Life in the Crosshairs

In the eastern part of the occupied West Bank, Israel is quietly carrying out a campaign to remove Palestinian communities from land it seeks to acquire.

It was 6am when Omar heard the Israeli military jeeps arrive, ‘I knew why they were here, but my home hadn’t received a demolition order, so I thought they were coming to destroy my neighbour’s house’. When the officers began walking towards Omar, that’s when he knew. ‘They told me and my family to collect our belongings… we had to leave. I said we had already lodged a permit application, but he wasn’t interested. “Don’t speak to me, speak to your lawyer”, the officer said’. Within an hour, not only was Omar and his family’s home destroyed, but five other structures in the village of Al Hadidiya were also razed. ‘That was the fifth time since 1982 that my home has been demolished by the army’. 

Bulldozing homes is just one of a vast repertoire of tactics Israel deploys to make life intolerable for Palestinians in the Jordan Valley. This is a part of the world where access to water, electricity and land is based on race. Olive trees are routinely uprooted, wheat fields burned and cisterns demolished. While Israel’s plan to annex this strategically important region is well known, less discussed is what it means for the thousands of Palestinians who find themselves on land Israel seeks to permanently acquire. 

Omar Besharat stands in the ruins of a community bulldozed by Israel.

Al Hadidiya is a small rural community located in the northern Jordan Valley. An Israeli military base looks down from a hill a few kilometres to the north, while a small Israeli settlement 2 kilometres north-west ensures the community is almost completely surrounded by its occupiers. The military has declared vast swathes of land to Al Hadidiya’s north, east and south as inaccessible firing zones. When the unpaved road to the community was repaired by residents and aid groups, the army destroyed it. Residents are not allowed to access water from the Israeli company that controls the region’s water. In 2015, the community faced a wave of demolitions that saw the army return each day for a week until families were left sleeping on dirt. 

The residents of Al Hadidiya have little space to move.

The Israeli military visits Al Hadidiya every few weeks to conduct inspections and surveillance. ‘They do not speak, they just take pictures and write notes. Sometimes they just use a drone’, explains Al Hadidiya resident, Omar Besharat. ‘Then they return with the demolition order. They put it on the ground with a stone and walk away. They don’t even look at us’. Once a demolition order is issued, residents know their home will be destroyed, but they have no idea when. ‘It could be acted on a week later, a month or even years’. The uncertainty is a deliberate strategy to instil fear in Palestinians. ‘The intention is not just to destroy, it’s to intimidate. They hope we will get tired of living this way and leave’.

Israel wants the residents of Al Hadidiya gone because they live and work in a region Israel views as a strategic asset. Sadly, for people like Omar and his family, bulldozing homes is considered one of the most effective ways of getting them to leave. Omar’s home was last demolished in October 2018. In the same month, the United Nations reported 51 Palestinian-owned structures being demolished or seized by the Israeli authorities in parts of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Meanwhile, Israeli human rights group B’Tselem monitored at least 698 demolitions in the Jordan Valley between 2006 - 2017. That’s well over 700 recorded demolitions since 2006. And yet these atrocities rarely, if ever, enter the discussion about Israel and Palestine. If over 700 Israeli homes had been demolished by the Palestinian Authority in a calculated effort to control the local Jewish population, the reaction would be fierce. But the persecution of people like Omar and his family has become so normalised that it barely registers a soundbite.

Abu Saqar has lived in Al Hadidiya and the surrounding area for over 70 years. He’s been all the way to the Supreme Court of Israel in his efforts to stop the demolitions. The judge ruled against him on the grounds that he was considered a danger to the nearby Israeli settlement, despite having no criminal record. ‘I’m Arab’, he says. ‘In their eyes, I’m a potential terrorist’. He was also told that as a ‘nomad’, he can move anywhere. Abu Saqar counters, ‘It’s almost impossible for Palestinians to get building permits, so wherever we move, they will demolish. They want us out of this area’. 

Despite having lived in the area for over 70 years, Abu Saqar is considered a danger to the illegal settlements nearby. He has no criminal record.

As Israel expands more and more into the Jordan Valley, the land on which Palestinian shepherds can graze their flocks continues to diminish. ‘The settlements don’t want to see us, so they always try to create an empty zone around their colony. We try to stay away from them, but then we end up in a firing zone. We either get arrested by the army or harassed by the settlers’ explains Abu Saqar. Acts of settler violence are carried out with almost total impunity.Incidents of Israeli settlers intimidating Palestinian shepherds occur on a daily basis. Incidents range from verbal harassment to physical assaults, vandalism and arson. Rabbi Arik Ascherman is founder of the Israeli human rights organisation Torah of Justice. Each week he and fellow activists work with Palestinian communities threatened by Israeli settlers in the Jordan Valley. ‘The settlers figure that if you harass the Palestinians enough by making it financially impossible for them to survive, you get them to leave without firing a shot’, he explains. Acts of settler violence are carried out with almost total impunity. Yesh Din - an Israeli NGO which monitors settler violence against Palestinians - recently reported that 91 per cent of cases of settler violence were closed without indictment. ‘If it’s one on one, a Palestinian shepherd and an Israeli settler, the settler could literally kill him and say he had no choice because he was attacked. No-one would believe anything a Palestinian says’, explains Ascherman. 

Rabbi Ascherman has been kicked, clubbed and stabbed by his settler compatriots for daring to accompany Palestinians while they graze their flocks. He’s been arrested by the army and received threatening letters on the doorstop of his home. ‘Some guy called me a traitor at the Western Wall. I didn’t know him, but he knew me’. As Israel’s occupation becomes more extreme, campaigns to smear voices of dissent intensify. It’s difficult to accuse a Rabbi of being an anti-Semite, but where there’s a will there’s a way. ‘Israeli nationalists accuse me of working for anti-Semites in Europe’ explains Arik. ‘The idea that someone might be motivated by the human rights and justice of a Palestinian doesn’t even enter their minds’.

Rabbi Arik Ascherman meets a Palestinian in an area where they face abuse from Israeli settlers and the army.

While Israel’s claim to the Jordan Valley is largely premised on the region’s strategic importance, it has been careful to ensure the vast economic potential of the area’s arable land has not gone to waste. For many decades Israel has transferred its civilian population into strategically located settlements across the region. The settlements not only entrench Israel’s presence in occupied land, they also exploit natural resources that would otherwise be used by Palestinians. This has led to a thriving agricultural industry for Israel and utter devastation for Palestinian farming and agriculture. The settlements benefit from a discriminatory water policy that sees copious amounts of water directed their way while Palestinians in the Jordan Valley are forced to survive off rations.

Al Auja is a Palestinian village just north of Jericho. Before the occupation, its natural spring was one of the main water sources for Palestinians in the Jordan Valley. Now the town barely has enough water to drink, let alone water crops. Salah Fraijat is head of Al Auja’s local authority. ‘After 1967 the Israelis started building wells to serve their settlements’, he explains. ‘Now the Al Auja spring is dry, causing the destruction of agricultural land’. Israel forbids Palestinians from constructing new wells and imposes strict limits on how deep they can dig for water. ‘We’re not allowed to dig deep enough to find quality water. Water close to the surface is salty water so we can’t use it for agriculture or drinking’. Israel places the town under strict surveillance to ensure its access to water is tightly controlled. ‘People from the national water company, Mekorot, come to our water wells every month to check to see how far has been dug. They often come with a military escort’. 

Israel claims the Jordan Valley is crucial to its security, however miles and miles of Israeli date farms show there are also economic benefits to controlling the region.

The impact on local farming has been devastating. Jaser Atyat is a farmer who used to make a living from growing cucumbers, aubergines and watermelons. ‘The situation is so unpredictable, last year I lost all my watermelon and wheat. The area is so rich in clean underground water but the Israelis do not allow Arabs to access it. It all goes to the Israeli settlements’. Jaser says many of the people who have lived off the land for generations have sold their land and left. When a crop dies it’s devastating for farmers. ‘We lose money. Money for seeds, workers, plants and all the materials and resources required to farm. We also lose the money we would have made from selling produce’. In a region that has the potential to drive the economy of a future Palestinian state, many Palestinians are struggling to survive. Meanwhile, Israeli settler farms thrive, ‘They have water security, but they refuse to share it’, says Jaser.

Lush, green Israeli settlements dot the hilltops of the Jordan Valley, standing in stark contrast to the parched and impoverished Palestinian villages juxtaposed nearby.

The water crisis in Al Auja coupled with restrictions on land-use, freedom of movement, and market access have generated mass unemployment in what would otherwise be a prosperous region. Many Palestinians are desperate for work. Perversely, this dire situation is viewed as an opportunity by Israeli settlers who know they can get hardworking, skilled Palestinian labour to work on their farms for a fraction of what they would need to pay an Israeli. It’s one of the economic benefits of farming in occupied land. Al Auja Local Council reports a truly staggering statistic: more than half the town’s population now rely on work from settlement farms to survive. Israeli civil law is not applied to Palestinians who work for settlers, meaning worker rights in Jordan Valley settlements are defined by race. 

Palestinians are often asked to renounce violence. When Israeli soldiers demolish a Palestinian home in the Jordan Valley, the family does not react with violence. They gather their children, collect their belongings and stand by to watch the occupying army bulldoze their home. When the army leaves, they rummage through the rubble and begin the process of rebuilding their lives. They challenge the occupier’s war crimes, not in an international court, but in the court of their occupier’s country. And for their steadfast commitment to due process and non-violence, they are told that the land on which their prosperity depends – the Jordan Valley – will soon become another prize to the state of Israel. Their commitment to non-violence is irrelevant to Israel's commitment to control this valuable strip of land. 

As Omar walks through the piles of rubble from years of demolitions, his comments reflect many in the Jordan Valley, ‘Muslim, Jew, Christian, we don’t care. We just want to be able to live our lives freely on this land’.

This article was published in Orient XXI on June 25, 2020. Orient XXI is a French publication dedicated to politics and reportage in the Middle East. Read the published article here.