Beit Sahour reclaims military base site

Israeli soldiers detain a Palestinian demonstrator during a protest near an evacuated Israeli military camp on the edge of Beit Sahour near the West Bank city of Bethlehem, May 2008. (Luay Sababa/MaanImages)

USH GHRAB, West Bank (IPS) - East of Beit Sahour in Ush Ghrab, the tree line stops and the bronze, rocky desert begins. In a flat clearing on this hilltop, a small, abandoned military post is being slowly transformed from an assorted collection of cement-grey barracks into a virtual oasis for the region’s children, families and tourists.

A former watchtower now has bright flowers painted on the roof; what was once a stark administrative office is now painted blue and pink, with a sign above the entrance reading “The Nest Cafe” in red block letters.

The revitalization of this remote area is important, local activists say, not just to reclaim land used in the past to control and intimidate the people of Beit Sahour, but also to pre-empt a possible land steal by radical Israeli settlers. Palestinians have come here with international activists, bringing with them paintbrushes and hand tools, to spark a new kind of protest movement against illegal settlement expansion. The protest is rooted in community and creativity rather than explosive confrontation.

Ush Ghrab (“Crow’s Nest” in Arabic) has witnessed multiple turnovers of military control over the last century. Because of its location, sandwiched between Bethlehem and Jerusalem with a 360-degree view of several Palestinian villages, the area served as a continuous military post first under the Ottomans, then the British, then the Jordanians, and over the last 40 years as an Israeli military base up until April 2006, when the army unilaterally withdrew from the post. Immediately after the withdrawal, Israel imposed a military control order on Ush Ghrab, but recently the municipality of Beit Sahour was able to lift the order and begin community development of the area.

Educator and local organizer Ala’a Hilu of Bethlehem tells IPS that since mid-May 2008, fundamentalist Jewish settlers have come to Ush Ghrab, camped out in the old barracks, and spray-painted racist, anti-Arab slogans on the walls, determined, he says, to establish a new settlement on this hilltop.

“[The first time] they came here, they stayed for about three days,” Hilu says, adding that the accompanying Israeli army declared the area a closed military zone and arrested Palestinians who came to protest. “Later, we came here again, and just painted over what they did. We painted everything according to peace. No political slogans, no racist words, just pictures of gardens for children. We even painted smiley faces over the settlers’ slogans.”

After this simple act of creative protest, the local community began scheduling public gatherings, picnics, bingo games and regular painting activities with international activists at Ush Ghrab. Nearly every Friday, Hilu tells IPS, armed Israeli settlers, backed by the military, show up and attempt to intimidate the group. Settlers regularly threaten them with violence.

Several weeks ago, instead of engaging in a confrontation, “we invited them to share our watermelon and argileh [water-pipe tobacco]. We said they were welcome to join us. But they didn’t join us. They were confused … We need to be here. This is to show them that this land is Palestinian, but that this place is for everyone to come and be together, to live together, to hike and enjoy the open space.”

According to community activists, plans are in the works to eventually create a viable and vibrant mixed-use commons square in Ush Ghrab. Support has been garnered from the Beit Sahour municipality, which owns the land, and funds from international aid organizations have started to trickle in.

Hilu tells IPS that current blueprints include a small children’s hospital, a library, café, hotel, and art gallery. Already, across the rocky path from the outpost is a brand new children’s playground with new swings and a slide, built in hope that local families will be attracted to the revitalized Ush Ghrab area.

Last week, just prior to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s visit to the region, the Israeli Housing Ministry approved plans to construct another 40,000 housing units in settlement colony blocs all across the West Bank. Under international law, Israeli settlement colonies are illegal, and are in direct contravention of the US-backed Road Map. Yet, construction continues, as well as settler attacks against Palestinian villagers.

Palestinian news sources report severe instances of beatings, shootings, and hit-and-run vehicle attacks by Israeli settlers on a regular basis across the West Bank. In the last week, Israeli settlers torched Palestinian olive tree fields near Nablus in the north, destroying dozens of acres of agricultural land. Several Palestinians were seriously injured after another group of settlers used baseball bats and rifles to attack a family in a nearby village.

Back at Ush Ghrab, with the strong desert wind finally easing the heat of a blazing afternoon sun, architect Jesse Long of New York is documenting the project on videotape. Long works with Palestinian architects and urban planners to re-invent public space in Palestine, in a project aptly named Decolonizing Architecture. He tells IPS that a rebirth of this area could serve as a blueprint for the sustainable reclamation of land once Israeli settlements are dismantled in accordance with international law.

“We are working with the historical precedent of what happened in Gaza [after the 2005 settler withdrawal], where the settlements were destroyed and now the land is unusable. It’s just become wasteland,” Long tells IPS. “Our hope is to develop something so that Palestinians can have a way to reuse these spaces. Ush Ghrab is sort of a laboratory for us, because the Israeli military evacuated this space in 2006, and now the municipality of Beit Sahour is working with us to develop a master plan for how Palestinians can reuse this.

“If we can deter the settlers from taking over the top of this hill,” Long adds, “we hope to create a research center that will help us better understand how in the future we can help people to reuse other places that will be evacuated.”

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