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Israeli bulldozers are back in Beit Jala

In 2004, I wrote an article about the story of Nabil Saba, a man from Beit Jala whose family was expelled in the early 1970s to make way for the Israeli settlement of Har Gilo. When I first spoke to him some 11 years ago, confiscation of land for the Apartheid Wall was well underway.

“The Wall has taken the land from the people of Beit Jala”, Nabil told me. “They have put us all in a prison. There is no land left for Beit Jala. We are in cantons, ghettoes, now.”

Visiting Beit Jala last week, this grim assessment is only confirmed. There is no more room. If people are building, they are building up; the price of land and property continues to rise, and the town, like so many other communities in Palestine, has no solution to apartheid’s tightening noose.

In the last few days, the bulldozers are back at work in Beit Jala, uprooting olive trees andpreparing the way for renewed construction of the Wall. Israeli occupation forces oversaw the removal of dozens of ancient trees and the levelling of land, while the Palestinian owners were kept away.

For nearly a decade, residents have tried to resist Israeli plans for the expropriation of their land and the construction of the Wall. The 2006 Israeli military order revealed that the Wall would include Har Gilo settlement on the ‘Israeli side’ and separate Beit Jala from the Cremisan Valley, where dozens of Palestinians own land, sandwiched between Israeli colonies.

The landowners’ legal action was joined by the Catholic monastery and convent located in Cremisan, supported by the Vatican. In April 2015, Israel’s Supreme Court, sitting as the High Court of Justice (HCJ), gave hope to the petitioners by demanding that the occupation authorities “swiftly reconsider the various alternatives for the separation fence route in this section.”

Yet just weeks later, Israel’s Defense Ministry declared that it would continue construction of the Wall along the proposed route, with the exception of 200 metres next to the monastery and convent. Then in July, a bitter blow; the HCJ gave the green light for work on the Wall to go ahead.

The HCJ’s ruling was greeted with dismay by the Palestinians in Beit Jala. It was also condemned by the UK government and the European Union, with the latter expressing “deep regret and concern” at the court’s decision.

If built, this Barrier will severely restrict access of 58 families from their agricultural land and profoundly affect their livelihoods. It will also involve a further encroachment on Palestinian land close to Bethlehem, an area already severely affected by settlement expansion, thereby increasing pressure on the Palestinian population living there.

Stretching out across a hillside overlooking Bethlehem, the small town of Beit Jala has lost a considerable amount of its land over the years to Israeli colonisation; as of 2010, roughly 9 percent of its total area was taken up by settlements and Israeli military bases established over the years.

After 1967, a huge chunk of Beit Jala was expropriated as part of Israel’s illegal and unilateral expansion of Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries: Gilo settlement was subsequently constructed on these lands. In 1972, on the top of the hill, Har Gilo colony was established on land confiscated from the likes of Abu Jamal’s family; close to 1,000 settlers now live there.

Under the Oslo Accords, almost two-thirds of Beit Jala’s land was classified as Area C, where Palestinian construction is severely limited or impossible due to the discriminatory restrictions imposed by the Israeli military regime. Along with the Wall, the town is now choking under Israeli apartheid, unable to naturally expand.

Beit Jala’s story is a familiar one. Some 210,000 Palestinians live in the Bethlehem governorate, in addition to more than 100,000 Israeli settlers in 19 illegal colonies and outposts. More than 85 percent of the region is designated as Area C, and, according to the UN, less than 1 percent of this area “has an outline plan approved by the Israeli authorities allowing Palestinians to build legally.”

56 kilometres of the Apartheid Wall slices through the greater Bethlehem area, and it will ultimately separate 12 communities from the rest of the governorate. It is a microcosm of the Wall as a whole, whose route is twice the length of the 1967 ceasefire line (the ‘Green Line’), 85 percent of which lies inside the West Bank.

Justifying renewed construction of the Wall in Beit Jala, Israeli authorities cited the familiar security rationale. Even taking this argument at face value, the Wall is illegitimate; as the International Court of Justice stated in its advisory opinion, the Wall impedes “the exercise by the Palestinian people of its right to self-determination” and threatens to establish “de facto annexation.”

Yet the security rationale – cited in court by Israel’s Ministry of Defense, and repeated abroad by the country’s lobbyists – is deeply flawed. The route of the Wall and public statements by Israeli officials make it clear that the Wall has always been about colonisation and demographics. The bulldozers working once again in Beit Jala are a reminder of this reality, and of Israel’s ongoing impunity.

Published first by Middle East Monitor.

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