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Expanding Settlements Means Removing Palestinian People from their Land: The Story of Baqa'a - By Ahmad Jaradat

April 10, 2008 2:47 P.M. (Updated: April 10, 2008 2:47 P.M.)
Palestinian villagers from a small overcrowded village in the southern West Bank, to the northeast of Hebron, were recently threatened by the Israeli authorities with 32 house demolitions, which were to include a health clinic still under construction. The residents of this village are rapidly becoming poorer and risk losing their homes, all to create space for Israeli settlement expansion and the building of Bypass Road 60.

In addition to land confiscated specifically for the building of Road 60, the Israeli authorities have designated an additional "buffer zone" of 180 meters on either side of the road, upon which Palestinians have been forbidden to build on their own land.

The Baqa'a valley, where this village lies, is a beautiful and fertile area situated to the east of Hebron, about a half-hour walk from the center of the city. The village houses approximately 60 Palestinians families, including several refugees from 1948. The inhabitants are mostly farmers, growing crops with grape vineyards, fruit and ancient olive trees. Where the soil is too rocky and steep for planting, sheep and donkeys graze freely around the homes.

In 1968, following the Israeli military conquest of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the first group of Jewish Israeli settlers came to Hebron, relocating to a nearby military base to the east of Hebron, now the settlement of Kiryat Arba. This settlement, to the south of the Baqa'a valley and only a few meters from Palestinians homes, is today the biggest settlement in the area with more than 7,000 inhabitants. To the north of the valley is the settlement of Givat Haharsina. Between them, cutting the valley in two, is bypass Road 60, built in 1996 on a north-south axis to the east of Hebron to connect the settlements with Jerusalem, and known for its frequent gatherings and protest marches by settlers. Road 60, built on confiscated Palestinian land which used to be planted with grape vines and olive groves, is now cuts off from farmers' access.

The majority of the settlers living in this area are motivated more by ideology and religious belief than economic incentives. They strongly believe in the divine mission to Judaize biblical Judea.

Since the Oslo Agreement, the area has been classified as Area C (under total Israeli administrative and security control). This means that the local Palestinian municipality must apply to the Israeli Civil Administration for permission to provide services to the residents and for building permits. The Israeli Civil Administration has always refused to grant building permits to Palestinians, including for health clinics, despite the difficulties the residents encounter in reaching other health facilities. This is done in accordance with the Israeli government policy of expanding the settlements and pushing local residents out of their land. Also, the permissions to provide services are not always forthcoming. Thus, the residents are taxed for services they never receive.

Since 1980, when the settlement of Kiryat Arba began to expand, the residents of Baqa'a experienced many difficulties arising from their proximity to these settlements: land confiscation, harassments and house demolitions. In the last 12 years, around 30 buildings have been demolished by the Israeli authorities. The Israeli Committee Against House Demolition (ICAHD) has rebuilt six houses, of which three have been demolished again and three are presently under demolition orders.

Atta Jaber, a resident of the Baqa'a valley, told us his story. His story is the story of dozens of families living there.

Born in the valley, 60 meters from his new house, he spent all his childhood here. He was 10 years old when the settlers occupied the area. The majority of his friends and relatives moved to Hebron or to Amman when the settlers' harassments started, and lost their land for the expansion of the settlements and the bypass road. Without land, jobs and building permits, they thought that leaving to somewhere else was their only possibility for a decent future.

Atta Jaber worked for several years in Israel in order to gain enough money to get married and build his house on the land that has belonged to his family for several generations. He got married during the Oslo process, when many Palestinians were celebrating the coming peace and an end to the occupation. In 1993, in the midst of the Oslo peace negotiations, he received an order from the Israeli Civil Administration to stop working on his house, indicating that the negotiations were perceived by Israelis on the ground as nothing more than a charade. During this period, 60 demolition orders were handed out to families in the valley. Four hundred and forty two persons were living in those houses.

According to Atta Jaber, the Hebron municipality brought the case to then Palestinian President Yasser Arafat in person, who was in Cairo negotiating with then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. They reached an agreement to revoke the demolition orders. But in 1996, the same Israeli officer issued new demolition orders for all of the buildings against which orders had previously been issued.

Atta Jaber was arrested at that time with the accusation that he was working on Israeli state land. He was released only after he paid a fine of 400 dollars. In February 1997, Israeli bulldozers arrived at Atta's house, damaging his farmland. In March he received an immediate order to leave the house in two hours, but the bulldozers didn't come. They came one year later, however, to demolish his house. On that day, 81 residents were injured during clashes with the Israeli military. The Israeli soldiers had orders to shoot people opposing resistance to the demolitions.

Three days later, with the help of all the Baqa'a residents and ICAHD, Atta Jaber rebuilt his second house. Through Israeli friends, his case was brought to the desk of then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. According to sources, the prime minister signed an agreement to grant Atta Jaber a retroactive building permit, but after only 27 days, 140 soldiers entered his propriety to demolish his house yet again. After being beaten, Jaber was arrested a second time, leaving his wife and four sons alone in a tent. He asked the officer to take care of his homeless sons. During the trial, the prosecution requested that he be detained along with his son-the weapon he used to hurt the officer-they said. The judge released Jaber only when his son was brought to the court and the judge realized he was merely six months old. At this point, the case was declared over. After six months living in a tent, with the help of the Catholic Human Rights Center for Legal Resources and Development, Atta Jaber once again began to rebuild his third house.

In December 2000, while the Jabar family was still living in a tent, a group of settlers occupied their house that was under construction. The settlers were removed by Israeli soldiers only after a number of months had passed. At present, it appears that the settlers reached an agreement with the Israeli Civil Administration to live there.

But the settler attacks have not stopped. A number of times the settlers have come armed, during the night, shooting to the family's livestock and damaging their farmland. Each time Atta Jaber has called the police, but they have arrived only after the attacks are over.

The story of the Jaber family is only one example among hundreds that Palestinians in the area face, living with the same problems and under similar conditions. Settlers from Kiryat Arba and Givat Haharsina are responsible for a lot of vandalism and violence against Palestinians in the area. Settlers have stolen fruits, damaged water cisterns, destroyed stone terraces, turned their dogs loose on goats tended by children, cut down grape vineyards and thrown stones at houses and residents. All these actions occurred with complete immunity from Israeli authorities.

The 32 demolition orders recently handed out by the Israeli Civil Administration are now under court proceedings. But the residents have little hope. They already saw their houses demolished several times and their demand for building permits repeatedly denied. They have ceased trying to apply for permits because they know it is pointless.

In this valley, as in all of Area C in the occupied West Bank, no allowance has been made for natural growth of the Palestinian population. Settlement expansion in the area is not only affecting the future of the residents of the valley. Hebron itself will be limited from expanding eastward, and all the villages to the northeast of the city, such as Sa'ir, Bane Na'eem, Adeasa and al-Shukh, which the bypass road has already detached from the city, preventing them from using it, will suffer from more isolation. This isolation will inevitably affect the social, economic and cultural life of the people living there.

Al Baqa'a pays the price for "peace negotiations"

The story of Baqa'a valley powerfully illuminates the results of each so-called peace negotiation on the ground and therefore the feelings of Palestinians towards it.

During the Oslo process, 60 demolition orders were issued in this area and now, only a few months after the Annapolis Conference and the promise to freeze settlement expansion, an additional 32 demolition orders now weigh on the negotiations. At the same time, Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak announced the construction of new housing units in the settlement blocs of Gush Etzion, Ma'aleh Adumim, Givat Ze'ev, Ariel, Elkana and Efrat.

After 150 people were killed in the Gaza Strip during January, all the mass arrests in the West Bank, the demolition orders and the confiscation of land for settlement expansion and the route of the Wall, who can still believe in peace negotiation? What will happen in 2008? If things continue in this way, it will be more Palestinians homeless, more pushed to leave, more arrested, more killed, more without land and thus jobless and poorer. More desperation, more anger, more sense of revenge, more violence...more war.

All the settler violence in the valley is not just intended to pester their Palestinians neighbors; it appears there is a comprehensive government project for the area: they want Kiryat Arba and Haharsina to grow together to become one large settlement. And all of this will be done at the expense of the suffering and exile of Palestinian people.

***This article was first published by the Alternative Information Centre (AIC)

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