With sheep roaming about nearby and roosters frolicking between its tents, the tiny village of Makhoul in the Jordan Valley area of the occupied West Bank looks at first glance to be a hamlet of tranquility. It is welcoming to visitors, with residents willing to take a break from their herding work to offer up multiple refills of sweetened tea.
In fact, despite its calm veneer, Makhoul and its 100-plus residents are caught up in a battle between the Israeli army and Palestinians over the Jordan Valley-and its very survival is in question.
In September, Israeli army bulldozers demolished Makhoul, on the grounds that its structures were built without planning permission, turning its corrugated huts and animal sheds into heaps of twisted metal. That was a devastating blow in the contest over the area that pits the Israeli army against herders trying to eek out a subsistence living.
But stubborn residents slept among the ruins for three weeks until they had a chance to rebuild the village, erecting canvas tents and even reinstalling solar energy panels and in some cases satellite dishes as they had used before the demolition. At first the army thwarted the efforts to reestablish Makhoul, but under pressure from a petition on behalf of residents to Israel’s supreme court, it grudgingly tolerated its resurrection.
“They don’t want us to stay. They want to take this land, but we won’t let them.” says Ahmad Bani Odeh, 63, who lives in a tent with five family members. “We are remaining steadfast here.”
Israeli and Palestinian rights groups say demolition is only one of the tactics Israel uses to project its power and to carry out de facto annexation in the Jordan Valley, an area near the Jordan River and the border with Jordan that comprises about a fourth of the West Bank and where the Jewish state vows to maintain a military presence under any peace agreement with the Palestinians. The army also has increasingly been evacuating herding communities for hours or days to conduct military exercises, a step Palestinians fear reflects a desire to displace them.
Planning policies that favor settlers while blocking Palestinians from even upgrading roads are also used in Israel’s assertion of primacy, rights groups say.
“It’s a demographic-political war against Palestinians” in the Jordan Valley, says Dror Etkes, head of the dovish Israeli Kerem Navot NGO, which specializes in land issues. “There is no way Israel can get rid of them all now, but it is trying to minimize the numbers.”
Arif Daraghmeh, a Palestinian Authority Official in the northern Jordan Valley charges that “Israel’s idea is to empty this area of Arabs and build more settlements and army camps.”
Israel denies any such intention. “It is unequivocally not true” that Israel is trying to reduce the Palestinian population of the Jordan Valley, says Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s spokesman, Mark Regev. Other Israeli officials say it is the Palestinians who are the ones changing the status quo by violating planning laws and choosing to settle inside closed military areas.
There are about ten thousand Israelis and ten thousand Palestinians living in the parts of the Jordan Valley that are in the West Bank’s area C, the section designated by self-rule agreements as being under full Israeli military and civilian control, according to the estimate of the Israeli human rights group B’tselem The settlements are agriculture-based, providing for 40 percent of Israel’s domestic date consumption and for exports. The vast majority of the valley’s land in area C is off limits to Palestinians, with nearly half of it declared as closed military zones.
The confrontation between the army and herders comes against the backdrop of a larger political struggle.
The Jordan Valley’s future is a major bone of contention in the troubled Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. Israel insists the valley, traditionally seen as essential in protecting the Jewish state from potential attacks from the east, is a vital security area where it must continue to deploy troops. But Palestinians see their own full control of the valley in the future as a prerequisite for having a viable state.
In Makhoul, east of the Palestinian town of Tubas, the stay of execution for the village may only be temporary. In March, the high court is to deliberate on whether it is legal for the army to demolish the village, according to attorney Tawfiq Jabarin, who represents residents. “Where will we go? We don’t know to live anywhere but here,” says Bani Odeh.
In Israel’s view, the Palestinians of Makhoul are living there illegally, having failed to obtain permission for their dwellings, which rights groups say is seldom granted. Authorities stress that the self-rule agreements give them control over building and planning in area C and that they are simply enforcing the law, as is done elsewhere in the world. CLICK HERE FOR THE NUMBER OF DEATHS
“I’m not aware of any policy of demolitions. If they are happening it’s because of law enforcement,” Regev, the spokesman for Netanyahu, says.
Some of Makhoul’s residents trace their presence at the site to before Israel’s victory in the 1967 war. Bani Odeh says his father and grandfather used the site among others as they moved around with their herds. He rents his land from private Palestinian owners in the nearby town of Tubas.” We live from the sheep, like my father and grandfather did. We make cheese. We can live in this fashion – but leave us in peace.”
However, peace is not in abundant supply for the herders of the Jordan Valley. Just two days before October’s Moslem al-Adha holiday, a jarring message arrived from the Israeli army to Palestinians living in Khirbet Ibziq a tiny community north of Makhoul.
“An officer named Yigal came and told us we would have to leave our home on the holiday because there would be military training here,” Ha’il Hussein Turkman, a father of six who is a sheep and cow farmer, said. “Yigal said: “The army wants to train. You must go. Those who will not leave, I will bring soldiers to force them out.”
After the intervention of B’tselem, the Israeli rights group, the evacuation was delayed until after the holiday. But residents were forced to leave for 22 hours on October 22 and 23 and then allowed back, they said.
The Israeli army says training in areas like Khirbet Ibziq is “vital” because its topography – valley and rocky hills – is similar to areas that “may be needed” by the military in the future. But the tent- dwelling herders see the troop training on their homes and farms as a means to make their presence on the land tenuous.
Thirty five times in the past year the army has carried out temporary forced evacuations of Palestinians for military training in the Jordan Valley, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
The army did not respond to a request to spell out how many evacuations there have been.
Such evacuations date back to the 1970s, but Palestinians and Israeli rights groups say they have become more frequent in the Jordan Valley in the past few years. In Khirbet Ibziq, the army forced residents to temporarily evacuate on three separate occasions last March and once in Oct. 2012, according to OCHA and residents. The army says there has been a growing problem of Palestinians trespassing in military zones.
“These trespassers intend to create facts on the ground by constructing illegal buildings in the area, the purpose being to prevent the Israel Defense Forces from training there” the army spokesman said in a written response to questions.
The October evacuation was done so that the army could drill, the statement said. “To avoid compromising the safety of the illegal dwellers in the area, they were forewarned, giving them time to vacate the premises for the duration of the drill,” the statement said.
But the evacuations, as well as the demolitions of 12 tents over the past year in Khirbet Ibziq, have residents on edge. “I’m worried that any time they can bring a bulldozer and tell me to leave,” says Turkman. “I don’t have another place. This is where all my life’s work is.”
Ali Sawafta, head of the community’s council, voiced frustration that in September the army had intervened to stop the gravelling of a hard to traverse road in Khirbet Ibziq, something he says would have made life easier for residents.
“I think they don’t want people to live in this area,” he said. Israeli military administrators did not respond to a request for comment about the road.
Alon Cohen-Lifshutz, of the dovish Israeli group Bimkom-Planners for Planning Rights, says the policy is “to limit Palestinian building as much as possible, while at the same time to develop the settlements and give them land and water allocations.” An Israeli official, who asked for anonymity denied this. “It is a baseless statement with the intent of deligitimizing Israel.” He said that Israel has recently approved 19 master plans for Palestinian building in area C, including in the Jordan Valley.
Still, there is a sense of a double standard between Palestinians and settlers. While Makhul was demolished for being illegal, authorities took a decidedly different approach to illegal construction by settlers in the northern Jordan valley. Rather than remove the settlers, last year the government decided to retroactively legalize a settlement outpost Givat Salit. Currently made up of 14 mobile homes of settlers who squatted on the land, beginning in 2001, Givat Salit is to be built into 125 permanent units, according to a government decision in November.
However, in the view of David Elhayani, chairman of the Jordan Valley settlements council, the government is not doing enough to boost the settlements in the area. Elhayani would like to see it annex the valley de jure, something he says could catalyze growth of the settler population. “It all depends on whether the government is willing to apply sovereignty. If everything is left in the mist as it is now, it will be hard for many families to move here, because they don’t know what will happen tomorrow morning.”
Elhayani dismisses the allegation that Israel is trying to force Arabs to leave the valley. “This is a falsehood. Palestinians haven’t left. If anything more have come from places like Jenin and Hebron to live in the valley.” He adds that the settlement council employs 6,000 Palestinian workers. “There is mutual dependence and good relations,” he says.
He insists Palestinians “can have an excellent future under Israeli sovereignty.”
But the present promises more conflict and suffering. The former deputy head of Israel’s National Security Council, Col.(ret) Itamar Yaar, says that if the diplomatic process remains at a stalemate, both sides will continue to try to create facts on the ground in the valley. From the point of view of Israeli policymakers “once you allow people to build houses on places they are not permitted, the next day you’ll get twice as much of such building,” he says.
“The problem is Israel and the Palestinians didn’t reach an agreement allowing Israel to leave most of the territories of the West Bank,” Yaar says.
“This is the core of the problem. On the way to solving it, the two sides suffer. As a human being I’m not happy to see this, but you can’t give the other side the privilege to create facts on the ground.”
In Makhoul, Bani Odeh, the herder, sees the problem differently. “They don’t want peace,” he says.