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In the settlers’ sights

The flat top of the small hill is deserted, as we walk among the gutted concrete buildings. The graffiti on the wall declares that “the Jews will keep this land”. This is Ush Ghrab, a small piece of land in Beit Sahour, south of Jerusalem, and a target for religious settlers seeking yet another colony in the Bethlehem region.

I was walking around the site with my friend Saleem and his colleague Jason, who both work for Paidia, an NGO focused on educational play. Their work has been, and continues to be, primarily social, yet they are now forced to join other locals in defending the site from attempts at colonisation.

For decades, this piece of land was used as a military base, first by the Jordanians and then by the Israelis. In 2006 the Israeli army closed down the base, and the land reverted back to the Beit Sahour municipality, which in co-operation with NGOs proceeded with plans for the development of the site.

In May 2008, on Israel’s 60th anniversary, Jewish settlers turned up one morning, and announced their intention to create a new settlement on Ush Ghrab. Ever since, rightwing groups such as Women in Green, have been holding events on the hill as part of their open drive to get the land back to its “rightful owners” – the Jewish people.

Suhail Khalilieh heads the Settlements Monitoring Department at the Applied Research Institute – Jerusalem (ARIJ). “What usually happens is that when the military leaves a certain location, the settlers come and take over and start developing,” he explains. “The settlers decided to take over the location basically because of the bypass road opened near Ush al Ghrab, connecting several settlement locations, south-east of Bethlehem. This road made it easier for the settlers to access Jerusalem. While they are thinking about developing Ush al Ghrab into a whole new settlement, right now, they are simply trying to take control of the land area.”

In parallel to these efforts by settlers, there has also been a huge variety of events held on Ush Ghrab organised by an informal grouping of Palestinian activists in Beit Sahour and Bethlehem. These have included barbeques, bingo, kite flying, bird-watching, music, tree-planting, ecumenical religious services and leadership training activities.

In recent months, however, Ush Ghrab has been quieter. The winter slowed things down, and local activists also decided to give the municipality some time to pursue a more “official” track with the Israeli authorities. Apparently, the Beit Sahour municipality had expressed its displeasure with an intense level of events on the land, arguing that such activities merely provoke the settlers and attract unwelcome attention.

Those like Mazim Qumsiyeh, a professor, author and Beit Sahour resident, disagree with this assessment because “in our humble opinion the settlers are driven by their own agenda and aren’t driven by what Palestinians do or don’t do”. Qumsiyeh believes that “pressure works”, and points to places such as Bil’in and Ni’lin where activism has “slowed down” Israeli colonisation and brought about some changes in the path of the wall: “There have been no Supreme Court interventions in other cases where villages didn’t offer resistance, or weekly demonstrations.”

Yet Qumsiyeh is also well aware of how the struggle in Beit Sahour is ultimately part of a bigger picture: “If the agreement between Nentanyahu and Lieberman is as stated in the newspapers, the Israeli government is going to focus on developing E1 [an area of the West Bank]. This is pure speculation, but maybe this buys us a couple of years here. The Israeli government won’t want to receive the flak for too many things at the same time.”

The hard reality for the Palestinians of Beit Sahour is that, alone, they are unable to resist the theft of their land, should the Israeli government support the settlers’ initiative. Khalilieh, whose job at ARIJ means he oversees the daily documentation of Israeli colonisation, says that while the Beit Sahour residents’ protests “send a message”, they are “probably useless” without international pressure.

This sense that without outside intervention resisting yet more colonisation in the West Bank is unlikely to produce results is sharpened by the fact that it can be hard to engage local Palestinians in popular resistance en masse. Jason and Saleem say that the larger events held on Ush al Ghrab have seen a couple of hundred participate, but the activism is essentially “driven by a very small group”.

One of the factors for the Palestinians feeling that it is “hopeless” is the way the Oslo Accords and Palestinian Authority have developed since the 1990s. Qumsiyeh believes that in some respects this “killed activism” on the ground: “Most people I talk to are demoralised. They think the PA is corrupt, that there is collaboration at the highest level, so they ask, ‘Why should I put my neck on the line as an individual?’”

Ultimately, no one in Beit Sahour can tell what the future will hold for Ush al Ghrab. Will the settlers be emboldened by a rightwing Israeli government offering tacit support? Or will Netanyahu’s cabinet prefer to focus on home demolitions in Jerusalem and developing E1? One thing is for sure: on the ground resistance can only work in tandem with the kind of international pressure on Israel that is still a distant prospect.

First published in the Guardian’s Comment is free.

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