Saturday, November 25, 2017

How Israel abuses national parks to seize Palestinian land

Juicebox Gallery

By Matt Matthews - November 18, 2016
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Section: [Main News] [In Pictures] [Features]
Tags: [Archeology] [Settlement Expansion]

The Israeli settlement of Nofim derives its name from the Hebrew word for panorama, נוֹפִים. And the views around the illegal West Bank enclave are stunning: gold stone and green scrub tumble down to the fertile basin of Wadi Qana, where fifteen springs feed the land. 
 
So in 1983, the Nature Reserves and National Parks Unit of the Israeli Civil Administration declared a 1400-acre Qana River Reserve running through the valley, purportedly to protect the wadi.
 
Draining the wadi

“The land used to be rich,” Kifar Abu Fateh Zidan, a Palestinian goatherd who tends a flock of 350 animals in the shadow of Nofim, told the Palestine Monitor. “It floated on a sea of groundwater. There were plants, crops, wheat. Life used to be easier.”

At 24, Kifar has lived his whole life in land surrounded by settlements. The first illegal colony was established in 1976, and there are now ten Israeli communities drawing water from the wadi. Its waters run lower each year, and only one spring still pumps fresh to the surface.
 
“Now no-one can plant anything, and we’re not allowed to build anything here,” Kifar continued. He sleeps in a drystone shack with “no electricity, no water, and no bathroom.” To keep them from the rats, carrier bags of food are suspended from the low ceiling, twirling over a dank mattress. “If I was allowed to build a small house with electricity, things would be much better,” he said.
 
His herd swirled around him, nipping at his trousers. He was sheltering from the mid-November sun in a cave whose floor was thick with dung, and said that in the fierce heat of summer armed guards from the settlements had forced him to abandon even this meager shelter.
 
“Guards chase us if we go within 500 meters of the settlements,” he added. “They don’t even allow us to the spring.”
 
De facto illegal, Palestinian building projects in Wadi Qana are inevitably torn down. In the 60% of the West Bank classed as 'Area C’ – under full Israeli military and civil control – planning permits are virtually impossible to secure. Between 2012 and 2016, only three of 100 regions submitting master plans were given permission to build at all, and rights watchdog B’tselem report that over 5000 Palestinians have been left homeless following Area C demolitions over the last decade.
 
Yet the graceful neck of an Israeli crane was visible on the skyline, and back-hoe loaders trundled around on the heights. Over 100 Israeli homes encroach onto the reserve, which is cut through with settlement access roads.
 
For years, settlers pumped their raw sewage directly into the wadi. In the 1990s, the water grew so polluted that 50 Palestinian families were forced to leave the valley’s small herding communities for the neighbouring village of Deir Istiya.
 
There’s now a sewer system linking the settlements to a treatment plant in Israel, but former mayor of Deir Istiya Nazmi Salman says beefy pipes conveying sewage through the wadi still sporadically burst.
 
Standing below a spreading palm tree he described as “the icon of Wadi Qana”, Nazmi pointed out the course of an irrigation channel destroyed by Israeli soldiers. “On visit days, they open a market here,” he said. “They bring generators, they declare a military closed area, and none of the Palestinians can leave their homes between 6AM and 3PM.”
 
As he strolled on along the valley floor, he pointed out the bare soil where ranks and ranks of olive trees had been uprooted – or “executed”, as he put it. Per Nazmi’s count, in the last two years over 3000 Wadi Qana trees have been destroyed.
 
From the Valley to the Heights
 
13 per cent of the West Bank has been zoned as nature reserves by the Israeli government. Considered unacceptable eyesores, Palestinian crops, water-ways and homes in these conservation areas are destroyed. Israeli waste, infrastructure and far larger building projects are not. Palestinian farmers are displaced; their livelihoods are wrecked; and tourist shekels, water and fecund land are expropriated by illegal settlers.
 
The majority of these reserves are in the sparsely-populated Jordan Valley. As fortified, isolated and jarringly wealthy as feudal keeps, Israeli settlements in the Valley are oases of green among the barren lands left to Bedouin and other impoverished Palestinian farmers.
 
“The nature reserves are just to make [life] hard for farmers and their families,” explained Rashid, an activist with the Jordan Valley Solidarity Campaign. He pointed out an area in the desert scrub off-limits to Palestinians grazing livestock, but otherwise indistinguishable from the arid land around it. “They’re not to protect natural resources in the area.”
 
As Rashid noted, around 25% of land given over to nature reserves in the Valley is simultaneously zoned as a military firing zone. Even when the fragile ecosystem is not being shelled or trampled over by trainee soldiers, he added, the Israelis “burn the land, just because they don’t want Palestinian shepherds to feed their goats or sheep”.
 
The expansion of these reserves is ongoing – and nor is it limited to the West Bank. In the Golan Heights, Syrian Druze living under decades of Israeli occupation are also seeing their land snatched from under them.
 
In the aftermath of its victory in 1967’s Six Day War, Israel seized control of the strategically valuable border region. The majority of its indigenous inhabitants fled or were expelled, but 20,000 members of the indigenous Druze minority remain, sharing their land with around the same number of illegal Israeli settlers. In 1981, Israel formally annexed the Golan, in a move never recognised by the international community.
 
And the Syrian collapse has given Israeli politicians renewed opportunities to seize Golan land. Plans are underway to import 100,000 more settlers to the region, while Prime Minister Netanyahu recently cited the war across the border to justify his claim the Golan would be “forever Israeli”.
 
Over 2000 acres of land surrounding Majdal Shams, the largest Druze village in the occupied Golan, was this year earmarked by the Israelis for a new nature reserve. Salman Fakherldeen, a researcher with anti-occupation watchdog al-Marsad, pointed out the newly-seized land from a balcony at the head of the village. “The view itself is a natural resource,” he said.
 
Moreover, the village is already hemmed in by the UN-patrolled demilitarized zone to the east and its own dwindling agricultural land to the south, and the park will curtain any expansion to the north or west. Alongside space needed for grazing and agriculture, the new park swallows up hundreds of acres promised to the Druze for urgently-needed expansion.
 
Meanwhile, Druze farmers are denied basic construction rights. “It’s been 40 years and we’re still not allowed to build,” said Faisal, a farmer whose vineyard and herd of sheep share a tiny sliver of land beside the mine-strewn border zone. “We are farming with love, not money: it’s impossible. How can you continue to live on this land?”
 
“Wasteland, maybe”
 
From untapped oil reserves in the Golan to the Zionist settler project in the West Bank, ulterior motives for seizing land as national parks abound. But the beauty of these spaces does make them worth conserving, albeit not at the expense of Palestinian livelihood.
 
In East Jerusalem, however, nature reserves and national parks are declared on land which has little to commend it – bar its location in the occupied half of a city annexed by the Israeli government. The administration’s avowed intent is to 'Judaize’ Jerusalem, forcing out Palestinian communities to ensure a 60/40 split between Jews and Arabs by the year 2020. On the evidence of current demographic trends, this will necessitate the mass expulsion of Arab families from their homes.
 
The City of David is a leafy promontory, jutting out from the walls of the Old City and forcing apart the Palestinian community of Silwan. As a part of the Jerusalem Walls National Park, it is run by the settler organization El-Ad, in murky collaboration with the Nature and Parks Authority.
 
Their contention, derived from heavily-criticized archaeology conducted “With a Bible in one handand the tools of excavation in the other”, is that the hill was the site of the biblical king David’s citadel. The Al-Aqsa Foundation for Endowment and Heritage reports that conservationists in the park have even destroyed Islamic archaeological sites in service of this claim.
 
A plaque at the site’s entrance offers tours drawing on the expertise of “local volunteers” – neglecting to mention that these volunteers are drawn from the ranks of the same propagandizing organization.
 
Clad in khaki hat and shorts, El-Ad tour guide Tzvi gave a breakneck and startlingly revisionist version of the history of Jerusalem. As he told it, following Assyrian and Babylonian invasions around 700 BCE, this land was basically empty for nearly three millennia, until Jewish settlers arrived in 1990.
 
“Now boys and girls are playing in Jerusalem’s streets once again,” the presentation triumphantly concluded, “and one little hill stands eternal.”
 
El-Ad’s declared aim is to “Judaize East Jerusalem”. This corner of the Jerusalem Walls park is a propaganda machine gulling tourists into swallowing El-Ad’s ethnocentric version of history, all but denying the existence of Arabs on land which is legally theirs, while shaking punters down for hefty entrance fees. (El-Ad also rakes in more foreign donations than the seven largest left-wing Israeli NGOs combined).
 
When asked exactly who was present on the land before the dig began, Tzvi grew suddenly defensive: “Here? There was nothing. Wasteland, maybe. I don’t know.”
 
“We are not talking about history or heritage,” Sahar Abbassy told the Palestine Monitor. “We are talking about forced  transfer.” A life-long Silwan resident, and the deputy director of a local culture centre, she rattled off a list of abuses perpetrated by El-Ad and abetted by the Israeli forces.
 
The destruction of land,community centres and hundreds of homes in Silwan is often directly linked to the City of David and the Jerusalem Walls Park, in what Sahar called a “well-planned, systematic agenda” of expansion. In the latest Silwan demolition, on October 26, a family of 30 Palestinians were expelled from their home.
 
More broadly, Sahar linked the arrests, beatings and violent abuse suffered by Silwan’s children to the loss of land and livelihood driven by El-Ad.
 
There are scattered residents across the West Bank’s national parks – around 85 in Wadi Qana, for example. But uniquely, rapidly-expanding East Jerusalem parks are located directly on top of densely-populated neighborhoods.
 
A new 'Bible trail’ is battering its way through Palestinian urban neighbourhoods, linking up with pre-existing parks and settlements to form a circle of total Israeli control around the bitterly-contested Old City. “The site lacks any nature, landscape or heritage values that might justify converting it into a national park”, B’tselem note of a planned park at Bab a-Zahreh.
 
Just digging
 
Contemporary wisdom in conservationist circles is that those who have farmed endangered land for centuries or millennia should be allowed to continue. Certainly, the slopes of Wadi Qana could bear the weight of a few hundred more olive trees – were it not for the settlements sucking dry its increasingly fetid springs.
 
Similarly, even El-Ad’s own archaeologists have turned against it, accusing the organization of destructive and unnecessary excavations. To Biblical archaeologist Eilat Mazar, there is a profit motive behind these rapidly-expanding works, but to Saher it is clear they are intended to justify further seizures of Palestinian land.
 
Workers in areas of the City of David off-limits to the general public clammed up when asked what they were excavating: “we’re just digging,” one said. In the national parks and nature reserves planted on top of occupied Palestine, the preservation of nature, culture and history is sidelined in service of aggressive expansion. 

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