has ignored the international community and agreements.
Area A is 18% of the West Bank and mostly urban. It is supposedly under Palestinian Authority (PA), although at any time Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) can come through with tanks and their imposing presence. Area B , 22% of the West Bank, is under PA civilian control but Israel maintains military control. Area C, 60% of the West Bank, is under full Israeli control. Around 200 Israeli settlements are in Area C, and are placed strategically to separate Palestinian communities within the West Bank and cut access to East Jerusalem. These are not temporary accommodations but large residential areas with all the amenities one could imagine to want, solely for the comfort and living of Israeli Jewish Settlers.
It is impossible to contain the entirety of the tour in one report but I have attempted to encapsulate some of the events within four topics: Demolitions, Water, the Wall and International Law, and the Workers.
Demolitions are the primary area of work for the ICAHD. Some 27,000 homes have been destroyed in the occupied territories and Israel itself since 1967, over 12,000 of them since 2000. Currently 15,000 demolition orders are pending.
Israel claims that demolitions enforce building regulations and deter terrorism and counter-insurgency by punishing those suspected of involvement in attacks against Israel. Amnesty International claims the demolitions are used to punish Palestinians collectively and seize their property.
The ICAHD’s peace center is a place for Palestinians, Israelis and Internationals to come together. It is also home to Salim and Arabiya Shawamereh. It has been demolished and rebuilt five times. Successive rebuilds are a form of non-violent resistance of the Israeli occupation. The stone sign, still intact amidst the rubble of its sixth demolition, says House of Peace.
Demolitions are sudden and traumatic for residents who resist evacuation orders. Hundreds of soldiers and several bulldozers once surrounded the Shawamereh house at 3:00 a.m. Occupants had fifteen minutes to clear what they could from the home while soldiers beat Salim in front of his family. Sudden daytime demolitions mean that children come home from school to find a pile of rubble.
We visited a demolition site where residents of a village taken over by Israel in 1953 had been resettled. Decades later, it was declared that their buildings were on agricultural land and therefore illegal. A multi-unit building was destroyed. Four bulldozers, 300 police with dogs, SWAT and mounted police arrived, and in two hours the home of 100 extended family members was gone. No compensation, no emergency relief, no recourse. They paid the same taxes as the Israelis living in the apartment building next door and had even more of a right to the land as granted in 1953, yet had no recourse under Israeli State law.
A story of resistance and victory, a rare experience for Palestinians, has emerged from another village facing similar demolition orders for being on agricultural land. Dahmash’s residents were displaced in the 1950s from the Jordan Valley and settled on land only 15% the size of their original village. Demolition orders came in 2000. The Dahmash Popular Committee has engaged in many costly legal battles for the rights of the village. Although residents all pay their taxes, the village must engage legal action with the state high court to receive public services, education, and school transport. At the same time they are challenging demolition orders in the high courts.
For seven years after the first demolition orders came, the family of Ali and Farida Shabam discussed and prepared for the possibility of demolition. They stayed awake in shifts and ensured someone was always home. At 6:00 a.m. on the fateful day in 2007, the call came from a neighbor that bulldozers were on the road to the village. Family and neighbors barricaded themselves in the Shabam home. With non-governmental organizations and Aljazeera media involved, negotiations continued through the day until the police left at 6:00 p.m. Ali was detained for several days. Police came through the house and broke everything, and even took the food from the refrigerator, but the family home remained. The demolition injunction order will expire in April, 2013, and the family will once again face the looming threat of demolition along with the rest of their village.
The state’s disregard for the Palestinians’ humanity, lives and dignity is palpable. Children and adults have been traumatized by the demolitions. They have lost homes and pets, and their faith in humanity has been challenged. Yet Salim Shawamereh speaks of his continued hope for peace through negotiations. Many Internationals have come and heard his words, including large mainstream western news media, but there has been no change.
Denial of water rights is the latest trend in attacks on Palestinians, and yet another violation of international law. As you drive through Israel and the occupied territories you can tell which homes belong to Palestinians, because they have water containers on the roofs. The water to Palestinian homes is regularly cut off for days and weeks, although Palestinians pay the same taxes as Israelis. Over 300,000 Palestinians in 113 communities are not connected to a water network, and 42,000 are considered “critically vulnerable,” with access to less than 30 litres per day per person.
Historically, the Jordan Valley was an agricultural cornucopia that utilized the Jordan River and related springs for irrigation. But the Jordan River is now running nearly dry. Israel has drilled deep water wells, which divert traditional wells and springs, and has outlawed the drilling of wells by Palestinians. This has effectively forced Palestinian farmers to give up on a generational livelihood. In an area that was once home to 52 healthy farming villages, there are now only 17 villages, without water. Meanwhile, settlements and settlement plantations with 30-foot deep-water wells have plenty of water for homes, pools and large scale industrial plantations.
Area C under is under complete State control. Here we visited a Bedouin village facing its second displacement, supposedly because it is on an ‘archeological site.’ The hospitality of the villagers was profound. They offered us tea when their daily water supply is five times below the UN recommended amount to sustain life.
The Wall and International Law
Whether you call it a security fence or an apartheid wall, until you see it, it is impossible to fully comprehend the wall that divides Israel from much of the West Bank. It snakes its way through the occupied territories, separating farmers from their trees, families from each other, workers from jobs, and Palestinians from Palestinians in an open air prison. Twice as high as and five times as long as the Berlin wall, it is an imposing part of life for all Palestinians. In Bethlehem it has reduced the city to 13% of its previous size and snakes through so there is no where it is not seen.
Hebron, which is part Area A and part Area C, provides a stark contrast for life as a Palestinian. In Area C of Hebron the settlers create unimaginable living conditions for the Palestinian residents. Here we met parents tormented because their children are terrorized by settlers as they walk to school. The children have had sulfuric acid, rocks, bottles, garbage and verbal assaults hurled at them. Here we met the International Accompanier, armed with a camera and recording device, who walks children to school to ensure their safety.
The Hebron market has centuries of rich history as the main market for the region. The occupying state has seized over 2000 market stalls and the main market street. Settlers throw garbage at the remaining open stalls. The separation between settlers and Palestinians is clear. A barrier, checkpoint and many armed soldiers allow settlers access to the well maintained road, while Palestinians have access only to a small path.
It became clear on our tour that international humanitarian law (IHL), international human rights law (IHRL) and the fourth Geneva Convention are being violated by the state of Israel. Yet they go unchallenged in any court of law. Without international pressure there will be no convictions or days in court.
The workers and residents we met in the occupied territories were hospitable, patient with our endless questions, and full of dignity despite the most unbelievable conditions of occupation.
In East Jerusalem we met representatives from the PGFTU, which is the labour umbrella group similar to our Canadian Labour Congress (CLC). Manawell Abdul-al and Suheil Khader shared stories of the difficulty they face representing members in the occupied territories. In Jerusalem they are typically denied access to workplaces. They must travel to Egypt in order to meet with worker organizers from Gaza. We also met with representatives of the GUPW (General Union of Palestinian Workers). This union has been in existence since the 1920s and represents transport workers, labourers and all workers who wish to join.
As I started this report on demolitions I end with the workers and the most devastating sight of the trip. When in Bethlehem we went to the exit checkpoint early in the morning to see the conditions for workers leaving Bethlehem for work. They can only leave the prison called Bethlehem if they have a work permit. They line up as early as five am to be sure to get through the checkpoint. The gates and turn styles are more imposing than a prison and workers are left to wait until the IDF soldiers staffing the gate feel like letting them through. The wait is long and dehumanizing. At the whim of the IDF the gate may be closed at any time. If the workers are not through when it is closed they miss getting to work that day and thus lose their job. This absurd and inhuman system is becoming normalized; taxis (not allowed outside of Bethlehem) take workers to the gate, coffee and lunch venders are there to allow workers to grab a coffee and a bite for lunch on their way. The hustle and bustle is similar to the entry to any North American factory…until you see the gate, the bars, the lines, the soldiers, the faces of a worn out worker. All one can be left with is the cry “No justice! No peace!”
All conversations toward peace and negotiations must begin with the illegal occupation and the international pressure needed to end it. Only therein lay the beginnings of justice and the beginnings of peace.
In closing I give my humble praise to the peace and labor activists of Palestine. To be a peace activist in Canada, with no experience of unimaginable dehumanization, is easy. But to continue the struggle for peace amidst the violations Palestinians experience is cause for incredible celebration of those who day after day maintain the hope that peace will be achieved.
Ruth Breen will be speaking and showing pictures of her trip to the Occupied West Bank on Wednesday, March 13 at 1:30pm at University of New Brunswick’s Carleton Hall, Room 106.