Life under an Israeli watchtower: postcard from South Hebron
As the Palestinian Authority prepared to apply to upgrade its status at the UN, Rick Smith, a humanitarian volunteer in Palestine, describes the reality of daily life for thousands of people.
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Children walking to school have guns trained on them by the army. Religious youths harass Palestinians as they pick olives in the fields. Helicopters of soldiers arrive in the middle of the night to rouse residents. Watchtowers sit on every hilltop.
This is the reality of life for some Palestinians on the West Bank.
Some time in the next fortnight, the Palestinian Authority, an interim body created in 1993, will apply to the UN to become a “non-member observer state”. This will be an upgrade on the “observer entity” status it currently holds, but less than the “member state” it wants. It looks likely to succeed (despite US and Israeli opposition). Palestine would be allowed to join such UN agencies as the International Criminal Court, where it will probably bring a case against Israel for a bewildering array of war crimes. If that happens, I may be a witness.
I am monitoring human rights in Palestine with the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel. I am based in the South Hebron Hills (SHH), in one of seven placements around the West Bank. My task is to provide protective presence for Palestinians, to monitor the humanitarian situation and to advocate on their behalf.
What do I do? Besides monitoring two checkpoints five times a week, a few regular support visits and constantly trailing behind the Israeli Defence Force reporting on its many and varied human rights violations, there are two serious issues in the SHH right now.
The first, chronic issue is the imminent displacement of Susiya village. Since their land was declared an archaeological site in 1986 and they were evicted en masse, the residents have lived in tents nearby which are under the constant threat of demolition. As the occupying power, Israel is responsible for administering the territory for the benefit of civilians. Yet it has not granted building permits for the inhabitants of Susiya. In this way it claims the legal right to demolish illegal homes.
This is merely a legislative trick by which the people are pressured into leaving the land. Israel also has a responsibility to provide for the everyday needs of civilians, yet Susiya gets electricity from German-funded solar panels and water from rain-fed cisterns.
Meanwhile, in the illegal Settlement of Suseya, founded in 1983, pleasant two-storey homes sit in green gardens arranged in neat rows along well-paved streets. There is a school, a grocery store and a branch of a national health insurance company. But don’t be fooled.
There is violence surrounding Suseya, and some residents have harassed the Palestinians with virtual impunity for decades. I have seen broken cisterns and watched a group of obviously religious youths come to shout at Palestinians as they harvest olives. In the past, stone throwing and beatings have been caught on camera, but nary an arrest has been made.
“Life in the Firing Zone is already hard: the people make do with much less water than World Heath Organisation minimum standards …”
Children walking to school have guns pointed at them by the army, who tell the children to go home, scaring them and wasting their education. Indeed, watchtowers on every hilltop observe the minutiae of Palestinian life: the chickens scratching in the dust, serving tea under the shade of a grapevine, herding sheep or watering the herb garden.
The situation is emblematic of villages all over the West Bank. If Susiya falls, the whole south will be gone. To this end, the Israeli settler organisation Regavim has begun stepping up a media campaign against the village.
The second major issue is the proposed Firing Zone 918. Initially declared in the early 1980s, it fell into disuse until recently. Now it is used heavily, with live ammunition and artillery fire booming quite near civilian homes all day long. Twelve communities numbering around 1200-1500 people are at risk of forced eviction, which is another way Israel empties sections of land of Palestinians.
The whole emptiness of the Negev is just a few kilometres away. Why don’t they train there? FZ 918 is also strategic for a variety of reasons. Since an Israeli green group managed to prevent the Separation Barrier being built here because it would prevent seasonal migration of deer (who, unlike the Palestinians, are allowed to have two homes and encouraged to move freely) it is possible to sneak into Israel without a permit through the town of Jinba or nearby.
As a result, residents are frequently woken in the middle of the night as helicopters of soldiers arrive to photograph people in front of their houses, accusing them of smuggling people or drugs. They use these villages for training purposes rather than go to the expense of building a Potemkin village filled with actors. Small children do not understand that the solider will not shoot when he points his gun into the window.
Life in the Firing Zone is already hard: the people make do with much less water than World Heath Organisation minimum standards, the summer is hot and dusty, the winter cold and muddy. Their livelihoods come from herding and some rain-fed agriculture. Their partly cave-dwelling lifestyle is at serious risk of dying out; their fate will be decided at a court case on December 16.
*Rick Smith is a graduate of International Studies, Economics and German at the University of Adelaide and is volunteering with the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel, which is under the auspices of the World Council of Churches