16th Apr 2024


Building Israel, one rock at a time

  • Settler in his new house in Hebron (Photo: Rosie Gabrielle)

The rock, thrown by a Jewish settler, hit Rashida, a six-year old Palestinian girl, in the forehead as she walked from school in the South Hebron Hills one Wednesday (23 April).

Photos of her injury show six stitches on a deep, red gash.

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The Israeli NGO B'Tselem has given cameras to Bedouin who live in this remote part of the West Bank so that they can tell media about the violence because, they say, Israeli police does nothing to stop it.

Nasser Nawaj'ah, a Rashida family friend, told EUobserver that similar attacks took place "three or four times a week". He said settlers also vandalised Bedouin property.

"Thank God we have this technology, this internet, so we can tell the story," he said.

"If a settler attacks you, and you put up your hand to defend yourself, the Israelis arrest you for assault. You're gone from your family for a long time and your house is demolished."

Nawaj'ah spoke in a makeshift building of stones and tarpaulin. Israeli soldiers destroyed his original home, a Bedouin cave, by smashing it and filling it with rubble. The soldiers also destroyed his water cistern by dumping a car into it, so that the vehicle's rust and battery acid would poison the water.

Nawaj'ah's new house is also under a demolition order.

The demolitions are because the Hebron hills are in "Area C" - a vast swathe of the West Bank under full Israeli control where Palestinians rarely get construction permits.

Nawaj'ah's village (Photo: Rosie Gabrielle)

Nawaj'ah says Israelis are trying to drive out the Bedouin by making their life intolerable.

In a quirk of the system, Israel applies a law dating from the Ottoman Empire under which land left uncultivated for 10 years can be confiscated.

Many Bedouin have already moved to Yatta, a nearby town. If they all go, their confiscated land would connect Jewish outposts inside the West Bank with Israel's old border, the Green Line, cutting off a part of Palestinian territory.

Asked if he would leave, Nawaj'ah said: "If they demolish this place, we'll build it back and build it back. They cannot demolish our will to stay."

"It's not that the land belongs to us: We belong to the land," he said.

"When my father was a child, and Israel expelled our family from their home, my grandfather carried him away and said: 'Don't worry: We'll be back soon.' But they never went back. I was born in a cave. When Israel made the area into an archeological park, my father carried me away and said the same thing my grandfather had said", he added.

"I will not do this to my children", he said.

Asked if he could live in peace with Jewish people, he said: "I would love to drink tea with them if they stayed in their own borders. But if someone takes your land and says that God gave it to them, and they demolish your home, and they throw stones at your children, then how can you drink tea with them?".

Bedouin girl (Photo: Rosie Gabrielle)

Further north, in Hebron, the biggest Palestinian city in the West Bank, a similar process is unfolding, one house at a time.

In mid-April, settlers took over a building on a hill next to Hebron's old town.

What the Palestinians call the "House of Contention" connects the Kiryat Arba settlement on the outskirts of Hebron with Jewish outposts, such Avraham Avinu, in the old town centre.

Settlers first came to Hebron, which is the legendary burial place of Biblical patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, in 1968, after Israel conquered the West Bank from Jordan in the Six-Day War.

It has seen atrocious violence by both sides over the years, resulting in Israel's division of the city into "H1" and "H2".

H2, which covers the Jewish outposts in the old town and the Cave of the Patriarchs, a holy place for Jews and Muslims, is a mosaic of secure zones designed to keep settlers and Palestinians apart.

Hebron: from Arab market to ghost town (Photo: Rosie Gabrielle)

Israelis and foreign tourists move freely under the eyes of 600 Israeli soldiers armed with assault rifles and grenade launchers.

But Palestinians are forbidden to have shops on "yellow" roads. They are forbidden to drive on "purple" roads and forbidden to walk on "red" roads. Palestinians who live on red roads have had their doors welded shut, forcing them to use ladders to go out the back way.

Most Palestinians who can afford to have moved to H1 because life in H2 is intolerable.

Meanwhile, settlers have broken into old shops in a derelict Palestinian market to extend their homes.

The toxic atmosphere is on show.

On a wall beside the house of one H2 Palestinian family, which is headed by a deaf woman, Hebrew graffiti says: "The deaf woman is the daughter of a bitch." Another Palestinian home is known as "the cage house" because it needed to instal metal cages on its windows to stop Jewish settlers from smashing them.

"Hebron makes Belfast at the height of The Troubles look sane," Daniel Seidemann, a lawyer with the Israeli NGO Terrestrial Jerusalem, told this website, referring to sectarian warfare in Northern Ireland under British occupation .

Yehuda Shaul, from the NGO Breaking the Silence and a former Israeli soldier who served in Hebron, said: "The settlers are trying to make the situation here into normality. They don't care if it's taking a long time because they see history in Biblical terms."

"The House of Contention will lead to more clashes, more secure zones, more army patrols, and the emptying of more Palestinian neighbourhoods in H2", he added.

The Cage House (Photo: Rosie Gabrielle)

Levi Shlomo, who lives in The House of Contention with his wife and seven children, surrounded by razor wire and guarded by three Israeli soldiers, sees things differently.

He calls it "The House of Peace."

He said his group bought it for more than $1 million from an Arab owner and that it could house 50 people. "I am free to live anywhere I like. I could buy a house in London, or in Tehran, so why not here?", he told EUobserver.

"I love Hebron. I was born here and my children live here," he said.

"There's 4,000 years of Jewish history in Hebron. It's written in The Bible. Jacob said: 'Our place is here: Israel, and the centre point is Hebron.' These are not my words. Jacob said them."

He said the H2 secure zones were the Palestinians' fault.

"There are good Arabs and bad Arabs. Some of my neighbours invite me for tea, and others threaten to kill me … If they want real peace, then why don't they just let us live here?", Shlomo said.

He believes that peace talks between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) have made matters worse.

"Ever since the peace process began, all we've had is attacks and violence, stone throwing and shooting at cars. Twenty years ago there was no peace process, but we had peace," he said.

House of Contention/Peace (Photo: Rosie Gabrielle)

The situation in the South Hebron Hills and in Hebron is also replicated in other parts of the West Bank.

Over the past 50 years, the Jewish settler population has grown from almost zero to more than 500,000.

Some settlements house tens of thousands of people and have schools and hospitals. Settlers drive to Jerusalem or Tel Aviv on Israeli-only roads passing the Green Line - a strip of paint on the asphalt - in the blink of an eye.

Left- and right-wing Israeli governments have come and gone. But settlements, bypass roads, and secure zones have multiplied. They have encircled Palestinian population centres and severely restricted movement.

The Hebron-like mozaics of secure zones are also replicated.

One highway from Jerusalem leads to a tunnel that is Area C (Israeli control), the hill above it is "Area A" (Palestinian control), and the airspace above the hill is Israeli-controlled.

The current Israeli government is a right-left coalition, dominated by the right-wing Likud party of prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

He says he supports a two-state solution: a Palestinian state next to a Jewish state.

Shlomo at home (Photo: Rosie Gabrielle)

His foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, is a settler, however.

The housing minister, Uri Ariel, is also from the hard right and has called for a new synagogue on Temple Mount, denigrating Arab rights in one of Islam's holiest places.

One Israeli official echoed settlers such as Hebron's Shlomo.

"We have a right, a claim to the entire West Bank - the last time it had any sovereignty attached to it was during the Ottoman Empire, and the Ottoman Empire doesn't exist any more … so the West Bank is terra nullius - a land without sovereignty attached to it in legal terms," the official told EUobserver in Jerusalem.

"It's the cradle of our civilisation and it was taken during a defensive war", he said.

He added: "We're not forcefully displacing people, but we have allowed Israelis who want to live in the West Bank to go there."

Paul Hirschson, a spokesman for the Israeli foreign ministry, noted: "We don't accept that there is an 'occupation' or that we're an 'occupying' power. It [the West Bank] is disputed territory, not 'occupied territory'."

He said Israel would dismantle some settlements if there is a peace deal with the PLO.

"We'll get the raw end of the deal in terms of real estate. They'll get 90 percent to 100 percent of the land, we'll get 0 percent to 10 percent", he said.

"The settlements already built constitute something like 1.7 percent of the West Bank and have zero impact on the viability of a future Palestinian state. It's not intellectually honest to say that settlements are preventing us from reaching an agreement," the spokesman said.

Shlomo's son (Photo: Rosie Gabrielle)

Hirschson believes Palestinian people are not ready to make peace.

"If Israelis felt, deep down, that the Palestinians, and the Arab world more broadly speaking, are ready to recognise that we're here, that we're here by right, not by an accident of fate, and that we're not going away, we'd have a reconciliation by now," he said.

"We will resolve this. But we have to believe in it. We're not suicidal", he added.

He denied the allegation, made by Nawaj'ah from the South Hebron Hills, that settler violence goes unpunished.

"In every single case where we've got credible evidence, people are prosecuted," the Israeli spokesman noted.

The last round of Arab-Israeli peace talks ground to a halt in April, prompting mutual recriminations.

Israel said the Palestinians broke trust by planning to form a new government with Hamas, a Palestinian group in Gaza that was designated as a "terrorist" entity by the EU and US.

It also complained that Palestine applied to join UN treaties in a bid for statehood outside the negotiations.

Friday in Hebron (Photo: Rosie Gabrielle)

Xavier Abu Eid, an advisor to the PLO's negotiating team, notes that, Muslim states aside, even friends of Israel, such as the 28 EU countries and the US, considered the West Bank to be "occupied territory" and settlements to be "illegal under international law".

"To say settlements are not an obstacle to peace is nonsense. They are the main obstacle … If you steal an apple from me, and everyone accepts that it's mine, then you say 'let's talk' while you are eating the apple, there can be no talks," he told EUobserver in Ramallah, the de facto Palestinian capital.

"They are turning Palestine into Swiss cheese, making it impossible for us to connect, to have access to natural resources," he said.

"I'm not surprised Mr Hirschson is saying these things because he works for a settler ministry. His boss, Lieberman, lives in a settlement and when he drives to work each morning, he drives on a settler-only road which we call 'The Lieberman Road.' It's something you didn't see in the worst days of apartheid in South Africa," he added.

"They don't treat Palestinians as equals. They think that we're second class people who should be happy with what they leave us … They talk about recognising their 'rights,' but what they really want is for us to recognise this narrative," Abu Eid said.

'The deaf woman is the daughter of a bitch' (Photo: Rosie Gabrielle)

Politicians aside, numbers tell their own story.

Territorial Jerusalem, the Israeli NGO, has calculated that during the past nine months of peace talks Israel published plans for 13,851 new settler units - four times the yearly average before the talks began.

Breaking the Silence notes that while existing settlements constitute less than 2 percent of the West Bank, Israel has allocated another 9.5 percent of it for their future development, settlers farm on a further 1.5 percent of land, and settler councils have jurisdiction over 40 percent of the territory, creating a zone where Palestinians cannot build.

"There is even more land blocked for Palestinians due to military firing ranges, military camps, nature reserves and archeological parks," the NGO's Shaul said.

"Now tell me who's being 'intellectually dishonest,'," he added, referring to Hirschson's phrase.

Israeli authorities declined to give EUobserver data on how many settler attacks have ended in prosecutions.

But Yesh Din, another Israeli NGO, in a study in 2013 of 825 police investigations in the West Bank found that just 70 ended in an indictment. Seven hundred and forty seven were closed mostly on grounds of "offender unknown" or "insufficient evidence." Eight were closed because files had been "lost."

"The implication of these statistics is that … 84.1 percent were closed due to investigational failure on the part of the police," the NGO said. The 2013 figures are almost identical to ones published by Yesh Din every year since 2005.

Arab man in Hebron (Photo: Rosie Gabrielle)

The EU is wary of appearing to take sides in the conflict.

It voices complaints against the PLO.

A recent one is about "incitement" - anti-Semitic statements and support for anti-Semitic content in media. It has warned that if EU countries lose faith in the peace process, then the tap of €1 billion a year in aid to Palestine will run dry.

It also criticises Israeli settlements and settler violence.

Its foreign affairs chief, Catherine Ashton, and foreign ministers have published dozens of objections to settlement expansion.

Lars Faaborg-Andersen, the EU's ambassador to Israel, told EUobserver in Tel Aviv that settler violence was "unacceptable and even more unacceptable if it happens with impunity, which, unfortunately, is the case in most of the instances".

In the past, the EU did little to enforce its policies, but there are signs of growing frustration with Israel.

Information war (Photo: Rosie Gabrielle)

The EU recently imposed new guidelines on grants for Israeli entities to stop them spending European money on activities in "occupied" land.

It also went against Israel on Palestine's Hamas deal and its application to the UN conventions.

John Gat-Rutter, the head of the EU mission to Gaza and the West Bank, told this website in Jerusalem: "I think it [the Hamas pact] can actually be a helpful contribution to the peace process. After all, the Israelis need to make peace with the Palestinian people, not half the Palestinian people."

Faaborg-Andersen said he was still "studying" the Hamas accord.

But when he listed "unilateral measures" which are "adverse" to peace talks, he named exclusively Israeli actions: refusal to give Palestinian authorities access to customs revenues and deposits in Israeli banks; refusal to authorise "master plans" for new Palestinian homes in Area C; settlement expansion.

Even the US is saying painful things to its old ally.

US secretary of state John Kerry in April told an event in Washington that Israel risks becoming an "apartheid state".

His logic was that if there was no two-state solution, then Israel would either have to permanently disenfranchise Palestinian voters, or stop being a "Jewish state" because demographics would create an Arab majority. "A unitary state winds up either being an apartheid state with second-class citizens, or it ends up being a state that destroys the capacity of Israel to be a Jewish state," he said.

The EU's Faaborg-Andersen shares Kerry's concerns.

"Yes. Absolutely. That's a point that we, as many others, are making to Israel all the time - this [a two-state solution] is also in their clear interest," he told EUobserver.

EU diplomats praise Netanyahu for his "courage" in releasing Palestinian prisoners during the recent talks. They also think his hard-man image is useful because Israelis trust him to guarantee their security if he makes a deal.

But they are unsure of his real intentions.

Hebron synagogue (Photo: Rosie Gabrielle)

Asked if the history of settlement expansion looks like spontaneous growth or like a strategy to undermine Palestinian statehood, Faaborg-Andersen said: "They [settlements] make the two-state solution more difficult because they're dividing the West Bank into a patchwork of small enclaves … [So] one can look at a map and one can judge for oneself on that."

Gat-Rutter added: "The fact settlement activity increased after the peace talks were launched last July shows it was a political decision."

Another EU contact noted: "The problem about the demographic challenge to the Jewish state is that it's like climate change - it's too far down the road to cause pressure, while Netanyahu is making decisions based on immediate political gains or losses."

The EU is prepared to increase pressure if need be.

Denmark, Finland, Sweden, and the UK have already introduced national codes on labelling settler products in shops, harming Israel's reputation in the eyes of consumers. But the EU is preparing to publish a Europe-wide retail code if Israel ignores its appeals.

"It's in the drawer in Brussels and I think that if we go ahead, there would be, in private, a great deal of support from the White House," an EU diplomat noted.

Faaborg-Andersen said: "While there's no particular timeline for when this scheme will be presented and subsequently implemented, it's quite obvious that the issue on labelling will come even more to the forefront if the kind of settlement expansion that we have seen in the recent year continues in the future."

Bedouin olives: Small trees indicate settler vandalism (Photo: Rosie Gabrielle)

Israel's Hirschson played down the idea that Israel is becoming isolated in terms of diplomacy or public opinion.

He told EUobserver: "I honestly don't see the isolation: Jewish people have incredibly deep historical ties to Europe. At the same time, the extent of Israel's relationship with the EU and with individual member states is enormous. The levels of trade, of foreign investment in Israel, of security co-operation, of co-operation in science and in high-tech industries, are all greater now than they have ever been."

But EU diplomats say the relationship has a flip side.

One contact noted that mainstream Jewish voters would not be happy if Israel became a pariah state on Netanyahu's watch. "Jewish people have a very strong attachment to Europe and they are very sensitive to European sentiment," the EU source said.

There are worse case scenarios, however.

Gat-Rutter said: "My personal view is that today there isn't an appetite for a Third Intifada [Palestinian uprising]."

But he added: "There are provocations taking place every day, on Temple Mount, in Hebron, in Nablus, in Jenin, and there are regular skirmishes between Gaza and southern Israel, so there is plenty of potential for an outbreak of violence."

Faaborg-Andersen noted: "We're certainly very far away, fortunately, from the situation we had during the Second Intifada … but we could easily get into a downward-moving spiral that could spin out of control and then, eventually, we might hit a really hard rock."

Bedouin women at home (Photo: Rosie Gabrielle)

Seidemann, from Territorial Jerusalem, agreed.

"I don't smell the kind of volatile atmosphere I smelt in 2000 [the start of the Second Intifada]," he told EUobserver.

But when asked if an incident like the stone which hit Rashida could cause a new outbreak of fighting, he answered: "You have to remember the First Intifada started with a traffic accident … The Palestinians are tired. There will come a time when there is one settlement unit too many to bear, or when someone throws a pig's head at Al Aqsa [a mosque on Temple Mount]".

"Living in Jerusalem is like living in Los Angeles on the San Andreas fault: You can feel the pressure building, but you never know when the earthquake will strike."

Pictures by Rosie Gabrielle, a Canadian photographer living in Oman, who can be reached on rosiegabrielle@hotmail.com

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