Saturday, July 14, 2012

Non-occupation and water tanks

Greek Mythology recounts the story of Tantalos, who was cursed by the gods to stand forever in a pool of water but never slake his thirst, as the water would always recede before he could take a drink. In the territory under the rule of the state of Israel, myth has become reality, at the whim of military officers acting as vengeful demi-gods to the Palestinians placed under their charge.

When the people of Ein al-Hilweh, a small Palestinian community in the Jordan Valley, put their ears to the ground, they faintly hear the gurgling of water going through pipes underneath – pipes to which they have no access.  The water comes from a spring nearby, a spring which had sustained the life of this community for generations and indeed gave it its name - "Ein al-Hilweh" means  "The Sweet Spring" in Arabic.

The name still remains – but the spring itself, like almost all water sources in the Jordan Valley, has been taken over by "Mekorot", the Israeli governmental water company. The sweet spring has been enclosed and surrounded by fences, and industrious pumps installed to channel every single drop into the system of pipes.

Couldn't one of these pipes have been linked to the community of Ein al-Hilweh, so near? Not if the officials of the Civil Administration of the Military Government maintained by the armed forces of the State of Israel have anything to say about it. As far as these people are concerned,  Ein al-Hilweh is one of several troublesome Arab villagers which exist where they should not have been – namely, in the Jordan Valley, which all Israeli governments since 1967 proclaimed to be a strategic area that must remain permanently under Israeli rule. No effort is spared in letting them know, in no uncertain terms, that they are an unwanted hindrance and that it would be very obliging of them to just go away.

Deprived of their spring, the people of Ein al-Hilweh had to resort to bringing water in tanks drawn by tractors from no less than twenty-five kilometers A cumbersome and expensive way of providing water to themselves and their livestock. A cubic meter of water obtained this way costs ten times more than what people pay who have the privilege of being connected to the flowing pipe.
Not for the people of Ein al-Hilweh, living in the hottest part of this country, the luxury of a shower to freshen a sweating body. Still, they persisted, tenaciously clinging to their small plot of land.

A week ago, the army came up with a new ploy. Soldiers descended on Ein al-Hilweh as on various other communities in the same situation, confiscating and taking away the water tanks and the precious water in them. The reason given? A material suspicion by the officers in charge that these tanks had been used in the commission of a felony. To wit – "the theft of water". 

Most media channels neither knew nor cared about this particular news item, but the veteran Gideon Levy did expose it on the pages of Ha'aretz.

The former judge and the spirit of the king

As it happened, Gideon Levy's revelation of the water tanks confiscation coincided with the prominent publicity given to a quite different Levy – Justice Edmond Levy, late of the Supreme Court in Jerusalem and at earlier part of his career a Deputy Mayor of Ramla for the Likud Party. Edmond Levy had been commissioned by Prime Minister Netanyahu to look into ways and means of providing a less shaky legal foundation to the settlement enterprise.

Netanyahu had wanted to end, or at least minimize, the embarrassing phenomenon of the Supreme Court ruling that this or that settlement is illegal also under Israeli law, which is far more lenient in these matters than International law. The Prime Minister might not have counted upon the former judge also publishing a very resounding ideological document with which the government of Israel might find it a bit difficult to link itself.

Not only did the honorable judge state that there is simply no occupation and the West Bank (sorry, "Judea and Samaria") is not at all an Occupied Territory. Levy and his team went further, in a neat feat of legal sophistry and acrobatics, to assert that the Balfour Declaration of 1917 is still valid, ninety five years later. Therefore, the solemn pledge made by the government of His Majesty King George the Fifth – to "view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people" – has survived intact the dissolution of the British Empire and the countless other changes through which the world in general and the region in particular have passed. King George's Promise seems to have effectively replaced the Divine Promise, which used to be frequently quoted on such occasions. Pure, pristine and unchangeable, it provides Israel with an unlimited, blanket authority to build settlements anywhere it chooses, so as to promote the area's incorporation in the Jewish National Home.

Judge Edmond Levy had most probably never heard of Ein al-Hilweh in the Jordan Valley or of the situation of its inhabitants. Like most inhabitants of this hot country do on a hot summer day, he had most likely taken a refreshing shower on the morning when he had affixed his signature to the report - without giving any special thought to this simple act. And like many others who cited the Balfour Declaration to bolster Zionist and Israeli Nationalist claims, he studiously ignored the rider which King George's Government carefully appended to the promise of the National Home: "(…) It being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine"…
The last cows in the land of no-occupation

And so, there we were, – a group of activists gathered at the accustomed rendezvous point outside the Arlozorov Railway Station in Tel Aviv, and another group coming from Jerusalem and some others from different parts of the country. Two minibuses, some private cars, plus a symbolic solidarity donation of one full water tank and several dozen bottles of mineral water. All brought together by the strenuous efforts of Ya'akov Manor of Kfar Sava, the indefatigable catalyst of joint action by peace groups.

It is, in fact, not so difficult to get to the Jordan Valley, though it would only rarely occur to the average Tel Avivian to do it. In the 1990's Ariel Sharon had invested huge resources in creating a series of "lateral roads" cutting through the West Bank, with the express aim of making the Jordan Valley more accessible. For much of its length, use of this well made highway is reserved to Israelis only, and Palestinian villages on the sides are not linked to it. Our little convoy does not stand out among the settler traffic, and at checkpoints the soldiers wave us through with hardly a glance.

The driver puts on the radio, in the midst of yet another impassioned debate on whether the Haredim (Ultra-Orthodox) could and should be taken into the army. One of the speakers on the air, a senior retired army officer, says: "Some Haredim have already been drafted, in special units of their own, and the results have been excellent. The Netzach Yehuda Battalion ("Eternal Judea") has been deployed to the Jordan Valley and did an excellent job…". "What is this? Cut off this shit!" exclaims the woman behind the driver. He turns to a station broadcasting classical music.

The Jordan Valley. 41 degrees Celsius, but less humid than in the costal plain. We make a short stop at a small shopping center. Neat buildings, a neat row of shops, a wire cage full of empty plastic bottles with the sign "It is crazy not to recycle". Several activists stand debating at the entrance of a shop selling soft drinks. "These shops are probably operated by settlers, if we buy here we help them steal the Palestinians' water" says one. The shop keeper intervenes angrily: "We steal water? If you talk like that, I don't want to sell to you!". "Who the hell wants to buy from you, anyway!". An exchange of mutual invective is cut off and we return to the cars.

A very short drive away, and we are in the Third World – to be precise, a particularly neglected and miserable part of it. A collection of hovels and rundown lean-tos, some animals, a clothes line bearing some shirts and trousers. This is Abu al Ajaj, one of six components of a Palestinian town known as the Jiftlik. The name is derived from the Turkish "Chiftlik" which means "estate". In Ottoman times, the people here were tenant farmers who had to pay much of their harvest to powerful land owners, but still did not have to face many of the privations of their present-day descendants. As we soon find out, the shopping center where we had just been is off-limits to the Palestinians living so near yet so far.

Fathi Hudirat of Jordan Valley Solidarity has arrived to act as our host and guide. "See the electricity wire going above the huts? It is just above their heads, but they are not allowed to connect to it" he says. "Even in Apartheid South Africa there was nothing like that. There was a very deep separation between Blacks and Whites, but even there everybody got water from the same pipe and electricity from the same wire".

The affable and neatly dressed Hudirat belongs to a bit more fortunate part of the Jordan Valley Palestinians; "The Jordan Valley is more than thirty percent of the West Bank, and only in a few small parts of it are Palestinians at all tolerated. There is the Jericho enclave, and a few other small enclaves – my hometown, Bardala, among them. We are squeezed and terribly hemmed in, but  at least we can build solid houses. People here just can't do that. They are  exposed to ceaseless harassment, their lives are hell". In fact, in the past there were far more Palestinians living in the Jiftlik. In 1967 thousands were expelled eastwards, across the Jordan River, and hundreds of houses were razed to the ground. "Only the mosque remained, inside a military camp. We call it 'The Captive Mosque', no Muslim has set foot in it since 1967".At present, the Jiftlik is a precarious home to about 4000 people.

The Jordan Valley Solidarity is a grassroots activist organization, dedicated to non-violent resistance to the occupation as manifested in their region. Its members tour the villages and encampments, support the villagers in better  organizing, monitor human rights violations and strive to make them known to the outside world, and organize both legal help and activist rebuilding  of destroyed structures. They work with the Society of Friends, better known as the Quakers, and together with them renovated a derelict, century-old house and made of it an action center. Activists are always staying there, sometimes five, sometimes twenty – internationals. Palestinians from the Valley itself and elsewhere, sometimes an Israeli.

They would highly appreciate more intensive Israeli presence and involvement, such as Ta'ayush had been doing for years in the South Hebron Hills, where Palestinian communities face similar problems. "Donations of water or food are highly appreciated as an act of solidarity, but much more precious to us is anything you can do to let the world know of what is going on here. It is a shame, a terrible shame. I saw you brought a sign with the words 'A small drop against the shame'. That is very true. A shame, not only to those who are doing this. A shame to everybody. We are all human beings".

Hudirat recounts some of the cases which his group is dealing with. There is a rather prosperous farmer, one of the few lucky enough to have land and water enough for a palm tree grove. But now the army asserts that it is government land. If losing his case in the courts, he stands to lose everything. The farmer's house, "not pretentious, but neat and cosy" was already destroyed. And there is the case of the Korzoliya Spring. "It is a small spring, up there on the mountain side. Four brothers live there with their families. They got an eviction order from the Civil Administration. The lawyer Taufic Jabarin, an Arab Israeli from Umm el Fahm, went to court on their behalf – and won. The next day they got a new eviction order. This time it was from the Israeli Environment Ministry, in order to 'protect a natural resource'. The lawyer is now fighting this, too."

While we were listening, an army jeep stopped by and an officer stood unobtrusively to the side. He did not intervene, but our presence was duly noted. A few minutes later we set off northwards- and halfway to Ein al-Hilweh, where villagers were awaiting us, we were stopped at an army checkpoint.

Just us. All other vehicles were let through. "We have orders. These two minibuses are to be held pending further notice" said one of the young soldiers, pocketing the drivers' identity cards. A twenty minutes' impasse, under the blazing July noon sun. Activists considered taking out the protest signs and holding a demonstration then and there, though there would have been few to see it other than the uncaring soldiers. "Wait, I have the phone number of the Officer in Command of the whole Valley. There were some cases in the past when he was not too unreasonable". And so it indeed proves. Eventually, the soldiers get radioed orders to give back the I.D.s, and we can proceed.

Ein al-Hilweh. A cluster of villagers, led by the 91-year old patriarch Ealian Daragmeh. Young boys, some rather shy, others quite bold to the visitors. Tents and huts, which seem a bit better maintained than those at Abu al Ajaj. Chickens running around. A donkey. A covered cowshed, providing huddled cows some shadow. And – water tankers It turns out that the army asked for a huge sum as "ransom" for the confiscated gear, but Palestinian Authority PM Salam Fayyad took care to provide new ones, here and in other locations.

Activists spread out among the tents, holding aloft the signs in Hebrew and English:

"Stop the induced thirst" / "Stop the denial of water" / "A drop against the shame" / "Every person has the right to water" / "Judge Levy, Occupation is here" / "Jews get water – from Arabs it is taken away. Apartheid is here!"

Near the cowshed, a reporter of the German ARD Radio interviews some of the participants. "People in Europe should know what is going on here. This is not some officer's caprice, this is policy" says an activist. "A few months Netanyahu visited and made a speech, not far from here. He said that the Jordan Valley must remain Israeli forever. I don’t mean that Netanyahu personally ordered the confiscation of the water and the other harassments of the Palestinians. He did not need to. Officers on the ground feel they are translating broad policy guidelines into specific measures." 

We go into a big tent to hear Fathi Daragmeh, who speaks Arabic and is translated into English by Hudirat. At first he is hesitant, clearly unused to public speaking, then gains confidence.

"All of you are most welcome here, most welcome. We, Palestinians and Israelis, are both born of this land. We must find the way to live together, to solve the problems. There is no other way!

We have lived here for many generations. We have lived by the spring, our spring. We enjoyed the spring. Now, it was taken away from us. It was given to the settlers of Maskiot". (The Israeli settlement of Maskiot was originally established in 1982, but failed and was abandoned by its would-be settlers; it was re-established in 2006, to house settlers removed from the Gaza Strip).

"We do not hate the settlers of Maskiot. We tried to create good neighborly relations with them, but it was not very successful. Once, one of our horses escaped and got into the settlement. Their security officer put a rope around the horse's neck and dragged him behind a car until he died. Just cruelty without reason to an animal.

A few months later, one of their horses escaped and got to us. We gave the horse food and water and put him in our stable, then I called this security officer. I offered him coffee and told him: 'You killed our horse, we took care of your horse, you can now take him back'. He just said 'We are strong, you are weak', took the horse and did not drink the coffee.

We are nearly the only ones who still raise cows in the Jordan Valley. The Palestinian Cow, Bakar al Falstini. Once there were many who did it, all along the Valley. But it is very difficult. Cows need a lot of water, and that is very difficult to provide. They need pasture and most of the meadows are now either in the hands of the army or the settlers, we can't go there. Some weeks ago several of my brother's cows crossed the road. The army confiscated them and we had to pay a lot of money to get them back. Cows like to roll in the mud in the summer, to protect from flies, but there is no mud anymore. We are not allowed to come to the banks of the Jordan River; that is a military zone.

You can't imagine how much work it is to maintain cows under the conditions in which we live. We are five brothers with our old father and our families, we work very hard day after day so that we could keep our fifty cows. The cows are all we have."  See photos