By EA Elaine, Southern West Bank.
At 6am on 6 April 2016, the community of Um al Kheir was awakened by soldiers and bulldozers entering their village. A few hours later, six houses had been demolished leaving 34 people homeless, including 12 children.
One of the women in the village tells us how the mothers tried to keep their children in a room whilst the demolitions were carried out, but because of the length of the ‘exercise’ it was difficult. When we visit, her two-year-old little boy is tearful and will not let his mother out of his sight. She tells us that he has not played for the last five days since the day of the demolitions. This time their own house was not destroyed – the tin structure they now inhabit sits alongside the concrete foundations of their first house that was demolished in 2014.
Families keep their valuables in a bag so that when the demolitions begin, they are ready. They have a short time to clear out their houses when the bulldozers arrive. Then all they can do is to watch their houses being destroyed.During the April demolitions, one of the most vocal of the villagers was 75-year-old Suleiman. He could not watch homes being destroyed again without a protest. He is a diminutive figure but was forcibly removed from the immediate scene by the soldiers. We are invited to drink mint tea with him under a small shaded tent covered with palm fronds. Suleiman talks about his personal history. The Hathalin family, nomads from the Negev Desert in modern day Israel, were expelled from their grazing lands in 1948 when Israel was declared a state. The Nakba, or Catastrophe, meant that Suleiman’s family had to flee to the South Hebron Hills in the West Bank to seek safety. They were one clan among 700,000 Palestinians who either fled or were expelled from their homes at this time. Other Bedouin families left for Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Seven-year-old Suleiman became a refugee in his own land. Once they were in the Um al Kheir area, Suleiman’s grandfather was able to buy the land. He tells us that it cost one hundred camels.
But life did not continue smoothly. In the 1980s an Israeli military base was built beside the family’s land, followed by the establishment of Karmel, an Israeli settlement, both built on occupied land in violation of international law. The European style houses of the settlement with red roofs were built on the hilltop right up against the village of Um al Kheir. Supplied with water and electricity by the Israeli government, the settlement has continued to expand.
Some of the settlers have harassed the villagers of Um al Kheir, at times with physical attacks and even complaining about the smoke from the traditional village outdoor oven, the taboun, leading to its demolition.Even though the Hathalin family owns this land, under the Oslo Accords of the 1990s it was declared to be part of Area C, meaning that it is completely under Israeli control, both administratively and militarily. This arrangement was only meant to be temporary, lasting for five years in advance of the establishment of a Palestinian state. But over 20 years later, it is still in place. Building permits are almost impossible to get for Palestinians living in Area C and so nearly all the houses of Um al Kheir are under demolition orders. Some have been donated by international aid organisations, funded by the European Union. The settlement expands and develops whilst Um al Kheir lives under the shadow of demolition.
This systematic policy of house demolitions carried out against Palestinian residents is a contravention of Article 53 of the Fourth Geneva Convention which forbids “any destruction by the Occupying Power of real or personal property belonging individually or collectively to private persons” except where such destruction is rendered “absolutely necessary by military operations”.
Suleiman takes a long view of the land’s history. He says, “The Ottomans were here, the British, then the Jordanians. Now the Israelis. All with an iron fist.”
He continues, “Everyone knows our story. I believe that if the USA and Europe really wanted a solution to our problem, they could do it.”
He ends with a simple question, “Shouldn’t everyone be able to wake up and eat his breakfast in peace?”
But right now, this is an impossibility.
With bags packed ready for the next demolitions, Um al Kheir’s Nakba (catastrophe) continues.
Read: visit the website of the Israeli organisation Zochrot to learn more about what happened during the Nakba and its ongoing impact.
Write: contact your local MEPs to ask what they, and the EU, are doing to hold the Israeli government to account for the illegal demolition of EU-funded structures in the occupied West Bank, including by demanding compensation for EU taxpayers. You can send them this blog along with your questions. You can find contact details for UK MEPs here and for Irish MEPs here.