Soldiers, Anguish Remain Around Evacuated West Bank Settlements
Soldiers, Anguish Remain Around Evacuated West Bank Settlements
Her farm, in the village of Arab As-Suweitat, is the closest Palestinian land to the settlement of Kadim, one of four Jewish enclaves recently evacuated under Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's "disengagement" plan. Established in 1983, along with the nearby settlement of Ganim, Kadim until recently hosted a civilian population of about 150.
According to all accounts, by the time The NewStandard visited Suweitat, the settlers had already abandoned Kadim in compliance with the quieter West Bank portion of Ariel Sharon's Gaza "disengagement" plan. But memories of the impact that their 22-year residence in Palestinian territory had on the local population will linger, as will the heavily armed presence of Israel Defense Forces (IDF) troops, maintaining effective rule over the area's Palestinian population.
"We have to be honest â€“ we are steadfast, but we have suffered greatly," Hassan said between long and thoughtful pauses. Hassan said she has been living and farming this land since 1948, when her family, like many presently in the Jenin area, fled their homes and villages around the coastal city of Haifa in what is now Israel.
"The settlers have cut our access to our fields, they have burned our crops and olive trees," she said, pointing to charred and truncated stumps. "They think if they destroy our crops they can make us leave."
"But the problem is much bigger than just the settlers," Hassan continued, pointing to the military barracks and the Israeli armored personnel carrier parked under a tent, close enough to count the mounted machine guns on its dark green frame.
From Suweitat, the view of Kadim was already a picture of virtual desolation on the eve of Tuesday's official evacuation of the settlement, the residents there having already vacated long prior to Sharon's deadline. Still, IDF armored vehicles and soldiers wandered the tree-lined settlement and the sniper tower was clearly still manned.
Hassan said that whenever there is shooting in the direction of the settlement, soldiers punish Suweitat's residents.
"Sometimes they just come here to investigate; sometimes they occupy our homes," Hassan said, describing the IDF practice of commandeering Palestinian houses and buildings for use as forward outposts and sniper positions.
"Other times they shoot wildly into the village, as you can see," she said, pointing to the broadside of her home, facing Kadim, riddled with bullet holes. "And they come in with their tanks and bulldozers and destroy the houses," she added, with a nod towards a pile of concrete and twisted rebar that was once a neighbor's home.
According to a map made by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, there are currently five major trenches, three fixed checkpoints, two earthen mounds, and three roadblocks in the area â€“ all barring Palestinian freedom of movement between villages as well as the city of Jenin, all purportedly to protect of the tiny settlements of Ganim and Kadim.
Abdullah Youssef Suleiman has family in the village of Khirbet Sab'ein, the rooftops of which are visible from his home in Suweitat, but he cannot visit them because obstacles have blocked access, and he fears settler and soldier attacks.
"The settlements and the soldiers make normal social interaction impossible," Suleiman said
The village of Suweitat has become an island of isolation since the most recent Palestinian uprising, known as the Al-Aqsa Intifada, began five years ago. "We are alone to face this situation," Hassan said. "You are the first journalist to visit here in more than seven years; no foreigners, no NGOs, no one has given us any help," she said as chickens scurried around her feet.
Ganim and Kadim, with a combined settler population of barely 300, significantly impacted the city of Jenin and its satellite villages. Located southeast of Jenin, an urban center more than 35,000 Palestinians call home, the tiny settlements effectively blocked the expansion of the city and severed it from the rural villages in the area.
"We could not extend our mandate to provide for building, agriculture, water and basic services," said Salahaldin Moussa, administrative manager for the Jenin Municipality, "because we needed permission from the Israeli army â€“ something which was never forthcoming."
"As a result, the area near the settlements is empty of development â€“ no houses, no electricity, no water, nothing in our master plan as a municipality," Moussa said.
The road to the eastern part of Jenin was cut off by the Israeli military, making it difficult for people who live in the nearby villages to travel to the city in order to access basic services, health care, school and work. The road closures in the area are stifling, often forcing Palestinians to travel off-road, on small paths through farmers' fields and groves.
"These settlements were established and then used as an excuse to do other infrastructural changes, under the auspices of security for settlers," said Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi, general secretary of the political reform organization Palestinian National Initiative.
"After the settlements, they made the checkpoints, and then the closure and the segregation of the roads," Barghouthi said. In many parts of the West Bank, the Israeli military has designated existing Palestinian roads off-limits to the native population so that settlers and soldiers alone can use them.
"Villages that were connected with each other by a main road, and connected socially too, with one common health center, one common kindergarten, one common major school â€“ what Israel did is to cut all these connections," said Barghouthi, who also a founding member and past president of the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees, an emergency health care and relief organization, as well as a candidate who earlier this year won a fifth of the Palestinian votes to fill the seat of the late President Yassir Arafat.
Professor Moshe Brawer, a professor of Geography at Tel Aviv University, reiterated the impact of Ganim and Kadim on the network of transportation.
"These settlements, overlooking Jenin, block the main road from the central Samarian highlands to the northern areas â€“ from Nablus to Jenin," Brawer said.
Nablus is the largest city in the West Bank and serves as the territory's major northern economic hub. The separation of Nablus from Jenin, as well as the closures imposed by Israel â€“ which include preventing Palestinian workers from entering Israel â€“ has created an unemployment rate in Jenin of 60 percent, according to statistics issued by the Palestinian National Authority.
Unlike larger settlement blocs elsewhere in the West Bank, the small communities evacuated by Israel did not until recently play a significant role in the broader effort to annex large portions of Palestinian territory to the state of Israel.
The settlements of Ganim and Kadim, said Brawer, who served as advisor to Israeli governments on the demarcation of Israel's borders during peace negotiations with Jordan and Egypt, were simply examples of Israel's ability to "plant small Israeli-Jewish populations" amid native populations in the West Bank.
But Sharon has turned their evacuation into immense political capital, which Palestinians fear will buy the Israeli government the prerogative to build up other, more important settlements in the territory to remain under full occupation.
Settler Eviction, Not Military Disengagement
It is not clear how â€“ if at all â€“ the IDF presence in the evacuated settlements will change.
"It is important to note," said Moussa, that the West Bank portion of Sharon's "disengagement" plan is "only an evacuation, not yet a withdrawal." He added, "This is an important distinction, both in terms of the legal and practical implications."
Moussa said the changes, however limited, offer real chances for bettering Palestinian conditions. "We are hoping that the evacuation process has an impact on the freedom of movement for Palestinians in the area," he said, "because Israel can no longer say that their restrictions are in place to protect the settlements. We are optimistic that this will lead to better services, better building and expansion opportunities, better accessâ€¦ We have plans in place for this, but it all depends on the Israelis."
Asked if the impact of the settlements' removal will mean an increase in Palestinians' freedom of movement, one IDF officer told The NewStandard, "Of course, this is the main goal. The settlements will be gone and people will have freedom of movement between cities and villages on roads that will be used only by Palestinians." The officer asked to remain since only representatives of the prime minister's office or the Defense Ministry are empowered to speak to the press.
"We did not redeploy or withdraw forces," IDF spokesperson Captain Yael Hartmann confirmed to TNS. "The only thing we did was act in accord with the government decision to evacuate the settlers," she said.
The message, Palestinians say, is clear.
"We are entering a new stage of the conflict, with new 'facts on the ground'," explained Moussa. "The message is this: in Gaza you can do whatever you want; in the West Bank, you will run your affairs, but under the command of our security agencies."
Although the evacuation of the settlers from Ganim and Kadim is complete, in the nearby Palestinian villages the celebrations are reserved for the future, villagers said.
Hassan's nephew, Attwan Khalaf Turkmen, who lives next door, acknowledged that if the settlers and soldiers leave they will be "very happy." But only if they are "free to work the land, and live our lives as before."
"If that happens," Turkmen said, "we willâ€¦ invite the whole community for a party," he said smiling.
But for now, it seems, the memories of the past and the continued military presence dominate.