Saturday, June 30, 2012

Five houses, and another five, and a bulldozer, and a prison cell

This week, I again got an emergency call from the village of Al Aqaba. An Israeli military force once again came to the village, and delivered five new  demolition orders. Five more houses under a sentence of demolition are a very serious matter in a tiny village of a bit more than three hundred inhabitants, living in a few dozen houses on a bit of land in the north-east corner of the West Bank.

Haj Sami Sadek, the Mayor of Aqaba, is particularly concerned about the Jaber Family, which has ten children. They had lived for twelve years in their home and have nowhere else to go.

There had been this week very much media attention for five other houses in a very different part of the West Bank – the five houses evacuated by settlers at the Ulpana Hill in the settlement of Beit El. The five houses in Aqaba never got any mention.

There are a few other differences: The Ulpana houses are to be demolished because they were erected by settlers on privately-owned Palestinian land, without the consent of the owners. The Aqaba houses were also erected on privately-owned Palestinian land, but in this case it was the legally-registered property of those who built the houses. They were doomed to destruction because they were built without a permit. The owners had been ready enough to obtain a permit, but the military authorities refused to grant them one.

And there are more differences. The five settler houses in the Ulpana were dealt with by Prime Minister Netanyahu and his senior ministers, while the five Palestinian houses in Aqaba got the destruction order from some local officer of the military government; quite possibly, Netanyahu has never even heard of the existence of such a village.

Also, in the Ulpana case, the five house are to be carefully dismantled and reconstructed at another location, at a considerable expense, and the PM promised the settlers that 300 new settler housing units will be built if they agree to move quietly and not make scenes. With regard to Aqaba, nobody felt the need for any such elaborate deals. The houses are to be bulldozed and razed to the ground, and if the families make any fuss the soldiers would be quite ready to pull them out by force; it had been done, more than once.

Early Monday morning, army bulldozers seemed to be heading to Al Aqaba, but they turned off and headed to Aqaba's neighbors, the Bedouins of El Maleh. Tent homes were destroyed in El Maleh as were water cisterns, and the community's water trucks were confiscated. Aqaba was spared – so far.

The people of Aqaba made an appeal to the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, with the help of JLAC (Jerusalem  Legal Aid and Human Rights Centre), based in Ramallah. The lawyers are not very optimistic, however. Previous appeals against demolition orders in Aqaba had been rejected by the court. The problem, as far as Israeli law is concerned, is that the military planning authority had ruled that only "in the center of Aqaba" is building permitted. All land outside the tiny area which the military designated as "the center" is classified as "agricultural land", building houses in agricultural land is forbidden, so they must be pulled down.  The Jaber Family home, with the ten children, is very near to the magic line designating "the center" – close but still outside, and therefore illegal and to be destroyed and razed. Can the area  be extended, even a little bit? No, out of the question.

Such is the law which the military government laid down for Palestinians living under its rule and which its lawyers would represent to the judges of the Supreme Court. Has this anything to do with the fact that Aqaba lies at the edge of the Jordan Valley, and that all Israeli governments since 1967 have designated the Jordan Valley a strategic area which must be retained under Israeli rule? Could it be that government policies on the ground in Aqaba and scores of other locations in the Jordan Valley are designed to make life harsh for Arabs living there and if possible make them go away altogether? It would be very difficult to produce concrete evidence which would stand up in court. Officially, this is a matter of zoning law and of the army insisting that agricultural land remains agricultural. And so, the ten Jaber children might soon find themselves with no roof over their heads.

At this moment, a conscientious Jerusalem woman named Gila is staying in Aqaba, as  are international activists from the ISM -  to be at the villagers' side in this difficult moment. Not that they have much of a hope to stop the bulldozers. But they are preparing big photo posters of the village's kindergarten children, which will be held in front of the bulldozers. And the soldiers will hear people saying in English as well as Hebrew "Stop! Why are you doing this?". This is not likely to deter the soldiers from doing what they have come to do. But some of them might remember it later.

When will the soldiers and the bulldozers come? No one knows, they never announce it in advance. Perhaps tomorrow, perhaps next week, perhaps next month. Getting the element of surprise has always been a key element of military strategy. Catch the enemy by surprise and hit him when he is not expecting it. And clearly the Israeli Defense Forces, the mightiest army in the Middle East, regards the three hundred inhabitants of Aqaba as an enemy.


A few days ago I returned briefly to Military Prison No. 6 at Atlit. That is where a soldier, conscript or reservist, ends up when refusing military orders. Opposite the prison there is a mountain, and the imprisoned soldiers who have to get  out of their beds beds at 4:30 am sharp and stand in line on the parade ground can see the sun rise behind that mountain. And sometimes, a bit later on the day, they can see and especially hear protestors who have climbed the mountain shout words of support  and encouragement. I remember the cheers which I heard from the mountain when I was imprisoned in 1984 for refusing to go to Israeli-occupied Lebanon and bring supplies to outposts which the army established there. And again in 1990, when a string of brutal acts committed during the first Intifada led to my taking the decision to no longer wear the uniform of this army.

A few days ago, I was on the mountain, and along with several dozen others brought there by the Yesh Gvul movement I took part in shouting words of support and encouragement to Yaniv Mazor who is held there. Yaniv Mazor, a resident of Jerusalem, Sergeant Major (Res.) in the Armor Corps, and a tourist guide by profession, decided this year that he was no longer ready to do military reserve duty in an army of occupation.

rather regret not having been aware, when I joined up, what the Army is doing  in the Territories. The more I knew, the less easy it became to serve - until I came to the conclusion that I could not do it any more. The decision to refuse is the climax of a personal process through which I went for seven or eight years. In the education system we do not really learn what the Territories are and what is happening there. I came to the army as a characteristic product of the system: a good boy, serving where he is sent, doing what he is told, not thinking. Especially, not thinking. In recent years I am more and more using my head and asking myself what is it all about, what is the meaning of what we are doing there. This led me at first to "gray refusal", avoiding service by all kinds of pretexts. But after I went on an overseas trip for a year, I could not continue with the charade.

Although this is my first time in jail, I feel perfectly fine about it. Completely at peace with myself. My decision was the direct result of familiarity with the situation in the Territories. After seeing it clearly, I could no longer be part of the army. Although I am not that important in myself, I do hope my action will also inspire others, who face conscription or reserve duty and are still hesitant".

Maybe one day, also the soldiers accompanying bulldozers to the Jaber family's home in the village of Aqaba will enter the gates of Prison 6.