In the Palestinian town of Beit Sahour, famed for its civil disobedience campaign against the Israeli occupation in the 1980s, a new struggle is taking place.
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 it as a site for a possible new settlement, “Shdema”.
Mazin Qumsiyeh is a professor, writer and resident of Beit Sahour. He is 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,” he says. 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 past 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 several settlements, including the mayor of the Gush Etzion bloc, continues to be focused on creating a new residential colony.
While Ush al-Ghrab may be small and the struggle to some extent localised, the colonisation-resistance dynamic in this small corner of Beit Sahour encapsulates three key phenomena that make for a powerful combination in the permanently-temporary Israeli occupation.
First, 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 settlers’ repeated visits, and now has made the decision to establish permanent infrastructure.
Second, the tussle over Ush al-Ghrab is also a legacy of how the Oslo Accords of the early to mid-1990s divided up the Palestinian occupied territories into Areas A, B and 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.
Third, 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 the state of 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 Israel Defence Forces 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,” Anfous says.
Their protests continue on Sunday, but they know that, ultimately, they will need international solidarity.