A small boy, no more than three or four, tugs uncertainly at his mother’s hand, eyeing off the group of strangers who have come to visit his parents. It’s a clear winter evening, right at sunset, when even a child’s shadow stretches out across the dirt where we stand — in, for all intents and purposes, the family’s living room. We’re surrounded by furniture, though there’s no room — and no house. It’s been demolished by the Israeli Defence Force, so the family are living among their belongings and rubble.
The village is called Fasayil, in the Jordan Valley, not far from Jericho. The landscape is exactly the moonscape of a hundred biblical movies. But it’s not exactly a desert — people have been farming in the Jordan Valley for millennia, using aquifers, which supported villages like Fasayil, founded in Roman times. That is, until recently — after the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, military authorities began restricting agricultural wells for the use of Israeli settlers, whose water consumption — for houses, pools and lush gardens in hilltop suburban communities, as well as agriculture — is many times that of Palestinians. This vast-scale water appropriation, as well as being unsustainable, has wrecked Palestinian agriculture, while settlers and settler-owned farms thrive, perpetuating the story of the genius of Israeli agriculture. For villagers in Fasayil, working in settler-owned farms is often the only source of income.
The theft of water, and the demolition of villagers’ houses, derives from the same legal device. Nearly all of the Jordan Valley is “Area C”. That’s the Israeli-controlled portion of the occupied territories, which under the Oslo Accords make up around 60% of the West Bank; the Palestinian Authority controls Area A — mainly cities — and runs Area B — towns and villages — but Israel controls security in the latter. Area C is entirely under Israeli military control, and part of Fasayil is not in Area B but Area C. It’s entirely arbitrary: down the road in Al-Auja, a local businessman had an entire row of shops demolished because it was on the other side of a road from Area B. The Palestinian Authority had told him it was OK to build as it was in Area B; the Israelis decided it was Area C instead, and sent in bulldozers accompanied by soldiers to turn it into rubble, without compensation. If you’re not a settler, in order to build anything in Area C you need permission. And permission is denied to Palestinians more than 90% of the time.
For Palestinians needing homes — whether a young couple in East Jerusalem who want their own house to start a family or rural villagers in the Jordan Valley — housing demolitions are a nightmare of uncertainty. Knowing building approval will almost certainly be denied, many build “illegally” and face the risk of having their home demolished; some elect to pay massive annual fines to keep the bulldozers at bay. The problem is exacerbated on the fringes of Palestinian cities like Ramallah and Nablus, which are Area A, because of a striking characteristic of the modern Palestinian economy — vast numbers of half-completed apartment and office buildings standing empty. Quite why Palestinian cities are littered with these shells — often seemingly needing only glass in the windows to be habitable — isn’t something Palestinians are eager to explain; theories range from vast numbers of money laundering schemes to wealthy members of the Palestinian diaspora overseas funding property development but falling foul of the corrupt Palestinian Authority.
There are no empty buildings in Fasayil, however. In fact, what is clear is that even before the house was demolished the family we visit had very little; the house was not much more than a well-structured shanty. But it is the sheer, brutal logic of the occupation to take away even what little this family possesses for the crime of wanting somewhere to live in their village. Contemplating the furniture and appliances amid rubble, I find myself wondering what the civilised, educated men and women of the IDF who accompany the bulldozers tell themselves as they take away what little such people have.
Illegality is the all-pervading theme of the occupation. The Israelis have for 50 years acted illegally in moving their own population into an occupied territory and expropriating resources for the exclusive use of their own people — a clear breach of the Geneva Convention As if in subtle acknowledgement of the nature of the Israeli occupation, the Israeli government uses the law, and the concept of illegality, as a weapon against the occupied, trapping them in a Byzantine military bureaucracy in which even the most basic functions of ordinary life — getting a home, raising kids, going to work — develop the Kafkaesque logic of a nightmare.
And for every restriction placed on Palestinians, Israeli settlers in the occupied territories have a comparable freedom. Settlements have pools and gardens; settler farms have ample water, while Palestinians can’t even put in a water pipe larger than 5cm without Israeli approval. Palestinians are subject to arbitrarily placed road checkpoints that can mean a drive to drop the kids at school takes hours; settlers have their own segregated highways linking settlements to each other and to Israel itself, from which Palestinians are banned. Palestinians can’t build in Area C; settlers not merely can build but are subsidised to do so. A Jew can emigrate from anywhere in the world to Israel, be welcomed there under the Right of Return and encouraged to move into settlements; a Palestinian born in East Jerusalem will lose their Jerusalem residency status if they even briefly live elsewhere.
And always, the relentless building of settlements continues. Settlers now constitute nearly 600,000 people — 600,000 colonists in another people’s land, backed by tens of billions of shekels in infrastructure and protected by a vast conscript army. Remarkably, the Turnbull government refuses to accept that Israel’s settlement-building is illegal, even though, as an Israeli newspaper explained to Julie Bishop, there’s a “near-universal view” that it is. And today the government welcomes the latest in a long succession of Israeli prime ministers who have overseen the occupation and colonisation of Palestine, treating Benjamin Netanyahu as an honoured guest and lauding business opportunities between the two countries.
As darkness falls in Fasayil, the mother begins preparing dinner. We board our bus for the trip back to Jerusalem — our bus has Israeli plates, which affords us the status of travelling freely. We get to leave, to return to our hotel and, eventually, go home. For Palestinians, there’s no escape from the brutal reality of occupation.
* Bernard Keane travelled to Israel and Palestine in Nov/Dec 2016 as a guest of the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network