Economic downturn in Beit Umar and Hebron

29 June 2007

The following is a report on a field visit to the Network, Advocate and Resist (NAR) program in Hebron, meeting with several members of the Local Popular Committee (LPC):

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Mayor Farhan M. Alqam, Municipality of Beit Umar.

The purpose of our field visit was to get acquainted with the Network, Advocate and Resist (NAR) work in Hebron. The impact of the Wall/barrier is devastating to the local community. A Palestinian Hydrology Group representative mentioned how they organize resistance events; farmers and landowners talked about their troubles, resulting in modest requests.

Hebron is one of the largest governorates in Occupied Palestinian Territories with 600,000 people. Forty percent of the Palestinian economy is dependent on Hebron with its shoe, leather and stone industry.

The city has been divided into six areas by the Israeli occupying forces and 27 Israeli settlements have been established in the area. Three-hundred-and-fifty Palestinian shops have been closed by military order to the effect that 1,500 are indirectly closed in the city itself. There are numerous checkpoints inside Hebron with seven gates, three of which are electronic.

The old city is the heart of Hebron and a target for settlers. More than 40 percent of Palestinians living in the center of the West Bank city of Hebron, under Israeli control, have been forced to leave their homes, and more than 75 percent of their shops have been shut down, according to a survey released by two Israeli human rights groups. B’Tselem and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel said the exit of Palestinians from the centre of Hebron resulted from Israel’s policy of separation between Jewish settlers at the expense of Palestinians.

A Palestinian Hydrology Group representative briefs us on the water crisis in South Hebron — a World Bank report says that Hebron and Jenin are in the most difficult situation. Most villages depend now on wells but there is not enough for the whole year and some water is polluted. The water network is controlled by Israel. Buying water is very expensive. A cubic meter costs 30 shekels. On average, a settler uses 110m3 per day of drinking water whereas Palestinians have hardly any consumption. Settlers also destroy water pipes; water tanks pose another problem. The average total consumption for Israelis is 571m3 and for Palestinians 91m3.

The unemployment rate is 70 percent. The district has lost billions of dollars. Seven Bedouin communities are locked behind the Wall/barrier to the effect that 5,000 citizens live completely isolated. This policy has huge psychological and social effects.

In 2006 there were all kinds of harassments: 94 abuses, 9 killed, 1,008 arrested, 2,006 incursions in houses, 103 attacks, 110 military operations, 578 beatings, of which 22 on children, 30 on farmers, 20 on journalists, and about 3,000 dunams were confiscated.

The popular committee works independently. PARC, Farmers Union, Medical Relief and Ma’an provide assistance. It is joint work on strategic planning. Trainings are followed on how to involve and influence the media.

They organized an activity in Beit Umar against the Wall/barrier: They planted 400 trees close to the settlement and tried to reopen the roads; they are involved in the national campaign for picking olives; they train youths in awareness of the impact the closures and land confiscation has on their future, how to boycott goods, and are working on a database to supply accurate statistics. A legal center has been established to deal with cases and there is also a training program on expired fertilizers as they cause a lot of medical problems, such as cancer. These off-limit fertilizers are sold by Israeli merchants whereas they are not permitted to be sold inside Israel. Israelis also dump nuclear waste: part of the ground is poisonous.

Transportation costs to one such demonstration was paid by Ma’an and the municipality of Halhoul. The popular committees make an alliance with the NGOs. The farmers ask for projects near the wall. They cannot afford a camera or a computer to ease the work, or communication and transportation. The destruction is overwhelming. During demonstrations the settlers and soldiers attack and injure people. All LPC members are volunteers, most of them are unemployed.

A farmer from Beit Umar appeals to us to stop the economic boycott and end the occupation. Because they have rights he asks us to boycott Israel and report to the media about the catastrophe for farmers. He pleads for the implementation of an ICJ ruling not to recognize the existence of the Wall/barrier.

A landowner and farmer talks about his experience: from his 30,100 dunams of land 3,000 have been confiscated for settlements. Land is their pride, existence and identity. Bypass road no. 60 to the settlement near Beit Umar shall leave him with only 7,000 dunams as the rest shall be confiscated. All of it is agricultural land on which he grows grapes, fruit and almonds. They could go to court, but since the judge is also Israeli there is not really a neutral partner in this. It is a very severe economic situation but they try to help each other to stay on their land.

Summarization of the needs: Documentation of confiscation, media tools, some office equipment, training of local leaders and transportation to strengthen their network, small projects in localities that might help to diminish the losses incurred by the Wall in the threatened villages.

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Abu Asaid at his Old City of Hebron home.

Hebron is believed by Jews and Muslims to be the site where biblical patriarchs were buried. Israel controls the centre, where about 500 settlers live in heavily guarded enclaves among about 160,000 Palestinians. The Palestinians control the provision of civilian services but as the Israeli army has the upper hand and its jeeps can reach any place in Hebron and the West bank at all times for its destruction, arrests and killings.

Abu Asaid was offered one million shekels by Israeli settlers to leave his home in the old city of Hebron; after he refused this “generous” offer, the harassments begun. Hamoked, another Israeli human rights group, has made a CD-ROM about Hebron human rights violations in which his case is also highlighted.

Abu Asaid works in the municipality. After truckloads of dirt arrived and were dumped in front of his family’s home and also over their courtyard, he had to protect them with a steel construction. The construction still allows in some light but is mainly covered with dirt from Israeli settlers who throw their garbage (including human waste) out of their windows on top of Palestinian homes. He has been arrested many times. His wife suffered two miscarriages. They were refused an ambulance to their home while she was about to give birth. They cut off his water and electricity. Sometimes people provide food for him but often enough the army enters his home. They broke down his door when a Swedish and American group were visiting his home. The soldiers forced the door and bring in prostitutes to have sex in their home. They force the family to watch pornographic movies. Abu Asaid was so upset when they did that he smashed his own television to pieces. The children are fully exposed to all this violence and there is no sense of security for them whatsoever. His five-year-old son bangs his head against the wall out of frustration, for which he is currently being treated. The settlers spit on the children and several times they got injured as well. Protesting Palestinians are arrested and beaten.

I surveyed the house and saw a settler move from his home to the car. Settlers are heavily protected by the soldiers and armed themselves, of course.

Upon my request we visit Beit Umar.

The mayor explains that Beit Umar is the food basket of Hebron. He is the mayor of farmers. Even the doctors and engineers work as a farmer in the afternoon. Five thousand tons of grapes are produced each month and 2,000 tons of plums. Forty-one percent of the area has already been confiscated or isolated. Fertile land is approximately 60 percent. Their life is threatened. He emphasizes the word life instead of land. He was recently arrested for two weeks because of being involved in demonstrations. Beit Umar will be isolated from three sides after an alternative to Road 60 adjacent to the recent one has been built and will be used solely by Israelis. The road will destroy 850 dunams [1] of land and the rest will be isolated and not accessible for landowners afterwards. This is also based on previous experience from other regions where the Wall has been constructed. Access to land, even with existing gates and permits, will be extremely difficult, if not outright dangerous as the farmers are an easy target for settlers.

The right to live is being destroyed. Land sources are confiscated; most will be refugees, because without land they have no income. The width of the road will be 160m, 7.5km on the land of Beit Umar. Gush Atse’un (Etzion) is grey, the refugee camp is purple, blue is another settlement. The agricultural college, considered the main institute for agricultural education, is also under threat. Fifty-six dunams of the school shall be confiscated. The road will also isolate the school, which is a scientific institute. Even the cemetery is to be uprooted. “They were refugees in life and now they shall be refugees in afterlife”, the mayor says.

The mayor thanks us for coming so they do not feel alone. He also realizes that it is not easy for us. The incident of the Prime Minister not being allowed to attend the “Palestinian Diaspora in Europe” conference, about the right of return for Palestinian refugees, organized by non-governmental organizations in the Netherlands, did not go unnoticed. While Dutch politicians debate whether democratically chosen representatives may or may not visit the Netherlands it is apparent how many Palestinians endure fear on a daily basis which continues to threaten their very existence, their dignity, their identity and culture.

Endnotes
[1] 1 dunam = 1 000 m2

Photographs copyright Jeanne Abdulla

Jeanne Abdulla is is Senior Programme Officer for the Middle East for Cordaid (www.cordaid.nl) in the Netherlands.