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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.

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

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  • 1
    CML
    Posted Thursday, 15 November 2012 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

    Great article, Rick. How come it is okay for the Israelis to “torture” and threaten the lives of Palestinians in the West Bank, but if we detain a few refugees on Nauru and Manos in relatively good conditions, it is not okay? And Rick, can you let us know how many of the Palestinians have become “mentally ill” as a result of far, far worse treatment? Not that anyone would notice, by the sound of things.
    Great people the Israelis - far better than Australians! Well they must be, since we condone this kind of persecution each time we vote with Israel in the UN!! Some people in this country need to cultivate a little perspective!!!

  • 2
    Paddy Forsayeth
    Posted Thursday, 15 November 2012 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

    I have always regarded the state of Israel as an historic mistake. However it is unlikely to be reversed. The treatment of the Palestinians was and is, in my view appaling. The basis for the state of Israel is the mistaken notion that the jews are a race, which is patently absurd. If, as you say Rick, the war crimes of the Zionists are noted, they will never be aired in any court of law. For example as I understand it Israeli soldiers boarded a ship in international waters and killed ten or so unarmed (guns) civillians. The Israelis have never been charged with this brutal crime and have never been required to answer for its crimes in its last raid on the citizens in Gaza. The list goes on. I sympathise with the Palestinians who are displaced, bullied, harassed and reviled by the sanctioned Israeli “settlers”. Keep up the good work.

  • 3
    Mike R
    Posted Friday, 16 November 2012 at 11:28 pm | Permalink

    There is no way that the appalling treatment of Palestinians by the settler movement can be justified by those who support the existence of the state of Israel . I won’t even attempt the impossible. It is a stain upon those in current government of Israel that unconditionally support the extremists of the settler movement. However I am hoping the current mess re Gaza will backfire on Netanyahu. I may be hopelessly naive but there is a small but hopefully nascent movement of anti-war protestors in Israel . I would love to see a similar movement in Gaza and the West-Bank but unfortunately there seems to be little overt evidence of a parallel peace movement in these territories despite what may be felt by those who are victims of the conflict. The bombing by the Israelis of Hamas’ secret police headquarters, the old Mukhabarat, as reported in today’s ABC news could hopefully open an avenue for the these feelings to be vented without the prospect of violent intimidation.

    I am also hoping that he imminent prospect of the destruction of the arsenal of missiles in Gaza plus the accompanying mayhem, may cause the extremists in Gaza to reconsider whether lobbing missiles into Israel is conducive to their own best interests and in particular conducive to the interests of the long suffering civilians that they are embedded within. So far this tactic has not worked brilliantly, except for attempts at attracting publicity and sympathy due to the difficulties associated with Israel’s attempted use of surgical precision in a region that has one of the highest population densities in the world. It is remarkable that the removal of the leader of the military wing of Hamas was achieved without significant collateral damage. In contrast the random shotgun approach of Hamas obviously indicates that their intention is not surgical but more holistic with regards to the Israeli population. I guess they cannot be blamed for the scattergun approach as the minimization of death and destruction was clearly not part of the design brief for missiles they obtain from Hezbollah, Iran etc,. The use of defensive weapons such as Iron Dome by Israel has done some to reduce the effectiveness of these missiles but most still get through and take out civilians on occasion.

    The blame for this situation clearly depends on your perspective and I am in full agreement with CML’s self-incriminatory statement “some people in this country need to cultivate a little perspective!!!”

    Paddy, I gather your reference is to the Marmara flotilla . If you turn your non-blind eye (the one without the eye-patch) to the Internet there’s a mountain of evidence that show that many of the ‘peaceful protesters’ showed little evidence of deserving this label. I normally hesitant to recommend You-Tube but if you do, you can get the picture. Clearly they’re the kind of peaceful protesters that one would not like to be in close contact with. There have been subsequent armadas that have not involved loss of life or significant injury (other than to pride).

    The situation In Gaza , irrespective of the current bout of shelling is terrible but to lay it purely on the hands of the Israelis is becoming a bit rich. The southern borders of Gaza are under Egyptian control with the Muslim brotherhood government nominally supporting their Hamas brethren. Easy access to Gaza via the Rafah crossing was recently given to the Qatari Royal family so that any humanitarian aid situation can be resolved there by similar means. All it requires is the will, because the mechanisms are clearly there. This border is ostensibly open for all types of humanitarian supplies, building materials, food and in particular long range missiles. If there are limitations with regard to movement of the local population via the southern border it is entirely in the hands of the Mursi government.

    If all these flotillas were purportedly meant to bring humanitarian supplies there is an adequate port (El Arish some 70 kms from Gaza city) and importation of the supplies via the southern border of Gaza would be a vastly more sensible choice, compared to confronting the IsraeIi navy. If El-Arish is not suitable for large containers then Alexandria could be used. I am sure the current Islamic government in Egypt must be able to extend their hands of brotherhood to their compatriots in Gaza and solve the humanitarian crisis.

    The arguments, and by implication the underlying motives, of those who purport to be supporters of the Palestinians on purely humanitarian grounds would be much more convincing if they would spend 10% of the time ( my expectations are very low) spent in tirades pillorying Israel to also gently chide the Arab governments who have cynically exploited the suffering of the Palestinians for their own ends. And don’t let me get started with the situation in Syria where the death toll far exceeds that of the Israel/Palestine conflict. Compassion fatigue must have set in for Paddy.

  • 4
    Kevin Herbert
    Posted Saturday, 17 November 2012 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    And now they’re murdering civilians who have the gall to support the firing of rockets into Israel after being kept in the Gaza concentration camp for 6 years.

    Gillard & Abbott are a disgrace to our nation

  • 5
    Kevin Herbert
    Posted Monday, 19 November 2012 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    There are 1.6 million Occupied Palestinians highly abusively confined to what the Catholic Church has described as the Gaza Concentration Camp (see: http://catholicreview.org/article/life/gaza-strip-resembles-a-concentrat…), about 75% women and children, and over half of them children, 10% of whom are stunted from Israeli sanctions according to Jewish British MP David Milliband (see: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/oct/11/david-miliband-gaza-… ).

  • 6
    Mike R
    Posted Monday, 19 November 2012 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    Interestingly clicking on the first link above that Kevin kindly provided brings ups the Catholic Review (archbishop diocese of Baltimore ) with no direct reference to Gaza or concentration camps. The most recent article is “Organists plentiful but not many parishes ‘blessed’ with budget for one” which for some reason has no reference to Gaza or concentration camps.

    To try and find the reference I have tried a search using the keywords ‘Gaza’ and ‘concentration’ and nothing relevant has appeared on this web site. Interestingly the first entry was “The Gaza I live” and to quote the introduction -
    “Americans think of Gaza as a place of suffering and militancy, but the reality is that Gaza is home to some of the most inspiring and creative people in the Middle East. For the past two years, as the area’s representative for Catholic Relief Services, I’ve traveled there as much as I can. I see what the front-page newspaper photos don’t show you: this tiny sliver of land on the Mediterranean is a place of energy and dynamism, of humor and warmth and unbelievable hospitality, of delicious fish and crabs and the romantic fragrance of apple …”
    Is this the reference you were referring to or was it to the second tilted “Gaza priest says nun’s compound was ransacked”?

    The introduction to the second entry reads – “The Gaza compound of the Rosary Sisters was ransacked and looted and sacred objects were destroyed during Palestinian infighting that led to the Hamas faction’s takeover of the Gaza Strip. Monsignor Manuel Musallam, pastor of Holy Family Parish in Gaza, said gunmen used rocket-propelled grenades to break down the doors of the compound, which is located some distance from the Holy Family Parish compound in the Tenalhawa section of Gaza. He estimated damages at more than $500,000. “This is more than vandalism,” he said. “They forced open the door and entered and destroyed everything. The even put the sisters’ beds on ..”.

    Even more interestingly the second link to Guardian also comes up a blank. That’s Kevin for you.

    Look I would believe the 10% statistic as it seems comparable to that found amongst the indigenous communities in the Northern Territory (8 to 14% rate of stunting of children - http://www.healthinfonet.ecu.edu.au/health-risks/nutrition/reviews/our-review).

    Look I do not know how much of the 10% can purely attributed to Israel’s closure of the two borders under their control and how much to the Egyptian restrictions at the Rafah crossing . As the sole governing authority after jailing or expelling( alive in most case but not in all) the Fatah opposition, they should have a role in the health of their constituents. However role of Hamas , rather than worrying about health matters, seems to that of a middlemen who seem to concentrate on import/export that is importing missiles from Iran and then exporting these missiles into Israel. By firing missiles from within one of the highest population densities in the world, the health of their constituency does not appear to be their highest priority, to say the least.

    I know Kevin is really desperate to earn his Degree in Inflammatory Rhetoric (major in inanity) by upgrading his rhetoric from previously referring to Gaza as a prison to now referring Gaza as a concentration camp. The situation is Gaza to say the least is dire but unless he believes that the that the inmates of concentration camps (trying to skirt the boundaries of Godwin’s law) usually have within their midst, in the order of a thousand or more missiles, and have access to means of egress ( admittedly at the whims of the Muslim brotherhood government in Egypt) then Kevin’s comments are even more ludicrous than usual.

    If Kevin is interested in further pursuing his studies then a suggested Honours thesis would be on ‘the use of Fadjr missiles for peaceful purposes’ ( I have attached a link to a brochure he could use see http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/iran/images/fadjr-image01.jpg).

  • 7
    Kevin Herbert
    Posted Saturday, 24 November 2012 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    For a summary of how US Jewry, particularly among the young, are deserting Israel check out Dr Norman Finkelstein’s latest scholarly work:

    Knowing Too Much - Why the American Jewish Romance with Israel Is Coming to an End”

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