Reporting

In Palestine, Stones Against Land Theft

At the beginning of September, a dozen Jewish colonists settled at the top of a hill in the occupied West Bank, strategically located at the intersection of several colonies. Since then, a sizeable movement has developed protesting this seizure of land under the protection of the Israeli army.

Demonstration against the outpost on Mount Rissan, repressed by the Israeli army.
Hamza Shalash/Wafa

30 November, shortly after 11:30 AM. Not a cloud in the sky. In a valley sparsely dotted with olive trees and Aleppo pines, some hundred people are completing their midday prayer and starting to move towards a nearby hillside. Soon tear gas grenades are raining down, launched by the Israeli soldiers stationed on the hill. The better equipped protestors strap on their gas masks, while for the others, the air is difficult to breathe. The soldiers fire rubber bullets. One person is slightly injured. The protestors temporarily withdraw.1

A Strategic Outpost

13 kilometres to the north-west of Ramallah, Risan Hill, located at the intersection of the Palestinian villages of Ras Karkar, Kafr Nima and Kharbata, is a site of severe tensions. “Since September 2018, Israelis have set up a hilltop outpost ” in a strategic position meant to keep control of the Palestinian villages, says Jonathan Ulmo*2, an Israeli activist opposed to his country’s occupation and Daoud Achon*, a Palestinian resident of Kafr Nima. “There were about a dozen settlers, they pitched tents for sleeping, they began planting things and widening a dirt road that connects the hill with Ras Karkar,” he adds, pointing up to the outpost.

Since then, the jumu’ah, the obligatory Friday prayer, is carried out here every week to protest this land-grabbing. Opponents of the occupation from every walk of life join in. Daoud Achon believes this is imperative because “if we don’t resist, they’re bound to grab all our land even though we’re the legal owners.”

While all this land does indeed belong to the three above-named villages, it is in Zone C (totally under Israeli control for administrative and security purposes) as defined by the second Oslo agreement, signed in September 1995. “The Israeli army is duty-bound to come and protect the settlers who have decided to make their home here, even though their government has declared this activity to be illegal!” José Tavdyoglo an activist with the Israeli NGO, Ta’ayush, assures me.

Leaning against an olive tree and gazing at the horizon, Jonathan Ulmo describes this spot as “especially important” because it is at the intersection of the Jewish colonies Nehali’el, Talmon and Doley to the East and Modi’in Illit to the West. This last-named colony is considered ultra-orthodox and with its population of 70,100 is the West Bank’s largest. “The long-term project is to build a highway connecting those Eastern colonies with the one in the West. They’ve been doing that since the nineties, grabbing the land and roping off the Palestinian villages,” he laments, with reference to the hundreds of outposts set up since then. According to Israeli legislation, the construction of a road necessarily entails the confiscation of a strip of land 100 metres across. The locals could well be deprived of “anywhere between 1,000 and 2,000 dunams (100 to 200 hectares)” according to Jonathan Ulmo’s estimate, creating an increasingly prisonlike environment for the Palestinian villages, surrounded by walls and highways.

Villages Transformed Into Prisons

The Israeli authorities have made no official announcement concerning this new outpost, and José Yavdyoglo identifies a media issue as well: “Insofar as the extension of an outpost and the building of a road starts as a mere hypothesis, the media have little to say about it. It is only when the work has begun that they deal with the subject but by then it is too late. We have only to look at the way things have been done in the past to realise how they will proceed here in Ras Karkar.” José Tavdyoglo is referring to the two outposts set up in the Jordan Valley in 2016 and denounced by the Israeli association, B’tselem.

As Haïtham Khalib, a native of the neighbouring township of Bil’in, sees it, “Our villages are gradually becoming prisons. It’s one of the methods the settlers use to make us leave of our own accord.” A “sneaky” method says José Tavdyoyoglo, “since the State of Israel partly disclaims responsibility by half-heartedly declaring the settlers” actions illegal, all the while taking advantage of them to extend its hold over the occupied West Bank.’

At Risan Hill there are various forms of resistance: public prayer, collective dancing and chanting: “This is Palestine!” and “This is our land, we won’t leave it, you must leave!” as well as slinging rocks at the Israeli soldiers. Asked about the violence involved in this stone-throwing, Yossef Karaja, a Fatah activist exclaims: “The rocks are harmless compared with their guns. If we had their weapons, we’d be happy to give them our stones. . .”

Over the last three months, several protestors were arrested and injured by Israeli troops, including three photojournalists. “My 14 year-old son was jailed for a month at the beginning of October because he demonstrated. They let him go on condition he never came back here and after we had had to pay a lot of money” the boy’s father, Albit Foudek* tells me.

In spite of everything, Ahmed Aras*, a 47 year-old father who lives in Kafr Nima, exclaims as he watches the young resisters confront the Israeli soldiers: “I tell my children they have to stay here, they mustn’t go away! They’ve been taught to love their homeland even if it’s dangerous, today struggle is the only way.” A tear-gas grenade lands at their feet and the group scatter, setting fire to some natch, those ground-cover shrubs that give off smoke which “repels the gas.”

“The Rest of the World No Longer Shares Our Struggle”

For the past 70 years, international law has condemned Israel’s colonisation, whether in the form of outposts (illegal under Israeli law) or colonies that are considered lawful. The most recent reaffirmation of these principles is to be found in UN Security Council Resolution 2334 adopted on 23 December 2016. It states that “the establishment by Israel of settlements in the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem, has no legal validity and constitutes a flagrant violation under international law and a major obstacle to the achievement of the two-State solution and a just, lasting and comprehensive peace”.

This situation did not keep Antonio Guterres, UN General Secretary, just prior to the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, from urging “Israel and Palestine [. . .] to restore the promise and viability of the two-state solution, premised on two states living side by side in peace [. . .]”.

Here in Risan Valley, few people believe in the feasibility of that solution. José Tavdyoglo stresses the thoughtlessness of that exhortation: “The policy of colonisation and the unrestrained establishment of these outposts are the biggest threat to the creation of two separate States. The least the Israeli army could do would be to prevent their being set up here but they protect them and use them.” For Yossef Karaja, “the fact is that in spite of this mobilisation, we are very much alone here in Ras Karkar, Kafr Ni’Ma and Kharbata . . . the rest of the world no longer shares our struggle.”

After playing cat and mouse with the Israeli soldiers for three hours, the protestors gradually go home. A teenager, his lower face covered with a scarf, says to me: “I live here, I have no choice but to resist if I want to live free.” And in parting, he shouts: “See you next Friday!”

1After a week of tension in Ramallah during which two Israeli soldiers and four Palestinian civilians were killed, on Sunday, December 16, the Israeli Ministerial Committee for Legislation voted to advance a bill called “Regulation Law 2”. Approved at first reading in the Knesset on 19 December, it aims to legalize 66 outposts in the West Bank.

2The names followed by an asterisk* have been changed for security reasons.