On Saturday 27th November an activist named Mohammad Othman came to collect us from our hotel – the plan for the day was to visit and learn about some specific areas of the West Bank where the occupation, and especially the separation wall, were having the deepest and most devastating impact.
Setting off we travelled north from Ramallah and into the Salfit area of the West Bank. The Palestinian’s in this area suffer a great deal under the occupation and the 17 settlements that are on their land. The largest of these settlements, Ariel, is famed for its current fight to be recognised as a city which would mean that it would have the right to remain even after the formation of a full Palestinian state. Ariel dumps its untreated waste water on to Palestinian farm land of the Al- Matwi valley, rendering it toxic and unusable; water that contains chemicals and metals that are poisonous to humans as well as animals and plants. The Bargan industrial zone dumps it’s waste into the Deir Baloot area and statistics from the Ministry of Health tell that 70% of all the cancer cases in the Salfit area and within Deir Baloot.
The people of the Salfit area, which is around 217km square and has almost 80000 inhabitants living in around 20 villages, is a farming region with it’s people depending economically on the things they grow – olives, citrus fruits and other crops. As well as losing land to the pollution it is also lost to annexation; Palestinian farmland being occupied around settlements for “security” reasons, creating a buffer zone between the settlements and the Palestinian villages.
This has driven unemployment up, losing an estimated 6500 jobs from the agricultural industry of the region alone as well as decreasing the olive oil production, damaging fruit trees and annexing grazing land.
The effect is stark; Mohammad takes us to the top of a hill from which we can see at least three settlements on the tops of the hills surrounding one Palestinian village in the valley. He points out the water supply which has now been rerouted from the village and up to the settlements meaning that the Palestinians are now forced to buy their water from the companies within the settlements and a hugely inflated price. Currently there is supposed to be rain in Palestine but climate change dominates even over occupation and the green of the settlements stands in brutal contrast to the dry browns of the land around the Palestinian village. As we get back on to our bus to leave we drive down the hill past the water supply and the oppressiveness of the hilltop settlements with their observation towers and security posts increases as we drop further into the valley.
In the valley Mohammad points out the ruins of a hostel used by Palestinian travellers and drivers that has been burnt and almost demolished by the IOF (Mohammad refers to the Israeli Defence Force as the Israeli Occupation Force so I will too) as part of the “security” of the settlements. The brutality and pointlessness of destroying something like this just emphasises the irrationality of the Israeli occupation.
Driving along the winding roads to our next destination Mohammad pointed out Palestinian villages where the access roads are gated and locked overnight by the IOF, some having limited opening hours during the daytime, denying access to any vehicles including emergency ambulances no matter what the emergency.
We drive through an area of the West Bank originally designated as area A, meaning that no Israeli citizens must enter. He took us to a scene of abject tragedy, a place called Masha where a single Palestinian house has been trapped between a part of the separation wall and the Israeli settlement that it protects. The family that lives in the house; Hany Amera have an access gate that is unlocked twice a day for 30 minutes. Once in the morning and once in the evening, preventing any kind of freedom of movement for the family, including a 65 year old man who is very unwell. The children of the family are being treated for psychological problems related to their effective incarceration. None of us can quite believe what we are seeing; we had come to understand the way in which Palestinians were kept away, almost hidden from the sight of the settlements and their inhabitants but here a man and his family were trapped in a few metres of land between the edge of a settlement and the wall built to “protect” it. It can only be assumed that the logic of not just evicting this family and destroying their home, as in many other places along the wall and within the West Bank, is that of sheer barbarism – the theft of life without the taking of life itself. The family know that if they were to leave their house unoccupied that the soldiers would simply take it over, leaving them homeless. We took a few minutes to digest this powerful image of the inhumanity of the occupation before we once again had the luxury to leave.
We stop on the side of a main road and got out of the bus to see how the wall ran alongside the road. Mohammad points out a village just beyond the wall and tells us it is a Palestinian village annexed into the Israeli side of the wall as it strays from the 1967 border. The inhabitants of the village are under curfew due to the large check point at the bottom of the road from the village that is manned by the IOF and a permit system is in operation which enables farmers to access their land and workers’ and students to get in and out in order to access their work. If people fail to use their permits for even a day they can be revoked so taking a sick day is simply not an option! We are told about how a lot of the young men leave, creating a strange population problem whereby there are many more young women than men and so it becomes almost impossible for them to marry and start a family without leaving the village. Again this is part of the plan to drive Palestinian’s from their own land by making their lives as difficult as possible. Mohammad tells us a story of a little girl who got sick during the night in a gated village like this one when the gate in the wall was closed. The military refused to allow emergency doctors into the village to see the girl despite her deteriorating condition and fever. In the end the doctors had to issue an injection through the fence to the ill child. This instance is not alone in its shocking impact. Life in these villages is disrupted and dehumanising.
I had been to Qalqilya before and thought I knew what I was in for but it turns out that you can’t prepare yourself for even a second confrontation with that disgusting wall. I feel instantly sick and dizzy to be facing it so close up again and then I was hit with waves of guilt for having the luxury of feeling that way and being able to walk away. I wander around taking photos and catching my breath as Mohammad explains that Qalqiliya is surrounded on all sides by this monstrous construction, the only entry point being a military check point. Currently 35000 of its 43000 inhabitants being registered as refugees from both 1948 and 1967. Qalqiliya lost 80% of it’s land in 1948 into the newly formed state of Israel and in 1967 the region was taken by the Israeli military until it came under the control of the Palestinian Authority in 1995 and the area in which we were standing is the main town within the region. It’s population is largely involved in agriculture and has therefore been hugely affected by the building of the wall which cuts them off from their land on both sides. The planned progression of the wall will result in only one entrance to the town, leaving it surrounded on all sides by the wall, watch towers and cameras, as well as being even more vulnerable to curfew and complete closure from the IOF. This truly is a city under siege.
The next place Mohammad took us to was his home village of Jayyous where we pull up by a wall full of colourful graffiti and a beautiful view down into a valley full of agricultural land, mainly olive groves. He points out where the wall cuts through the land belonging to and farmed by Jayyous’ residents and how the farmers are given special permits in order to access the land through a gate that is opened for three 30 minute slots per day – one in the morning, one at around noon and one in the evening. During the olive harvest the permits were limited to one or two per family which often meant that one person had to spend all day in the fields collecting the olives, making the process take much longer and forcing people to work horrific long hours in scorching heat just to get finished.
The final stop on our tour is in the area of Tulkarem where a factory making cleaning and agricultural products and paints is destroying the livelihoods and endangering the lives of the people that are forced to live in its shadow. The factory was originally relocated from an area within the desert called Bir al Sabe and to Tulkarem where it now stands on stolen Palestinian land. The road that we are standing on, looking at the tops of the factory as they peer out from over a large wall, is called “Death Road” by the residents. The effects of the factory are immediately visible; a layer of dense white dust lies all over everything within sight. It coats the fence posts, the decorative palm trees and the fuel station behind us. The land that we can see is full of browning grass and trees and Mohammad warns us against touching the dust that has been rendered toxic by the Palestinain Ministry of Health. The area boasts several attractive lures for these kinds of businesses – the workers in the area are not able to claim the rights that have been hard won by the Israeli labour movement within its borders and so they are a cheap and flexible workforce and the land isn’t subject to Israeli labour law. There are also tax exemptions available to businesses wanting to build on Palestinian land. In Tulkarem the Geshori factory is one of a cluster of factories on stolen land that pollute the local environment and have massively increased the cases of cancer of the trachea and inflammatory eye diseases. There are about 50 houses in close vicinity to the plant and many of the people who live in them suffer from eye, skin and respiratory diseases as a direct result of breathing in the poisonous chemicals released from the chimneys of the factories.
Standing on the roof of the fuel station that stands on the opposite side of Death Road we can see more of the factory and the smoke it is churning out into the clear blue sky. Mohammad tells us that on days when the wind blows towards Sana Oz, the settlements in the distance far behind the factory compound, that the factory is immediately closed down and the workers sent home because the smoke is too toxic for the settlers… The rest of the time however, is is blowing all over the houses, land and into the lungs and skin of the Palestinians whose houses are standing in its path. It doesn’t even bear thinking about.
Sometimes in life you hear things that seem beyond belief and for me this is one of them. The sheer lack of respect for human life here is baffling, it goes against everything that I believe as a Marxist, but perhaps more importantly, as a human.
We climb back into our bus and the drive home is quieter than before as we each contemplate what we have witnessed.
“Mohammad Othman is a Palestinian human rights defender. He is from a small village Jayyous) in the Qaliqilya district of the West Bank where much of the land of local farmers and the village has been confiscated by Israel as a result of the building of the apartheid wall erected in 2004. He is the former youth and campaigns coordinator of a Palestinian grassroots movement which is a coalition of Palestinian non governmental organizations and popular committees that mobilise and coordinate efforts on local, national and international levels against the apartheid wall. He has over seven years by experiences giving tours to political and private delegations to the West Bank. He has been active in creating national and international awareness about how Israel separation barrier and settlement policy breach International Law and Human Rights.”
If you are lucky enough to find yourself a visitor in the West Bank then you should get in touch with Mohammad and let him be your guide. I have linked his blog below.