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.

Susiya: Symbol of a larger struggle

The tiny village of Susiya in the occupied West Bank has become a symbol of a much greater struggle –Palestinians’ ongoing resistance to the Israeli occupation.

Located in the South Hebron Hills, Susiya is home to about 340 Palestinian residents.  Some of the residents are descendants of those whose villages were destroyed in 1948 when the new state of Israel forced thousands of Palestinians to flee their homes. Others have lived in the Susiya agricultural community since at least the Ottoman era.

Palestinian flags fly over some of the temporary homes in the village of Susiya. Photo credit: P. Moore, EAPPI

Palestinian flags fly over some of the temporary homes in the village of Susiya. Photo credit: P. Moore, EAPPI

In 1986, Susiya residents were forced to relocate, when the Government of Israel (which, after 1967, gained control of the West Bank) wished to establish a heritage site on the remains of an ancient synagogue located there. Without any compensation for the loss of land, Palestinians rebuilt Susiya nearby. The village has been partially demolished several times since then, ostensibly to create a continuous swath of land between an Israeli settlement and the archeological site.

During the intervening years the living conditions in Susiya have deteriorated, while a new Israeli settlement named Susiya prospers. Palestinians are denied connections to the local water and electricity systems. Their access to their grazing and agricultural land has been reduced due to harassment and intimidation by Israeli settlers. Many live in shacks, tents and other temporary shelters.

This summer, residents have once again faced the prospect that Israel will demolish their homes and buildings, and they will be forced to relocate.  Why? Because they do not have building permits for their homes.  And they don’t have permits, because it is virtually impossible for a Palestinian living in what is known as Area C — the 60 percent of the West Bank under both civil and security control of the Israeli military — to receive a building permit. According to Bimkom, an Israeli nonprofit focused on planning rights, more than 98 percent of Palestinian requests for building permits in Area C from 2010 to 2014 were rejected.

In May of this year, COGAT (Israel’s governing body in the West Bank) issued Susiya residents with eviction notices and demolition orders that were to take effect by August 3.  And so the people awaited the bulldozers that would come and destroy their homes.

But they also appealed to the world to help them stop the demolition of their community. Before long, Palestinians, Israelis, the United Nations, the European Union, the U.S. State Department and international solidarity groups joined the cry. Their appeal was grounded in the argument that the forcible transfer of people under occupation and in a coercive environment is a breach of international humanitarian law under the Geneva Conventions.

People pick through rubble at the site of a demolition in Wadi Sneysel, in the West Bank near East Jerusalem. Photo credit: Lutheran World Relief.

Palestinians pick through rubble at the site of a demolition in Wadi Sneysel, in the West Bank near East Jerusalem. Photo credit: Lutheran World Relief.

Though there is an active case in the Israeli courts regarding a Master Plan for the structures in the village, an Israeli judge rejected a motion to halt demolitions while the court case was in progress. Shortly thereafter, bulldozers arrived in the village. Thankfully, after intense international pressure, the bulldozers were withdrawn. This is good news—good news that speaks to the power of a people’s struggle, and the power advocacy, both local and international.

But the story is far from over. MCC workers in the region report that Israeli officials have pulled back from a wholesale demolition, but are continuing to pressure villagers to “agree” to the demolition of numerous specific structures and a relocation of the community to a new site one kilometre away.

Moreover, they say that Susiya is only one of many villages threatened by Israel’s plan to strengthen its hold on the West Bank, expand Israeli settlements, and make life even more difficult for Palestinians. According to the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions, Israel has destroyed over 120,000 Palestinian homes since 1948. On August 17, 2015 alone, Israel demolished 21 homes in Area C, rendering 78 people – including 49 children – homeless. The threat continues.

Please consider contacting your Member of Parliament to urge him or her to join the call for solidarity with Susiya and other vulnerable Palestinian communities. And during this election campaign, ask your candidates how their party will help to advance a just peace, with adherence to international law, for Palestinians and Israelis.

By Esther Epp-Tiessen, public engagement coordinator for the Ottawa Office of MCC Canada.