Village remains under siege weeks after settlement murders

Israeli soldiers stop a Palestinian driver on the outskirts of Awarta village, 22 March. (Jafar Ashtiyeh/AFP)

Awarta is a poor, sprawling village in the northern occupied West Bank. Surrounded by land that is now a vivid green from the winter rains, trails of cactus plants grow between the houses of the village. Two weeks ago, however, Israel designated Awarta a closed military zone, sealing the village off from the outside world for five days. During this time, no ambulances, groceries or fresh produce were permitted in, and no one was allowed to leave to work or even visit the hospital. For these five days, Awarta was inaccessible to any media; if residents snapped a photo, their phones and cameras would be confiscated immediately.

Awarta was subjected to this siege because of the murder of five members of the Fogel family in the neighboring illegal settlement outpost, Itamar. Under the guise of an investigation, Israel applied this severe punishment to the entire village though the identity of the perpetrator of the attack is unknown.

Israel’s use of collective punishment in the occupied West Bank and Gaza — which is prohibited under international law — dates to the beginning of the occupation after the June 1967 War and was originally used by the British army during the mandate era (1922-1948). The use of such tactics suggests an intention other than the pursuit of justice for the Fogel family.

While no media was able to witness the closure while it was in place, after the lockdown was lifted the stories of what the Israeli military unleashed on the village began to emerge.

Gesturing desperately, Samira Zaqah, a 70-year-old woman who has lived in Awarta her whole life, displayed her bruises from the soldiers’ beatings. Zaqah also had a red mark the size of a quarter near her elbow, where a soldier had shoved her with the muzzle of his gun. But what Zaqah spent at length describing were not her own wounds, which on the sturdy yet fragile woman were gruesome to see, but how the soldiers beat her grandson, Mahmoud Zaqah.

“First they blindfolded me so that I wouldn’t see what they did to him,” Zaqah said.

Mahmoud is 27 years old and his brother has been in an Israeli prison for 11 years. According to Zaqah, after the soldiers beat Mahmoud to the point that he needed urgent medical attention, the family called the Palestinian Authority to request that an ambulance be sent to Awarta. However, the Israeli military did not allow any ambulances into the village until they lifted the five-day closure.

While Awarta technically lies in Area “B” of the West Bank (meaning that the PA has shared security coordination with Israel), once the village was deemed a security threat the Israeli military assumed full authority. Under the Oslo accords, the occupied West Bank is divided into three areas. The PA has limited autonomy in Area “A,” while Israel is solely responsible for administering Area “C,” which accounts for 60 percent of the occupied West Bank, including the settlements. As demonstrated in Awarta, the differences between the three areas are negligible as Israel has authority over the entire territory.

During the closure everyone in the village was confined to their homes — even peering out the window could elicit the firing of a deafening sound bomb. Soldiers let loose dogs on houses they searched, defiling the homes of the entirely Muslim community. Most businesses, like the small market owned by Ahmed Abu Jawwal, were ordered closed by Israeli soldiers during the curfew.

Less than a week after the Israeli army lifted the first closure, they returned on 22 March to impose another curfew that kept residents in their homes from 4am to 6pm, again preventing residents from working. Since the second curfew ended, troops have returned for spontaneous searches. On 6 April, Israeli police and soldiers entered Awarta, arresting 200 residents, 100 of whom were women. After bringing those arrested to the Huwwara military base to take saliva samples, fingerprints and photos, nearly all returned to Awarta by 8:00am the next day. Residents continue to brace themselves for further raids and arrests.

The Qarawiq family’s living room after it was ransacked by Israeli soldiers. (ST McNeil)

Terrified population

This is not Awarta’s introduction to the brutal fist of Israel’s occupation. On 21 March 2010, two members of the Qarawiq family — Salah, 18, and Muhammad, 19 — were killed while working their farmland.

Regularly, settlers from Itamar enter Awarta’s surrounding fields and olive groves, preventing villagers from feeling safe while working on their land.

“It is not safe for man, child or donkey to go into the olive groves,” Zaqah said. Her husband, son and grandson all earn their income from the town’s land.

Since the closure, many are not willing to come forth to tell their stories. One man, who had just been released from detention, refused to speak to reporters out of fear.

It’s about control

To label what has occurred in Awarta simply as collective punishment would be misleading. The town is not being punished for the crime of one of its residents, as it is entirely unclear who committed the savage killing of the Fogel family.

“There is no evidence that it’s a Palestinian, let alone a Palestinian from that village,” said Valentina Azarov, a lawyer from the Palestinian human rights organization Al-Haq.

Azarov added “If the Israeli military was carrying out an investigation — as it is within their rights to do — they have in any case violated basic international humanitarian law.”

Amongst the tactics Israel is using against the village are mass and baseless arrests — approximately forty residents are still sitting in Israeli detention — and nearly every family has been subjected to similar experiences as the Zaqah household. Residents have also been subjected to unlawful interrogation measures.

“This is like the barbaric invasions. These are the types of things that the laws of war were meant to eradicate — indiscriminate attacks against civilians that cause mental and physical suffering,” Azarov said.

The provision in the Fourth Geneva Convention that prohibits any form of collective punishment by an occupying power also specifies that the occupier may not employ any measures of intimidation that terrorize a population and suppress resistance.

Notably, the Geneva Convention explains this stipulation as based on the principle of human rights as well as on the rationale of effective military operations: ferocious military incursions tend to exacerbate a population’s desire to resist.

As the Geneva Convention attests, such forms of collective punishment are counterproductive to achieving genuine security. For Azarov this reveals the punitive rather than investigative purpose of the policy. “To one extent these measures are punitive because there is no security rationale to treat an investigation in this way,” she said.

Azarov added “And if they are punitive, they are prohibited by international humanitarian law because they are subjecting the entire village to groundless measures.”

Yet punishing a village, a family or an entire apartment complex because one individual is under suspicion is not only the norm for Israel, it is sanctioned by the Israeli high court.

In 2009, a high court decision affirmed that Israel’s policies of demolishing homes of individuals suspected of “terrorism” were a legitimate means of deterrence and therefore did not qualify as punitive (or collective punishment) measures.

This form of punishment (as international law sees it) and deterrence (as Israel sees it) is perhaps best understood as fulfilling a third function: to maintain a grip of control over a population.

“If you try to relate this to other military incursions, such as Operation Cast Lead [Israel’s 2008-09 assault on Gaza] or even the ‘War on Terror,’ it’s the same type of rationale: to profile and label certain groups as targetable,” said Azarov.

Israel’s control over the occupied West Bank is not only asserted through spreading settlement blocs, sprouting outposts and permitting the actions of roving vigilante settlers. Collective punishment is one more manifestation of Israeli apartheid.

Huda Qawariq, 43, the mother of the slain boys, has had nine visits from the Israeli army since the first closure. Standing in front of a room ransacked during the latest wave of mass arrests on 6 April, Qawariq said “The army has dogs and guns, but we have God.”

Charlotte Silver is a journalist based in the West Bank. She can be reached at charlottesilver A T gmail D O T com.