“Why do they [the settlers] have to come here? They have taken much of our land anyway and isn’t that enough for them that they have to come here and use our pool too?”
This was the major expression from the Palestinians we met today.
On Tuesday April 7, the South Hebron Hills team of Ecumenical Accompaniers heard from our local contact that settlers (those Israeli citizens who live in illegal settlements or outposts in the West Bank) were intending to enter Palestinian-controlled land during the Jewish holiday of Passover to swim in an old swimming pool at Al Karmil, south of Yatta. They were expected sometime in the morning as Israeli police had come round the previous day and told the Palestinians to be clear of the area for the day.
However, the Palestinians are presently doing up this old roman amphitheatre area as a public park and have been busy planting trees and flowers to get it ready before the summer. We went as a protective presence to be present and to report accurately and fairly any problems that occurred.
We arrived at about 10:00am and stayed until just after 5.30pm. During this time we were able to see the work of the Palestinians in planting the trees. They also put up flags – both the Palestinian flag and that of Yatta Municipality. There was an earnest intensity about the work as they knew it might be destroyed by the settlers later that day – something that had happened before. This was the first time the Palestinians had the intention of being present when the settlers came. We spoke with workers, volunteers and the municipality’s staff and all were determined to carry on with their work and have a place they can enjoy and feel proud of. It would be great to see a picture of the site when it has matured.As the settlers did not turn up by midday as expected, many thought they would not come and so some of the Palestinians went in for a swim.
At 2.15pm three military jeeps arrived, followed by another jeep and an armoured vehicle. Then the DCO (District Co-ordinating Officer- an Israeli military appointee) arrived, who spoke to the Palestinians and agreed how to proceed so the settlers could swim, the Palestinians could plant and there would be no clashes. The vehicles were deployed around the pool and Al Karmil. After this was organised and after a wait in the hot sun, around 900 settlers arrived mainly on foot from babes in arms to an elderly man in a wheelchair. Some were in summer clothes looking like they were going to the local pool for a picnic and swim while others were much more conservatively dressed. Some looked like they were only there for the swim and others with other intentions – at least two were carrying guns quite openly hung across their backs.At one point some Palestinians were in the pool at the same time as some of the Israelis and there was some chanting and waving of Palestinian and Fatah flags. But no problems occurred. The army was well placed around the site. One unit kept going into the village on patrol, and the others kept the two parties apart.
Eventually the settlers left in dribs and drabs and then completely. It was then left to the army to withdraw. This was the most tense part of the afternoon as some of the Palestinian youngsters were hyped up. When eventually the last two military vehicles left there were stones thown at them. But considering the settlers, army and Israeli police were all there illegally for a good part of the afternoon, the restraint of the Palestinians was surprising.
The South Hebron Hills Ecumenical Accompanier Team is based in Yatta. During the Oslo Accords in the 1990s, agreed between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the West Bank was divided into Areas A, B and C. The division was only meant to last for five years in advance of final negotiations. Twenty years later it is still in place.
Yatta is in Area A which means it is under the full civil and security control of the Palestinian Authority. But despite this, the Israeli army continually enter the town to arrest people, and to support illegal settler activity, such as the type I witnessed today.
Yatta has a population of approximately 90,000 people, all of them Muslim, although the exact number is difficult to confirm due to seasonal changes in the population. The town is socially conservative but the people are friendly and keen to speak and know where team members are from.
Other towns nearby are also based in Area A. The area is clearly marked with signage put up by the Israeli military, although there are few signs to tell you exactly which town you are entering.Most of Area A is surrounded by Area B. This land is under Palestinian civil control and joint Palestinian-Israeli security control.
In between Areas A and B is the larger Area C, which is under the full civil and security control of Israel. This area – which makes up over 60% of the West Bank – connects all illegal Israeli settlements together into one continuous piece of land, whilst separating the many of the Palestinian Area A and B areas from each other.
Most of the South Hebron Hills is classified as Area C. In this area there are Palestinian villages, Israeli settlements (illegal under international law, but legal under Israeli law) and settlement outposts (illegal under both international and Israeli law) very close to each other.
The settlements and outposts cause many severe problems for the Palestinians. Most of the Palestinians here live out in the rural villages for most of the year to work their land. The majority depend on farming and shepherding for their income. By being present in the villages all the time it makes it more difficult for settlers to take the land from them either directly or through the courts by stating that the land has not been used.
Most of the villages are subject to Israeli ‘work-stop orders’, which is the first step leading to demolition orders on their residences, animal sheds, toilets, cisterns and other structures on their own land. Many of the families have cases in court, supported by lawyers from different organisations. This situation has arisen because the Israeli authorities have continually failed to implement formal master plans for most Palestinian communities in Area C. Where communities have tried to develop their own plans these can takes years to finalise.
Above is the story of just one day in the South Hebron Hills, showing the disregard for past agreements made between Palestine and Israel and the effect this has had on life for many Palestinians living in the West Bank.
If this story has moved you then please don’t forget to raise your concerns with your local elected representative and general election candidates. You can email, ask to meet them or ask them questions at local meetings, hustings or when they come to your doorstep.