Palestinian residents of Wadi Fukin in the occupied West Bank are appealing for international action to prevent Israel from stealing part of their village in one of the largest single Israeli land grabs in decades.
On 30 August, Israeli occupation authorities announced that they will confiscate an estimated 4,000 dunams (988 acres) of Palestinian land belonging to five villages situated south of Bethlehem. Along with Jabaa, Nahalin and Surif, much of Wadi Fukin’s land will be stolen and given to three nearby Jewish-only settlements.
The following day locals from the five villages “watched as the Israeli army placed placards across our lands, declaring them ‘State Land,’” writes Ahmad Sokkar, head of the Wadi Fukin village council, in an open letter dated 8 September.
“The Israeli cabinet stated that the decision was in response to the kidnapping and killing of three settler youths, thereby openly revealing its intent to use collective punishment against the thousands of inhabitants of these four Palestinian communities for a crime they did not commit,” the letter explains.
“Until this decision [to confiscate the land] is completely reversed,” Sokkar is calling on the European Union to ban all trade with Israeli settlements, cut off all European ties to Israeli projects in the occupied West Bank, and freeze the EU-Israel association agreement and Israel’s participation in the EU’s scientific research activities.
“Coated in legal terms, the Israeli statement attempts to camouflage the blatant illegality of Israel’s decision under international law,” Sokkar writes. “The European Union, however, holds a very clear position in regard to Israel’s settlement policy. It is with this in mind that we appeal to you and ask for your assistance.”
Residents have also responded by holding weekly demonstrations each Friday, which Israeli occupation soldiers have attacked.
From the time it occupied the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) in 1967, Israel recognized 125 settlements that today harbor a population of an estimated 550,000 Jewish-Israelis, according to the human rights group B’Tselem.
More than one hundred smaller colonies known as “outposts” also dot the map of the territory. Though outposts are considered illegal even under Israeli law, they are often provided with state resources, including funding, and are protected by the Israeli military.
While Palestinians in the West Bank live under a brutal stripe of military rule, Israeli settlers are often treated with impunity when they steal land or attack Palestinian civilians, including children.
Like most Palestinians suffering continuous land loss in communities across the West Bank, the story of Wadi Fukin doesn’t begin with Israel’s latest land grab.
After suffering repeated attacks from Zionist militias, most notably the Haganah, during the early and mid-1940s, Wadi Fukin lost some 9,000 dunams (around 2,225 acres) during the 1948 Nakba, the ethnic cleansing of Palestine that led to Israel’s establishment.
Wadi Fukin was razed completely in 1956. In 1970, just three years after Israel occupied the West Bank, the Israeli settlement of Alon Shevut was established partially on the Palestinian village’s lands.
The indigenous residents of Wadi Fukin — many of whom were displaced in 1956 to nearby Palestinian communities, particularly the Dheisheh refugee camp — were permitted by Israeli occupation authorities to return to part of the village in 1972.
Two more settlements were subsequently built in the area: Betar Illit in 1984 and Bet Ayin in 1989. Until today, Wadi Fukin’s inhabitants have faced continuous military harassment, settler violence and land confiscation.
In 2005, Israeli occupation authorities seized 218 acres of Wadi Fukin’s land.
Israel’s suffocating restrictions have created continuously worsening conditions for the indigenous Palestinian population in Wadi Fukin.
“Some of the confiscated lands are cultivated, while others are not, due to the fact that we have been impeded from using these lands in any way,” Sokkar explains. “We are not allowed to build roads to be able to reach these fields by tractor, nor are we allowed to build houses, playgrounds, industrial, touristic or sports facilities.”
“The fact that Wadi Fukin’s only playground is being threatened with demolition offers a striking example of Israel’s policies that essentially constitute a suffocating grip on our village,” Sokkar writes.
As well as robbing local Palestinian farmers of their ability to produce an income off their agricultural output, for several years settlers have forcibly taken over the village’s freshwater springs.
“Although the villages have not been attacked by settlers they are regularly harassed by armed settlers temporarily taking over playground and irrigation pools,” according to a factsheet provided to The Electronic Intifada by the Wadi Fukin Campaign, a group trying to raise awareness about the village. “Sewage also regularly flows down from the settlement of Betar Illit.”
In his open letter, Sokkar explains that history has proven Palestinians cannot rely on Israel’s courts to deliver justice. “Faced with the all too vivid realization that they stand little chance in fighting Israel’s decision in Israeli courts, the people of Wadi Fukin appeal to the international community to support their efforts to retain ownership over their lands and livelihoods,” he writes.
“The villagers are aware that they have very little chance to win in a confrontation in court since the Israeli laws and rules have proven, time and time again, that they were designed to legalize the expropriation of land for the sole benefit of a settler population which is illegal under international law,” the letter adds.
Palestinian, Israeli and international human rights groups have roundly condemned Israel and called for the cancelation of the plans.
Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director of Human Rights Watch, said the June kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank, who were later found dead, did not permit Israel to “grab a vast tract of other people’s land in an occupied territory.”
Alluding to another Israeli plan to forcibly relocate more than 12,500 Palestinian Bedouins near Jerusalem, Human Rights Watch notes that “transferring [Israeli] civilian settlers into an occupied territory would amount to a war crime.”
“It is worth noting that large scale, unlawful appropriation or destruction of property, is also a war crime,” Bill Van Esveld, a Human Rights Watch researcher, told The Electronic Intifada by email.
In a press release published on 3 September, Human Rights Watch also calls on the United States “to reduce its $3.1 billion in annual aid to Israel by an amount equivalent to the costs of Israel’s spending in support of settlements, until Israel reverses its blatantly illegal plans to build new settlements and destroy Palestinian communities.”
“Israel’s strategy of illegally confiscating land for settlements in the West Bank must stop once and for all. Not only is it illegal under international law but it is leading to a wide range of violations of Palestinians’ human rights on a mass scale,” Philip Luther, the organization’s director for the Middle East and North Africa, says in a press release issued on 1 September.
Sokkar concludes by emphasizing that the European Union should “take concrete and effective legal measures to meet its legal obligations and use all measures it has at its disposal, including sanctions, to change Israel’s policy of regularly violating international law.”
The European Union announced guidelines for avoiding aid to Israeli settlements in 2013, though the rules have yet to be meaningfully implemented and do not address the root causes of Israeli colonialism.
Given the European Union’s long history of complicity in Israeli violations of international law and war crimes against Palestinians, it seems unlikely it will heed Wadi Fukin’s calls for justice.
Full letter by Ahmad Sokkar
8 September 2014
Dear Madam, Sir,
I am writing to you out of concern for the future well-being of the people of Wadi Fukin and and its surrounding villages. On 30 August, the Israeli government announced the expropriation of 988 acres of Palestinian land. The following day, the inhabitants of Wadi Fukin and four of its neighbouring villages — Hussan, Jabaa, Nahalin, Surif — watched as the Israeli army placed placards across our lands, declaring them “State Land.” The Israeli cabinet stated that the decision was in response to the kidnapping and killing of three settler youths, thereby openly revealing its intent to use collective punishment against the thousands of inhabitants of these four Palestinian communities for a crime they did not commit. This constitutes a flagrant violation of international law.
The vulnerability of these communities is highlighted by their delicate location — all four are situated near the internationally recognized 1948 armistice line, otherwise known as the Green Line, between the occupied Palestinian territory and Israel. As a result, they have suffered tremendously from the war in 1948 and its aftermath, which displaced many and even destroyed our village, Wadi Fukin, in its entirety in the early 1950s, effectively wiping it off the map for three decades. Its residents were consequently forced to relocate to Dheisheh refugee camp, yet continued to tend to their lands in the village. In the 1980s, we became one of the very few examples of Palestinians allowed to leave the refugee camp [who] rebuilt our village, albeit excluding a total of 9,000 dunams of land (2,220 acres) that were usurped by Israel in 1948. The remarkable story of Wadi Fukin remains visible as the ruins of old houses can still be seen between the newly built houses and continue to mark the hillsides. Today, the people of Wadi Fukin once again risk being dispossessed.
Coated in legal terms, the Israeli statement attempts to camouflage the blatant illegality of Israel’s decision under international law. The European Union, however, holds a very clear position with regard to its opposition to Israel’s settlement policy. It is with this in mind that we appeal to you and ask for your assistance. Israeli politicians and officials do not miss an opportunity to unilaterally declare that the area which they refer to as Gush Etzion, yet which in reality constitutes part of the Bethlehem governorate, will inevitably become part of Israel proper in any future peace deal. These statements must not under any circumstances convince EU policy-makers and their national counterparts that the fate of our communities is a lost cause. Acquiescing to such Israeli statements allows Israel to continue to act with impunity. If anything, our communities ought to be set as an example to show that the European Union will not allow Israel to unilaterally dictate the terms of a peace agreement, but that international law will be the standard to which Israel’s actions will be held. The European Union ought to take up the fate of these four communities as a cause to demonstrate it is serious about confronting Israel’s continued settlement policy in the occupied Palestinian territory.
Faced with the all too vivid realization they stand little chance in fighting Israel’s decision in Israeli courts, the people of Wadi Fukin appeal to the international community to support their efforts to retain ownership over their own lands and livelihoods. The villagers are aware that they have very little chance to win in a confrontation in court since the Israeli laws and rules have proven, time and time again, that they were designed to legalize the expropriation of land for the sole benefit of a settler population which is illegal under international law.
Some of the confiscated lands are cultivated, while others are not, due to the fact that we have been impeded from using these lands in any way. We are not allowed to build roads to be able to reach these fields by tractor, nor are we allowed to build houses, playgrounds, industrial, touristic, or sports facilities. The fact that Wadi Fukin’s only playground is being threatened with demolition offers a striking example of Israel’s policies that essentially constitute a suffocating grip on our village.
We therefore appeal to you and the international community to act upon your declarations, beyond mere words of condemnation. While welcoming such statements of support, we urge you to introduce practical measures that will demonstrate the European Union’s seriousness in opposing Israel’s decision and its recent actions in the Bethlehem governorate. We, the people of Wadi Fukin, ask for your assistance to help us not to freeze or delay these plans, but to completely reverse and annul them, and hence prevent our families from once more facing the threat of dispossession.
The EU should take concrete and effective measures to meet its legal obligations and use all the measures it has at its disposal, including sanctions, to change Israel’s policy of regularly violating international law.
We urge the EU to:
— ban all trade with illegal Israeli settlements,
— ensure that European companies stop participating in any Israeli project in the OPT,
— freeze the main framework of EU-Israeli economic relations, the EU-Israel Association Agreement and Horizon 2020 Research Program,
until this decision is completely reversed.
Head of the village council of Wadi Fukin, Bethlehem