With a population of 17,000, Beit Ommar has grown into more of town than a village. But the tractors struggling up the main street and the herds of sheep wandering the alleys eating rubbish and causing mischief help it retain a certain rural charm.
Beit Ommar sits alongside Route 60, the main highway between Bethlehem and Hebron, which you can reach in about 30 minutes on a good day. Like much of the rural West Bank, the area depends on agriculture, with the village’s location in the West Bank’s central highlands particularly suitable for softer fruits such as grapes, peaches and plums.
That is where the normality ends, however. If you were to climb one of the nearby hills you would notice that Beit Ommar is encircled by no less than five illegal settlements: Karmei Tsur, Kfar Etzion, Migdal Oz, Bat Ayin and Allon Shevut. In Beit Ommar, water is regularly cut off and private wells are illegal. In the settlements, swimming pools and fountains are de rigeur.
Taking a stroll down to the entrance to the village, you could not fail to notice the tallest watchtower in the West Bank looming above you — a modern-day Panopticon from Foucault’s worst nightmares — cataloguing those who come and go. The sound of low-flying jets, helicopters and even drones is an ever-constant reminder of the destructive potential of the Israeli military, a continual source of fear. That’s the point.
This is the context in which Mohammed Shtayyeh, a senior member of Fatah’s central committee admits that, even if the United Nations approves the Palestinian Authority’s bid for statehood, it will not change daily life for Palestinians. “Things on the ground are not going to be different,” he said at a recent news conference (“PLO to seek full UN recognition,” Al Jazeera English, 14 September 2011).
Week of brutality
Bearing this in mind one should consider what has happened on the ground in Beit Ommar over one September week.
On 6 September, a group of 15 farmers selling fruit beside the main highway were attacked by Israeli soldiers, who proceeded to confiscate and destroy thousands of dollars worth of grapes, peaches and plums (“Israeli soldiers, police attack Beit Ommar fruit vendors,” Palestine Solidarity Project, 7 September).
Given its strategic location beside Route 60, Beit Ommar used to have the largest fruit market in the southern West Bank. Now however, the Israeli army has blocked the entrance to the market with boulders, dissuading shoppers. This is part of the ongoing campaign to destroy Beit Ommar’s economy, as local farmers are now reduced to attempting to sell what they can to passing traffic.
A few days later, on 10 September, a small sit-in protest of little more than ten persons beside the highway was savagely repressed. The group was sprayed with military-grade mace and two international activists were dragged away to be detained without charge (“Two arrested, pepper spray used as activists try to tear down fence in Beit Ommar,” Palestine Solidarity Project, 10 September) .
The next night at around 2am, the Israeli army invaded the village, abducting three young Palestinians while firing tear gas and concussion grenades into the streets and nearby houses before vanishing into the gloom (“Israeli army raid Beit Ommar, arrest three,” Palestine Solidarity Project, 12 September).
The arrest of young people towards the end of the school year is a common, vindictive practice in the West Bank, meaning that those detained will miss their final exams and therefore have to re-sit the year at great personal expense.
Early Monday morning on 12 September, settlers hacked down grape vines that were almost ready for harvesting on an area of almost 2,000 square meters. The owner of the land had a heart attack when he saw the destruction, according to the Palestine Solidarity Project (“Settlers destroy Beit Ommar farmer’s crops,” Palestine Solidarity Project, 12 September).
On Tuesday, at around 4am, soldiers came with bulldozers and destroyed two buildings in different parts of the town (“Israeli army demolish two buildings in Beit Ommar area,” Palestine Solidarity Project, 13 September).
Given that Beit Ommar found itself in Area C after the Oslo accords, it has remained under the total control of the Israeli military. Under the Oslo accords, which were signed by the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel in the mid-1990s, the West Bank was carved up in to areas A, B and C, the latter of which covers 60 percent of the West Bank with a population of approximately 150,000. Large areas around the village have been arbitrarily closed to agriculture and building.
Waiting for Godot
Even these relatively minor events depict a scene of continual violence being perpetrated against the civilian population, a roll-call of yet another quiet horror repeated across the West Bank for decades. On occasions, there are discussions of the United Nations’ session on recognition of a Palestinian state and what might result from this.
Mousa Abu Maria, a leader of the Beit Ommar-based National Committee Against the Walls and Settlements and co-founder of the Palestine Solidarity Project, describes how in the past few years Beit Ommar has “returned to its roots,” a path of nonviolent resistance, reminiscent of the first Palestinian intifada.
Abu Maria has spent nearly seven of the past ten years in prison, most recently for 14 months under “administrative detention” without being charged with a crime or having evidence presented against him.
Now, each Saturday, Abu Maria, alongside other members of Beit Ommar’s popular committee, leads the demonstrations which place alongside the illegal settlement of Karmei Tsur. The number of protesters is currently in the dozens, but as they have grown, so too has the violence of the Israeli response.
After a recent demonstration had been dispersed, and soldiers were pursuing Abu Maria and two others, live ammunition was fired at them. The bullets sailed over their heads. At the same demonstration, Abu Maria’s brother, Yousef, was arrested and brutally beaten (“Yousef Abu Maria brutally beaten as live ammunition used at Beit Ommar demonstration,” Palestine Solidarity Project, 20 August 2011).
What happens on 21 September, and afterwards, is anyone’s guess. Whatever happens at the UN, recognition of a state or otherwise, it seems that the violence of Israel’s occupation will continue. But so too will the popular resistance.
David Warren is a doctoral candidate at the University of Manchester who is currently writing his thesis on the reform of contemporary Islamic jurisprudence throughout the twentieth century. He is newly on Twitter @Ya_Daoud.