Israel lays Gaza-like siege on West Bank village

An Israeli army watchtower overlooks a locked metal gate blocking the main entrance to the village of Beit Ommar, 29 March 2011. (Nora Barrows-Friedman)

Since 24 March, Israeli forces have sealed the southern occupied West Bank village of Beit Ommar for an indefinite amount of time as soldiers continue to arrest young Palestinian residents and hold them in Israeli detention centers.

In a move akin to the four-year-long economic blockade against the occupied Gaza Strip, Israeli soldiers have closed the six entrances to the village of 17,000 inhabitants and have imposed a widespread prohibition policy against all major imports and exports from the village — including gasoline, produce, raw industrial materials and basic supplies. Ambulances have also been prevented from entering or exiting the village.

The closures and arrests followed a brazen attack by an Israeli settler on a funeral procession on 21 March.

The settler stopped his car on Route 60 (the highway linking Jerusalem with Hebron-area settlements) as the crowd of mourners moved towards the village cemetery, and started firing indiscriminately with live ammunition, injuring two Palestinian men, the Beit Ommar-based Palestine Solidarity Project (PSP) reported.

“The settler who shot the two men was not arrested,” PSP stated (“Two Palestinians Injured as Settler Opens Fire on Funeral Procession in Beit Ommar,” 21 March 2011).

“Israeli forces arrived on the scene and used sound bombs and tear gas to disperse the gathered crowd as medical teams evacuated the wounded,” the report added.

The attack came amidst a widespread spate of settler violence against Palestinians throughout the occupied West Bank including East Jerusalem.

Settler attacks have continued this week. The Palestine News Network reported that Israeli settlers attacked Palestinians in Ramallah, Jenin and Hebron on 30 and 31 March (“Daily Roundup: Settler Attacks in Ramallah, Jenin; Three-year-old Hit by Settler Car; Four Arrested,” 31 March 2011).

Following the settler attack against the funeral procession, Israeli forces closed the main entrance to Beit Ommar, as special forces invaded the village and shot tear gas and rubber-coated steel bullets before arresting three Palestinian residents, PSP reported on 25 March (“Three Beit Ommar Residents Arrested As Israeli Forces Close Village Streets”).

The next day, all six entrances to the village were shut, and continue to remain closed. Beit Ommar residents and international solidarity activists engaged in protests against the closures and collective punishment on 26 March.

On the evening of 27 March, fifteen young Palestinians were arrested and remain in detention at the military base in nearby Gush Etzion settlement. Of those fifteen, seven are under 18 years old. The military gave no reason for their arrests and detentions, PSP stated.

Hours later, PSP reported, Israeli soldiers “fired tear gas and rubber bullets at villagers attempting to pass the road blocks on foot to board the taxis and buses waiting below. The soldiers refused to let anyone exit Beit Ommar until after their departure roughly an hour and a half later” (“15 Beit Ommar Residents Arrested as Closures, Army Harassment, Continue,” 28 March 2011).

Yousef Abu Maria, coordinator of the Center for Freedom and Justice in Beit Ommar (CFJ), told The Electronic Intifada that the indefinite closures imposed on the village have already created an economic crisis for Beit Ommar’s 17,000 residents during the last week.

“The industrial factories in Beit Ommar are effectively closed,” Abu Maria said. “There haven’t been any imported raw materials from the outside. And the gas station will close soon, because there isn’t enough gas. Essential products are hard to obtain right now in the village.”

Ahmed Oudeh of the PSP and the CFJ told The Electronic Intifada that farmers in the village who depend on exporting their produce to nearby cities and towns are facing a dire financial situation if the closure remains in place. Additionally, pregnant women and people needing medical attention are not able to reach the hospital, as the policy affects ambulance access to and from the village.

The Electronic Intifada witnessed a Palestinian Red Crescent Society ambulance being turned away at the front gate of Beit Ommar, forced by Israeli soldiers to find a rural route out of the village. Oudeh said that it could take up to an hour and a half to get back to the hospital in Hebron.

It is against international law — as outlined in the Fourth Geneva Convention — for the Israeli military to prevent ambulances from accessing or transporting persons needing medical attention.

Abu Maria further explained that schoolteachers working in the village are having difficulties getting to and from Beit Ommar, since the roads are sealed and public buses and taxis are being turned away by the soldiers at the gates.

“Laborers who work in Hebron or nearby in Saffa village are also being directly affected,” Abu Maria added. “They can’t drive their cars out of the village or back inside, and many don’t have enough money to pay for taxi services to and from work. [These policies are] a collective punishment for the people in Beit Ommar.”

Meanwhile, a new section of the Efrat settlement colony on the other side of Route 60 is being built, according to a new map issued by the Israeli military and obtained by the CFJ. Beit Ommar is surrounded by several illegal settlements, parts of the Gush Etzion settlement bloc in the southern West Bank.

Abu Maria said that the Israeli military is planning to erect a fence around the village, and will move the main entrance gate deeper inside Beit Ommar to protect settlers on the road. But the main purpose of the current closures and the fence is to “take more land and expand the settlements,” he said.

Beit Ommar resident Naama Hassan Sleibi, 65, told The Electronic Intifada that she and her husband have been farmers their whole lives but continue to lose their land as the nearby Karmei Tsur settlement expands. “We have empty land with no produce,” she said. “[The expansion of the settlements] is a huge loss for farmers.”

For years, Beit Ommar’s residents have been engaged in unwavering actions of civil disobedience against the encroaching settlements and land confiscation policies. Abu Maria explained that part of Israel’s intention to impose the closures and control movement of the villagers is to break the steadfast resistance inside Beit Ommar.

“In [the nearby village of] Saffa, next to the Bat Ayn settlement, we are planting olive trees,” he said. “The Israeli military said we can’t plant there, but we’re going to keep doing it anyway. They won’t succeed in stopping us.”

As the closures continue to paralyze people’s lives across a broad spectrum, Sleibi said that she’s most worried most about the youth of Beit Ommar. “[The Israeli soldiers] come and arrest young people all the time,” she said.

Sleibi needed to go to the hospital in Hebron several days ago for routine medical needs but was turned back by Israeli soldiers. “We can’t do anything,” she said. “The settler attacked the funeral, but the people of Beit Ommar pay the price.”

Nora Barrows-Friedman is an award-winning independent journalist, writing for The Electronic Intifada, Inter Press Service, Al-Jazeera, Truthout and other outlets. She regularly reports from Palestine.