West Bank Village Steps up Protests Against Israel’s Theft of Land
Ben Lorber The Electronic Intifada
For approximately five months, the residents of Kufr Qaddoum have united to demonstrate against the illegal Israeli settlement of Kedumim and the Israeli military’s closure of their village’s main road. Kufr Qaddoum, a West Bank village so old that, according to legend, Abraham was circumcised there with an axe, has since 1976 been plagued by Kedumim, a 3,000-inhabitant Israeli settlement that now surrounds the village on five hilltops. Kufr Qaddoum’s main road, which passes through Kedumim to link the village to Nablus, was closed by the Israeli military in 2003.
“The people of Kufr Qaddoum used this road long before the settlements came,” said Murad Shttaiwa, spokesman for the demonstrators. “Before 2003, we could drive through the settlement with no problems. Between 2004 and 2005, after the road was closed to cars, we walked through the settlement with no problems.”
In 2005, the road became closed to foot traffic as well. Before the new, indirect route to Nablus was constructed in 2008, “we used to walk and drive down unpaved dirt roads around Kedumim, but the settlers would still throw stones at cars and people,” Shttaiwa explained. “We would not react to it … for three years, we used to travel on a road made for animals.”
Now that Kufr Qaddoum’s main road is closed to villagers, a 13-kilometer straight journey to Nablus has turned into a 26-kilometer detour through a busy West Bank artery. “Three people have actually died trying to get through the main road,” Shttaiwa said, “because they were ill in ambulances, and the soldiers wouldn’t let the ambulance through.”
Taking the closures to court
When the road was first closed in 2003, villagers organized a single demonstration. “It was very peaceful,” Shttaiwa said. “The people left work and came, took their cars to where the barrier is [on the road], and then just sat and talked. We spoke with the soldiers and the soldiers stated to us that the road will eventually be opened.”
When the soldiers’ promise failed to materialize, however, villagers took the issue to court in 2004. After five years of waiting, in November 2010 Kufr Qaddoum finally received a positive response from the Israeli court system, authorizing its Palestinian villagers to use the road again. At that time, however, the Israeli military groundlessly claimed that the road is “unsuitable” and “unsafe” for human traffic. After all legal appeals failed, villagers decided to organize weekly demonstrations in July 2011.
Since then, Kufr Qaddoum has consistently held one of the most tight-knit, well-organized and well-attended Palestinian-led demonstrations against the Israeli occupation in the West Bank.
Hundreds of villagers, united with international activists and flanked by gas-masked media teams, walk down the main road towards Kedumim week after week, demanding the right to movement. “I’m very happy that a lot of people from the village are coming out for the demonstrations,” said Shttaiwa. “Even during Ramadan we thought people would fall back from protesting, but they still came out in numbers. Even during harvesting, they did not fall back, they still came out in numbers — after the harvest, they would put away their equipment and come out for the demonstrations.”
Funeral for the occupation
At the front line of the demonstration, villagers often stage a telling spectacle. A week before Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority’s president, gave a speech to the UN in September, villagers held a mock funeral for the occupation on 16 September, carrying a coffin draped with an Israeli flag.
A video of the demonstration, produced by the International Solidarity Movement, shows villagers setting the coffin ablaze moments before a phalanx of Israeli soldiers opened fire with tear gas (“Kafr Qaddoum September 16 2011,” 16 September 2011).
Later in September, villagers burnt an effigy of Benjamin Netanyahu after holding a mock trial condemning the Israeli prime minister for war crimes (“Kufr Qaddoum demands access,” International Solidarity Movement, 30 September 2011).
Demonstrations in Kufr Qaddoum have been accompanied by everything from a donkey painted with an Israeli flag to a live band from the Netherlands.
As demonstrations show no signs of losing steam, the Israeli military has escalated its attacks on Kufr Qaddoum. A recent report by the Palestinian news agency WAFA indicated that 12 persons — including five Palestinian children — were attacked with heavy tear gas and stun grenades during a weekly demonstration (“Israeli soldiers suppress Kufr Qaddoum weekly anti-settlements march,” 4 November 2011).
“Even though the demonstrations and the barriers are 500 meters away” from the village, explained Shttaiwa, “the soldiers will get closer and closer … [on 11 November], the soldiers got so close they were right outside my house, and the tear gas got inside the house, so my two-year-old son smelled it, and came up to me and said ‘Daddy, my eyes hurt!’”
Aggression gets worse
The military enters the village, in Shttaiwa’s words, because “the protests are getting stronger and stronger, and they want to stop the protests, so they are becoming more violent and more aggressive.” The Israeli military is also conducting frequent night raids into the village. Four days before a protest on 21 October, the army entered the village at night and arrested nine people (“Permission to enter their own lands: Kufr Qaddoum rampaged again by military,” International Solidarity Movement, 21 October 2011).
Though protests focus on the closure of their main road, the villagers of Kufr Qaddoum resist an occupation which touches on all aspects of their lives. More than half of the village’s land, approximately 11,800 dunams (one dunam equals 1,000 square meters), is situated in Area C of the West Bank — an area under the full administration of the Israeli army. Under the carve-up of the West Bank made by the 1993 Oslo accords, Area C includes all Israeli settlements and most of the Jordan Valley.
That means villagers need permission to access their own land from the Israeli District Coordinating Office. Olive harvesters, therefore, are unable to prepare their trees for the harvest throughout the year, and are only given a few days to complete the harvest itself.
Eyal Ha-Leuveni, a researcher with Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, told The Electronic Intifada that it is “very difficult” for Palestinians who own land around the Kedumim settlement to go through the permit process. “First you have to prove your ownership of the land, and this depends on your family history — if one family member was involved in a crime, likely no family member will get a permit,” Ha-Leuveni said. “The permit process can take years, and in the meantime you get a temporary permit, which is very insecure.”
In addition, Palestinian farmlands in Area C are often stolen by settlers. In March 2008, a legal battle, waged by lawyers from Israeli human rights organization Yesh Din on behalf of Kufr Qaddoum residents, helped expose the method of land takeover characteristic of Kedumim and other settlements across the West Bank (“Court case reveals how settlers illegally grab West Bank lands,” Haaretz, 17 March 2008).
Kedumim’s local council members would map the “abandoned lands” around the settlements, even if they were outside the council’s jurisdiction, with the aim of taking them over. The council would “allocate” the lands to settlers, who would sign an official form stating that they have no ownership claim; and that the council is entitled to evict them whenever it sees fit, in return for compensating them solely for their investment in cultivating the land.
Kedumim’s former security chief, Michael Bar-Neder, testified that the land “allocation” was followed by an effort to expand the settlement. Bar-Neder said that once the settlers seized the lands, an application would be made to the military commander to declare them as owned by the State of Israel, since under an Israeli “law” covering the West Bank, anyone who does not cultivate his land for three years forfeits ownership of it (“Court case reveals how settlers illegally grab West Bank lands,” Haaretz, 17 March 2008).
It is important to emphasize that Israel’s “laws” regarding the West Bank lack any legitimacy as all Israeli settlements are illegal under the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949. In violation of international law, Israel has seized West Bank land, in the words of Ha-Leuveni, “first by military orders, then by state land, then by private acquisition.”
The area where Kedumim now sits, said Ha-Leuveni, “is land that was first taken by military orders, where the army claimed the land was needed for military needs. Israel abandoned this justification in the 1980s, but it did not return any of this land to Palestinian owners.”
In a process that accelerated throughout the 1980s, West Bank land transferred from military to state ownership. “All the policy of declaring state land,” added Ha-Nuevi, “is an Israeli invention. There are large parts of the ‘state land’ of Qedumim that were owned or at least cultivated by Palestinians before Israel called it state land.”
According to a July 2010 report on Kedumim by B’Tselem, “construction of approximately 59 [Kedumim] units deviated from the ‘state lands’ allotted to the settlement; two permanent structures and 12 caravans were erected on private Palestinian land; and a new neighborhood, comprising some 30 caravans, was built west of the settlement, deviating from the allotted ‘state land.’” (“By Hook and By Crook: Israeli Settlement Policy in the West Bank,” B’Tselem, July 2010).
In addition, Israel plans to erect a wall between Kedumim and Kufr Qaddoum, which, according to a 2005 report by The Economist, would grab another 5,000 dunams more than the 5,000 Kufr Qaddoum has already lost (“Life in the armpits of Palestine,” 7 April 2005).
Shttaiwa estimated that Kufr Qaddoum has already lost 58 percent of its land to Kedumim, and will lose 80 percent upon completion of the wall. Contrary to the Kedumim security officer’s statement, quoted in The Economist, that “not one centimeter of Qedumim is built on land known for sure to be private,” a 2009 B’Tselem map details that much of Qedumim is built entirely on privately-owned Palestinian land (“Private Palestinian land in the built-up and municipal area of Kedumim,” B’Tselem, 2009).
Illegal appropriation of Kufr Qaddoum land to the settlement
This process of illegal appropriation has plagued Kufr Qaddoum since the establishment of Kedumim in 1976. “Every year the settlement has expanded,” Shttaiwa told The Electronic Intifada. “Since the settlement came it has been expanding, as well as stealing more and more land. Over the years they have also attacked people harvesting their olives, thrown stones at them, and stolen their olives. It has gotten worse in recent years.”
Settler violence, Shttaiwa explained, increased after the first intifada, in which Kufr Qaddoum played a minimal role. “At the beginning we had no problems … [but] now these settlers are known to be pretty violent,” he said. “In the first intifada they killed a male from here and injured another one as well. After the second intifada, they began attacking olive trees.”
Two years ago, settlers spray-painted “This is Israel” and other graffiti upon the burial stones of a Kufr Qaddoum cemetery.
In testimony given to B’Tselem last year, farmer ‘Abd a-Latif ‘Obeid said that over the years, Kedumim settlers have intentionally sabotaged his olive harvest, dumped burning refuse onto his land, and stolen more than fifty dunams to build greenhouses and a park (“Testimony: Israel seizes land and hampers access for farmers near the Kedumim settlement,” B’Tselem, 21 June 2010).
“We’ve been suffering from this situation since 1984,” he states in the report. “All the land seizures, the settler attacks, and the need to coordinate entry are aimed at expanding the Kedumim settlement, which already has a large amount of land, and at taking, little by little, the rest of our land. They force us to neglect our land so it will be easier for them to annex it to the settlement.”
In addition, Kufr Qaddoum suffers from the socio-economic effects of occupation. A 2007 report by the Jerusalem-based Land Research Center estimates that, since 2002, 75 percent of Kufr Qaddoum’s residents became unemployed after construction of Israel’s wall in the West Bank and closure of Kufr Qaddoum’s main road shut out many possibilities for income generation in Israel and Nablus (“Closing of Israeli roads in Kafr Qaddum village,” Land Research Center, 7 February 2007).
Now, almost half of Kufr Qaddoum’s residents depend on foreign aid for living, and emigration has reached a record high of 10-15 percent of the total population.
“Everyone is affected”
The demonstrations in Kufr Qaddoum are a long-overdue response to the suffering the village has endured for decades. The whole village comes out to demonstrate — college students who are tired of paying 20 shekels ($5) a day to get to take an extended detour to school in Nablus; farmers who are tired of living in fear, tired of seeing their olive trees burnt, their land stolen, their livelihoods ruined; villagers who demand the right to move freely down a road that is their own.
“In Kufr Qaddoum and throughout Palestine,” Shttaiwa explained, “we do not have demonstrations for the sake of the demonstration itself. None of us likes to be dead, or likes to smell tear gas, or likes to damage his house. We only want our rights. We always say to the Israeli army, ‘give us our rights and we will not go for demonstrations. Leave our land and we will not go to demonstrations.’ That is our message in Palestine.”
Ben Lorber is an activist with the International Solidarity Movement in Nablus. He is also a journalist with the Alternative Information Center in Bethlehem. He blogs at freepaly.wordpress.com.
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