By Jeff Halper
The day before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan began, at 2:30 in the morning, workers sent by the Israeli authorities, protected by dozens of police, destroyed the tombstones in the last portion of the Mamilla cemetery, an historic Muslim burial ground with graves going back to the 7th Century, hitherto left untouched. The government of Israel has always been fully cognizant of the sanctity and historic significance of the site. Already in 1948, when control of the cemetery reverted to Israel, the Israeli Religious Affairs Ministry recognized Mamilla "to be one of the most prominent Muslim cemeteries, where seventy thousand Muslim warriors of [Saladin’s] armies are interred along with many Muslim scholars. Israel will always know to protect and respect this site." For all that, and despite (proper) Israeli outrage when Jewish cemeteries are desecrated anywhere in the world, the dismantlement of the Mamilla cemetery has been systematic. In the 1960s "Independence Park" was built over a portion of it; subsequently an urban road was built through it, major electrical cables were laid over graves and a parking lot constructed over yet another piece. Now some 1,500 Muslim graves have been cleared in several nighttime operations to make way for…..a $100 million Museum of Tolerance and Human Dignity, a project of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. (Ironically, Rabbi Marvin Hier, the Wiesenthal Center’s Director, appeared on Fox News to express his opposition to the construction of a mosque near Ground Zero in Manhattan, because the site of the 9/11 attack "is a cemetery.")
The month-long period between Netanyahu’s July 6th visit to Washington and the start of Ramadan has provided Israel with a window to "clear the table" after a frustrating hiatus on home demolitions imposed by the "old," mildly critical Obama Administration – although there is no guarantee that Israel will not demolish during Ramadan, especially if it wants to exploit the period until the November elections, knowing that until then Obama will not overtly oppose anything it does in the Occupied Territories. In fact, the process of demolishing Palestinian homes never ceased. On June 6th, for example, a year after the demolition of more than 65 structures and the forced displacement of more than 120 people, including 66 children, nine families of Khirbet Ar Ras Ahmar in the Jordan Valley, totaling 70 people, received a new round of "evacuation orders." A week later the Israeli High Court ordered the Civil Administration to "step up enforcement against illegal Palestinian structures" in Area C, the 60% of the West Bank under full Israeli control.
And so, on July 13th, upon Netanyahu’s return (Palestinian homes are not demolished without an OK from the Prime Minister’s Office), three homes were demolished in the Palestinian East Jerusalem neighborhood of Issawiya, followed by three more homes in Beit Hanina. The Jerusalem Municipality also announced the planned demolition of 19 more homes in Issawiya this month. In the West Bank, the Israeli "Civil" Administration demolished 55 structures belonging to 22 Palestinian families in the Hmayer area of Al Farisiye in the northern Jordan Valley, including 22 residential tents and 30 other structures used to shelter animals and store agricultural equipment. According to the UN’s Office of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA): "This week [July 14-20, the week of Netanyahu’s return from Washington] there was a significant increase in the number of demolitions in Area C, with at least 86 structures demolished in the Jordan Valley and the southern West Bank, including Bethlehem and Hebron districts. In 2010, at least 230 Palestinian structures have been demolished in Area C, forcibly displacing 1100 people, including 400 children. Approximately 600 others have been otherwise affected." Two-thirds of the demolitions for 2010 have occurred since Netanyahu’s meeting with Obama. More than 3,000 demolition orders are outstanding in the West Bank, and up to 15,000 in Palestinian East Jerusalem.
The demolition of homes is, of course, only a small, if painful, part of the destruction Israel wreaks daily on the Palestinian population. Over the past few weeks a violent campaign has been waged against Palestinian farmers in one of the most fertile agricultural areas of the West Bank, the Baka Valley, steadily being encroached upon by large suburbs of the settlement of Kiryat Arba, in Hebron. Israel already takes 85% of the West Bank’s water for its own use, either for settlements (settlers use five times more water per capita as do Palestinians, and Ma’aleh Adumim is currently building a water park in addition to its four municipal swimming pools and the huge fountains constantly flowing in the city center) or to be pumped into Israel proper – all in flagrant violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits an Occupying Power from using the resources of an occupied territory.
Accusing the farmers of "stealing water" – their own water – the Israel water company Mekorot, supported by the Civil Administration and the IDF, has in recent weeks destroyed dozens of wells, some of them ancient, and reservoirs used to collect rain water, which is also "illegal." Hundreds of hectares of agricultural land have dried up as irrigation pipes have been pulled out and confiscated by the Civil Administration. Fields of tomatoes, beans, eggplants and cucumbers are dying just before they can be harvested, and the grape industry in this rich valley is threatened with destruction. "I’m watching my life dry up before my eyes," says Ata Jaber, a Palestinian farmer who has had his home demolished twice, most of whose land lies buried under the Givat Harsina neighborhood of Kiryat Arba and whose plastic drip irrigation pipes are destroyed annually by the Civil Administration just before he can harvest. "I had hoped to sell my crop for at least $2000 before Ramadan, but all is gone."
Settlements continue to be built, of course. The much-trumpeted “settlement freeze” amounted to no less than a temporary lull in construction. (Indeed, Netanyahu never used the word “freeze”; in Hebrew he refers only to a “pause.”) According to the August report of Peace Now’s Settlement Watch, at least 600 housing units have started to be built during the freeze, in over 60 different settlements – meaning that the rate of construction is about half of that during the same period in an average year when there is no freeze. Given that the approval process has never been halted – the Israeli government announced the planned building of 1600 housing units in the settlements when Vice President Biden was visiting, if you recall – making up for lost time when the “freeze” ends in late September will be an easy task. According to Ha’aretz, some 2,700 housing units are waiting to be constructed.
The fact that the so-called settlement freeze did not really end settlement construction is obvious. The American government seems ready to accept lip-service only from Israel, as against overt and brutal threats towards the Palestinians if they do not acquiesce to the charade. Palestinian negotiators revealed last week that the Obama Administration threatened to cut all ties with the Palestinian Authority, political and financial, if they continued to insist on a genuine freeze on settlements or even clear parameters on what the sides will negotiate. (Netanyahu refuses to accept even the elementary principle of the 1967 borders being the basis of talks.)
Just as destructive of any real peace process, however, is the fact that the focus on settlement freeze deflects attention from attempts by Israel to create “irreversible facts on the ground” which will defeat the very process of negotiation. Even if Israel did respect a settlement freeze, there is no demand, no expectation, absolutely nothing to prevent it from continuing to build the Wall (the enclosing of the Shuafat refugee camp inside Jerusalem and the town of Anata is being completed in these very days, and the village of Wallajeh, some of which spills into Jerusalem, is losing its lands, ancient olive trees and homes even as we speak). Nothing is preventing Israel from continuing to impoverish and imprison the Palestinian population through its twenty-year economic “closure,” including the siege on Gaza, having reduced the Palestinian economy to ashes. Nothing stands in the way of completing a system of parallel (though not equal in size and quality) apartheid highways, big ones, going through Palestinian lands, for Israelis; narrow ones for Palestinians. Nothing keeps Israel from expelling Palestinian from their homes so that Jewish settlers can move in – on July 29th nine families living in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, returning home at night from a wedding, found themselves locked out of their homes by settlers and prevented from entering by the police. (Palestinians, of course, have no legal recourse to reclaiming their properties, whole villages, towns and urban neighborhoods, farms, factories and commercial buildings, confiscated from them in 1948 and after.)
Nothing prevents Israel from terrorizing the Palestinian population, whether by its own army or the surrogate militia founded by the US and run by the Palestinian Authority to pacify its own population, whether by settlers who shoot and beat Palestinians and burn their crops with no fear of arrest, or by undercover agents, aided by thousands of Palestinian forced to become collaborators, many simply so that their children could receive medical care or so they could have a roof over their heads; whether by expulsion or the myriad administrative constraints of an invisible yet Kafkaesque system of total control and intimidation. Nothing opposes Israel’s boycott of the Palestinian people, isolated from the world by Israeli-controlled borders, or policies that effectively boycott Palestinian schools and universities by preventing their proper functioning. And nothing, absolutely nothing, stops Israel from demolishing Palestinian homes – 24,000 in the Occupied Territories since 1967, and counting.
Perhaps this way of welcoming Ramadan comes as no surprise in terms of the Occupied Territories. It took on an entirely different cast when, on July 26th, more than 1,300 Israeli Border Police, the shock-troops of the police’s Yassam “special operations” unit and regular police, accompanied by helicopters, descended upon the Bedouin village of al-Arakib, just north of Beer-Sheva, a community within Israel inhabited by Israeli citizens. Forty-five homes were demolished, 300 people forcibly displaced. One of the most grotesque and dismaying parts of this operation was the use of Israeli Jewish high school students, volunteers with the civil guard, to remove the belongings of their fellow citizens from their homes before the demolition. Besides reports of vandalism and contempt for their victims, the students were photographed lounging in the residents’ furniture in plain sight of its owners. Finally, when the bulldozers began demolishing the homes, the volunteers cheered and celebrated. Over the next week, as Israeli activists helped the residents pick up the pieces and rebuild their homes, the Jewish National Fund, the Israeli Land Authority, the Ministry of the Interior and the “Green Patrol” of the Ministry of Agriculture (established by Ariel Sharon to prevent Bedouin “take-over” of the Negev) sent in police and bulldozers and had the village demolished twice more.
Although al-Arakib is one of 44 “unrecognized” Bedouin villages in the Negev – of which only eleven have even rudimentary education and medical services, no electricity, extremely limited access to water and none have paved roads – it is nevertheless populated by Israeli citizens, some of whom serve in the Israeli army. While demolitions of Arab homes within Israel is not a new phenomenon – last year the Israeli government demolished three times more houses of Israeli (Arab) citizens inside Israel as it did in the Occupied Territories (the destruction of up to 8,000 homes in the Gaza invasion aside) – it signifies that the term “occupation” cannot be restricted to the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza (and the Golan Heights) alone. The situation of Arab citizens of Israel is almost as insecure as that of the Palestinians of the Occupied Territories, and their exclusion from Israeli society almost as complete. While around 1,000 cities, towns and agricultural villages have been established in Israel since 1948 exclusively for Jews, not a single new Arab settlement has been established, with the exception of seven housing projects for Bedouins in the Negev where none of the residents are allowed to farm or own animals. Indeed, regulations and zoning prohibit Palestinian citizens of Israel from living on 96% of the country’s land, which is reserved for Jews only.
The message of the bulldozers is clear: Israel has created one bi-national entity between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River in which one population (the Jews) has separated itself from the other (the Arabs) and instituted a regime of permanent domination. That is precisely the definition of apartheid. And the message is delivered clearly in the weeks and days leading up to Ramadan. It is papered over with fine words. Netanyahu issued a statement saying: “We mark this important month amid attempts to achieve direct peace talks with the Palestinians and to advance peace treaties with our Arab neighbors. I know you are partners in this goal and I ask for your support both in prayers and in any other joint effort to really create a peaceful and harmonious coexistence.” Obama and Clinton also sent their greetings to the Muslim world, Obama observing that Ramadan “remind[s] us of the principles that we hold in common, and Islam’s role in advancing justice, progress, tolerance, and the dignity of all human beings.” Both the White House and the State Department will hold Iftar meals. But the bulldozers and other expressions of apartheid and warehousing tell a much different story.
– Jeff Halper is the Director of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD). This article was contributed to PalestineChronicle.com. Contact him at: jeff [at] icahd.org.