As Kerry talks peace, Israeli settlers dispossess Palestinians – By Nancy Murray
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is trying to revive a stalled 20-year-old peace process that would put an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, given Israel’s dedication to its four-decades-old settlement agenda, Kerry seems to be on a fool’s errand.
The plan revealed on Nov. 12 for 20,000 new housing units to be built in the occupied West Bank underscores this point. If implemented, this plan could raise the number of settlers on land seized by Israel during the 1967 war to more than 700,000 — up from an estimated 240,000 at the start of the peace process.
I have been to the West Bank more than a dozen times over the past 25 years and observed the steady expansion of Israel’s settlement enterprise. Even so, I was not fully prepared for the feverish surge in settlement construction that I saw earlier this month as a co-leader of a delegation organized by Interfaith Peace-Builders, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.
The new West Bank
Traveling through the West Bank, we observed the extent to which the map of “Eretz Israel” — the Greater Israel of biblical Judea and Samaria that religious settlers claim as a divine right — has been imposed on Palestinian land.
Throughout this landlocked territory, Palestinians are now corralled into small enclaves by walls and watchtowers, military checkpoints, a road system that bisects their land but is off-limits to them, closed military zones and omnipresent fortress-like settlements that glower over the rural landscape.
Road signage points the way to settlements, where construction was up 70 percent in the first six months of 2013 according to Peace Now, an Israeli group that monitors settlement activity in the area. The signage omits references to Palestinian villages that remain an obstacle to the full realization of the “Eretz Israel” vision.
Settlements have all but erased the Green Line separating Israel from the West Bank and stake out Israel’s claim to the water-rich Jordan Valley, where Palestinian freedom of movement is severely restricted. The wall that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu intends to build along the border with Jordan will set in stone the message delivered to our delegation on Nov. 6 by David Wilder, a spokesman for settlers in the city of Hebron: “There will never be a Palestinian state.”
Most Israelis we met on this trip were either isolated from or indifferent to the forced displacement of Palestinians that is being deployed with an unyielding sense of impunity. Exceptions are those Israeli activists who take part in weekly nonviolent demonstrations against land confiscation in scores of West Bank villages.
Two days before we met Iyad Burnat, a Palestinian activist who was featured in his brother’s Oscar-nominated film, “5 Broken Cameras,” he had been shot with rubber-coated steel bullets by Israeli soldiers. Burnat recounted the violent repression of demonstrations in Bil’in — a small village east of the Green Line near the West Bank wall — during the nine-year struggle to save it from Israel’s separation wall, the barrier that cuts deeply into the West Bank and, at 270 miles long, is now 60 percent complete. His story brought to mind a similar state repression closer to home.
On March 7, 1965, Alabama state troopers cracked down heavily on demonstrators marching for voting rights across Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge. The violence unleashed against the Selma marchers on the day that became known as Bloody Sunday was televised across the nation, shocking the conscience of the American people. It proved a tuning point in the civil rights movement.
But such a turning point is nowhere on the horizon for Israelis, who have been insulated from and remain largely indifferent to the intensity of repression in the West Bank. The brutal suppression of nonviolent protests in Bil’in has caused no shock to the conscience, despite occurring nearly every week for nine years.
Nor has the escalating number of house demolitions. While our delegation was in East Jerusalem — home to 300,000 Palestinians — demolition orders were placed on 200 apartment buildings in the neighborhood of Ras Khamis, each containing 40 to 70 apartments. Their destruction, typically carried out after only a 10-minute warning, will force some 15,000 Palestinians to leave Jerusalem.
The invisible transfer
Three hundred and fifty settlers are now embedded in the heart of the once thriving Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan on the slopes of East Jerusalem’s Old City. There, some 90 homes have been issued demolition orders to prepare the ground for an enlarged City of David theme park.
Jawad Siyam, a Silwan resident with a demolition order on his home, has been arrested 41 times in the last four years for complaining about the settlers. Siyam quoted Israeli attorney Danny Seidemann as saying, “There is no law. There are only settlers.” Seidemann’s organization Terrestrial Jerusalem tracks developments in the city that undermine efforts to achieve peace.
The dispossession agenda also plays out in rural areas, where settlers vandalize Palestinian homes and olive groves and attack farmers in their fields, often as Israeli soldiers stand by. More than 7,500 olive trees have been destroyed by settlers so far this year, depriving many Palestinian families of their only source of income and eventually forcing them to leave their land.
Thousands of Palestinian farmers have also lost their livelihoods to the $3 billion separation wall. Many have been denied visitor permits to pass through locked gates to access their fields and sources of water that lie beyond the wall. Some have permits, but the locked gates are never opened.
The daunting web of restrictions they face has forced many West Bank Palestinians to leave their homes in a below-the-radar form of gradual ethnic cleansing that has been called the invisible transfer.