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Neither in nor out: Jerusalem village on the seam

July 6, 2012 6:36 P.M. (Updated: July 13, 2012 5:18 P.M.)
By: Brandon Davis
AL-NUMAN, West Bank (Ma'an) -- In the spring of 2003, the residents of al-Numan, a Palestinian village in the outskirts of East Jerusalem, greeted an unusual visitor.

The man, Dvir Kahana, was later revealed by a Haaretz investigation to be an employee of a private company given permission to operate in al-Numan by the Israeli Ministry of Housing.

But Kahana identified himself to al-Numan residents as an official representative of the Israeli government, dispatched to Palestinian areas affected by the separation barrier, then in an early stage of construction.

Kahana warned al-Numan residents that the separation wall would soon enclose their village, and that their only way in or out would be through a checkpoint.

He told them they would be separated from their families and schools in nearby villages like al-Khas and Beit Sahour. He said they would become "comparable to a tree without water," cut off from electricity and water systems in the Jerusalem municipality and the West Bank.

He feigned sympathy, residents later recalled, as he explained to them the ways in which Israeli authorities would turn their village into what one Palestinian group calls an "open-air prison."

But when Kahana suggested they sell their lands to him and move elsewhere, al-Numan residents adamantly refused.

"He added that the village would be the border with the Palestinian Authority in the future and therefore would have to be empty, so our presence there was illegal," recalled al-Numan resident Jamal Suleiman Muhammad Dirawi, in an affidavit prepared by al Haq, a Palestinian human rights group.

Kahana’s message to al-Numan residents was clear: Israel will eventually take this land, and will make life here impossible if you stay.

Nine years later, the separation barrier surrounds al-Numan on three sides. Israeli soldiers stand watch at a checkpoint outside the village’s one entrance, strictly controlling movement in and out.

They keep a list of the village's 220 residents, and only those people are allowed to enter, keeping out relatives and friends who used to travel between al-Numan and neighboring al-Khas freely.

A long and troubled history

Al-Numan’s problems began long before the construction of the separation barrier. After the 1967 war, Israel annexed al-Numan to its Jerusalem municipality along with other Palestinian villages in East Jerusalem, a move considered illegal by the international community.

But al-Numan residents were issued West Bank ID cards, not Jerusalem IDs, possibly due to an Israeli census error following the annexation.

Due to their status as West Bankers, in 1993, the municipality informed the residents by letter that, as West Bank ID-holders, they were illegally living in their own homes and on their own lands.

Village residents appealed the decision to the Israeli High Court of Justice, requesting that their land be officially recognized as part of the West Bank, or that they be issued Jerusalem IDs.

The court gave the municipality and the Israeli Ministry of the Interior 60 days to resolve al-Numan's status, but a decision was never made.

For the last 19 years, al-Numan residents have remained in a state of legal ambiguity -- technically living in East Jerusalem but with identity cards from the Palestinian Authority.

Though the town has endured five home demolitions since the annexation, no one has been forcibly removed. Instead, tight Israeli control, enforced by the checkpoint and separation barrier, is slowly suffocating village life.

A prohibition on commercial activity in town has led to soldiers arbitrarily limiting food and basic materials that al-Numan residents are allowed to bring past the checkpoint. One chicken would be allowed, explained al-Dirawi’s father, Youssef al-Dirawi, but five might be impermissible.

These regulations often have severe consequences. Doctors have to go through the hassle and uncertainty of obtaining a permit like any other visitor. A Jerusalem ambulance sent to pick up a boy bitten by a spider was recently made to wait outside the village, while the boy's family carried him through the checkpoint themselves.

Adding to the stress of the barrier is the ban on building in al-Numan. The municipality calls the village "white land," area where no building permits may be issued. Structures built without permits are at risk of being demolished.

The first demolition occurred in 1986, and since then there have been four demolitions. The most recent was Siham Shawara’s house in 2010.

Shawara, originally from al-Khas, was the last person to be added to the official residency list when she married her husband in 2002, an al-Numan resident.

The separation wall was built a year after she moved. What had been a regular commute to Bethlehem University became a 45-minute walk to a bus stop -- plus a checkpoint, where an Israeli soldier on duty once tore up her chemistry textbook, claiming she was using it for terrorist purposes. Shawara nevertheless managed to graduate with a degree in chemistry.

Then, in 2010, Israeli authorities demolished the house she shared with her husband and three small children, now ages three, four and seven.

Like others in the village, Shawara and her husband refuse to leave his family's lands. Her family has converted a stable into a living space, and residents have helped to rebuild a house -- carrying materials up through the valley on foot, in one spot that bypasses the checkpoint. They know that the Israeli authorities would never let building materials in. Regardless, the house is still at risk for demolition.

Most significant in the slow death of al-Numan is the inevitable population decline. Because residents are not allowed to bring spouses into the village, young people are forced to move outside for marriage.

Niveen al-Dirawi, who grew up in al-Numan, now lives with her husband in al-Khas. She maintains residency in al-Numan by regularly coming to the checkpoint so the Israeli soldiers do not take her name off the list, which would prevent her visiting her parents and siblings in their home.

'Indirect forcible transfer'

None of these problems are uncommon throughout the so-called seam zone, the Palestinian areas that lie on the Israeli side of the separation barrier.

But al-Numan’s complicated legal situation leaves its residents particularly vulnerable. Because they hold West Bank ID cards and live on Israeli land, they have limited recourse with either the Palestinian Authority or the Israeli government in alleviating the village’s restrictions and pursuing basic municipal services.

Al Haq claims that Israel’s purposeful deterioration of livelihood in al-Numan violates the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits "individual or mass forcible transfers" in occupied territories.

International courts have ruled that "forcible transfer" is not limited to physical force, but can include other more subtle ways of expelling residents.

Home demolitions, limited freedom of movement, disruption of access to schools, supplies, and family members -- these regulations coalesce in a policy of “indirect forcible transfer,” in violation of international law, Al Haq says.

According to residents, Kahana stated that al-Numan would eventually become a buffer zone at the border of a future Palestinian state. But Har Homa, flanking al-Numan on its western side, has been steadily growing over the last decade.

The Israeli settlement, built on land annexed to Israel after 1967, like al-Numan, has plans to add approximately 12,000 housing units on land that currently belongs to their Palestinian neighbors.

An uphill battle

Al Haq is currently working with al-Numan on a petition to the Israeli High Court that will seek to lift many of the Israeli restrictions in the village.

But seeking justice through Israeli courts is an uphill battle. Previous legal decisions have done nothing to significantly improve al-Numan’s livelihood, and Israel's restrictions continue.

For now, al-Numan residents are making the best out of their situation. As one joke goes: A man left town on his donkey to buy two gas canisters for his house. When passing through the checkpoint, the Israeli soldier let the man and the gas canisters through. But the donkey was made to wait outside.

The story, of course, is true. But Youssef al-Dirawi still laughs as he imagines the scenario.

As Kahana warned in 2003, life has become hard in the village. But despite his prediction, the Palestinians in al-Numan have stayed put.

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