Society

Whose land is it anyway?

Burhan and his son Ahmed in Talat Makhul   | Photo Credit: Praveen Sparsh

We drove down from Jerusalem, across the fertile meadows of Israel and Palestine dotted with patches of green, plunging downward towards the Dead Sea and then beyond Jericho on to Area C.

Area C sounds like District 12 from Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games. Unfortunately, it is not that far from reality. As per the Oslo agreement, the West Bank was divided into three zones: Area A, administered entirely by the Palestinian Authority; Area B with shared control, with civil administration under The Palestinian Authority and security under Israel; and Area C, entirely the Israeli army’s backyard.

We live in dangerous times. And the danger is concealed in the intimate bonhomie we share with violence. We propound the theory that as long as violence is used to protect a principle, belief or idea which we consider non-negotiable, it is justified. Violence is ‘Protector in Chief’ of the righteous, the believer, democrat and liberal. And locked in its own circular trap, each group constructs its own truth and soon violence becomes the defender of that one singular truth. And then truth itself changes colour.

Emerging outposts

We were in Givat Sal’it, a Jewish settlement in Area C. David Shulman, eminent scholar and activist, Guy Hircefeld, another activist, my co-musicians and I stood facing a few shacks and a small yard full of sheep. David explained how outposts such as that one cropped up.

The modus operandi is simple. A few deeply religious Jews, who believe it their destiny to take over all of the promised land, find any open space, plant a pole, and over the next few weeks move in, building themselves a new home on someone else’s land.

The Israeli Army ensures that electricity and water is instantly provided to them, and gives them military protection if the rightful owners of the land, the Palestinian shepherds or Bedouin, come in to let their sheep graze or even to just walk across to their own grazing lands that may lie behind these illegal settlements. These areas then become no-entry zones for the very people who have lived here for generations. Any transgression is immediately put down by force. Most settlers own guns and automatic weapons.

In the Jordan valley, the Israelis control the entire land, most of it earmarked as state land, military land, nature preserves, or firing areas used by the army. The Palestinians, who make up 90% of the population, live on approximately 6% of the land. The Jewish settlers are allowed to build their homes on state land as well as on land owned by the Palestinians.

Settlements began in the mid-70s within the Army camps. Later, the Israeli government issued state lands to settlers, the courts interpreting the law in a manner that allowed for this transfer. In the 80s and 90s, with the eruption of fervent Jewish nationalism, huge budgets were diverted for the creation of such settlements on Palestinian land.

As chauvinistic governments have held on to power in Tel Aviv, the settlers have become almost unstoppable. Today, settlers are even permitted into the fenced secure areas on the Jordanian border. The gates are opened especially for them to let their sheep graze there, even though many of these pastures are owned by Palestinians.

Guy and David are with Taayush, an organisation that helps the Bedouin. Taayush members begin a conversation with the shepherds, earn their trust, walk with them as they take their sheep out to graze, and ensure that they are not attacked by the settlers or the Army. By gathering extensive evidence on illegal settlements, they try to restore the lands back to the Palestinians, forcing the Army to act.

Most Bedouin have valid documents for their homes and grazing lands, yet the settlers are able to appropriate these properties easily. Taayush has had moderate success over the years.

As we spoke, I witnessed something bizarre. Guy, using his cell-phone camera, was recording the illegal settlement. As he walked around, he was followed by a settler who in turn took out his camera to record Guy’s movements. They were chronicling each other; not a single word was exchanged.

Our conversations and car number plates were also recorded by the settler. All this, I was told, is sent to the Israeli Army. Recently, at Al-Auja, very close to where we were that day, an activist’s arm was broken and another person was stoned and clubbed by young settlers when they positioned themselves between settlers and shepherds to protect the latter. The police and the army refused to intervene.

Routine assaults

For the local Bedouin, intimidation, assaults and arrests are part of everyday life. When we met Maadi in the village of Ein al-Hilweh, the fear was palpable. That morning, Maadi’s brothers, who were out shepherding, had been arrested for no reason. Maadi pointed to Maskiot, a Jewish settlement across the valley, and said, “They are the ones who threaten us with automatic weapons and the army is on their side. And they say they are afraid of us?”

Maadi is a tall, big-built Palestinian with a tender voice. Despair was written all over his face and his words were wrenching, unmediated, revealing. “They say they want peace, but that is not true. They keep asking us to go away to Jordan. We are not allowed access to water from the springs, as they say god gave them the water. If they could, they would even stop air. Even animals have more rights. I just wish they would treat us like human beings.”

Victims of propaganda

Shani, a young musician who grew up in a Jewish settlement in Samaria, said, “I was taught to fear, hate and despise an entire people. Their religion was portrayed as violent, their language unpleasant, and their culture barbaric. I don’t blame my parents and family; they are the victims of the same propaganda machine.” Consequently all Palestinians are considered unworthy of god’s own land.

Shepherds are beaten regularly, their livestock killed, and tents destroyed, yet the Bedouin have no one to appeal to. Living in the valley in Area C, far from the public eye, they are the most vulnerable to abuse. The Palestinian Authority’s writ doesn’t run here, but they don’t seem to care even about the lives of the Bedouin living in Area C.

Maadi demands that the Israeli Army take care of them because the Oslo agreement makes it their responsibility. This may be more than a little naïve, yet the hope in his voice is humbling. At the same time, Maadi is acutely aware of the larger constitutional claims made by Israel. As he puts it succinctly, “Israel claims to be the only democracy in this region, but denies us our basic rights.”

Amidst these tiny Palestinian hamlets, we suddenly enter a concrete village. Aqaba boasts of a school, park, cheese and tea factories, and well-constructed homes. The village mayor is Haj Sadiq, in a wheelchair since 1971 when he was shot by Israeli forces. An enterprising and empathetic leader, he showed us around his oasis.

“The Army claims that all these buildings are illegal because Palestinians are not allowed to build on their own land. But we have defied their order. Why can’t we build on our own lands?”

But the Army is not a silent spectator to any Palestinian development. Aqaba is reminded frequently of its presence and brutality. Soldiers recently entered the village at 2 a.m., walked into homes and terrorised families in a random search operation.

Denying water is one of the chief instruments of control the Israeli state uses. None of the Palestine villages, including Aqaba, have water pipelines. Aqaba, in fact, has a large storage tank that is bone dry because the Army has refused to allow pipelines. The shepherds buy water from tankers at huge costs. Even in Area A towns like Jericho, which are fertile and rich, water is hard to come by since the reservoirs are controlled by the Army.

That morning at Jericho’s city square, Osama, a middle-aged Palestinian, pointed to the balcony of the municipality building from where the enigmatic Yasser Arafat had delivered his famous homecoming speech in 1994.

Osama is a child of the revolution. A young boy frightened by the Army and thrown into jail became a freedom fighter, only to later realise that there are decent people even among the Jews. He is today the coordinator of the Jericho chapter of ‘Combatants for Peace,’ an association of Israeli soldiers and Palestinian freedom fighters.

Before we bid him goodbye, Osama says, “We are trying to find a way to live in equality, but I don’t feel it will happen soon. But moving is better than staying in the same place. It’s a long walk but we will reach our destination.”

As I recall Osama’s philosophical rumination, I picture young Ahmed’s enchanting eyes as he sat nestled on his father’s hip in Talat Makhul village. Will his story be any different?

The writer is a rebel, whether against cultural conventions or injustice or just bad tea.


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Printable version | Dec 2, 2021 1:17:31 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/whose-land-is-it-anyway/article19186990.ece

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