ISRAEL / PALESTINIAN TERRITORIES

Israeli settlers say no to separation wall

Début des travaux pour la construction du mur à Beit Jala. Source Yaron Rosenthal.
Début des travaux pour la construction du mur à Beit Jala. Source Yaron Rosenthal.

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Work on Israel’s controversial separation wall is back underway in Beit Jala, a Palestinian village south of Jerusalem. But it’s not only the region’s Palestinians rising up against the wall. In a surprising twist, Israeli settlers are relying on ecological arguments to oppose the ongoing construction work. But according to our Observer, their chief motivation is to strengthen their presence in the West Bank.

The wall’s route (in blue) has been slightly modified in order to prevent a convent and a monastery from being separated. Source.

To the dismay of more than 70 Palestinian villagers who had spent ten years trying to avoid having their land confiscated, construction work on the wall began on August 17 in Beit Jala, a Palestinian village with a majority Christian population.

Protests against the wall’s construction in Beit Jala.

Contacted by France 24’s sister station RFI, Beit Jala’s mayor slammed the operation. "The Israelis came with ten huge bulldozers, more than 70 soldiers, and they pulled down over 45 olive trees. They’re doing it to link up two settlements. They want to take over our valley in order to build in it."

Protests against the wall’s construction in Beit Jala.

Members of Beit Jala’s Christian community celebrate mass in an area threatened by the ongoing construction of Israel’s separation barrier.

Work on the separation wall – or the ‘security fence’, as Israel calls it – was started back in 2002 while the second Intifada was still raging. The giant slabs of concrete and soaring watchtowers that make up the wall snake their way through chunks of the West Bank and around Jerusalem. By the time it had been declared illegal by the International Criminal Court in 2004, two thirds of the planned route had already been built. The latest work in Beit Jala signals the start of a new phase of construction that many Israeli settlers have publicly spoken out against.

Map of the wall produced by the OCHA, a UN agency. Source.

Yaron Rosenthal is one of those settlers. He’s the director of an Institute in the Kfar Etzion settlement that organises extracurricular activities for students to discover the region surrounding Beit Jala. In a Facebook post, he slammed the project, pointing out that Israel’s defence ministry had been wasting between 100 and 200 million shekels in order to build the wall whilst undergoing budget cuts at the same time. He also called into question the wall’s effectiveness, which he says may end up containing holes through which Palestinians could illegally enter Israeli territory.

Facebook post by Yaron Rosenthal. Source.

In another Facebook post, Rosenthal regrets the fact that the work had been hastily carried out. He slams officials for giving the go-ahead without first checking the wall’s planned route with either the authority in charge of archaeological digs or Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority.

Facebook page of the Institute headed by Yaron Rosenthal in Kfar Etzion. Source.

"The barrier disturbs the underground ecosystem"

 

The method of terrace farming used there is ancient and unique to the region [Editor’s note: Historians have linked its development here to the Canaanites, who populated the area during the late second millennium BC].

Cultivation of olive trees on terraces in the Beit Jala region. Source.

This well-preserved region offers a unique window into our past. The Palestinians who live in this area have held on to ancient practices in order to cultivate their ancestral lands. The terraced plots of land are nourished by underground sources and an irrigation system that stretches back more than 2,000 years, reminding us of our biblical past. In Beit Jala, the landscape is made up of vines, olive trees and citrus fruits - there’s also a monastery and a convent.

Three old olive trees in the area surrounding Beit Jala. Source.

We don’t talk about it enough, but the wall is causing real environmental damage. The barrier is deeply entrenched in the ground, which ends up disturbing the underground ecosystem. In other areas, it’s already destroyed terrace farming. We also know that it’s causing animals to suffer, in particular gazelles because they’re blocked in their runs by the wall.

Start of construction work on the wall in Beit Jala. Source.

Nowadays, we don’t have any security problems. We get on well with our Palestinian neighbours. At this point in time, the wall doesn’t serve any useful function especially as there are alternative ways to secure the area that are more efficient and far less expensive like cameras and army radars, for example.

"These ecological arguments are also used to foster land-grabbing"

Aviv Takarsky is an Israeli activist and a researcher for Ir Amim, an Israeli NGO dedicated to finding "a fair and sustainable peace in Jerusalem." He’s sceptical of the settlers’ opposition to the wall.

We mustn’t forget that these settlers are one of the driving forces behind Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories.

The institute that both Yaron and Benyamin work for in Kfeir Etzion organises extracurricular visits in the area. It’s just another way of asserting Israel’s presence in the region and of putting in the minds of young people the idea that this land forms part of the Israeli nation.

Hikes organised in the region by the Kfeir Eztion Institute. Source.

Their opposition to the wall’s construction isn’t anything new. Most settlers oppose it because it marks a clear boundary on territory that they want to see as part of the Israeli state. They’re offering new reasons to explain their opposition to the wall, but their approach on the whole isn’t any different from that of other Israeli settlers. They all participate in the same system of occupation.

I’ve been following this issue closely. In doing so, I noticed that they put forward these environmental arguments to protect certain areas, but also to justify land-grabbing. Like the Palestinians, Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority – despite being led by settlers – was opposed to the construction of the wall in Batir on the grounds of protecting the environment and the site [Editor’s note: Batir and Beit Jala have similar landscapes]. Afterwards, UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site.

Section of wall built near the Palestinian village of Walaja. Image courtesy of Engaged Dharma Israel.

But this very same authority – which Yaron and Benjamin are very close to, given the nature of their professional work – backed the wall’s construction near the village of Walaja, located right next to both Batir and Beit Jala. They decided to create a national park on confiscated Palestinian territory. Then, they built a big road that cuts right through the national park! If they really cared about the environment, they’d let the farmers cultivate their lands.

Road cutting through a national park established on confiscated Palestinian land that used to belong to the village of Walaja. Image courtesy of Engaged Dharma Israel.

The Israeli government sees the wall as a way of controlling the Occupied Territories. Some settlers would like to control these territories without a wall. Different strategies, but same goal...

Article written with France 24 journalist Dorothée Myriam KELLOU.