Monday, September 25, 2017

Palestinians protest against settlement expansion


By Owen Millar - April 02, 2017
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Section: [Main News] [Features]
Tags: [Settlement Expansion] [outposts] [protests]

On Friday morning, some few hundred residents from the West Bank village of Al Mughayir and the surrounding area gathered on a hilltop northwest of Ramallah in a show of determination to resist the attempts of a settler family to occupy the land. The event followed a similar demonstration a week earlier, in which the IDF fired live rounds, rubber bullets, and tear gas at the demonstrators, injuring twelve of them.

The day began with music and a slow gathering of people and flags on the hilltop. Children sifted through a pile of teargas canisters that had been fired at them last week, as IDF personnel looked on from a distance. The settler family was absent, having reportedly moved some days before to a location near an army outpost two kilometers away.
 
The demonstration came on the heels of the Israeli government's approval of a new settlement to house settlers evicted from the illegal Amona outpost. It's the first time in 20 years Israel officially announces its intention to establish a new settlement, symtom of a political climate in favour of settlement expansion. Since the beginning of the year, the Israeli government approved thousands of housing units in existing settlements, as well as a law to legalise existing outposts - illegal under Israeli as well as international law - built on private Palestinian land. At the end of March, Israel also introduced a new settlement policy supposedly aimed at containing settlements, but that was criticised by Israeli watchdog Peace Now as an attempt "to fool the international community".

Abdallah Nassan, a resident of Al Mughayir, said the people of the surrounding area knew all too well the dangers that a single settler family with a few chickens and sheep posed to them. He explained how such families had moved into other areas nearby: “They live for a month or two and after that you see all the caravans coming by and it becomes a settlement.” Once this happens, he says, the IDF establishes security perimeters for the settlers and restricts the movement of Palestinians through the land.

The people of Al Mughayir cannot afford for this to happen. Much of the land they own has already been rezoned for military purposes, meaning they are no longer allowed to farm or develop it. Nassan owns 200 acres in the valley below and yet, since it was rezoned for military usage, he “can’t even put a tent on it.” B’Tselem reports that 17.6% of the West Bank has now been classified as military zone, while 36.6% is now under full control of settlers and their regional councils (much of which overlaps with the military zone).

Nassan says that, because so many people have been denied the use of their land, many of them have been forced into subsistence, living off vegetable patches in the villages. Many others have taken low-paying jobs within the Palestinian Authority, which have become available on the back of an influx of international donations. “Everyone is now on the paycheck of the Palestinian Authority,” Nassan says. “So where is the economics?” A new settlement poses more than just a threat to property rights, but also to possible future economic prosperity.
 
               

A settler’s chances of being able to use and profit from the land – even if it is land owned by a Palestinian – is starkly different. B’Tselem has reported on the ways in which the Israeli government directly and indirectly encourages settlement expansion in the West Bank, including a variety of financial incentives for building homes and operating businesses, along with the provision of high quality infrastructure and services.

Nassan sums up the uneven playing field: “I don’t mind if a Jewish person lives next door to me, as long as they go through the same moves that I go through – buy land and pay taxes… If he is allowed to come in my village and live next door to me, I feel I should be able to go to Tel Aviv and buy a home on the beach – a condo.”

The possibility of a settlement establishing itself in the vicinity of Al Mughayir is very important, then, because it represents the potential for many Palestinians to irreversibly lose their rights to their land – land they might be able to return to and use upon the cessation of the occupation. As the situation currently stands, they are unable to do anything with their land, but they do legally own it. The construction of a new settlement would change that.

Even for those who do not own land, the demonstration is necessary to ensure continued freedom of movement in the area they live in. “This is the only breathing room for all the villages around us,” explains Nassan. If a settlement were established, new security perimeters, checkpoints and road closures would place even more restrictions on the freedom of movement for those living in the surrounding villages.

The importance of this motivation became clearer as the morning wore on and hundreds more demonstrators arrived on the hilltop. A midday common prayer was held, followed by speeches from locals and representatives from the Palestinian Authority.

It was noticeable that the children, many of them as young as nine or ten, were particularly fervent in their demonstrations. When asked whether they were aware of exactly what they were demonstrating for, Nassan said: “They know because they watch TV – they see people swimming, they have access to playgrounds… and they don’t have access to any of that. They want to be free more than us.”

The lives that the children of the village are living under occupation is markedly different from the fond memories Nassan holds of his own childhood. “We used to live a simple life in tents and caves in this area,” he said. “We used to walk to school in the village.” This might not be possible now, however Friday’s demonstration represents a determination to prevent anything from happening that would kill the possibility of things returning that way in the future.

In celebration of the settlers moving on, a Bedouin tribe invited all of the demonstrators to a meal on a nearby ridge. Nassan was less certain than most that the settlers had moved on for good. Even so, the day was a success in that it reaffirmed the determination of the people of Al Mughayir and their neighbours to not relinquish their rights to the land. The freedom to move through the landscape and congregate for a meal was itself a manifestation of the demonstration’s success. At least for now, the settlers are gone and the hope of returning to the land in the future remains intact.

 

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