Hope & Sumud – 50 Years of Israeli Military Occupation

By Seth Malone, Peace Program Coordinator, MCC Palestine and Israel

Today—June 5, 2017—marks the 50th year of Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. Under international law, military occupation is always meant to be temporary. This is because the longer an occupation lasts, the more likely it is that respect for human rights and dignity are eroded. This is certainly the case in Palestine and Israel.

Magad Amgad

Magad Amgad from al-Najd Developmental Forum, an MCC partner organization in Gaza, walks through a strawberry field. This MCC-funded agricultural project aims to provide greater food security for the people of Gaza who have been subjected to a 10-year blockade imposed by Israel.

Day in and day out, Mennonite Central Committee’s (MCC) partners work tirelessly to help their communities grow and flourish. Our partners come up against the worst aspects of the Israeli military occupation but continue to work for justice and peace all the same. From rehabilitating homes destroyed in war, to providing counseling services to women whose husbands have been killed, to organizing against the construction of the separation barrier that devastates every community that it snakes through, our partners are active and hopeful despite all odds.

In Arabic, this “steadfastness” or “perseverance” is called sumud. Sumud, in the face of occupation, has become an indispensable part of Palestinian life and the work of MCC’s partners.

Nowar Educational Centre

Children at the Nowar Educational Center of MCC partner Culture and Free Thought Association are making materials for their community advocacy campaign for traffic safety, January 19, 2017

Despite five decades of brutal military occupation, our partners and the people of Palestine continue to embody sumud. This is because—despite all evidence to the contrary—they believe there is hope. In 2009 the Palestinian Christian churches issued a statement called “A word of faith, hope and love from the heart of Palestinian suffering.” Known popularly as the Kairos Palestine document, it describes hope in this way:

“Hope within us means first and foremost our faith in God and secondly our expectation, despite everything, for a better future. Thirdly, it means not chasing after illusions – we realize that release is not close at hand. Hope is the capacity to see God in the midst of trouble, and to be co-workers with the Holy Spirit who is dwelling in us. From this vision derives the strength to be steadfast, remain firm and work to change the reality in which we find ourselves. Hope means not giving in to evil but rather standing up to it and continuing to resist it. We see nothing in the present or future except ruin and destruction. We see the upper hand of the strong, the growing orientation towards racist separation and the imposition of laws that deny our existence and our dignity. We see confusion and division in the Palestinian position. If, despite all this, we do resist this reality today and work hard, perhaps the destruction that looms on the horizon may not come upon us.”

This is not a passive hope. This is a hope which calls all of us to action—to act in solidarity with those who suffer. It calls us to responsibility. In the face of such injustice and violence, we are called to act justly and peaceably in the hope that God can take our humble actions, multiply them and make them bear fruit. We are called to remain steadfast—to embody sumud—by never giving up on our responsibility to God and our neighbour.

Such a hope and such a steadfastness is terrifying for those bent on propping up such a terrible occupation. The resistance, however small it may be, will always be the quiet voice that bears witness to truth, and tells the world that this unjust and evil occupation must end.

Omar Haramy

Omar Haramy leads a group through Sabeel’s Contemporary Way of the Cross, which takes participants to locations representing the various forms of Palestinian suffering. In the background are soldiers preparing to discharge tear gas and rubber bullets at children who were throwing rocks in Shoufat Refugee Camp in Jerusalem. Sabeel, the Palestinian Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, is an MCC partner organization that seeks to deepen the faith of Palestinian Christians in Palestine and Israel and works for justice, peace and reconciliation by using nonviolence.

So let us have the courage to join this resistance. Let us call for justice and peace. Let us call for an end to this occupation.

A note to Canadians:  Please send a message to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, letting her know that 50 years of occupation is enough.

The regularly destroyed village of Alhadedya

This piece was prepared by MCC Palestine staff and was originally published on the MCC Palestine Update.

After the rains of the winter months, the typically dry and yellow Jordan Valley turns a beautiful green. Tucked in between the rolling rocky hills lies the Palestinian village of Alhadedya. We visited Alhadedya with Stop the Wall, a Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) partner organization that does grassroots community organizing in villages, refugee camps and cities across the West Bank. At the start of the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank in 1967, the village boasted 300 families. In 1997, however, only 150 families lived in the village. Finally, in 2017, Alhadedya only has 15 families remaining.

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On a tour with MCC partner organization Stop the Wall, Abdulrahim Sharat talks about how the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank has negatively impacted Alhadedya, his village in Area C, January 24, 2017. Photo courtesy Stop the Wall.

The dramatic drop in the village’s inhabitants is no mistake, explains Abdulrahim Sharat, the village elder. We met Abdulrahim in the community tent and we were offered coffee and tea immediately, as is customary in Palestinian culture. He greeted us warmly and began explaining the difficulties his community has faced with the Israeli authorities.

“They started in so many ways, in experimental ways, to chase us away. They first started to chase the shepherds and the farmers, taking them to military courts.” At the beginning, the Israeli authorities began to give out fines as a way to cripple the village economically and force the people to leave. “When this did not work,” Abdulrahim recounts, “they started chasing the animals with the military and began killing them from the helicopters.” Neither the fines nor the deaths of their animals were enough for the villagers of Alhadedya to leave.

This type of pressure by the Israeli military continued until 1987 at the beginning of the First Intifada, or Palestinian popular uprising. “The three years during the First Intifada was the best time for us. The Israelis were too busy with people in the city and left us alone.” However, this tranquility came to a halt after the Oslo Accords, signed by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1993 to begin realizing the dream of a two-state solution. For the villagers of Alhadedya, the agreement was a nightmare.

Under the Oslo Accords, Alhadedya was designated as Area C, which means that Israel has full civil and military control over their land. Under the agreement, these lands were supposed to be turned over to an independent Palestinian state after a tentative 5-year period. Nearly 25 years after Oslo, Israel is still in full control over Area C, which covers over 60 per cent of the West Bank. During this time, Israel has only intensified its efforts to force the inhabitants of Alhadedya off of their land.

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Abdulrahim Sharat shows his village to visitors from MCC partner organization Stop the Wall, January 24, 2017. Photo courtesy Stop the Wall.

“After Oslo, they began their destruction policies,” explains Abdulrahim. “They came to destroy the village – we call this a military campaign. They came with soldiers…and destroyed the tents, animal shelters, and water tanks.”

Abdulrahim told us that the Israeli authorities have destroyed the village many times afterwards. Enclosed by Israeli military zones and a nearby Israeli settlement (illegal under international law), the people of Alhadedya are slowly being squeezed out of their land. To fight this, the villagers went to the Israeli High Court to defend their case and prove their right to the land. Unfortunately, they have had little success in stemming the destruction of their village. Demolitions of Palestinian homes and buildings in Area C and illegal Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank are at all-time highs. The village of Alhadedya is feeling the pressure of these two dynamic forces and Abdulrahim questions why he is being forced off his land.

“What does it mean [to say] legally or illegally?” questions Abdulrahim. “We were born here and our ancestors have lived here.” He wonders aloud why the nearby settlement, full of settlers originally from the United States and Russia, is not considered illegal under Israeli law but his village is. “Why? What is their right to kick us from our land?”

 

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.

israeli-settlement

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.

Credibility and truth-telling: Why MCC Middle East visits Ottawa yearly

Guest blog posting by Daryl Byler.

Cindy and I have served as MCC representatives for programs in Iran, Iraq, Jordan and Palestine/Israel since 2007.  Every year we spend four to six weeks visiting the MCC advocacy offices (Ottawa, the United Nations and Washington, D.C.) and speaking in Mennonite schools and churches in Canada and the United States.

Is speaking in North America an effective use of our time when there is so much work to do in the Middle East?  Aren’t there school kits to deliver, and water and peacebuilding projects to attend to?

For MCC partners in the Middle East, education and advocacy in Canada and the United States is a high priority.

MCC partner explains to MCC learning tour participants how the separation wall divides Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. (photo by Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

They rightly believe that the Western media does not offer a full and accurate picture of the realities on the ground in the Middle East.

  • Too often, for example, the media highlights suicide bombings or other individual acts of violence
  • without mentioning structural violence like military occupation, house demolitions, land confiscation and sweeping economic sanctions.

Furthermore, MCC partners remind us that the policies of the Canadian and U.S. governments have consequences for the lives of ordinary Middle Eastern folks.

  • They want policymakers to be aware of the implications of their decisions.

In early 2010 we traveled to Gaza with the leaders of MCC’s three advocacy offices.  One of MCC’s partners there told us pointedly that

his organization did not want MCC’s money for health care and job training projects if we are unwilling to do advocacy highlighting the economic blockade that suffocates life for many Palestinians in Gaza.

The chairperson of MCC’s Palestine advisory committee recently shared a similar sentiment.  Samia Khoury, a Palestinian educator who has been a tireless voice for justice and peace, expressed great appreciation for MCC’s 63-year presence in the region.

But she added a word of caution.

  • “I wish to emphasize how important (it is) that the prophetic courageous voice of MCC is heard (in North America),” Samia urged.
  • “Otherwise MCC work in our region would be a cover up for the reality on the ground that can go on forever with no hope for liberation, and MCC will lose its credibility and purpose of being in the region.”

In our visits in Ottawa last week, May 28 and 29, we had an opportunity to meet with Members of Parliament and other policymakers, articulating the concerns of MCC’s Middle Eastern partners and listening to the perspectives of Canadian officials.

Manar (5), Awad (3 months) and Mohammad (8) Abu-Samra, children of a family that raises rabbits through Al Najd’s MCC-supported food security project.

Later, we spent several days interacting with MCC constituents across Alberta, again sharing the stories and perceptions of MCC partners in the Middle East.

This kind of public engagement augments MCC’s work on the ground.  It also allows us to return to the Middle East and share information with MCC partners about the broad spectrum of views that North Americans have about the Middle East.

Credibility and truth-telling: this is why we yearly visit Ottawa, Washington, and churches across Canada and the U.S.

By J. Daryl Byler, MCC Representative for Jordan, Iran, Iraq and Palestine