Amina Haleem, MRG’s Legal Fellow, reflects on her two week trip to Palestine and Israel as a participant of the Al Haq Applied International Summer School with a group of academics, lawyers and advocates from 16 different countries. The program included meetings with local organizations and field visits to refugee camps, Bedouin camps and other villages.
It was a hot day in the Naqab desert in southern Israel. Temperatures of over 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) caused the dusty air to be thick around us. As our group sat in a circle of plastic chairs under the shade eating plates of delicious food, I listened to our host reveal in detail the hardships he and his village had experienced since being displaced from their home of Wadi Zubalah in 1948.
Our host sat in a chair in front of the buffet table spread with rice, salads and chicken that his family had cooked for us. He held his young daughter, only three or four years old, in his lap as she fidgeted restlessly. He spoke only in Arabic and paused between thoughts as a member of our group translated for him in to English. She had volunteered to translate because our Al-Haq organizer was arbitrarily refused entry at the Palestinian-Israeli check point, despite holding a valid permit.
Since being displaced from Wadi Zubalah, the Palestinian Bedouins living in the villages of Umm al-Hiran and Attir have lived for the last 62 years without reliable electricity or running water. They do not receive any government services, even though they pay taxes to the Israeli government every year. They have been subjected to the development plans for the Naqab region which include systematic home demolitions. The Palestinian Bedouins have no grand plan for themselves and, as our host emphasized, only wish to be left in peace to thrive from their distinctive lifestyle. They comment proudly that there is nearly no unemployment in their communities and many villagers earned high academic distinctions in medicine and law. The host’s wife, a mother of at least five children that I saw, has a master’s degree.
Despite these accolades, harsh treatment from the Israeli Defence Force and harassment from surrounding Israeli settlers breeds resentment among the village youth. Confinement within concrete homes is thoroughly depressing when they are accustomed to a semi-nomadic lifestyle and commanding thousands of acres of land. They no longer “feel” Bedouin without the ability to practice their lifestyle and culture because it is impossible for them to move freely on the land. Their identity is thus severely compromised.
The Bedouins have resisted Israeli efforts to displace them a second time to the small Bedouin town and development area of Hurah because there are sky high crime rates and the unemployment is over 60%. Additionally, there would be no method of trading or selling because no other community has access to their products. There is no market place for them.
The policy goal of the village displacement is to expand the Yatir Forest and to facilitate the creation of the Israeli settlement of Hiran. The Bedouins have proposed several alternatives to their forced displacement, including returning to their original homes in Wadi Zubalah, the Israeli State’s recognition of the Umm al Hiran and Attir villages, the building of the Israeli Hiran settlement elsewhere, or even integrating into the Hiran settlement without having to be displaced. Unfortunately, none of these prospects look promising.
Homes in the Palestinian village of Susya (also spelled Susiya), located in the South Hebron Hills of the occupied West Bank near the Green Line, are also under targeted destruction. Living in Area C of the West Bank, which is under full Israeli military and civilian control, the roughly 350 people surviving in makeshift tents on concrete floors are among the poorest villagers in the area. Old tyres litter the ground and some are tied to tents to hold down the tarp. Small chicken coops are enclosed by brittle wires and covered by rough tarp. The coops are situated immediately next to overcrowded sheep pens, which are only five feet or so away from the family tents.
Along with the members of our group, I sat in a small tent and listened to a representative of the Rural Women’s Association tell us of their community work offering socio-economic support to villagers, such as literacy programs for the women and psycho-social after school programs to support the children. Although the village has almost no resources, they hospitably served us several cups of Arabic coffee inside the little tent. Small children climbed through the open window in the corner of the tent to listen to our meeting and probably garner some attention for themselves. The inside of the tents were clearly visible to me standing directly outside of the open flaps which served as doors. I felt uneasy as my eyes quickly swept over a folded winter blanket and stacked metal pots on a small wooden table inside the tent. A hollow feeling of helplessness and compassion overwhelmed me. Over the course of my two weeks in the region, whenever a complaint reached the tip of my tongue about some arbitrary inconvenience, my colleague and I would say to each other, ‘Remember Susya.’
Many homes and residential structures inside Susya have been targeted because the villagers have no official housing permits, but the villagers have litigated in Israeli courts since 2000 to petition for building permits and are consistently rejected. It is clear that the concept of ‘home’ for Palestinian villagers like those in Susya, is different than most places around the world. They live in perpetual fear of housing demolitions. Representatives told us that the following day the village’s lawyers would return to the Israeli High Court of Justice to present another petition on behalf of the village, but his solemn voice said that he already knew that any judicial decision over the village would be postponed, as they have continually been postponed since the file for Susya fell under the authority of the Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman.
But housing demolitions and unequal building permit systems are not reserved for Palestinian Bedouins in the Naqab and villagers in the West Bank. Palestinians in Jerusalem, particularly in East Jerusalem, face repeated hardships as well. My group embarked on a tour of parts of East Jerusalem which were severely overcrowded. The alleys were extremely narrow and each apartment housed several families. I watched as a husband and wife took care to pull out a baby carriage from their home, park it on the uneven cobblestone path, and place their newborn inside.
Although the current populations of Palestinians in East Jerusalem is 37%, with a natural expected growth to 40% over the next 4 years, Palestinian housing construction is forbidden under the Jerusalem 2020 Master Plan which aims to develop Jerusalem to house a total Jewish population of 70% by 2020 to achieve a demographic majority of Jewish residents. The simple statistics indicate that somehow Palestinian natural growth must be stunted and reduced with current Israeli methods including revoking residency permits from Palestinians who do not adhere to the Center of Life Policy. The Policy is a doctrine which scrutinizes the nature of a Palestinian’s residency in East Jerusalem and imposes conditions on Palestinians who travel frequently, work, or live outside of the city’s borders. This policy makes life extremely difficult for Palestinians, who feel mounting pressure to leave the area.
Many Palestinians who were born or live in East Jerusalem are permitted to hold blue ID cards, indicating a permanent residency status in the city. They can exercise a limited set of rights, such as travelling to the West Bank and voting in certain elections, but do not automatically receive Israeli citizenship and therefore live in limbo without a secure nationality under Israeli law. Those who marry a Palestinian East Jerusalemite must secure a visa to live in the city and renew it every 6 or 12 months under the Israeli permit regime for Palestinian Jerusalemites. A revocation of permanent residency status means that an individual has no identification documentation, likely rendering them stateless unless they have citizenship with another country. There have been over 14,000 victims of this policy since 1967.
The Center of Life Policy is not the only reason Palestinian East Jerusalemites are forced out of the city. There has been a dire housing crisis, created by inequitable Israeli planning regulations and building codes, which render Palestinian homes as illegal structures and are therefore subject to frequent demolitions. Jerusalem neighbourhoods are visibly and distinctly segregated. The Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem is much different than the Jewish Quarter. It was shocking to see the erasure of Arab and Palestinian presence in the area. Many street signs (typically tri-lingual with Arabic, Hebrew and English) have the Arabic words covered by Israeli election stickers.
The simmering tensions hovering over Jerusalem were nearly invisible at first glance as I was overwhelmed by the religious significance and cultural history pouring out of every building and holy site. But the Palestinian shop owners and residents tell a different story. As one Palestinian businessman told me, ‘I lived in America for years. I had a really great life there. But I came back because this is my home. My Jerusalem ID means this is my home. They can’t make us leave unless they force us into boxes and ship us out of the country.’
After these experiences, I was convinced that the struggle of these Palestinians to simply live securely in their homes exemplifies pure sumud, an Arabic word meaning steadfast perseverance, and a strong determination to stay in the country and on the land.