Persistence and Prayer: a Palestinian community’s fight for their hill

By EA Billy

Whilst there are strict planning policies in Israel to ensure that industrial areas do not pollute or otherwise negatively impact local Israeli communities, such policies do not exist in the occupied West Bank. Here EA Billy meets local farmers from villages near Tulkarm in the Northern West Bank, as they gather in protest against the confiscation of their farmland by Israel for the building of a new Industrial Zone. Read on to find out how the construction of such a zone stands to impact the local community and environment and how you can take action.

Protesters and EAs gather at the prayer site [Photo: EAPPI/Billy]

On the 6th December 2019, around 200 local Palestinians gathered by the side of road 574, running out of Tulkarm and southeast between the villages of Khirbet Jubara and Izbat Shufa. Local media were there, and so were many candidates for the upcoming local elections. It was a Friday, and many attending were taking the opportunity to catch up on the week’s events. At 11:30 in the morning, they began to pray.

Local farmers say Friday prayers at the confiscated land [Photo: EAPPI/Billy]

The reason for this organised event relates to the large hill at the bottom of which the crowd was gathered. This hill and the area around it has recently been earmarked by Israeli authorities as the site for the construction of a new Industrial Zone. The site is approximately 3km inside the West Bank, and consists of land that has been confiscated from local Palestinian farmers, many of whom were at the protest. The farmers do not receive compensation for the loss of their land.

Protesters rest at the top of the hill, with Izbat Shufa in the background [Photo: EAPPI/Billy]

“They’re not just taking our land, they’re taking our clean air and clean water. They’re taking our quality of life”

Raed Mahmoud is one farmer who was at the protest, and owns land on the affected site. He said that he was not informed about Israel’s plans and only found out by searching for them online. He also highlights the negative effects that will come after construction, such as air and water pollution: “They’re not just taking our land, they’re taking our clean air and clean water. They’re taking our quality of life”.

Raed Mahmoud describes how he will be affected [Photo: EAPPI/Billy]

Another farmer told us that 11 different clans from Izbat Shufa own land in the affected area. This constitutes a huge portion of the population of the village, and the loss of land would have devastating effects on the economic wellbeing of Izbat Shufa. He also said that some of the affected land is common land owned by all of the community, and that they plant almonds and olive trees there.

According to Who Profits, there are 19 such “Industrial Zones” in the West Bank. These zones “house a wide spectrum of export-oriented Israeli manufacturers and a smaller number of international corporations”. They produce a wide variety of products, including carpets, alloy coatings, and security fences. They are built in Area C, over which Israel exercises full military and planning control. Area C makes up approximately 60% of the West Bank.  

This seizure of land by Israel for industrial purposes is illegal under International Humanitarian Law (IHL). Under Article 53 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, it is forbidden “to destroy or seize the enemy’s property, unless such destruction or seizure be imperatively demanded by the necessities of war”. In practice this forbids land confiscation except if it is necessary for military operations.

Blueprint for the planned Industrial Zone. Immediately to the North of the map is Izbat Shufa, and to the south is Khirbet Jubara [Photo: EAPPI/Billy]

A similar construction, the Barkan Industrial Zone, has already been built along the area of Highway 5 near the Palestinian city of Qalqilya. Supporters of the zone claim that they are a net benefit to the West Bank, as they provide employment opportunities to local Palestinians. Opponents say that the zones are built on illegally occupied land, pollute the local area, and do not pay adequate wages to Palestinian workers. They say that Israel is simply taking advantage of cheap labour and lower levels of environmental protection, and that the zones are serving to make the occupation more financially feasible.

“those under occupation cannot seek justice in the occupiers courts”

After prayers, the crowd climbed to the top of the hill and planted new olive trees at its summit, a gesture of defiance against the new plans. Within days, word had filtered through that these trees had been cut down by the Israeli military. However, there are plans to continue coming to the site in the future, and local farmers are in touch with lawyers to continue their legal battle in Israeli courts. Unfortunately, Palestinians do not have a good history of success with legal appeals relating to the occupation, as all cases have to go through the Israeli court, which is inherently skewed in Israel’s favour.  According to Israeli NGO, B’Tselem, the Israeli High Court regards Israeli planning policy in the West Bank as “lawful and legitimate” and “those under occupation cannot seek justice in the occupiers courts”.

Instances of land confiscation and environmental damage are widespread in the West Bank. The Norweigan Refugee Council provided assistance to over 28,000 Palestinians in 2018 who requested legal assistance in relation to land issues. Palestinian NGO, Al Haq has also written several reports about the environmental problems that come with the occupation, such as confiscation of solar panels, environmental degradation and exploitation of resources.

Take Action!

The Control of Economic Activity Bill (the ‘Occupied Territories Bill’) has been passed by the Irish Senate. The Irish government has recently moved to stop the passage of the bill through the lower house and become law. This Bill will make it illegal for goods from Industrial Zones and other occupied land to be imported into Ireland. In Ireland? Contact your local representative and express your support for the Bill.

Support Palestinian farmers by buying Palestinian grown produce where possible. You can also show solidarity by sponsoring olive tree planting, supporting groups who help Palestinian families during the olive harvest, or taking an olive picking trip in Palestine yourself. Groups including Rabbis for Human RightsYMCA of Palestine, Olive Harvest Trust and Zaytoun help farmers to harvest their olives during October and November. 

Learn more about the many barriers Palestinians face when trying to access planning through the Israeli High Court in this report by Israeli NGO, B’Tselem.

Learn more about environmental damage in the Israeli occupied West Bank by reading the following reports by Palestinian NGO, Al Haq: