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Beit Sahour: a new struggle

In the Palestinian town of Beit Sahour, famous for its civil disobedience campaign against the Israeli occupation in the 1980s, a new struggle is taking place.

Ush al Ghrab (’Crow’s Nest’) is a small piece of land being targeted by a group of Jewish settlers and their allies. The area had previously served as a military base, before being evacuated in 2006. Since then, local Palestinians and international NGOs have sought to make the most of the space, in a community whose natural expansion is prohibited by Israeli colonisation. In recent times, right-wing Jewish settlers have targeted the area as a site for a possible new settlement (’Shdema’).

Mazin Qumsiyeh is a professor, author, and Beit Sahour resident. He’s also taking a lead in local non-violent resistance to the settlers’ attempted takeover. “The Bethlehem area is now surrounded by settlements — to take this area will be finishing off the district.” Qumsiyeh’s fears are borne out by the statistics: only a fragmented 13 per cent of the Bethlehem district is available for Palestinian use.

In the last fortnight, the Israeli military has returned to the site, bulldozing land, and preparing to build a watchtower. For the settlers, this latest development is seen as “a step forward in the right direction”, and a reward for their pressure. But their campaign, supported by Jewish settlers from numerous settlements including the mayor of the Gush Etzion bloc, continues to be focused on the creation of a new, residential colony.

While Ush al Ghrab may be small and the struggle to some extent a localised one, the colonisation-resistance dynamic in this small corner of Beit Sahour embodies three key phenomena that are a powerful combination in the permanently-temporary Israeli occupation.

Firstly, there is the relationship between settlers and the military. On countless occasions recorded by human rights groups, settler fanatics have attacked Palestinians and their property with impunity, in front of Israeli soldiers. In Ush al Ghrab, under pressure from the settler movement, the Israeli military has facilitated their repeated visits, and now, has made the decision to establish permanent infrastructure.

Secondly, the tussle over Ush al Ghrab is also a legacy of how the Oslo Accords of the early-mid 1990s divided up the Occupied Palestinian Territories into Areas A, B, C, helping to define the limits of Palestinian ‘autonomy’ until today. As the UN has documented, everyday Palestinian existence, including the ability to build, is severely restricted by Israel in 60 per cent — Area C — of the West Bank. Ush al Ghrab also shows just how harmful, and ridiculous, the categorisation can be, even dividing parts of the same town.

Thirdly, the case of Ush al Ghrab, and the rationale offered by those settlers keen to make sure that ‘Shdema’ becomes the latest colony around Bethlehem, is a microcosm of official Israeli state policy in Occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank (and indeed, inside Israel itself). The aim is to prevent the emergence of Palestinian territorial contiguity and development, breaking up areas of Palestinian population into more ‘manageable’ enclaves.

While the intimate ties between the settler movement and the IDF is highly problematic, it is these last two factors — the bureaucratic Oslo divisions and the deliberate fragmentation of Palestinian territorial contiguity — that form the bedrock of Israeli apartheid in the Occupied Territories and act to prevent the emergence of an independent state.

Meanwhile, on the ground, in Ush al Ghrab, local residents face up to yet more Israeli ‘facts on the ground’. Saleem Anfous, a programme manager for the ‘Peace Park’ down the hill from the new watchtower says that parents are now reluctant to send their children — “I have to convince people to come here, because they’re afraid something will happen with the settlers or the soldiers.” Their protests continue on Sunday, but ultimately, they know that they are in need of international solidarity.

First published by New Statesman.

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