No secure future

This week’s guest writer is Myriam Ullah, Community Engagement Coordinator for MCC Saskatchewan.  She participated in an MCC learning tour to Palestine and Israel in February 2017.

We pulled up to a modest, concrete house in a rural-feeling suburb just outside of the city. Honey bees, the smell of rosemary, and hot tea greeted us as we were welcomed by the home owners. At first glance, the property looked beautiful and lush, with ten or so beehives scattered among the fruit trees.

The family who lives in this home is one of 500 living near Jerusalem that MCC has supported by helping to install water treatment systems and connect them to community agriculture projects. Through a translator and through MCC’s partner Applied Research Institute, Jerusalem (ARIJ), the family told  how they had been helped by such subsidies in a time of real need and were grateful for the access to a secure water source.

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ARIJ agricultural support project. Photo/Myriam Ullah

Our group, a collection of MCC constituents and staff from Canada, was on a two-week learning tour to gain understanding of MCC’s long-term work in Palestine and Israel and to understand how we, as Canadians, could continue to support projects like this when we returned home.

We questioned the family about how the water treatment system worked, and we learned more about how they had cultivated a more resilient and diversified crop. It was an inspiring visit and  a success story for ARIJ, a well-established NGO that was started with MCC seed-funding 25 years ago.

As we thanked the family and shuffled back onto the mini-bus, I thought to myself, “This situation could be anywhere in the world.” It is, after all, a fairly common story from MCC’s partners—supporting sustainable livelihoods for those found in unstable conditions because of conflict, war, or natural disaster.

The difference here was that we were just outside of a major tourist city. There had been no recent natural disaster, and access to food and water was actually abundant! Lush fields and crops grew just a few kilometers away.

The unique edge to this story is that ARIJ provides water treatment systems to Palestinian families living near Jerusalem because they are living under occupation. This means that their access to water is controlled by the Israeli government, which favours Israeli settlers in the West Bank by providing them with more than 3x the amount of daily water than their Palestinian neighbours receive. To conserve water, Palestinian families regularly endure weeks without running water, having to rely on rain collection barrels and systems like the ones ARIJ provides.

Although the West Bank and Gaza are considered Palestinian land by the international community, ARIJ spent the morning outlining for us the systematic increase in Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank on Palestinian-owned land.

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Water treatment system.  Photo/Myriam Ullah

There are over 760,000 settlers living within approximately 200 illegal settlements and just over 260 outposts (which are planned-for settlements). These settlements, and the people living in them, are most often enjoying a high standard of living with maintained roadways, 24/7 security, strong education systems, and abundant food/water sources. Palestinians, on the other hand, are crowded into smaller strips of land with separated roadways, frequent military detentions, limited access to water, risk of home demolitions, and the inability to travel within their land without permits.

After 50 years of living under the longest occupation in history, organizations like ARIJ offer Palestinian families much-needed, immediate support. However, they can’t instill long-term hope for a people who have little assurance they will not be issued a home demolition order at some point in the near future.

When we first arrived at the airport in Tel-Aviv, our learning tour guide welcomed us with a challenge: to fully listen as we hear the stories of loss and pain, and to do so without trying to offer simple solutions or explanations of a situation we don’t fully understand.

Throughout our two weeks, we saw time and again evidence of Palestinian homes and villages destroyed. We even heard stories of some families choosing to demolish their own homes, as this was less expensive than being made to pay the bill for having their homes demolished by military order — and for the cost of the security personnel needed to force them out.

We heard stories of children as young as 12 being imprisoned and elementary school students being tear gassed. We felt the presence of the security wall, as it shadowed over a single, remaining home we visited—a home surrounded by settlements and fences where a Palestinian family (with their own checkpoint) was restricted from leaving their own driveway.

I don’t believe anyone from our group came home with a full understanding of the situation in Israel and Palestine. And we definitely didn’t return home with a sense of a solution. However, for me, I did leave with a sense of the incredible disparities between those who are afforded a livelihood and hope for a secure future, and those who calculate their days by permits, checkpoints, and rubble.

I returned home haunted by the notion that power does not want to hear truth and that the conflict over these lands has a lifetime yet to live.

What are Israeli settlements?

On December 23, 2016 — to great surprise — the UN Security Council affirmed the illegality of Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territory. The resolution asserted the settlements constitute a violation of international law and an obstacle to peace between Palestine and Israel. It also called for an end to all forms of violence, incitement and provocation.

UNSCR 2334 passed by a vote 14 to 0 with 1 abstention, that of the U.S.  Traditionally, the U.S. has used its veto power to defeat such resolutions critical of Israel; this time it did not.

Like most of the world, Canada has long considered Israel’s settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem illegal under international law. In the wake of UNSCR 2334 and a strongly worded speech by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, the office of Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion quietly reiterated Canada’s support for a two-state solution, with no mention of the settlements.

Given the significance of settlements as a point of tension in Palestine and Israel, it is important to know what the settlements are and what their impact is.

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The Israeli settlement of Har Homa built on Jabal Abu Ghneim, a mountain south of Jerusalem, near Bethlehem.  MCC photo/Doug Hostetter

What are Israeli settlements?

  • Settlements are colonies established by Israel within the occupied Palestinian territories of East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Some of these settlements are large cities. Only Jewish people may live in them.
  • Outposts are much smaller clusters of Jewish settlers scattered throughout the West Bank. They are not officially sanctioned by Israeli authorities and are considered illegal under Israeli law. But they often receive support and assistance from government ministries. Some outposts eventually develop into settlements.
  • Approximately, 700,000 Israeli settlers live in settlements and outposts. (Applied Research Institute of Jerusalem)
  • Settlement construction is ongoing. In 2015, Israeli authorities approved the construction of 8979 new units in 37 settlements. In the first half of 2016, they approved 1000 units in 35 settlements. (Applied Research Institute of Jerusalem)
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A map of Israel settlements, settlement blocks and outposts in the West Bank.  Map/Applied Research Institute of Jerusalem

Why are the settlements considered illegal by the international community?

  • According to the Geneva Conventions, the key international law governing the conduct of armed conflicts, an occupying power is prohibited from making permanent changes to the territory it has occupied. It is also prohibited from moving its own citizens into the territory occupied. Israel has violated both of these provisions.

What is the impact of the settlements on Palestinians?

  • The settlements, and the special highways and bypass roads that link them to Israel proper, carve up the West Bank into unconnected pieces, making the possibility of a viable contiguous Palestinian state increasingly remote.
  • The settlements – and the soldiers required to defend them – severely impede movement for Palestinians. Checkpoints, barriers, and bypass roads, as well as the separation wall, make it very difficult for them to travel to nearby villages, seek out medical help, and even access their own agricultural land.
  • Settlers live under Israeli civilian law, while Palestinians in the West Bank live under military law and are routinely deprived of their civic and political rights. Palestinians – even children as young as 12 – are detained indefinitely in ways which constitute a violation of basic human rights. (Military Court Watch)
  • Settlements have access to water resources which are denied to Palestinians. Approximately 75 percent of the renewable water resources in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are used by Israel, both for settlements and for use inside Israel proper. By building settlements strategically, Israel has managed to consolidate its control over vital aquifers in the West Bank. Palestinians have access to 73 litres per day, while settlers access 240 litres per day. The World Health Organization recommends a minimum of 100 litres per day per individual. (EWASH, Emergency, Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Group)
  • The growing presence of settlements in the West Bank is a constant source of friction and visual reminder to Palestinians of how Israel is confiscating their land and altering the map.

By Esther Epp-Tiessen, Public Engagement Coordinator for the Ottawa Office.