Israelis Caught Dozing

Jan 09, 2003 10:46 PM EST

BEIT SAHOUR, West Bank - Issa Rishmawi woke up one morning to discover Israeli bulldozers plowing a road through his field.

He hadn't seen it or heard it because his fields are on the outskirts of Beit Sahour, just under the bluff where Latin Catholics say the shepherds heard the angels sing.

These ancient towns, Beit Sahour and Bethlehem, are side-by-side, so close that only a local can tell where one ends and the other begins.

There is no singing in these fields now.

Here the only sound is that of bulldozers churning up dirt to cut the first phase of the Israeli government's security wall, now under construction on the West Bank. It will run north from Bethlehem, swallowing up land from an estimated 80 Palestinian towns.

The wall, which will cost tens of millions of dollars to build, will be supplemented by electric fences, trenches, security cameras and electronic sensors, and will be patrolled regularly by security personnel. It is annexing Palestinian land where it will - not following at all the invisible "Green Line" that ostensibly separates Israel from Palestine under international law.

A number of human-rights groups, including the Israeli organization called B'Tselem, are busily documenting the Israeli violations.

A dirt path marks the route of an Israeli security wall that may soon enclose a site where officials of Beit Sahour once hoped to develop an industrial park.

That's why Rishmawi isn't hurrying to the town line to see what has been taken.

He's afraid of the Israeli soldiers who for the past two years have been almost omnipresent, sweeping into Beit Sahour no fewer than six times.

Since a November suicide bombing in Jerusalem, an Israeli curfew has kept the town's 30,000 residents under house arrest, excepting only a cursory Christmastime respite. The people of Beit Sahour have been unable to leave their homes, take a walk, shop or go to work. Only once in a while, on no discernable schedule, is the curfew lifted for a few hours at a time.

Rishmawi has heard "through the grapevine" that the bulldozers changed their direction and gouged their way onto a neighbor's property with a less severe slope. But he's still out of luck. He can't plant beans or pluck fruits from the almond and olive trees on his plot because no one is permitted to use land within 75 meters of any part of the wall.

"So it means I can't even go to the land," he says with a shrug. "I can't use it."

Rishmawi claims he has never received a notice, letter, court order, cash settlement offer, nothing at all, from the Israeli government that is cutting an ugly swath through his land.

Now and then he gets a phone call from a fellow Sahourian, updating him on the bulldozers' wanderings.

Although Rishmawi doesn't make his living farming (he's president of the Palestinian Tennis Association), he observes that he and his neighbors in Beit Sahour enjoy growing olives and almonds on their own land; they like tilling their own soil.

"It gives you a special feeling," he says, explaining about the town's long history of olive-growing and shepherding.

The city administration in Beit Sahour was planning to file suit in the matter, but that case appears to have been trumped by a bigger problem: The Israeli army has ordered the demolitions of eight apartment buildings, and rejected two appeals in military courts. So the people whose land has been bulldozed have been put on hold while officials defend the 40 Palestinian families whose apartments are to be destroyed.

The demolition case is to be argued before the High Court of Justice, the Israeli equivalent of the U.S. Supreme Court, on Feb. 21, according to Jowad Boulus, the attorney representing Beit Sahour.

Danny Zaidman, an American-born Israeli attorney, says he has argued lots of cases like this one - and lost the vast majority of them.

At the moment Zaidman is representing a family on the other end of Bethlehem that is living in a house that seems likely to fall on the Israeli side of the wall.

There, on the northern edge of Bethlehem - where the road to Jerusalem passes the tomb traditionally said to be that of the Hebrew matriarch Rachel - no construction has begun. Yet. The tomb itself is heavily fortified. It is used for military operations. The Jerusalem road is blocked off with concrete barriers, forcing drivers to use a smaller road to get to the city.

The Israeli government says without apology that it intends to annex the holy site to Jerusalem, stretching the wall, and the borders of Jerusalem, until they actually reach inside the current city boundary of Bethlehem.

"It is not going to be possible to stop these seizure orders," Zaidman says with the air of someone who has been around that block before. "You can, perhaps, change it, to minimize the damage. You can take (the army) on in the places where they deviate from the map. You can engage the military authorities to move the road 100 yards this way or that, to save this or that guy.

"But it is rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. There is zero chance of stopping this. It is happening, and it is going to happen.

"But people (outside of the West Bank) do not understand the severity of what's happening (in terms of the human) casualties."

Staff members at the Applied Research Institute-Jerusalem (ARIJ), whose office is actually in Bethlehem, butting up against the contested property at the town's northern edge, say they do understand. And they have been trying to say so in as concise a way as possible on their Internet site,, but have provoked little response around the globe.

ARIJ monitors changes in the West Bank's environment, geography and demographics. The wall's construction promises to have profound effects in all three areas.

"The problem that nobody wanted to (hear about) is going to happen," Jad Isaac says. "Now everybody is seeing it."

To Isaac and his staff, what is happening in Beit Sahour is just an instance of what is happening all over the West Bank - a land-grab, plain and simple. The Israelis, he says, are taking as much uninhabited land from the Palestinians as they can. The security wall is just one more instrument for accomplishing it.

In the past two years alone, as reflected in the maps made by ARIJ, Israelis have expanded 45 settlements on the West Bank, started 24 new ones and established 113 new outposts - all clearly forbidden by international law. The Geneva Conventions specify that occupying nations may not settle its citizens on territory held by military force. Yet, according to Isaac, such outposts are easily begun and, once begun, hard to uproot. A site is settled by people in portable trailers and replaced gradually with permanent housing.

"One of the driving forces of this wall is the migration that's taking place," Isaac says. "All of the areas taken are open space. The Israelis are targeting Palestinian land, not populated areas. It is a colonization scheme, loud and clear."

To Beit Sahour's mayor, Fuad Kokaly, this is all very bad news. He's a forward-looking 40-year-old who would like to think that his three young sons may one day raise families in Beit Sahour. The West Bank town has a well-educated, middle-class Christian majority, and it features in regional folklore because it has an essential tie to Bethlehem: It is the site of the shepherd's fields.

From the flat roof of the Kokaly house, it is easy to see how the hillsides are being gobbled up. A huge settlement, Har Homa, crowns a ridge to the left. To the right there are security roads (tracing the wall's eventual path) that slice their way through olive groves. Over the ridge lies fields like Rishmawi's. And the apartment complex with a demolition order hanging over it.

When he was a child, Kokaly says, the hill where the settlement now stands was one of the few bits of green space in this rocky terrain.

"I always look to that place and feel very sad," he says. "They are stealing our land, and we can't do anything.They are creating more and more reason for conflict. My children will be in conflict with them in the future because they are taking all the land. The settlers will be in big cities and we will be in small villages, surrounded by these roads that we are forbidden to build around. Palestinians will never forget that."

Kokaly served time in an Israeli jail during the Intifada of 20 years ago, a fact that wins him some respect.

Beit Sahour has pursued industrial development. It has a few factories, although most of them are in various stages of decline because of the continual curfews and work stoppages.

In the early 1990s, the town had a verbal agreement with the Israeli government for the creation of an industrial park on the outskirts of town; but then the Oslo peace agreement was signed, giving the Israelis security control of the area. The joint Israeli-Palestinian committee that was to sign off on the site never got around to it. When the current Intifada started, two years ago, many normal governmental processes came to a screeching halt.

Now the security wall is slicing up much of the land previously set aside for industrial growth.

"The Israelis do not want us to create jobs here," Kokaly says. "They want us for cheap labor. For 30 years of occupation, they did not want us to develop, to depend on ourselves."

So, very little land is left for city planning. The land to the north is occupied by Bedouin groups.

The churches - especially the Greek Orthodox Church - own huge tracts of land, including the acreage that surrounds the shepherds' fields. Making the holy sites a mixed blessing.

According to Kokaly, many farmers deeded property over to the churches during Turkish rule, to avoid being taxed on their lands. Over the years, through death and immigration, the properties accrued to the churches. The disputed apartment complex is the outcome of what Kokaly calls "hard negotiations" with the Orthodox Church. The project was launched in 1995 and initially was meant to include 120 units for Beit Sahour families. A community association is renting property from the Orthodox on a lease that is to run for nearly a century. Some families are already living there.

Passing the site in a city truck, Kokaly waves at the olive groves scattered over the hillsides, all owned by the Greek Orthodox.

"The land here is not holy," he says. "What is holy is the people, not the land. It is a problem. We can't expand. The numbers in our population mustn't increase. So, in 15 years, we'll still be the same. And what will happen?

"Immigration. Immigration. Immigration."

That's the last thing Kokaly and other Sahourians want.

"Our children will not have land to build, farm or develop, pushing people into voluntary immigration. This is Israeli policy.

If the middle-class Christian population is pushed out, Kokaly says, the less-educated and impoverished Palestinians who stay behind will be easier to control.

The subtext in the housing-complex debate is this fear of a future scarcity of housing.

The army says the city ought to have obtained a permit before beginning construction of the apartment complex. Boulos will argue before the Israeli high court that it needed no such permit because Israel's security interest does not supersede a municipality's right to license buildings under its jurisdiction.

This is the court of last appeal.

It is not the first case in which Beit Sahour has found itself at odds with the Israeli government. In 1988, the town withheld its taxes from the government to protest the occupation, borrowing the slogan from the Boston Tea Party: "No taxation without representation."

In that case, a curfew was imposed for 45 days. There were arrests, raids, confiscations of property. But nothing shook loose much of the tax money.

Now the citizens of Beit Sahour pay their taxes to the Palestinian Authority.

"The money (the Israeli government) wants us to pay now," Rishmawi says, referring to the back taxes, "we'd have to sell our houses - our children. And we still wouldn't have enough."

But that's an old problem. There is a more urgent one now: the earth-moving equipment of the Israelis. "The bulldozers, the caterpillars, are working creating that wall, the fence, the trench, another fence, another trench," Isaac says. "Even Christmas Eve, the bulldozers were working here, expanding the fence.

"They're working day and night."

By Albert H. Lee
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