Saturday, August 22, 2015

Money to buy bulldozers

Photo: 'Aref Daraghmeh, B'Tselem

We spent the last few weeks at a picturesque Dutch town, where on the way to shopping in the local supermarket we often had to wait for the bridge over the canal to come down after the boats have passed. Even that quiet and peaceful region had once been the scene of wars and bloody conflicts. During a cruise on a canal which had once been part of the fortifications, the guide told us: "Following the massacre which the Spanish army perpetrated here in 1572, in which most of the town’s inhabitants perished, it was rebuilt as a fortress town. Mighty fortifications were erected, a double system walls and ramparts and moats. Everywhere, artillery pieces were placed, ready to pour a deadly hail of fire in every direction and at every angle from which an enemy army might arrive. For hundreds of years, almost half of the city's inhabitants were soldiers." All this is, of course, ancient history. As we could see, nowadays the town’s boys climb the ancient cannons and on hot days they jump the ramparts for a long refreshing swim along the moats.

Even in the quiet Netherlands we could not completely get away from what is happening in a crazy country at the heart of the Middle East, which in the very present lives the life of a beleaguered fortress. At a newsstand located on the ground floor of a Seventeenth Century house we saw a big headline in one of main Dutch newspapers: "With the settlements, Israel has its own anti-democratic monster".

 Even with an imperfect knowledge of Dutch, it was not difficult to make out that the article, covering an entire page, was referring to the murderous attack on the Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem and the immediately following arson of a Palestinian family home at the village of Duma near Nablus, where a father and his baby son died. From Jerusalem, correspondent Derk Walters informed the Dutch readers of the alarming increase of violent extreme right groups upholding a Nationalist-Religious Messianic ideology. He recounted the openly voiced explicit calls for attacking Arabs and homosexuals and for the torching of Christian churches, and quoted extensively the sharp denunciations made from all parts of the Israeli political spectrum. The article ended with a question: "Is the Netanyahu Government capable of taking serious measures against the settlers, when some of the cabinet ministers are themselves settlers?". Quite a few Israelis are asking themselves the same question.

Upon returning in the night flight to Ben Gurion Airport, I found on my answering machine a message from Haj Sami Sadeq, head of the small village of Aqaba in the Jordan Valley - who asked me to call him urgently. The village of Aqaba had suffered many years of harassment by the army, which stopped when the village head went on US lecture tour sponsored by the "Rebuilding Alliance", and had several meetings in Washington, D.C. As its name implies, the Alliance also raised funds to reconstruct what was destroyed in the village.

It seems, however, that the period of grace is now over. "Why are they doing this to us? We never threw stones, never. We just want to live in peace" said Haj Sami. "They came suddenly, without any warning. Hundreds of soldiers, with two huge bulldozers. They destroyed seven structures and also toppled the electricity poles. I spoke with Asher Tzur of the Civil Administration, the man who is persecuting us for many years already. I told him, 'I have a letter from Prime Minister Ehud Barak, he confirmed that we had the right to build power lines, to have light in our homes and air conditioning in the hot summer. He told me, 'Your entire village is illegal, we will yet wipe it off the map. The Americans give you money to build, but to us the Americans give money to buy bulldozers. "

What happened at the village of Aqaba is certainly not the only case, though in other afflicted villages residents don’t know my phone number. In the past two weeks, an intensive house demolition campaign is going on throughout the West Bank, the largest such since 2012. B'Tselem is carefully documenting what is going on:

"17 Aug 2015 - This morning, around 6am, Civil Administration and army forces demolished the homes of four families numbering 32 people, of them 21 minors, at the a-Sa'idi community, near a-Za'ayem. The forces then moved to the Abu-Falah community, in the Khan al-Ahmar area, and demolished a residential shack housing two people and a structure used to house guests. Later were demolished 12 structures in the adjacent Bir al-Maksub and Wadi Shneisel communities, nine of them residential homes."

"18 Aug 2015: This morning, 17 homes were destroyed, as well as 7 structures for livestock, in the village of Fasayil in the Jordan Valley, leaving 48 people homeless, 31 of them minors. Most of the families whose homes were destroyed have already lost their homes in previous demolitions. Evicted inhabitants were exposed to temperatures which reached 40 degrees Celsius."

And the latest, as of now: "20 Aug. 2015 - This morning, at the community of Khitbet Einun east of Tubas were demolished the homes of two families, totaling 11 people, including 7 minors, and a sheep pen. Then, the forces moved on to the Khirbet a-Deir community near the Jordanian border, and demolished the home of an 8-person family, including three minors. (…) Also destroyed was the Samra School at Khirbeit Samra, which villagers had constructed with the help of Jordan Valley Solidarity and international volunteers. Previously, local children had to go by bus to a school 25 kilometers away in Ein el Beida. All four classrooms were destroyed by the army, educational materials buried under the ruins."

Why was this campaign of destruction launched precisely now? Perhaps because the army and the government came under pressure to "counter-balance" the demolition of two homes in the settlement of Beit El, ordered by the Supreme Court when they were shown to have been erected in manifest illegality on privately owned Palestinian land.

Since returning from Holland, I looked up the Israeli press every morning. Except in Haaretz, there was no mention of the campaign of destruction carried out by the military authorities. 

On the first page of "Yediot Ahronot" appeared the headline "Terror without stop", referring to continuing attempts by Palestinians to stab soldiers at checkpoints, and praising the rapid response of the soldiers who managed to swiftly "neutralize" (i.e. kill) the stabbers. Also stone-throwing is nowadays defined by the mass circulation press as "a form of terrorism".

On op-ed pages, commentators continued arguing on whether we have gotten to "The Third Intifada", already awaited with great apprehension for so many years, or whether what we are witnessing is still a mere "pre-Intifada".
For his part, Yitzchak Herzog of the opposition Zionist Unity Party traveled to Ramallah to meet with President Abbas, and stated that it is possible and necessary to achieve peace with the Palestinians within two years. However, he hastened to add: "With regard to terrorism, our position is unequivocal - anyone who tries to harm Israelis had brought death upon himself."

And, of course, a lot of the headlines dealt with the hunger striking detainees Mohammed Allan. A lawyer and political activist from Einabus village near Nablus, Allan began a hunger strike after being placed under Administrative Detention without trial and without any charge being brought or been proven against him (which did not prevent quite a few people from the political right-wing to call him "a terrorist with blood on his hands"). State authorities tried to make use of the new, hastily enacted law, allowing the force feeding of hunger strikers. They came up, however, against the opposition of Israeli doctors, who adhered to the directive of Dr. Leonid Eidelman of the Israel Medical Association – stating that force-feeding is a form of torture and a violation of medical ethics. Also the transfer of Alan from one hospital to another failed to provide the authorities with "more amendable" physicians. In the meantime, the name of Muhammad Alan became well-known to newspaper readers throughout the country (and to quite a few outside it) and opposite the entrance to the hospital violent clashes broke out between opposing groups of demonstrators.

In the end, after it became unequivocally clear that the hunger striking Mohammed Allan started suffering brain damage, the Supreme Court ordered his release. Thereupon, the judges were subjected to concerted attacks from right-wing politicians ("The judges gave in to terror!"), much of the politicians’ ire was directed at the Israeli medical profession and its practicioners. However, the Court’s ruling included the possibility that Mohammed Allan’s brain damage would turn up to be reversible and he would once again constitute "a threat to national security", it would be possible to renew his detention...

"It seems to be the new status quo created between Israel and the Palestinian Administrative Detainees. Provide an MRI scan that indicates brain damage, and you go scot free," commented Ayala Hasson, the newscaster of the Friday Weekly News on Israel’s First Channel TV. Commentator Ari Shavit added, "We have to face it, hunger strikers always get enormous interest – and enormous sympathy, whatever strategy you choose towards them. The British have learned this again and again, at several times and places. Now we learn it, too. (…) The essential problem is that the Palestinians are being ignored. There is at present no Israeli diplomatic initiative even on the far horizon. Israelis think that we can lock up the Palestinians behind walls and fences and forget about them. The International Community has many other issues at the top of its agenda, and also the Arab World is nowadays concerned with things which seem far more troubling and urgent. The Palestinians feel that everybody has forgotten about them. I fear that this might end badly."

In the meantime, the broader Israeli public showed much more interest in the controlled blowing up of the Ma'ariv Traffic Bridge in Tel Aviv. The bridge served for forty years to regulate traffic in the metropolis, but was doomed once it had been defined as an obstacle to construction of the city’s new Light Rail system.

To watch the destruction, people flocked around the fourteen concrete pillars on which the huge bridge rested, and police needed to deploy considerable forces to prevent them from approaching the danger zone. Transport Minister Israel Katz had insisted on his right to blow up the bridge personally. The big moment was shown with great detail on television - the countdown: "Three, two, one - boom!" and then a happy smile was clearly discernable on the minister’s face as he pushed down the plunger and the great bridge came down.

"It was totally unnecessary," said on TV a retired engineer who was among the crowd at the explosion site, and whose face bore no smile. "I know that bridge very well, is was specifically designed for the option of orderly dismantling. It could have been taken apart and moved to another location and used again. That would have also been much cheaper than collecting and disposing of all the debris scattered after the explosion. I wrote to them, I wrote again and again and explained it with all the technical specifications, but nobody wanted to listen to me. "