Forced transfer of Palestinian Bedouin: A war crime on our watch

Word on the diplomatic and humanitarian street is that Israel is planning a war crime.[1]

In September this year, the Israeli government published six municipal plans to forcibly transfer more than 7,000 Palestinian Bedouin herders from their homes in the Jerusalem periphery and south Jordan Valley, both in the occupied West Bank, to townships. The largest is Nuwei’ma near Jericho, an open area where Bedouin already live, surrounded by military bases and settlements. Three different Bedouin tribes are to be forced together on the same land and expected to build themselves new homes: Ka’abne, Rasheideh and Jahaleen. This will clear the way for Israel’s E1 settlement expansion master plan, approved in 1999 and halted due to international pressure. The E1 expansion is to link the Ma’ale Adumim to Jerusalem and create a joined settlement block with Mishor Adumim and Kfar Adumim. This corridor will cut off East Jerusalem, the intended capital of any future Palestinian state, from the West Bank. The nail in the coffin of a two state solution. Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory are illegal under international humanitarian law. The UK government has consistently reiterated this position, they are illegal and an obstacle to peace.

Israeli plan for Nuwei'ma, September 2014; Photo Credit: Lea Pakkanen

Israeli plan for Nuwei’ma, September 2014; Photo Credit: Lea Pakkanen

Notwithstanding that motive is irrelevant to its illegality, the government has justified the plan claiming that the residents lack title over the land and that the transfer will improve their living conditions.

First lack of title. The point is that the land in question is not Israel’s to make the call. Israel can make that call anywhere it has sovereignty…Haifa, Tel Aviv, West Jerusalem, the Negev, all of which is Israel. But the West Bank and East Jerusalem are occupied Palestine. The United Nations Security Council and the International Court of Justice have been as clear as day on this. Furthermore, if evictions are to make way for Israeli settlers, then they certainly have no title over the land.

Secondly, that the transfer will improve their living conditions. It’s true that the Bedouin life in the West Bank is hard. Israeli military law is imposed; 94% of building permits are refused; Israel demolishes the shelters they build in defiance, restricts their access to grazing land, water and electricity. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA) stated that these practices have “created a coercive environment, which functions as a ‘push factor’ to make the Bedouin leave. It strikes me as a bizarre rationale: ‘It’s justified that we make you go, because we make life so bad for you here already.’ It is difficult to understand why they don’t just allow the Bedouin to connect to the nearby water and electricity network and accept their building applications so they can improve their own living conditions where they are. It seems to many here that they primarily want the land clear to move more Israeli settlers in.

The UN has emphasised that the 7,000 residents have not been genuinely consulted about the plan, and whether the transfer will improve their living conditions. So I have spent the past few weeks visiting these communities, sharing tea, learning about their lives, and asking them just that.

Selim Auda Jahaleen and grandson Jaffar, September 2014; Photo credit: BG Saltnes

Selim Auda Jahaleen and grandson Jafar, September 2014; Photo credit: BG Saltnes

What better place to start than the oldest member of the Jahaleen tribe, Selim Auda. It was certainly worth the 40 minute hike up desert hills for the privilege of meeting a man who’s been on this earth for 107 years. And this Hadj has seen it all. He was born in the Negev desert in 1907, was a child under Ottoman rule, and a teenager under the British mandate. As a young man he saw the rise of Zionism and waves of persecuted Jews fleeing Europe for safety in Palestine. In his 40s he was made a refugee when the state of Israel was created. Along with thousands of Palestinian Bedouin, he was forced to leave his home in the Negev, and fled to the West Bank. For the last 66 years he has lived as an UN registered refugee. Home is now with his eldest son Mohammed in a tin and tarpaulin shack in Khan al Ahmar. I wish I could tell you that he lived out his final years in simple but happy conditions, with his family. But his home is in the E1 zone, so I can’t.

Selim's home in Khan al Ahmar, September 2014; Photo credit: BG Saltnes

Selim’s home in Khan al Ahmar, September 2014; Photo credit: BG Saltnes

In the past two years alone, Selim’s shack has been demolished by the Israeli army four times. His daughter in law Salma told me how elderly, quiet and at 107, understandably forgetful Selim, shouted at the soldiers when they came with their bulldozers to destroy his family’s home, yet again. I asked what he said to them, our translator looks sheepish and with traces of a smile and says “bad words”. Today Selim is more subdued, sitting there quietly hugging his 4 year old grandson Jafar as we talk, smoking a couple of cigarettes. From time to time he breaks into a song. Our translator doesn’t understand all the words, “Bedouin language” he says, and smiles. There is a lot of respect here for the old men who have survived it all.

Mohammad Selim Jahaleen, September 2014; Photo credit: BG Saltnes

Mohammad Selim Jahaleen, September 2014; Photo credit: BG Saltnes

I wonder how aware he is of the next chapter of his displacement. I ask his son Mohammad what they will do: “We refuse to go” he says forcefully. I nod, admiring his steadfastness. Though everyone in the tent knows that when the Israeli military come, heavily armed, that they will demolish everything and physically force the family to leave. The only way of stopping it is a political decision, which requires international pressure.

Other than the fact that this is home, the place of memories, why would they not want to move?

I posed this question to Khalil Abdullah Hammadeen, a father of 7 from Sateh el Bahr, a community named “sea level” in Arabic, off the Jericho-Jerusalem road.

“It will be very difficult if they move us to Nuwei’ma. We have 15 dunums of land now to keep our sheep, under the Nuwei’ma plan we will have only half a dunum [500m2]. There is no space for our family and our sheep. We make our living from the sheep, it is our life as Bedouin. But in the township there is no space for the sheep, where will we graze them? We will have to sell the sheep and then how will we support our families. Who will give us money for food. Also it is difficult to collect all the Bedouin in one place, we are different tribes and there are old rivalries. I worry that there may be fighting.”

Sateh el Bahr EU funded structures, September 2014; Photo credit: Sophie W

Sateh el Bahr EU funded structures, September 2014; Photo credit: Sophie W

I talk to Khalil’s wife, Fatmeh. A round and warm woman with a huge genuine smile that lights up her face. She has created a beautiful home here, bright cushions and clean furniture. I am aware there is no electricity or water connection and that the family’s homes have been demolished by the army regularly over the years, to be replaced by EU funded aluminium shelters. But when I ask Fatma about her life in Sateh el Bahr, she is more than satisfied: “Life is good, we are very grateful to the European Union for these rooms. It is hot in summer because of the metal but we are happy.”

I worry how a mixed tribe township will affect the women, given their cultural norms, so I ask if anything worries her about the plan. Her smile fades.

Fatmeh Hamadeen, September 2014; Photo credit: Lea Pakkanen

Fatmeh Hamadeen, September 2014; Photo credit: Lea Pakkanen

If we are forced to move to Nuwei’ma, then we’ll have to be all covered like this.” She pulls her headscarf down over her face and the other women in the room nod. “The Bedouin do not live near to each other, it is our way. Even my brother in law’s family live the other side of that hill.”  “Now I just go outside however I want because we are the same family and we are far from others.”

Fatmeh stands up, pulls her scarf eschewed, and comically acts out going to her door, waving her hands around and shouting at the kids to behave and come in for dinner. All the women laugh but she’s making a serious point. It is culturally inappropriate it is for her to be seen by men of other tribes, so normal life will be no more. The mass transfer will put an end to the traditional Bedouin culture in the Palestinian territories.

This is not actually the first time that Israel has transferred Palestinian Bedouin refugees. Between 1996 and 2007, 150 families were transferred from rural kinships to a site directly next to the Jerusalem municipality rubbish dump. Many had to sell all or most of their sheep, their income, and use the money to build a new house, now the village of Al Jabal. All the while, watching the illegal Israeli settlement of Male Adumim rise on their former homes. I went to speak with Ali Abu Ghalia, one of the Muktar’s (community leaders) of Al Jabal, a congenial man who drives a school bus, to get a sense of how this turned out last time. He recounts the trauma of the move 15 years ago and how families were put next to the dump with no shelter, water or electricity. Today the community is more settled, and he is satisfied with his life, but there are high levels of unemployment, social difficulties, and serious health problems due to the proximity of the dump. “Many children have skin problems, and there are cancers in the village that were not common before. Abu Dis University did a study and found that the methane gas in the village is 3 times what is healthy.”

Jerusalem rubbish dump as seen from Al Jabal village, September 2014; Photo credit: Sophie W

Jerusalem rubbish dump as seen from Al Jabal village, September 2014; Photo credit: Sophie W

You can’t help but smell it when you drive into the village. Never mind how nice your house is, it’s not the kind of place you’d want your children to grow up. But the government deemed it appropriate site for Palestinian refugees. In addition, the UN reports that the move “ignited deep discontent” with the local community of Abu Dis. The land was taken from the Palestinian landowners, declared Israeli state land, and then allocated out to the Bedouin.

One thing Ali said really struck a chord with me: “The TV says that the Bedouin do not want village life, but it’s not true. Sometimes it can be better, though not all the people agree with me. But if you change your life, it must come from your heart. You must choose. Not others forcing you.

I think this hits the nail on the head, voluntary moves are fine, a mass forced transfer is just plain wrong. This is reflected in International Humanitarian Law: regardless of motive, the Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits the forced transfer of persons from occupied territory. Article 49 is such a fundamental rule that it’s violation is considered a “grave breach”. Legally, a grave breach is a war crime.

EAs in Sateh el Bahr, settlement Ma'ale Adummim on top of the hill; Photo credit: Sophie W

EAs in Sateh el Bahr, settlement Ma’ale Adummim on top of the hill; Photo credit: Sophie W

The United Nations Agency for Palestinian Refugees has urged the international community to oppose the plans. The deadline for objections locally is 25th October 2014. Experience shows that domestic objections in Palestine and Israel mean very little, but international objections do. International pressure has halted some moves in the past, and we can do it again.

You’re not alone here, the US ambassador visited Sateh el Bahr last week about the plan. 42 organisations have issued a public statement and Tobias Ellwood, a UK Foreign Office Minister for the region referred to the risks and illegality of the forced transfer plan in his address to the House of Commons in Monday’s debate on the recognition of Palestine, saying “Israel needs to change course…now”. It’s on the international community’s radar. But voices need to be louder to stop it actually happening.

Email your MP to ask them and the UK government to object more forcefully, and do it quickly, time is running out. I desperately want Selim to live his last days in peace.

[1] Forced transfer of protected persons are prohibited by Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, violation of which is a “grave breach” as per Article 147. Grave breaches are codified as war crimes under Article 8(2)(a)(vii) of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. Israel is not a signatory to the Rome Statute but this does not alter the status of such acts in international law since the statute codified customary international law.

Demolishing homes, a military necessity?

20.08.2014 United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs Alert: “Two residential structures demolished in Al Aqaba, 15 displaced.”

I check the map, we call the mayor of the village, Hadj Sami Sadiq: “The Israelis came and demolished the houses early in the morning,” he tells us, “please come.”

It is my first experience of a house demolition. Colleagues told me that it’s like going to a funeral. I don’t like funerals.

After an hour and a half drive and some questioning at a military checkpoint, we arrive in Al Aqaba, where Hadj Sami is waiting for us.

We go on foot as he directs us up a steep slope. Against the backdrop of tall hills covered in rocks, scattered with wiry trees, I am greeted by two sizable piles of rubble and bent metal. The first thing I notice, however, is a tiny shoe on the ground. The pink glitter contrasts with the unforgiving white grey rubble surrounding it. So I know already that young children live, sorry, lived, here.

Demolished home of Dayf Zawahre family, Al Aqaba, August 2014; Credit: Sophie EAPPI

Demolished home of Dayf Zawahre family, Al Aqaba, August 2014; Credit: Sophie EAPPI

Dayf Zawahre welcomes us into an open tent and offers us coffee. Even at times of personal disaster, manners and hospitality aren’t sacrificed here. It feels quite similar to the British habit of a cup of Twinings, that belief that it may just make everything better.

Dayf seems confused, a bit shell shocked, unsurprisingly. We asked him what happened.

“They came at 8 o’clock in the morning, two bulldozers and many army jeeps, I was at home with my family. They gave us only 5 minutes to take our things from the house, it was not enough time.”

HouseDemolitionAqaba_23.8.2014

‘Uday Zawahre, August 2014; Credit: Lea Pakkanen EAPPI

I see the evidence of this. Household items, clothes, schoolbooks, strewn amongst the rubble. “The children were surprised, and afraid. It was the first time that the little one experienced it.” Dayf has six children, the youngest is ‘Uday, who is three years old. My colleague took this beautiful picture of him:

I go to another tent to speak with ‘Uday’s mother, Hajar (in Bedouin culture there is a separation of the genders when visitors come). Hajar recognises my colleague Lea who visited her a year ago in her other life as a journalist, she is so glad that a friend has come back to see her again, and for a moment the reason we’re there is happily forgotten. ‘Uday is boisterous and pulls on his mother’s clothes, she keeps having to adjust her headscarf, I notice how pretty she is.

EAs talking to Hajar and children in Al Aqaba, August 2014; Credit: Bjorn SG EAPPI

EAs talking to Hajar and the children in Al Aqaba, August 2014; Credit: Bjorn SG EAPPI

Hajar is clearly comfortable, since we are all women. She stands close to us and talks freely: “I had concrete floors and a door before, now I have a tent that I cannot close, there are scorpions and snakes outside and they can come in to where we sleep now. I am worried for my children, ‘Uday’s asthma is very bad now because of all the dust.”

“Why do they do it?” 

It’s a good question. Two main reasons are given by the Israeli military for house demolitions.

Firstly, that the structures were built without a building permit. I was talking to an Israeli art shop owner in Tiberias about this, as her husband works in construction in Israel. She pointed out that this is the same all over the world. To build something you have to have a building permit. If you don’t, then the authorities will demolish it. Sounds reasonable, does it not?

When you hear the reality, I hazard that you’ll think it’s not. The permission required is Israeli permission for Palestinians to build on Palestinian land. Already see the start of an issue? And 94% of building applications are refused.[1]

Imagine you are English and you own a plot of land in Yorkshire (for my French friends reading this, switch the countries around!). Say France is militarily occupying the country, and it’s not a short term, imagine you’ve lived with 47 years of this. And to fix a wall on the outside of your house, you have to ask France’s permission. But 94% of the time, France say no. Say the current wall is crumbling and in desperate need of repair. Or you really want to build a self contained flat next door because your son is starting a family, or your parents are ill and need to move near. What to do? You applied, France said no. So you build anyway, and the French army come and demolish, giving you 5 minutes to get everything that you, or your elderly parents, care about out of the house. Your money is wasted, the building is in pieces, and you need to find somewhere to shelter your family. Your mother is crying because her precious photographs are gone, but the French army just laughs at her. And just to put the icing on the cake, you know that you can expect a bill from the French army for the work they put in to demolish your house. So you need to figure out how to pay for that, or they can put you in prison.

It feels wrong doesn’t it? Well it is. Under International Humanitarian Law (IHL) the universal laws that govern conduct in times of war, wanton destruction of property is a war crime. Displacing civilians is a war crime.[2] Ask the International Committee of the Red Cross, the United Nations, the International Court of Justice, you’ll get the same answer.

This is because protection of civilian property is specifically provided for in these International Laws: Article 46 of the Hague Regulations explicitly prohibits the confiscation of private property. Article 53 of the Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits any destruction of private or public authority property (so that also includes schools and health clinics, many of which have demolition orders in the Jordan Valley and elsewhere in occupied Palestine).

Children on the rubble of their demolished house, Al Aqaba, August 2014; Credit: Bjorn SG EAPPI

Children on the rubble of their demolished house, Al Aqaba, August 2014; Credit: Bjorn SG EAPPI

More importantly, an overriding obligation on the occupying power is to ensure “public order and safety.” I wonder how demolishing homes and displacing the civilian population can be considered to be ensuring public order and safety of the occupied population?

The second half of this obligation is to “respect, unless absolutely prevented, the laws in force in the country”. One of the first acts of the Israeli Occupation was to issue Military Order 2 of 1967, which abolished any law in force in occupied Palestine that conflict with any military orders issued by the occupying power. An Israeli peace activist I met in Bethlehem, Kobi Snitz, accurately described what we’re left with as a “buffet of laws”, where “Israel takes what suits it from the Ottoman, Jordanian and British Mandate laws, and issues any military orders it likes.” Legally, the planning regime in occupied Palestine is in breach of international law, and therefore permits or lack of permits to build, are irrelevant.[3]

Respected Swedish NGO, Diakonia, who are legal experts on Palestine, confirmed:

“The establishment of a long-term Israeli planning regime that excludes Palestinians from the decision making process: violates Israel’s obligation as an Occupying power to respect existing local laws, and represents an unnecessary transgression into the civilian affairs of the protected population.”[4]

The second reason given is that the demolitions or refusals of permits in the first place, are necessary for security.

Destruction of private property of the occupied population is strictly limited to cases where it is rendered “absolutely necessary for military operations” and deemed proportional to the military advantage expected. As is usual here, the Israeli military give no reason to the family. I will leave you to consider whether the demolition of Dayf and Hajar’s modest two room concrete building, in the rural Palestinian town of Al Aqaba was absolutely necessary for military operations, and whether the homelessness and trauma forced on their children is proportional.

Dayf and one of his sons outside a tent they are now living in; August 2014; Credit: Lea Pakkanen EAPPI

Dayf and one of his sons outside a tent they are now living in; August 2014; Credit: Lea Pakkanen EAPPI

Forced transfer of protected persons (as Dayf and his family are because they are civilians of the occupied territory) is strictly limited to evacuations for their security or military imperative. And the occupying military must ensure that proper accommodation is provided to receive the protected persons, that the removals are effected in satisfactory conditions of hygiene, health, safety and nutrition, and that members of the same family are not separated. The army do not provide families with alternative accommodation after they have destroyed their home. The Red Cross came and gave Dayf a tent. Many Red Cross tents also have demolition orders on them as the army consider them a structure without a permit.

Children's school books amidst the ruins of Dayf's demolished house, August 2014; Credit: Lea Pakkanen EAPPI

Children’s school books amidst the ruins of Dayf’s demolished house, August 2014; Credit: Lea Pakkanen EAPPI

We return to the main tent to the father and mayor Hadj Sami. A social worker from the YMCA has arrived. He tell me that the day of the demolition the children were meant to go on a swimming trip. He promises to rearrange it, and that he will come to see the children regularly to provide psycho-social support. But then he must leave to the neighbouring family, who have 3 children made homeless at the hands of the same military bulldozer on the very same day. Then on to the next demolished house, and so it continues. This is life under occupation.

Want to do something about it?

You can! There is something called Third Party State Responsibility in International Humanitarian Law. It means that all signatories, including the UK and France, have a duty to take all appropriate measures to demand that other states cease breaches of the Geneva Conventions (the legal explanation from Diakonia is on page 32 of this report).

Write to your MP, tell them that the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions figures show that 359 structures[5] have been demolished by the Israeli army in the occupied West Bank since the start of this year, link to this article of Dayf’s home in Al Aqaba. Remind them that this is in breach of International Law and that the UK has an obligation to take measures to ensure compliance of other states under Common Article 1 of all four Geneva Conventions 1949. As a concerned constituent, ask what they, and our Foreign Minister, are doing about it.

[1] AIDA statistic from Diakonia report, ‘Planning to Fail’ [2013]

[2] Wanton destruction of property without military necessity, and the unlawful transfer of persons, amount to grave breaches of the Fourth Geneva Convention 1949. Under Article 8 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, grave breaches amount to a war crime.

[3] Diakonia, ‘Planning to Fail’ [2013]

[4] Ibid. Page 8

[5] Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, figured accessed 19.10.2014. Go to their website to get the daily updated statistic.

OK Let’s Start with the Basics: Water

LET ANYONE WHO IS THIRSTY COME TO ME AND DRINK, JOHN 7:37

The midday sun is coming into it’s own as we seek sanctuary under a tree in ‘Ein el Beida. As the first EAPPI Jordan Valley team, we are warmly welcomed by Abu Omar and his elderly uncle Abu ‘Akab a kindly man with a sense of humour, against the odds.

‘Ein el Beida and its neighbour Bardala are located in the far north of the Jordan Valley. The Jordan Valley makes up almost a third of the West Bank, and is traditionally known as being the ‘breadbasket of Palestine’ because of iAbu Dirra Bardala 20.08.14 BG Saltnests fertile land for agriculture. Yet Palestinian farmers in the area are struggling to survive. We have come to find out why.

“Before they were public springs, no one paid, it was communal water in ‘Ein el Beida, our tradition. After, they take our spring and we have to pay them agora [money] for our own water, and then they do not give us enough”, Abu Omar explains.

The ‘before’ and ‘after’ Abu Omar refers to is the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. 1967 saw a series of military orders declaring all Palestinian water resources to be Israeli state property. Under these orders, Palestinians are prohibited from developing water resources without a permit from Israel. This means that they cannot maintain a spring, repair a cistern, or develop irrigation networks without Israel’s permission, and 97% of permit applications are refused.[1]

Under the Oslo Accords, Palestinians are only allowed to take 20% of the ‘estimated potential’ of the Mountain Aquifer under the West Bank, and Israel extracts the balance.[2] Israel correctly maintains that this quota was agreed by Yasser Arafat on behalf of the Palestinian people. However, this agreement was a 5 year roadmap for peace and to realise the end of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory (UN Security Council Resolution 242). We are now 14 years past it’s expiration date. Palestinians are therefore forced to purchase half their water from Israel, who takes it from the Mountain Aquifer, over which Palestinians have rights to an equitable share under customary international law.[3]

2014-08-20 12.02.48

Left to Right: Niveen, Abu Omar, Abu’Akab; August 2014 BG Saltnes

In Bardala, Israel confiscated the land of the village’s main spring and the Israeli national water company Mekorot dug deeper into the mountain aquifer. As a result, the nearby Palestinian spring in Bardala, and the 9 more shallow springs of Ein el Beida, dried up. According to the Israeli-Palestinian Joint Water Committee there were 774 operating wells in the West Bank in 1967, now due to Israeli restrictions there are just 264 operating wells, an EWASH (Emergency Water And Sanitation/Hygiene Group, a coalition of 30 International and National NGOs and UN agencies working on water and sanitation issues in occupied Palestine) representative informed us.

Abu Omar tells me what it means for his farming:

It is a huge problem for our plants, the plants are our economy, our resources. We need water for our traditional plants…carrots, nuts…Now we have to try plant vegetables that don’t need as much water. But then we all produce the same, tomatoes and cucumbers in greenhouses, and this reduces the price at market so we cannot make a living. The water goes to the settlements and they have as much as they like.

Bardala’s water is diverted to nearby Israeli settlements including Mehola and Rotem. Israeli settlements in the West Bank are illegal under International Humanitarian Law since Article 49 Geneva Convention IV prohibits the transfer of the occupier’s population into the occupied territory. The Jordan Valley settlements are mainly agricultural and export everything from dates to herbs, mostly to European markets.

BGSaltnes-Ein-el-Beida-palestinian-land-vs-settlers-land-200814

Foreground Ein el Beida village land, Background Mehold settlement land; August 2014; BG Saltnes

As we walk around the villages, the contrast between the settlement and village lands are obvious to the eye:

The World Health Organisation recommends a minimum of 100 litres of water per person per day for domestic use and personal hygiene. Israeli restrictions mean that Palestinians have access to an average of only 70 litres, and many vulnerable communities in the Jordan Valley have to survive on as little as 20-30 litres. By comparison, the average Israeli per capita consumption is about four times this, at 300 litres.[4]

Our average in the UK is 149 litres, take a look at this image to visualise the difference. However, what we’re talking about here is the diversion of Palestinian water to the illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank, and here the contrast is stark. According to EWASH the Israeli settlers in the Jordan Valley and Dead Sea area are allocated 75 times more water in total than the average West Bank Palestinian.[5]

Abu Dirra is a representative of Bardala Village Council, a farmer and a father. We ask him about the impact on daily life of the water restrictions:

“We just don’t drink lots of water here. And it’s hot, between May and November it is very hot. You need to shower 4 times a day if you go out. But we have to go 2 or 3 days without a shower. We joke about it, but it is a miserable life.”

We take a walk down to the Bardala springs, where I see the dried up old well that used to be the lifeblood of the village, and the nearby Mekerot pump with it’s protective wire around. There is also armed Mekerot security in all of these areas. We had stopped on the way there take a photograph from afar of Omar settlement and the water pipes, before we can turn our cameras on, a Mekerot armed car and two settler cars pull up behind us to make sure we move on.

Mekerot Spring Bardala August 2014, BG Saltnes

Mekerot Spring Bardala August 2014, BG Saltnes

2014-08-20 11.04.43

Bardala’s now unusuable dried up spring, August 2014, BG Saltnes

We ask Abu Dirar how much of his land he has enough water to plant now compared to before the occupation. He tells us that used to plant 10,000 dunnums (1000 hectares) of his land, but now only a third routinely, the rest only if there are heavy winter rains. “The economy needs water. Now people don’t plant in summer. In summer we just sit”, he says.

Niveen my photoAs he shows my Norwegian colleague the cut off pipes, our guide and translator, lawyer Niveen Barhme, starts to reminisce: “I remember as a child sitting here with my aunt and the women of the village, they would sit under this tree and sing. It was green, we had water, it was a happy time. Now there is only this tree, it is a Shajarat al-Jannah (In Arabic, the tree of heaven) they still manage to survive when there are no other plants.” She takes anyone who will come, around the Jordan Valley, to show them the life here. She tells me in the car about her two young children, she doesn’t want them growing up knowing only military occupation. This is her resistance.

Niveen has left her home in Bardala for the Palestinian city of Tubas, “Life is just so much easier there” she explains (it’s Area A under Oslo, so one of the few parts of Area A near the Jordan Valley under full Palestinian control). I reflect on the fact that many people move from rural areas to urban for all sorts of reasons. In many countries, people migrate because of scarcity of water. But what is different here is that her move was at least in part, forced. The Jordan Valley is a water rich area, this is not a natural problem but a man made one.

Abu Dirra is keenly aware of the impact of occupation policies in the Jordan Valley on the next generation, the future of Palestine: “the young people are researching jobs in the cities, they are leaving. I will cope, but my son, I know he will leave.”

After all they need somewhere to drink.

Take Action now to support Palestinian water rights.

[1] EWASH presentation Ramallah, data from Israeli NGO BIMKOM (2013)

[2] World Bank (2009), Assessment of Restrictions on Palestinian Water Development

[3] Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses (1997); see thirstingforjustice.org

[4] Amnesty International (2009), Troubled Waters: Palestinians Denied Their Fair Share of Water

[5] This is based on the 10,000 settlers in the Jordan Valley and Northern Dead Sea who get 44,8 million m3 of water allocated and 2,44 million Palestinian in the West Bank get 144,4 million m3 of water. Btselem Report, Disposession and Exploitation: Israel‘s Policy in the Jordan Valley and Northern Dead Sea, 2011, 25.

Two years on.

I have returned for another three months as a human rights monitor for EAPPI in the occupied West Bank, having been asked to contribute to setting up a new field placement based in Jericho. Like Bethlehem an ancient biblical site, but a very different place to live and work in modern day occupied Palestine.

2012 Bethlehem                                     

The Separation Wall, Bethlehem City

Separation Wall, Bethlehem, November 2012

An urban centre, known for it’s proximity to the Separation Wall. This was the view a few hundred metres from the apartment where I lived and is the image most burned into my mind after months of 4am checkpoint monitoring shifts.

I left the West Bank at the end of year, after weeks of ‘Pillar of Defence’ bombing in Gaza, and the consequences thereof, 45 miles away in Bethlehem. Palestinians, joined by some Israeli peace activists, protested as they saw family and fellow citizens being killed; I saw them heavily cracked down on by the Israeli army. In the city, particularly in Ayda refugee camp, and even at the school we monitored where the kids staged demonstrations, a right we take for granted in the West. I learned that in Bethlehem this is a one way ticket to being tear gassed and having rubber bullets fired at you. Don’t be fooled by the ‘rubber’, they hurt, and the rubber often get dislodged with impact so they are just bullets.

My final few weeks were dominated by mass arrests across the West Bank, people held in administrative detention by the Israeli army with no charge or trial. I sat with distraught parents, including those of 15 year old Mohammad Sami Hammamrah who had been taken by the army in the night, calling Israeli human rights organisations and the Red Cross, trying to find out for them where their child was being held. We barely had time to sleep let alone blog in November, as you see my last post was during the escalation. A few days after that post, the military assault began and the past month’s incidents suddenly fell into place.

I am returning to Bethlehem for a short visit this week to see old friends. One of those friends is Fayez, an English teacher at a boys secondary school in the village of Tuqu’. Usually a calm, humorous and self assured young man, he was a keen volunteer with our programme.

Children walking to school in Tuqu, Dawn Waring, November 2012

Children on the school run in Tuqu, Dawn Waring, November 2012

I remember my last conversation with him as if it were yesterday.

The kids at his school had staged a protest against the bombing in Gaza, on route 356 outside the school. Like many Palestinian roads, it is designated Area C under the Oslo Accords (under full Israeli control) and so they were not allowed to protest on it, but they knew that. The boys threw stones, the army tear gassed, the same too and fro I had become accustomed to. But then live ammunition was used and Fayez’s star pupil, Muhammad al-Badan, was shot in the stomach. A few days after, when the boy was still in intensive care with internal injuries and damaged pelvic bones, Fayez accompanied us to show the new team some nearby villages that had land confiscated by the Israeli army and issues with settler violence. He was clearly agitated, not his usual calm self. His voice was stronger, louder, and more outraged and he showed the new team the daily injustices of the occupation.

When we pulled up outside our house, I let the others go inside before asking, “Fayez, are you ok?”

It’s been two years and I will never forget his response.

“I’m not OK. Muhammad was my best student, he was good in English, he worked very hard. Why did the soldiers use live bullets when he was not near to them. He was far away. I drove him to the hospital, he was in the back of my car saying ‘teacher, teacher, it hurts, will I die’, I told him you will be fine, because I thought it was a rubber bullet. But it was not a rubber bullet.”

The light was fading but I could tell he had started to cry.

Fayez outside Tuqu boys school, November 2012

Fayez outside Tuqu boys school, November 2012

“You are special” he then said. As much as we respect one another, he did not mean anything about me personally in this statement. He meant this…

“You are British. You must go and tell them what they support here. You must make them feel shame.”

We parted ways.

2014 Jordan Valley

Fast forward two years, and it felt like I was returning to the next installment, yet it was so much worse that I could have ever imagined. Israel’s ‘Operation Protective Edge’ bombing of Gaza, and Hamas’ rockets, had been on my TV screen for twenty three days by the time I arrived in the region, the death toll was rising every day and it seemed like no end was in sight.

It’s all everyone in the West Bank has been talking about, the TV channel never changes from the regional news. We were

West Bank extract from UN OCHA map. http://www.ochaopt.org/documents/ocha_opt_humaitarian_atlas_dec_2012_web.pdf

West Bank extract from UN OCHA map. 

invited into a local barber’s shop for a coffee a few weeks ago and the owner was desperately worried about his brother and family in Gaza. When the state of Israel was created in 1948 and war broke out, Palestinians fled in all directions, or voluntarily moved depending on your version of history. This means that families are spread across occupied Palestine so many here have siblings in Gaza. There were celebrations across the West Bank last week when the ceasefire was agreed. I was in a shared taxi returning to Jericho that day, when local mechanic Yasser insisted on sharing his Kanafeh desert with us all. The music was turned up loud and there was an atmosphere of elation.

Others here are more skeptical, and with Israel’s announcement this week confiscating 988 acres of Palestinian villages near Bethlehem to be Israeli state land, it’s hardly surprising. I was speaking to Palestinian-American businessman Sam Bahour in Ramallah this week. He wisely tries to avoid making predictions, other than his belief that the occupation “simply cannot last forever”. After reading the ceasefire agreement, he reflected to me how limited it is on any concrete obligations to lift the blockade on Gaza, talks are specified to take place in a month.

The lifting of the blockade is required for sufficient food, medicines and building materials to not only rebuild the post war Gaza, but to allow for normal life. Since 2005 Israel has controlled Gaza’s borders, land air and sea. It controls and restricts everything in and out including fuel, electricity supplies and calorie intake. A United Nations worker in Gaza told us that during the recent hostilities only 40 lorries of supplies were allowed in, this is all food, medicine, materials for over 1.5 million people. And bear in mind that only 5-10% of Gaza’s water is safe to drink. This is why the hospitals there were short of supplies before the latest offensive even started. I noticed a key fact that was missing in almost all news coverage from the past 2 months: The West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza are under illegal Israeli occupation, and since 2005 Gaza has been under blockade. See UN Security Council Resolution 1860 and the Goldstone Report (2009) for more details. Occupation brings with it a legal obligation on the occupier to protect the territory’s civilians.

Israeli TV has since reported that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not intending to resume talks with Hamas on lifting the blockade. I hope this is not true, I’ll will be watching and waiting as you are.

So that’s for the context of my arrival in the West Bank. Here’s for my new home. Rather than the Separation Wall, Jericho is known for being the oldest and lowest city in the world. It is a hot busy place, dotted with Palm trees and surrounded by desert. As you drive into the city, there are signs from the Israeli army ordering it’s citizens not to enter.

Area A sign outside Jericho, erected by Israeli military, August 2014.

Area A sign outside Jericho, erected by Israeli military, August 2014.

Our driver Bishara tells us how Jericho city is a quiet place where there is no trouble. We see Israeli settlers shopping at Palestinian shops on the roads just outside the city. As you drive in, you see Yasser Arafat’s famous Oasis Casino, now closed but still standing as a reminder of the hope and risk taken with the Oslo Accords.

The combined area of the Jordan Valley and Northern Dead Sea is 170,000 hectares, constituting almost a third of the West Bank and spanning the whole West Bank – Jordan border. Following the Oslo peace agreements in the 1990s, 87% of the Jordan Valley was designated as Area C, meaning under full Israeli control. Jericho city, like Bethlehem, is designated Area A (under full Palestinian control), however it is surrounded by Area C so you can’t leave or communicate without passing through Israeli military control. The Israeli army go into Bethlehem Area A daily, but much less so in Jericho. We spend most of our time out in the Valley in Area C villages as these are most at risk from land confiscation, water restrictions, house demolitions and incidents related to Israeli military practice.

Jordan Valley, August 2014

Jordan Valley, August 2014

It is the least populated area of the West Bank, home to 60,000 Palestinians. Many Bedouins and herders are scattered across the Jordan Valley in small communities, mostly with no infrastructure or permanent housing. 3400 people reside in areas designated closed military zones and are particular risk of forced eviction. There are 37 Israeli settlements with a population of 9500, in contravention of international law. Most are agricultural and many Palestinians work inside them seasonally.

Because of it’s central location, the Jordan valley is of strategic importance to both Israel and Palestine. As a third of the West Bank, this area is crucial in order to create a viable Palestinian state. In addition, it is considered the ‘breadbasket of Palestine’ because of it’s rich fertile land for agriculture, land that is rapidly being developed by Israeli agricultural settlements. From Israel’s perspective, it is necessary for security, as a buffer zone between Israel and the Arab nations to the East. The facts on the ground in the Jordan Valley will no doubt be a decisive factor in the outcome of Israel/Palestine.

We are the first EAPPI team to be based here so we are currently developing our contacts and knowledge of the communities. So far, the reception has been wonderful. No matter how dire the situation is, people have welcomed us with kindness, generosity and the necessary dose of Palestinian humour.

Abu 'Akab, Ein el Beida, August 2014, Bjorn Saltnes

Abu ‘Akab, Ein el Beida, August 2014, Photo Bjorn Saltnes

The other day I was reminded of this humour when we were up in the northern West Bank interviewing villagers on the impact of Israeli water policies on rural life. We were handed Arabic coffee as Abu ‘Akab was fetched as the man with the long memory, even before the Israeli occupation, which in Palestine makes him really old. He welcomed us and asked which countries we came from: “Poland, the Philippines, Norway… the UK”. I waited for the reaction.

“Ah, Britannia! The rest can go, we only need the British girl. The British girl will fix it.”

I’m used to a strong reaction to my nationality in Palestine and Israel. Some days when I’m really exhausted I consider pretending I’m Irish. Those of you unaware of our historical responsibility may want to look up the Balfour declaration, McMahon-Husain Correspondence, and ask your grandparents about British Mandate Palestine (or watch Channel 4’s The Promise if you prefer a good story).

“You are British, you started it so you must finish it” says Abu ‘Akab, beaming at me. But he says it so kindly, with a warm laugh and gentleness in his eyes. I feel grateful for the Palestinian sense of humour and the implicit distinction he, and others, still do make between me and my country. I smile as he laughs again and says “the British girl can come back any time she likes”.

Before we leave, he says to me on a serious note: “We see the people on the streets in your country, they stand in solidarity with Gaza, we are thankful, that makes us feel…” his voice trails off, because the rest doesn’t need to be said.

Over the next few months, I will be sharing with you what I witness, and giving voice to the stories of the communities where I live and work. Thank you for listening.

Occupation Escalates

A November Sunday in the West Bank city of Ramallah. It’s 11am and I am sat in silence at Friends House. I am not a Quaker but I am increasingly fascinated by the denomination, and I like the quiet time. Six others accompany me in reflection, sitting on a white bench in this simply furnished room with bare stone walls facing an olive tree tapestry. The large wooden door at the back of the room is left open and I can hear rain drumming loudly on the ground. Overnight Winter came to the West Bank, the sunburn on my face feels out of place now that I’m wrapped up tight in my North Face jacket.

Tears start to fall down my face, silently. I try to stop them, then I abandon my endeavour and just sit still. I am suddenly overwhelmed by what I have witnessed this past week.

Photo: IDF tear gas on entrance road to Tuqu’ boys school, 14/11/12 note this was a further incident the week after that EAs witnessed (Sophie)

I think back to Monday when we were greeted with the news that an 8 year old boy from the Tuqu’ primary school that we monitor, had been detained by the Israeli army. The teacher told EAs how the soldiers jumped out at the child, it transpires that they had blacked out faces and had been hiding on the ground hidden by shrubs so as to take the child by surprise. The charge? Throwing a stone of course. The child was detained and questioned by soldiers for some hours without an adult present. I cannot see the need for such a dramatic act to arrest an 8 year old. It provoked the older boys to actually throw stones and so the army tear gassed the school. A teacher captured the events on his camera phone from the school window, I see soldiers dragging a child in the midst of chaos and I hear screaming students.

Photo: Nahhalin 08/11/12 Israeli army preventing villagers accessing their land whilst it is confiscated (Sophie)

On Thursday I attempt to crochet plastic bags at a women’s group in Nahhalin, Bethlehem, when an announcement in Arabic echoes through the village on the loudspeaker usually reserved for the adhān or Muslim call to prayer: “Israelis cutting down olive trees at the end of the village. Everyone come quick!” We leave immediately and manage to beat the first road block that the military erect, though are then stopped just short of the land by a flying checkpoint, along with 60 villagers. More than 30 armed soldiers guard all sides of the valley to prevent access.

Photo: Nahhalin 08/11/12 Israeli Administration contractors cutting down privately owned Palestinian olive trees (Sophie)

Local teacher Omar shouts to us in a loud panicked voice: “We saw they have already cut ten trees down over here. We don’t know whose land they are taking now, many families own the land over there, they won’t let us in to see!” After more than two hours of negotiating, the soldiers allowed us into the area to film what is happening. Two significantly sized pieces of privately owned Palestinian land had been confiscated by the Israeli Civil Administration. The soldiers finally allowed the landowner and head of the municipality in, to show the military order authorising this. I witnessed contractors, protected by the army, cutting down olive trees that had stood in that soil for ten years and provided Nahhalin families with a livelihood.

Photo: new outpost near Israeli Efrat settlement 09/11/12 (Ellinor)

On Friday, I found myself clambering up a steep hillside in the Bethlehem village of Wadi Rahhal only to find at the top the dismal view of a new illegal outpost. Half way up the hillside we had come across Ahmad from neighbouring village Artas, tending to his land. He showed us from a safe distance the 200 dunums of Wadi Rahhal land that had been taken this week by Israeli settlers, protected by the army. We looked on at the large tent and Israeli flag already erected, and observed the land being cleared for building. We were more than a kilometre from the nearest Israeli settlement of Efrat, which is concerning since in practice outposts are often incorporated into established settlements, consuming the land in between.

Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory are illegal by virtue of Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention which prohibits the transfer of a population from occupying to occupied territory. Most recently, on 6th November 2012, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Neyanyahu announced the tender for 1285 new housing units in settlements located in occupied territory East Jerusalem and Ariel.[1] Outposts are new settlements not even authorised by the Israeli government, although the military protection afforded is an indication of state endorsement. Experience shows that a tent and flag turn into a few caravans which then turn into permanent structures.

A few weeks ago I attended a presentation by Bob Laing, the American born head of Efrat religious council. The international community consider Efrat a ‘settlement’ but Bob would prefer it be called a ‘community’, currently with a population of 8000[2] with 400 new units having just been approved according to Bob. He pointed to a neighbouring hillside and said: “we will expand onto this empty hillside, you see there is no one on there”. I imagine how I would feel if someone came and took my family’s garden because no one actually lived on it. It does belong to someone, it belongs to them. Just like this hillside belongs to someone and should not just be seized.

We come to Saturday afternoon and I am sitting in the living room of the Babul family in Al Khadr.

Photo: Jamil Babul 10/11/12 (Sophie)

Jamil Babul is 70 years old and as is usual in this part of the world, has a large family that is incredibly important to him. He and his wife are beside themselves with worry since their son was arrested in the night. Sajed is 21 years old and works on Palestinian radio presenting game shows for children. He began studying journalism at university but the family could not afford the tuition fees so he got a job and is doing well says his father.

I immediately regret asking his mother what her son is like because she starts to cry: “He is a shy, sensitive boy, he is not political, I am so worried about him…” Sajed had been asked to come to the Gush Etzion, Israeli Civil Administration office for questioning. The name is misleading as this is an organ of the Israeli Military. He duly attended and had been pressurised to inform on anyone in Al Khadr village who may have thrown a stone towards the settlement. He did not know of anyone so the army commander told him: “I will come and arrest you in the night in two days if you do not tell me someone.” Sajed was taken from him bed as promised, whilst 30 soldiers stood guard outside the family home. His parents had to enlist the help of the International Committee of the Red Cross to even find out where he was being held, they do not know how he is being treated and visiting access is a distant prospect. They are desperate for their child to be returned home safe.

Jamil recalled that the army commander laughing when he said:  “I promised Sajed that I would come and take him in two days so here I am to fulfil my promise!”

“Why do they come in the night?” this distressed father asks me, “they could have just kept him when he went for questioning.” I have no response because I quite agree with him. Jamil’s house is on the edge of Al Khadr village nearest to the Israeli settlement and the family have been subject to harassment by the military for the last 4 years. Just two weeks ago we were called out as the army had invaded their home at night, forcing the family, including Jamil’s many small grandchildren, into one room. It is alleged that jewellery was stolen by soldiers. Jamil has ten grandchildren under the age of ten years in the house, but he does not allow them to play outside in case it gives the Israeli army an excuse to detain them too. I understand his reasoning and I suspect that I would do the same. The children peer round the door with curiosity whilst I speak to their grandparents, the eldest grandson dutifully brings us coffee. I think how sad it is that these children cannot play outside.

As I write up incident reports on Saturday evening, my Canadian and South African teammates return from their visit to work with the EAPPI Jayyus team, a village in the Northern West Bank.

Photo: Demolished house in Haris, near Jayyous, November 2012 (Kate)

There were two house demolitions whilst they were there. They described it as being just like a funeral, with passers by offering condolences to the families in hushed tones. The UN office for the coordination of humanitarian affairs in the occupied Palestinian Territory recorded 81 demolitions the week leading up to this, in West Bank Area C and occupied East Jerusalem, displacing more than 120 people, compared to 557 demolitions thus far in 2012. Just as the Winter comes, more families are being made homeless.

Our team are put on standby for Sunday morning as there are demolitions due in our Bethlehem area. Four houses in the village of al-Fordaes have final demolition orders and residents have been told to expect the bulldozers at noon. At the other side of Herodian (the archaeological site of one of King Herod’s palaces) 65 residents have been told to attend a meeting at 9am to collect a final order that their land will be taken as state land, and be told when they must leave their homes. The father of one of our programme’s local volunteers is amongst them. Fayez cannot go with his father as he has to be at work, teaching at the boys school in Tuqu’.

I pack my bag for my own placement visit in Jayyus, via the Quaker meeting in Ramallah. As I am about to leave we receive a call from the headmistress in Tuqu: “the army have entered the schools again, they are tear gassing the children”. The team leave immediately.

I wonder what happened this week for the harmful practices of the occupation to escalate so much. Is it because the world’s eye’s are averted to the US Presidential elections? Is it punishment for President Mahmoud Abbas’ impending request to upgrade the status of Palestine at the United Nations? Is Israeli Prime Minister Netenyahu just going after the ‘settler vote’ ahead of the upcoming Israeli elections? Or is it just because they can?

The silent Quaker worship comes to an end, as someone speaks. I take a deep breath and brace myself for the packed wet streets of Ramallah, and another day of life under occupation.

Education under Occupation

It is early morning when I arrive to monitor children going to school. We are in Tuqu’, a large village nestled in the hills south of Bethlehem. An Israeli army jeep is parked outside the house adjacent to the primary school and girls secondary school. Four heavily armed soldiers stand looking bored. Teachers start to arrive and position themselves next to the busy road in anticipation of children. By 7am the road is flooded with children walking in both directions on the stones at the side of the road. Today is a quiet day, the soldiers just stand and watch but it clearly makes some children nervous.

‘Why would human rights monitors need to watch children going to school’ you might ask, ‘Checkpoints I can understand, but a school?’ 

Photo: EA Sophie providing protective presence at Tuqu’, October 2012 (Ellinor Nykvist)

Tuqu’ borders two Israeli settlements, Tekoa and Nokdim, both of which are illegal under International Humanitarian Law.[1] EAPPI provides protective presence twice a week to this cluster of three schools totalling 1180 students because the Israeli military are stationed next to the schools every day when the students arrive and leave. The presence of EAs is to protect the children from soldier or settler harassment. The military are stationed there to protect the settlers who use the road from stones that children have thrown in the past. Soldiers harassed children, come armed into the school yard and have thrown tear gas into classrooms. The schools are located on a busy settler bypass road so the children’s commute therefore involves crossing the busy road as well as passing the armed soldiers.

Like many West Bank villages, Tuqu’ and the Israeli military have a contentious history. I spoke to fourteen year old Fadeelh who described her personal experience: “It was midnight on a Sunday. The soldiers came into our house and took my brother. They kept him for 6 months and beat him, he was just 17. Now he is 18, he came back different. He didn’t finish school, he just started working. When I see the soldiers I remember this.” This is not an isolated incident, almost every child we spoke to has a story of a family member being taken and questioned or beaten by Israeli soldiers in the night.

Photo: Children at Tuqu’ primary school, September 2012 (Sophie)

The detention and mistreatment of children from the schools has been a significant problem for the villagers of Tuqu’ for a number of years. Summer 2012 saw the arrest of three teenage boys from the secondary school, one of whom is still detained. They are detained under the authority of the Israeli Defence Force commander so no one knows how long it will last. The most frequent reason for which the boys are detained is throwing stones. Stone throwing is viewed as a crime against the security of the state of Israel and therefore these children are tried in a military court.[2]Fourteen year old Rana told me what happened to her younger sibling: “My brother Ahmed is just 9 years old. They arrested him in front of the school and took him away. The teacher was crying and shouting that they must bring him back. The soldiers said the boys throw stones. When they let him go, the soldier said that if any boy throws stones, they will come and take Ahmed. I am afraid every day that they will come for him.”

Historically the problem has not been limited to detention and mistreatment alone. Since the second intifada, or Palestinian uprising, four boys from the secondary school have been shot dead, the last in 2008, when Rana was in grade 6. When I talk to students and teachers, these memories appear to be ever present in their minds.

The students are strong and resilient. When I talk to girls from the secondary school they are full of appreciation for their education and said things like “The soldiers are strong because they have guns. We are strong in our hearts”. However, the teachers and parents provide insight into the unseen impact of military presence on the children. “Children are stressed and afraid when the army is outside the school, which affects their concentration. They keep looking out the window to see if the soldiers are there. Their grades drop and some leave the school early. This differs from child to child” explains the boys’ school counsellor. No matter how motivated the children are, this intimidating and unpredictable environment is obviously not conducive to quality education.

Like the children, most of the teachers here have grown up knowing only occupation. There are parts of it that are accommodated: the children have classes about not allowing themselves to be provoked by the military and importantly not to react by throwing stones as the consequences for them are so severe.

A teacher at the girl’s school tells me what it is like to educate children in this environment: “It is very difficult to be a teacher here. Sometimes the soldiers come to our homes and villages too, not just at school. At the school the army throw tear gas into the classrooms. We have to be always ready with onions [which mitigate the harmful affect of tear gas]. Last year they did this and the headmistress went out to the entrance of the school to talk to them but they did not care. Two years ago a colleague was pregnant and had to be rushed to hospital after they tear gassed. We put the children inside the classroom, but we can’t protect them from the soldiers.” I see that these incidents from the recent past are all very present in the minds of children whenever they see the soldiers. When the students walk past the soldiers, it inevitably raises their anxiety levels about the military in general. It is these soldiers who have taken their brothers and fathers, who have shot their classmates and thrown tear gas into their schools.

Photo: Bypass road Tuqu schools, October 2012 (Adele du Toit)

Military presence at these schools is a direct effect of the military occupation but the occupation affects the villagers’ lives in other ways too. The road that the children walk along and cross to get to school is now a busy highway. It was likely never intended to be such a major trade route. However the construction of the Separation Barrier around Bethlehem necessitated an alternative route from the city of Hebron to Ramallah. It is also the main route between the Israeli settlements and from these settlements to Jerusalem. Settlers drive at high speed which may protect them from potential stone throwing but is also very dangerous for the young children. This road is designated Area C under the Oslo Accords, which means that the Israeli government control both civil and security matters. As a result, neither the schools nor the Palestinian municipality have the power to address the safety problems. All manners of redress, speed bumps or traffic light crossings for example, are at the discretion of the Israeli state. When petitioned, they have proved unwilling to tackle student safety since any effort to slow the traffic would, from the viewpoint of the settlers, make them more vulnerable to stones.

The military presence also affects the school’s neighbours. I met a young woman called Asma who lives in the house next door with her husband and three young children. She made me lovely mint tea and shared with me what it is like for her to have the soldiers stationed outside her house every day. “I am afraid to go out when the soldiers are there. And we cannot go to our windows because they shout at us to get back.” Her children run out the back door to get to school. “The older two children have got used to it”, she told me, “but the youngest is only four and he is very afraid of the soldiers still.” The soldiers periodically occupy the house as a look out point to see if boys are throwing stones. She described a time two years ago when the soldiers came at 5am and put the whole family in the back room until midnight while they took over the house.

Photo: Tuqu primary school registration, September 2012 (John Cassel)

I am not a parent and so I cannot fully appreciate what itmust it be like to have to send your children to school in these villages if you want them to get an education. My Swedish colleague met with Mohammed whose sons attend the boy’s school. He said to her: “I am worried every day. You never know if your children will return from school.” Another parent described the effect of the Israeli military occupation on Palestinian children’ s access to education: “The military affects the children in different ways. Psychologically many children have nightmares and are afraid. Practically the military put up flying checkpoints and look at passports and IDs on their way to school. At another level they threaten to shut down the school completely.”

One conversation that really touched me was with thirteen year old Zeynab. She welled up when she told me how “one day when I was leaving school, a soldier came up to me and asked me about my brother. He held his gun on my shoulder. When the soldiers are far away, I am not afraid. When they come close, I am afraid.”

Education is not as accessible in Tuqu’ as it should be. The barriers are significant. Israel ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1991, Article 28 of which recognises ‘the right of the child to education’ and Article 38 of which reinforces ‘[i]n accordance with their obligations under international humanitarian law to protect the civilian population in armed conflicts, States Parties shall take all feasible measures to ensure protection and care of children who are affected by an armed conflict.’ Article 2 provides that the state of Israel cannot legally discriminate on the basis of race or national origin so Palestinian children under the jurisdiction of Israel as they are in the occupied territory, should be treated according to the same standards as Israeli children.

As an ecumenical accompanier I leave the Tuqu’ schools at 8am. Sometimes the military have dispersed by then, but even if they have they will return at midday when school is out and we cannot be there.


[1] Article 49, Fourth Geneva Convention, 1949

[2] The Impact of Child Detention: Occupied Palestinian Territory, Save the Children [2012] p24

This is Checkpoint 300

Photo: Checkpoint 300, Adele du Toit, September 2012

I am at the Yallah Yallah festival celebrating the anniversary of Beit Jala, a suburb of Bethlehem, being a community. A young women comes up to me and says ‘I recognise you from the Checkpoint! Where are you from?’. When I say London, she positively beams. She loves England she says, she toured with her Palestinian dance troupe to Liverpool, Portsmouth and London last year, it was a happy time. Mirna is in her mid twenties, with her big hoop earrings visible under her long brown hair, she wears jeans and pink converse trainers. She’s just like me. 

The tone noticeably changes when conversation returns to the Checkpoint. Mirna is a primary school teacher, she teaches first grade at a school in East Jerusalem. Her home in Bethlehem is just 8km from her work, you would think this an easy commute but the reality shows how different her life is to mine.

Every day at 6am Mirna must cross ‘Checkpoint 300’, a huge structure set behind the eight metre high concrete wall that cuts off Bethlehem from Jerusalem. It was built by the state of Israel in 2005 as a security measure after the violence of the second intifada or Palestinian uprising. Although the security situation had remarkably improved, the Checkpoint is still present. It is the main gateway for Palestinians from the southern West Bank to enter Jerusalem. West Bank Palestinians must secure a permit if they wish to pass through the Checkpoint. Most commonly permits are for work, hospital or religious worship but they are notoriously hard to obtain. Most Palestinian children wll never set eyes on Jerusalem.

Israel has the right and duty to control its borders. The problem is that Checkpoint 300 is not on its internationally recognised border, it is 2km south of the 1949 Armistice ‘green line’ so both sides of this Checkpoint are in the occupied Palestinian territory. It is one of the most permanent of the 542 obstacles blocking Palestinian movement in the West Bank. These include 61 permanently staffed checkpoints and represents a 4% increase since July 2011.[1] Israel is a state party to the Geneva Conventions of 1949, the cornerstone of International Humanitarian Law. Article 27 of the Fourth Geneva Convention relating to the protection of civilians in times of war provides that “protected persons are entitled, in all circumstances, to respect for their persons…” which in accordance with the International Committee of the Red Cross Commentaries includes the right to movement. Any control or security measures must be justified by military necessity and should not affect the rights of the protected persons concerned.[2]  As the Swedish legal NGO diakonia states: ‘Movement is a prerequisite for accessing basic needs such as healthcare, education and government institutions; workplaces; maintaining social cultural and family connections.’[3] Article 43 of the Hague Regulations 1907 obliges the occupying power to take ‘all measures in his power to restore, and ensure, as far as possible, public order and safety, while respecting, unless absolutely prevented, the laws in force in the country.’ This is customary international law binding on Israel.[4]

As an ecumenical accompanier (EA) working for the World Council of Churches, I provide protective presence at the Checkpoint four mornings a week and monitor the treatment of the 3000-4000 Palestinians who cross from Bethlehem to Jerusalem between 4am and 8am.

It is dark when I arrive at 03:45. In the dim light you can see men running up the road to the checkpoint shouting greetings in Arabic, taxis honk their horns and the aroma of coffee drifts from Amin’s stall, yet the atmosphere has an underlying tension, people are nervous. There are two lanes under the imposing shadow of the Separation Wall: one is the main lane where there is already a substantial queue; the other is the humanitarian lane for women, children, over 65s, students, those with medical passes and tourists. This should be open all the time but invariably is not. When I say ‘lanes’ of course I mean metal cages with a tin roof no more than a metre and a half wide. By 5am this queue is a crush.

Photo: CP300, Sophie, September 2012

The crowd surges forward each time the metal turnstile at the end of the long cage is opened. Some people are let through and show their permit to an IDF soldier, often an 18 or 19 year old living out his military service in the West Bank. It can be five people, or a hundred, or just one at a time. The metal turnstile is then stopped for five, ten, twenty minutes. People start to get nervous. There is pushing and some young men climb on the roof and drop down to push in; it makes people angry. Access is completely unpredictable and for this reason some workers leave their homes in Hebron at 2am every morning to mitigate the risk of losing their jobs for tardiness. As I look into the eyes of the men in the cages, many of whom are my father’s age, I feel an ache in my chest, this is humiliating.

As an EA I am a human face in this inhumane process. I discreetly count the number of people let through to monitor these access restrictions. Where there are particular problems I intervene by either negotiating with the soldiers, calling the military’s humanitarian hotline, or liaising with Israeli human rights organisation Machsom Watch.[5] Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.

I see an old man trying to go through the humanitarian turnstile, a soldier yells at him in Hebrew through the loud speaker. The turnstile is broken, I know that the soldier is shouting that the old man must turn it all the way back round once before it will open, this is the knack, but the old man does not know this. He tries again and the soldier yells even louder in the language he does not understand, while the main lane of young men watch on with impatience. It is humiliating for a man who should be respected as an elder. I can’t help but wonder if this really is a justified security measure.

Once you pass through the cages, there is a large car park to cross under the watchful eye of a soldier with his Tavor assault rifle. You climb under the railings if you are mobile enough and run across as fast as you can to begin the second waiting game. You then queue to enter another metal turnstile which again is stopped for indeterminate periods of time: the same tactic of control. As a foreigner I just have to remove my jacket and walk through the metal detector, it beeps because of the studs in my jeans but this is no problem for me.  As a Palestinian, however, you have to empty your pockets and as a minimum remove your jacket, shoes and belt. If the metal detector beeps then rather than being searched as at Heathrow, you have to go back through again and again and again until it beeps no more. The queue waits while this happens.

Finally you come to the last obstacle, more ID booths. There are twelve but no more than five are ever used so the process is painfully slow. As a foreigner I flash my passport and walk through. Palestinians must show their permit and ID card and then put their finger on a scanner. The technology often fails, the soldier shouts at you to put your finger on again and again, sometimes in Arabic and sometimes in Hebrew. Once your fingerprint works and the young soldier is satisfied with your permit, you are out and can board a bus to Jerusalem. You are standing 30 metres from the point at which you started and this process can take anything from 20 minutes to a few hours. You still have to be careful even if it seems like you are through. My colleague returned from checkpoint duty shaken up this week as a private security guard (employed to supplement the army) held a man up against the wall by his neck and kicked him for using his phone in the checkpoint. I hadn’t noticed any sign about phones and I use mine inside every day.

The EA at the exit will be the first friendly face you have seen in over an hour. “Sabah ilkher” I greet with a smile, though this is clearly not a “good morning”.

This is Mirna’s daily ordeal. She uses the main lane because the humanitarian lane is a roulette: it is very often closed and this Monday took 70 minutes, which is hardly expedient. “It’s awful being a woman going through the checkpoint with all the men, I get grabbed sometimes” she says, “and especially as a Christian woman, I do not cover my head so I feel even more exposed.”

Mirna is one of the 2-3% of women who cross at this time. Most of those passing in the morning are male workers going to manual labour jobs in Israel. I get to go back to bed for a few hours when I finish check point duty. I cannot imagine a long day of physically demanding labour after this 3am start and over an hour in this machinery. The uncertainty of the checkpoint and the serious consequences of losing your job leads a number of workers to take a pillow and mat, go through the checkpoint early and sleep on the street at the other side until work starts. In a few weeks the winter rain will come to the West Bank.

As 8am approaches, the end is in sight for my shift this morning. I see in the distance the first coaches passing through the adjacent car checkpoint. By contrast, tourists to Bethlehem are whisked through on air conditioned coaches so quickly that my friend’s mother had not even noticed there was an eight metre high concrete Wall. They visit the Church of the Nativity and buy olive wood Christmas decorations from large stores, insulated from the reality of life in the occupied Palestinian territory.

I am about to leave when I see the checkpoint policemen shouting at men to leave while they try to pray on the road at the exit, since they missed the call to prayer in the cage. Religious convictions and practices of civilians are to be respected according to International Humanitarian Law.[6] I see a little boy coming through the metal turnstile with his mother, he can’t be more than four years old and he waves at me. Children too have to pass Checkpoint 300 for hospital or school. Yesterday morning I counted nine children in three hours, surely this is nine too many. I call my colleague to say the queue has dispersed and that’s it for us this morning. Tomorrow it will all start again, this is life under occupation.


[1] UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs occupied Palestinian territory, Movement and Access Report September 2012, p33.

[2] International Committee of the Red Cross Commentary to the Fourth Geneva Convention: http://www.icrc.org

[4] This customary international law status was confirmed by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in Prosecutor v Naletilic and Martinovic [2003] and this was accepted by the Israeli High Court of Justice in Beit Sourik Village Council v The Government of Israel and Commander of IDF forces in the West Bank [2004]

[6] Article 27, Fourth Geneva Convention