Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Aqaba: the crime of existing

Last week the IDF was very busy on the Gaza Strip Border, involved in shooting and shooting back and shelling and bombing and firing missiles and intercepting missiles and carrying on the operational testing under field conditions of the Iron Dome counter-missile system. Yet in the midst of all this the military found the time and resources to open a second front at a small village in northeastern West Bank called Aqabah (the same name as the more well known city in Jordan).

Altogether, about three hundred people live there. No missile had been shot from there. Even stones had never been thrown there, neither now nor at the height of the first Intifada, or the second one. Never were people from this village been charged even with the slightest violent act. Nevertheless, even in the midst of warlike escalation on the Gaza border, the Israeli Defense Forces could spare the resources to send many soldiers on a military mission into this village - almost as many soldiers as it has residents.

The soldiers advanced to three houses which were marked for destruction, ordered the families to leave immediately, threw out their possessions and escorted bulldozers to destroy the houses before the frightened children's eyes. And the two roads connecting the village to the outside world were most thoroughly plowed by the soldiers of the world's most moral army, so as to make them impassable to the Aqaba residents' cars. And the electricity poles were uprooted and smashed, as was the fence at the side of the road, and the soldiers also moved into the fields near the road and plowed them and destroyed a large part of crops.

"The Peace Road" the Aqabah residents had named the one-kilometer road that linked their village to the main Jordan Valley Highway. The soldiers who were sent there by the State of Israel did not care by what name was called the road which they were ordered to destroy.

A bit of history

This is not the first time that the village of Aqabah was singled out for a harsh treatment by the State of Israel. In fact, ever since the territory was conquered in 1967, the authorities in our country did not hide their strong feeling that this village should just not be there (it does not appear on any map printed in Israel) and made many efforts to ensure that it would indeed stop being there. Not only were houses destroyed again and again, but for many years a training base of the Israel Defense Forces was located in the middle of Aqabah, with soldiers holding live ammunition training among the houses. No less than nine villagers were killed and others injured by stray bullets. Yet residents refused to understand the subtle hint and leave. They buried their dead and mourned them and continued to live in this difficult and dangerous location.

Only in 2001 did the Supreme Court accept a petition filed by the Association for Civil Rights and ordered the army to remove the base and stop the soldiers from training among the village houses. And still did the authorities hold firmly to their opinion that there should be no building in this location and no building licenses would ever be granted and that therefore the illegal houses built in Aqabah must be demolished,  as should the illegal road made by the illegal residents of the illegal village for their illegal cars....

Why are the authorities bothered so much by the existence of a tiny village, of which the majority of Israeli citizens have never heard? Never was an official answer given. One may only speculate that it may have started in some way with Yigal Alon, a senior minister in the government of Israel at the aftermath of 1967, who came up with the idea that Israel should permanently keep the Jordan Valley and settle it with as many Israeli Jews as were willing to go there and discourage in every possible way the presence of Arabs there. The village of Aqabah is unfortunate to be situated on the very edge of the Jordan Valley. If it were gotten rid of, the area earmarked for Israeli annexation plans would become that much wider… Alon is long dead, but the plan that he laid down is still alive and kicking. Very painfully kicking, at times.

In 2003 the army bulldozers visited Aqaba and began to destroy house after house. But peace activists called the U.S. Consulate in East Jerusalem and  some phone calls were made from there to senior Israeli officials and the destruction stopped. After this event Aqabah had seven  good years, when it was left more or less alone, and the village began to prosper with considerable international assistance.

USAID helped pave the access road to the village, and the British government funded the establishment of a clinic. The kindergarten was financed by an American organization called "The Rebuilding Alliance", and the governments of Japan, Belgium and Norway helped in adding a second floor, so as to enable the kindergarten to take in also the children from other small villages in the area. The Government of Japan also funded the construction of a large water tank for the villagers' use. (There was, of course, no possibility of linking Aqaba to regular water supplies by pipe, as human communities normally are – all water supplies and pipes in this area are controlled by the Government of Israel and its armed forces…)

The village's mayor, Haj Sami Sadek - a man confined to a wheelchair since his youth, after being injured in the shooting of soldiers who carried out live fire training near his home - was invited to lecture tours in the U.S. and Europe and talked to various VIP's and gave press interviews in several countries. For many years it seemed that the authorities decided to leave this village alone. Until last week.

What happened now? Who decided that it was high time to return Israeli bulldozers to the village of Aqaba? Again, one can only guess. Maybe it has something to do with the very highly publicized visit of Prime Minister Netanyahu to the Jordan Valley a month ago, not far from the village of Aqaba, and his firm statements that this Valley must remain under Israeli control. Not that Netanyahu necessarily gave a direct order to the army to demolish homes and plow roads in the village of Aqaba. But sometimes the military administrators and bureaucrats need no more than a hint.

"It was Asher Tzur from the [Army's] Civil Administration. The same man who over many years comes to destroy our homes. It was him again, also this time. What does he want from us? What have we ever done to offend him?" Haj Sami Sadeq, the Mayor, said to me on the phone. "I asked Asher 'Do you have no wife? No children? How would you feel if somebody came to destroy your home?' He did not answer me. After they went away, one of the people left homeless asked me 'You're always talking about peace with Israel. Is this your peace? ' And how can I answer him? "