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Facts on the ground

When Israeli politicians and diplomats leave for Annapolis later this month, they will be taking with them many more bargaining chips than the last time they participated in the peace charade. In fact, with every passing year of the occupation, Israel acquires a greater stockpile of ready-to-make “painful concessions”, from settler “outposts” and town-sized colonies, to Jewish-only roads and the Separation Wall.

Israel’s policy of creating “facts on the ground” in the Occupied Territories since 1967 has often been based on the assumption that should the state eventually be forced into some kind of negotiated “compromise”, the more land that has already been colonised then the more crumbs there are to toss from the table. The policy also exemplifies Israel’s strategic essence: more land, fewer Arabs.

But while it is Israel’s “facts on the ground” that are discussed by analysts and bartered over by the high-level negotiators, the Palestinians are also (re)creating their own “facts” as they resist the occupation. It is an expression of the Arabic word “sumud”, or steadfastness; the insistence that – despite the odds – they will remain. Palestinians confront the Zionist desire for their absence or meek acquiescence with a counter-commitment to a dynamic presence and active refusal.

One such example is Daher’s Vineyard, a piece of farmland in the West Bank which the Nassars, a family from Bethlehem, have owned since 1916. In recent times, they have developed their land in order to establish the Tent of Nations project. The ongoing goals of the initiative include educating local children from the refugee camps about rural Palestine, hosting young people for camps and activities such as open-air theatre, and acting as a forum for internationals and Palestinians to get to know each other.

But there is a subtext to this furious activity. One of the main tactics that Israel has used to confiscate land in the OT is the selective application of land legislation dating back as far as the Ottoman Empire. Should a particular piece of land be considered “uncultivated” – even if this is due to its owners having been denied access – then “ownership” reverts to the occupying Israeli state.

With the Oslo Accords the West Bank was divided up into Areas A, B and C – the latter remaining under direct Israeli civil and military control. Palestinian land in Area C, such as the Nassar’s farm, has thus been particularly susceptible to Israeli colonisation, since the occupation army enjoys a freer hand to seize control of land both physically and bureaucratically.

Looking west from the vineyard you see the small Palestinian village of Nahalin down in the valley, separated by a few hundred yards from the large Jewish colony of Beitar Illit. One of the fastest growing colonies, Beitar Illit stretches out in rows of brand new red-roofed houses. To the east, and occupying the highest vantage point, is the smaller colony of Neve Daniel. Caught in the web of the Gush Etzion colony “bloc” is this “pocket of resistance“, whose vulnerability diminishes with every olive tree planted.

The Nassars have had to resist the twin faces of the occupation in their determination to remain. While in the courts, the Israeli military seeks to confiscate their land with the selective application of labyrinthine land laws, settlers from Neve Daniel have sometimes given up waiting and come to seize the land themselves. The Nassars are fortunate; international well-wishers have provided funds to battle in the court, while their own bodies have defied the bulldozers.

The olive tree is significant for many Palestinian communities, embodying practical economic survival as well as the attachment to the land (since 2000, hundreds of thousands of olive trees have been uprooted by the Israeli army in the OT). This time of year is olive harvest season in Palestine but many in the West Bank face both the challenge of securing “permission” from the occupation authorities to access their groves, and the risk of attack by settlers.

Many Palestinian villagers are thus joined by Israelis and international volunteers who come to help with the harvest and monitor military obstructions and attacks by settlers. The Palestinians know that protecting their trees is not just essential for their financial survival; it also defies the attempt to erase their presence from the land.

These are just some examples of the way in which Palestinians are confronting Israeli “fact-making” with some “facts” of their own. Of course the power asymmetry is overwhelming, but that doesn’t mean Israeli agency should be emphasised to the exclusion of the active participation of Palestinians in the shaping of the land’s contours and ownership. Some supporters of Palestinian rights, while refusing the cruder, racist stereotype of violence-inclined aggressors, can unintentionally create an image of the Palestinians as passive victims. In fact, many ordinary Palestinians live their daily lives with a creative determination to defy Zionist colonisation that defies the “role” given to them by other narratives.

Published in the Guardian’s Comment is free.

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