Turkish Weekly, Tuesday , 15 July 2008
More than one hundred Israeli settlers, some of them armed, set up camp in an abandoned military base in the West Bank town of Beit Sahour on Monday night in what may be the establishment of an illegal settlement outpost.
“We’re here to build a Jewish city, with the help of God,” one teenage boy settler told a half-dozen journalists, as he scouted out his new campsite, camera in hand.
While Palestinian families gathered for a festival in a public park less than 100 meters away, Israelis from the nearby settlements of Efrat, Har Homa, Gush Eztion, and Tekoa arrived in a chartered bus and private cars. A handful of Israeli soldiers and civilian police looked on, blocking the road between the military base and the park, keeping journalists out of the military base.
The settlers, among them families, a Russian-speaking security guard and a contingent of teenage boys wearing kippas and shorts, had publicized the camp-out in advance on movement websites, part of what they view as an effort to reclaim the site for Jews and for Greater Israel.
Settler groups billed the sleepover as a one-night event, but the Israelis who came on Monday night had long-term designs in mind.
“This is Israeli territory and we want it to stay that way,” said a woman in sunglasses, who spoke in American-accented English and refused to give her name or other identifying information.
Asked whether they planned to build a settlement, a smiling man with an amber beard and glasses said, “Could be … if enough people want to live here. It’s a good location; it’s close to Jerusalem.” The man said he lives in Efrat settlement and originally hails from Canada.
As the sun set, two young women in long skirts prayed, their heads bobbing, facing Jerusalem. An Israeli flag was hoisted on top of a massive cubic water cistern. In the park below, the last night of the local festival was kicking off, Arabic pop blaring. More settlers arrived. One group piled out of a black SUV with a Confederate battle emblem, that symbol of racism in the American south, plastered to its front license plate holder.
The site, known as Ish Al-Grab, is a former Jordanian military base that was taken over by Israel after its 1967 occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The Israeli military evacuated the base in 2006, demolishing the cistern. The rest of the facility was looted by Palestinians, and went unused until this year. After the military evacuated the area, the Israeli authorities allowed the Beit Sahour municipality built the park. Ish Al-Grab is in Area C, designated by the Oslo Interim Agreement to be under full Israeli control until a final peace agreement compels Israel to withdraw completely from the West Bank.
In addition to the park on the slope just below the base, the area is designated for further development. In December 2007, CARE International announced it would donate 16 million US dollars to build a hospital on the hillside. In total 65 dunams (65,000 square meters) have been designated for the hospital and other development, except for the hilltop, the location of the abandoned base.
In May, settler groups began to return to the base, known as Shdema when the army was still present. The settlers organized a series of visits on Fridays, culminating last week in a tour titled “Shdema – a Jewish City.” The event was attended by settler movement notables such as MK Uri Uriel, who urged the settlers to take direct action and to defy the Israeli authorities. In Uriel’s words, even the apparatus of the occupation, such as the Civil Administration, as “representing the Arabs.” The settlers formed the “Committee for a Jewish Shdema” with representatives from Har Homa, Gush Etzion
Palestinian and international activists, meanwhile, began to mobilize against the settlers around the same time, repeatedly painting over the slogans the settlers painted on the walls of the base, and organizing outdoor games and other activities at the site, to reanimate it as a living part of the local community.
“The main strategy is to keep this place alive and reachable for Palestinians by our attendance here, without having any interaction with the settlers or the soldiers that can create violence. … [If violence took place] we would lose everything, and provide a big reason for the army to evacuate us from the place,” said Palestinian activist and educator Ala’ Hilu.
“We’re not here to provoke them [the settlers]. We’re here to send the message that this area is Palestinian, and the area is going to be used for humanitarian purposes, by following the plan of the municipality, which is to build a hospital. If we use violence, we would lose. … We just want to be here and to get Palestinians here,” Hilu added.
There were hundreds of Palestinians present on Monday. The vibe in the park was relaxed. A brief cultural show took place on a stage, with teenagers dancing off the traditional Palestinian dabke.
Sitting among the Palestinian families, Beit Sahour’s mayor, Hani Al-Hayek, said that based on his communication with the Israeli authorities, the plan for the hospital will go forward. He said he expected the Israeli military to evict the settlers by the morning.
Like the activists who first mobilized against the settlers, the mayor endorsed a life-affirming nonviolent strategy against the settlement. “This is our model of resistance, to come here and play and use the cafeteria. We will live here and stay here. The people are not afraid,” he said.
The activists had planned an all-night party (with music but no alcohol) to keep the settlers awake and keep locals and internationals present at the site. At 10:30pm the Beit Sahour municipality put the kibosh on the music, worried it would keep the park’s Palestinian neighbors awake. The settler-watchers hunkered down for the night.
15 July 2008