FACTS on the ground—Israel has plenty of these. In fact, the state of Israel seems to exist only to build facts on the ground, then flaunt them. This was evident the day I arrived in Tel Aviv and made my way to Occupied Ramallah. Over the days that followed, I saw and heard more of these facts in Nablus, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Hebron; and in the villages between these cities, some of them nestling in a curve of hills.
The facts are solid. It is hard to argue with facts made of steel, concrete or stone. The Israeli settlements sit on hilltops, kings of all they survey. They are easy to identify—the prefabricated units look alike. And there are so many of them, whichever window I look out of, whichever road I take, whichever hill I climb or valley I go down, that I feel I am inside the Matrix. These units are cloning themselves like Mr Smith. The settlements eat up the land, bite after large bite. They cut into and gouge out hills; they dislocate villages that have been there as long as people can remember. They steal springs, uproot venerable olive trees. They demolish houses. They destroy the lives of the people who live there, their work, their community life, their memories of the past, their hopes for the future.
I saw these facts over and over again. Beit El, Ariel, Benyamin, Har Gilo, Alkana, Ma’ale Adumin, Ma’ale Lavona, more Ma’ales than I can remember—settlements with judaised names of old places, often referring to their hilltop location.
In January 2013, Al-Akhbar summed up data collected by the Israeli advocacy group Peace Now on the record level of settlement expansion in the last 10 years. Benjamin Netanyahu’s government issued 3,148 tenders in 2012, a record for a single year. The umbrella committee of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, the Yesha council, welcomed Peace Now’s findings, saying, “We hope that in the years following construction data will be twice as much.”
This record and reaction have to be digested along with three facts. One, international law rules settlements in occupied territory illegal; they constitute war crimes. Two, in November 2012, the United Nations voted, by more than a two-thirds majority, to recognise Palestine. Three, one month later, in one week alone, Netanyahu’s government pushed plans for 11,000 homes beyond the Green Line which marked Israel’s 1967 border. Nearly as many settler homes were approved as in the previous 10 years combined. Building plans include the last usable patch of Palestinian land east of Jerusalem, a parcel known as E1. In effect, this would bifurcate the West Bank, isolate East Jerusalem from the Palestinian territories, and enable the Israeli project of judaising Jerusalem.
Not all the settlements need the expanse of hills. In Jerusalem, the strategy is to take over the city house by house. In East Jerusalem, I saw, for the first time, what rooftop colonisation looks like. If the Palestinians in the building resist intimidation or money, the Israeli settler can take over the rooftop with a prefab house, fly an Israeli flag like a signpost, and commute across rooftops made secure with Israeli guard-cabins and surveillance cameras. The rooftops have been fixed, a friend from Jerusalem told me wryly, so the settlers can walk or cycle across the rooftops “without having to see an Arab”.
In Hebron, the settlement tactic, I was told, is “slicing”. I saw the old market, the commercial heart of Hebron, in shreds. The functioning part is covered with netting; the settlers above throw their refuse on this net. To one side of the market, I looked up and saw some settler children playing. One of them, a little girl with unruly curls, saw me looking. Before my lips could stretch into a smile, she turned around, bent over, pointed at her bottom mockingly. Contempt seeps easily into the cement and the blood of the settlements, even the youngest of blood.
In the ghost-town part of Hebron Market, three Palestinian children sat bent over their laptops, one modem among them. I climbed the pitch-dark stairway to the houses above a sealed shop. The terrace opened onto a congested world of rooftops, cheek by jowl. I was shown the holes on the silvery water tank on the terrace; I was told they were made by the settler family next door. I was told how easy it is for settlers to walk from one rooftop to another, harass residents.
Hilltops, rooftops, markets, water, land and more land have been grabbed. Israel is the only nuclear power in the region. It has the fourth strongest army in the world. It has the consistent backing of the pre-eminent military power, the United States. But still, the settlements and settlers have to be protected . Security is the most important word in Israel. So the next set of hard facts on the ground: checkpoints, watchtowers, barricades; electrified fences; loops of barbed wire; army-only roads; an entire network of roads connecting settlements, to keep settlers safe from the Palestinians who have to use bypasses, tunnels, circuitous routes that turn a 15-minute trip to an hour’s bumpy ride. And the Wall: a “separation barrier” now cuts up the West Bank, walls in more land for Israel, walls in more people in Palestine.
If these are Israel’s facts on the ground, here are some of Palestine’s facts on the ground. Except these facts live and breathe because they are people on the ground. Abu Nidal. Omar. Abu Jamal. Muneer. Among many others.
Abu Nidal is actually Hani Amer. But his eldest son is called Nidal, or struggle; so he is Abu, father of, Nidal. His wife is Umm Nidal. (I came across any number of Abu Nidals and Umm Nidals.) Our Abu Nidal lives in a village called Masha, except that his house is separated from the village, and the Israeli settlement nearby, by four layers of “security”. One of them is an electrified fence. Even in a land where barbed wire is ubiquitous, this is an eloquent sight. This is what occupation looks like. Alongside a grey concrete wall and a wire fence, there is a small opening—a gate to which Abu Jamal has the key. This was not always so; he tells his visitors of the time his son, then three years old, got stuck outside until late at night. Abu Jamal’s family was helpless, locked in.
At the entrance of this gate, by a painted flag, there is a declaration in graffiti: this is neither Israel, says Abu Nidal, nor Palestine, nor no-man’s-land. It’s his. “Our dignity comes from this land,” he says. Abu Nidal’s father and grandfather were farmers.
He used to be allowed to go through the Alkana settlement to his land. The permit was for three months, but there was always a run around. He never knew if it would work for three months, whether he would get it again. He wasted time and money; he felt assaulted, he says. Anyway, working the land is no longer profitable.
One afternoon, he came home to find a bulldozer at work. The workers said they were building a security fence.
Abu Nidal told them: “I will take this rock and smash your heads.” As long as the international peace solidarity activists were there, things were okay, he says. When they were not there, the workers came back, finished the wall in a day. Part of his house was demolished. Abu Nidal refused the compensation offered for his house and land.
The barriers and fences enclose his house anyway. The actual bit of wall is only there to block his view of the valley. The wall stands ugly and grey, but there is a bird painted on it, wings open in flight. “I will resist both the Israelis and the P.A. [Palestinian Authority],” he says.
Khalid, or Abu Jamal, lives in Lubban, a village between Ramallah and Nablus. Except his house and what remains of his fields, are cut off from the village. The settlement of Ma’ale Livona above is a daily threat to his family.
The house is an old one. When I admire the door, he tells me it is a replacement. The old door was beautiful but the settlers took it away. The settlers want the house and the land around it for a specific reason. To one side of the house is a small tank by what used to be a spring and a well. Many Israelis believe that Moses once washed himself in this tank. “They badger me to give them the house and tank because they think it is their history,” Abu Jamal says. “I said I would if they gave us Jerusalem.”
The settlers have not given up. Once, when Abu Jamal was not home, they came down, beat up his young sons. His wife was stuck alone inside the house not knowing what to do.
Abu Jamal has not given up either. He brings out papers to the land and house, neat coloured maps he must have shown many times before. He blocks the driveway with stones. He takes down the sign that this is a resort stop for Israelis every time it is put up. He has emptied the alleged Moses tank. He grows vegetables behind his house, he cultivates what remains of his land; volunteers from Palestinian and international groups often help him do this. I admire a tree heavy with lemons. He brings us juicy pears, fat lemons, thick and succulent mint as parting presents.
Deep in the old market in Hebron, past the stores sealed with iron, there is a checkpoint. Emerging from this dark checkpoint into the sunlight, the famous Ibrahami Mosque is to the left, the market to the right. Except this is a ghost market, and young Israeli guards man entry to it. The road is divided; the main thoroughfare is for settlers, leaving a narrow strip for Palestinians. This is Shuhada Street, the main street of the market. Muneer runs a shop here. Or he used to, as did his father before him. Shuhada Street was closed in 2000 and is now under the Border Security Force.
Muneer has to check with the guards before his family or friends can visit. As for customers—“I needed three people to run a shop before,” he says. “Now I can run all the six open shops here myself. But I will stay. I will try to open the shop every day.” He speaks quietly, with great dignity, this man.
Past Muneer’s shop, the streets are deserted. I see a childish face peeping out at me from a balcony enclosed like a cage. We reach a turning with a road sign to stop. The young Palestinians with me say they cannot go beyond that point, but I could. I turn back.
Omar lives in Walajeh, a hilly village outside Bethlehem that has been shrinking since 1948. Standing before his house, Omar indicates a hill across the Green Line: that was the village, he says, and everyone was expelled in 1948. Most went to refugee camps. Some moved to the hill we are standing on. Parts of this hill, the new Walajeh, were confiscated in 1967.
Then, in 2006, Omar saw the Nakba (catastrophe) for the third time. The Wall came to Walajeh. “They used 2,000 tonnes of dynamite building the wall,” says Omar. “They must have hoped my house would fall.” Looking at the Wall, it seems to grow more forbidding by the minute. When the Wall is done with Walajeh, it will encircle the village, and there will be a gate under army control. Two per cent of the village land will be left to the villagers.
The house that Omar refuses to leave will be surrounded on all sides with an electric fence five metres away. Cameras will monitor the house. The only exit, a tunnel made just for this house, is already there. It is hard to take in this one-house apartheid tunnel built at considerable cost sitting before me.
Omar’s work permit was revoked at the checkpoint when he was on his way home from work. The reason? Security. How will he live? “We are farmers,” he says. “We can live simply, on small gardens.” He adds, “But I want everyone in the world to know this”—he indicates the Wall, the tunnel, the plan of the electric fence looming before him. “This is the reality of occupation. Of colonisation.”