Saturday, March 19, 2005

Environmental Destruction & a Stolen Road

One of IWPS’s projects is organizing opportunities for people unfamiliar with the situation in Palestine to visit and see it for themselves. Last year, IWPS took Israeli activists into the West Bank on a ten-day tour called Mikarov. Two of my colleagues are currently developing a project to give West Bank tours to non-Israeli Jews, including those who have just participated in the “Birthright Israel” program, which sends young Western Jewish adults on a 10-day tour of Israel. My colleagues’ program is called “Birthright Unplugged.”[1]

A few weeks ago, IWPS led a delegation of journalists, embassy officers, and ambassadors’ wives on a one-day tour of several villages in Salfit. The tour started in Deir Istiya, where the mayor and a villager reviewed the multitude of occupations that have plagued their families and land for centuries, the Israeli military Occupation being only the most recent. The villager told us about an old Ottoman law proclaiming that “land-owners who do not tend their land for 3 years or more lose their ownership rights.” Israel has adopted that law with regard to the West Bank and uses it frequently to justify mass settlement expansion and land confiscation. I thought of the family I had recently accompanied to plow their land for the first time in 5 years. Settlers, having prevented the family from tilling their land by force, can now lawfully claim that the land no longer belongs to the family. I also pondered the irony of such a law from a country founded on the idea that the Jewish people have claim to land that their ancestors may have fled 2000 years ago.

Once one of the largest villages in the West Bank, Deir Istiya has lost more than two-thirds of its land and population. Some of the remaining inhabitants are from nearby Wadi Qana (or “valley of canals”), a small village that was evacuated in 1986 when life there became unbearable. The idyllic valley of Wadi Qana has been slowly surrounded by illegal settlements, subsidized by the Israeli and US governments. Years ago, several of the hilltop settlements started to send their sewage pouring into the valley, either down the land or through pipes. Ironically, the area is classified as a nature reserve by Israel. But the nearby springs that used to provide towns all the way to Nablus with precious drinking water now run brown with urine and feces: a river of human waste. You can smell noxious fumes from the highway, and the surrounding vegetation is long since dead. Settlers occasionally come down with guns to walk by the abandoned homes and picnic near the only remaining fresh water source.

Our delegation proceeded north from Wadi Qana to Kafr Qaddum, a friendly village that became stranded when two illegal settlements established themselves on either side of the village’s main road. Now the settlers claim that the road is theirs, and Palestinians must make a long detour on several unpaved roads to leave their village. The rockiness of the detour road renders it next to impassable for some cars, and those taxis that can make the trip charge a premium. The village is just 7 miles from the city of Nablus where many inhabitants work, but what used to be a 15-minute commute is now at least a 2-hour journey.

I met two young women from Kafr Qaddum who were studying in Nablus, both of whom spoke excellent English. They said they could hardly afford the commute anymore (now US$6 instead of US$1.50) and missed many classes. The girls said they were determined to continue studying and sometimes hiked over the hills to reach their university. Said one, “Without education, we can never overcome our poverty and the Occupation. Education is our best weapon, and it has always been very important to our people.” She’s right: Palestinians’ traditional focus on education is well-known in the Middle East. For example, more than 90% of Palestinian children continue from primary school to secondary school, and more than 56% of them go on to a university. Despite tremendous obstacles to education presented by the Occupation, Palestine still maintains literacy rates of at least 90% for both men and women.
[2] Palestine is also the first Arab land where students learn English from the first grade on.[3]

After recent rains, Kafr Qaddum’s detour road became positively unusable, and locals insisted on getting access to the main road again to avoid being completely trapped in their village. The army agreed to limited use for Palestinians: five minutes every hour. (These kinds of arbitrary concessions unmask the false pretext of security—is it really safer for settlers to share a road with Palestinians 8% of the time rather than 100%, or are these restrictions about separation and control?) Soon the army sent a bulldozer to remove a few rocks from the detour road and closed the good road again to Palestinians. The villagers were not about to lose their road for a second time, so they organized a demonstration to raise awareness and solidarity surrounding the unjust road closure.

Two weeks ago, villagers, internationals, and Israelis gathered in the village to march together to the forbidden road. The army was waiting when we arrived, and they prevented us from reaching even the road closure, so we stopped to cheer and listen to speeches. One old woman approached the army as a representative of the village; as she spoke, the soldiers stood stone-faced, except for one who was smiling as he filmed the woman with a video camera. I wondered what he intended to do with the footage. Watch it at home with his friends and family? Submit it to the authorities so the protesters could be identified and perhaps punished? Or perhaps he just thought it was funny to film the same people filming the soldiers. If he was trying to convey apathy towards the villagers’ grievances, then he succeeded.

After an hour, organizers intent on keeping the demonstration nonviolent asked people to go back to the village before tear gas, sound bombs, or stones might begin to fly. Demonstrators gathered with translators in the Town Hall to get acquainted and exchange ideas about continuing resistance. It was then that a village representative invited IWPS to bring our delegation to Kafr Qaddum, an offer we accepted a few weeks later.

The delegation was greeted with endless bowls of hummus, falafel, salad, and roasted meats. After eating our fill, we headed to the road closure where a settler with a shotgun and an army officer told us we could go no further. We explained that we were Israeli and international journalists, ambassadors, and human rights workers, but the officer said it was a closed military zone. I looked at the supposed “military zone”: a quiet gated neighborhood with white picket fences, sun umbrellas, barbecue grills, and SUVs. I commented that it looked more like an American suburb than a military zone, but he wasn’t listening. He was on the phone with the army and soon a backup jeep had arrived.

Meanwhile, the villagers remained stuck behind the metal road gate. An old man broke past and started shouting at the soldiers that this “closed military zone” was his land. His voice grew tired, and he sat down miserably. Settlers drove by, bemused by the scene. They spoke English with American accents, probably Brooklynites from New York. Many ideological Jewish settlers in Palestine are immigrants from the United States.

Eventually we gave up arguing with the soldiers and drove (the long way around) to our delegation’s final stop, the village of Marda. Marda is easily recognizable from the road by the massive heaps of trash tumbling down behind the village from the hilltop above. The village has the misfortune of being situated directly below Ariel settlement, an Israeli city in the middle of rural Palestine. I once overslept on a bus from Israel and ended up inside the settlement, amidst the city’s strip malls, carefully manicured children’s parks, and opulent one-family three-story houses. Subsidized by the Israeli government, the illegal settlement offers residents a state-of-the-art recreation center and luxurious swimming pools, while Marda villagers below struggle to make ends meet. The irony is that Ariel was built on land belonging to Marda farmers; the settlement alone has annexed more than 1,000 acres of village land. To add insult to injury, Ariel dumps its trash down the hills onto Marda, enlarging the already massive pile of noxious waste that has forced several families to move.

When we arrived in Marda, a village representative welcomed the delegation and introduced us to five of the seven local youths, aged 14 to 16, who had been arrested by Israeli forces in November and imprisoned for several months without charge. The remaining two were still in jail. Israel has no juvenile courts for Palestinian children, whom they hold as young as 12 years old and try as adults after age 14 in violation of international law.[4] The kids stood up, clinging to each other, embarrassed to be at the center of attention. They looked like kids you’d see anywhere, still full of life and excitement. But they were also worn, with scars on their faces and a little more experience in their eyes than their peers have.

The representative told us of the distress the young prisoners’ parents had gone through while their children were gone, wondering if they would ever see them again. According to Addameer Prisoners’ Support and Human Rights Association, over 2,500 Palestinian children[5] have been arrested since September 2000, and at least 340 are currently being held in Israeli prisons.

The prospects look grim for the children of Marda and their families. Unemployment plagues the village. Marda used to have a farming cooperative called the Unity Development Center where many villagers worked until soldiers raided the cooperative 4 years ago, destroying its computers and files. The village has not had the money or infrastructure to start over, especially as the land they are allowed to farm continues to shrink. According to village officials, the Wall is expected to result in the uprooting or confiscation of a full 20,000 olive trees from the district, in addition to everything that has already been annexed by the ever-expanding Ariel settlement.

Marda families struggle to survive in the face of plans to cut the village in half with the Wall (apparently the people of Ariel don’t want the Wall too close to their homes) and a disturbing prominence of cancer in the area. The latter could be due to air and water pollution from the nearby Barqan industrial center. Barqan’s aluminum, fiberglass, plastics, electroplating, and military industries pollute the groundwater of our area with heavy metals. Israel offers tax incentives to Israeli industries and fewer restrictions on pollution in the Occupied Territories. Consequently, many of the most environmentally destructive companies move to the West Bank,[6] and are conveniently situated far enough from Israel proper to avoid potentially causing health problems to Israeli citizens living there.

There is, however, one bit of good news: due to persistent court appeals, the planned route of the Wall has been moved several hundred yards to the south so that it will no longer bisect Marda. The village of Deir Ballut also recently won a court case, and some of the land on which I enjoyed that memorable picnic and charades game will now stay with its owners.

It’s hard to celebrate these victories, though, when the villages have “won” but a small part of what was already theirs. Why should they be joyous or grateful? Small bits of progress against the Occupation are often misleading. For example, when things feel permanent, a spontaneously disabled roadblock feels like an act of charity by the army. Palestinians feel lucky when they encounter a lenient soldier, or the Wall is pushed back a few feet. But the roadblock, soldier, and Wall should never have been there in the first place, and the concessions are not privileges, they are rights. I suspect the token gifts are more a way to pacify Palestinians than to help them.

Ultimately, those farmers who “won” back their land have still lost. The Wall’s construction—or rather “de-struction”—has already begun. The damage is done: the trees are gone; the soil is ruined. The disastrous long-term environmental destruction brought by Israel’s Wall, highways, and settlements is likely to outlive the Occupation itself. Settlers and soldiers can be removed, but the air of Barqan may never be clean, nor the rivers of Wadi Qana. On the day that peace finally comes, we pray the Palestinian and Israeli victims will begin to move on and let go. The ecological victims, however, may not be so forgiving.

[1] For more information about Birthright Unplugged, see Appendix I*** or visit

[2] Palestinian literacy rates were at 90% for women and 97% for men when this book went to press. “Press Release on International Literacy Day,” Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (September 8, 2006); As cited in PASSIA 2007, p. 328.

[3] ibid.


[5] Addameer defines “children” as youth under the age of 18.

[6] “Question of the Violation of Human Rights in the Occupied Arab Territories, Including Palestine,” UN Commission of Human Rights.; As cited in Qumsiyeh, pp. 140-141.

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