Holy Land: Creeping Annexation

  • Toine Van Teeffelen

Palestine: Land of Olives and Vines - Cultural Landscape of Southern Jerusalem, Battir © Centre for Cultural Heritage Preservation

Palestine: Land of Olives and Vines - Cultural Landscape of Southern Jerusalem, Battir © Centre for Cultural Heritage Preservation

Toine Van Teeffelen is Education Advisor at the Arab Education Institute, a Pax Christi Partner in Bethlehem. This was written earlier this year before President Trump announced his so-called 'Peace Plan' and before the 1st July date given by the Israeli Government for the annexation of the West Bank, but it is still very relevant. We are now seriously close to this action taking place. Many countries have protested about this proposed annexation but the occupation of Palestine is a long standing and on-going annexation as Toine explains in his blog.

Lately I was on a comfortable hike, together with family and guests, walking from the village of Battir to the west of Bethlehem through the Wadi of Makhrour to Beit Jala where we presently live. On the way to Beit Jala we suddenly saw some young adults walking, wearing a kippah. They looked quite relaxed, maybe they carried a weapon but that was not visible.

Where we walked was in so-called area C bordering area A. Over 60% of the West Bank is area C and presently the target for upcoming colonization and annexation. For somebody interested in the functions of language like me it is revealing to see how the talk about area A, B or C, or Z (there is a restaurant in Ramallah called area D) makes Palestinian lands nameless, anonymous. Language-wise, it becomes 'empty' land ready to be taken over.

Mary, my wife, points to the nearby private lands of the mayor of Beit Jala near the valley. Over the hilltop is the place where the Makhrour restaurant was destroyed last year, taken over by the Jewish National Fund. Somehow I feel that the young settlers who walk freely bring out the message that they are entitled to not just claim but appropriate the land. Of course the settlements are nearby and I suspect that there are Israeli cameras here and there too, overseeing the beautiful olive groves. After we finished the trip Mary reads a Facebook post in which another hiker from Beit Jala noticed that she met some 'settler shepherds' along the same wadi.

An accompanier in my hike asks whether you could also not look at this as that Jews, Moslems and Christians are all traversing the land they jointly claim, as a kind of living together? Is this not a show of how all people could enjoy the same beautiful land?

I responded that the power relations of occupation did not yet allow for this beautiful and presently very utopian vision. In fact, the present Israeli Minister of Education, Bennett, of the extreme right Jewish Home party, had announced in January that, "Today we are giving great reinforcement to the Land of Israel and continuing to develop Jewish settlements in Area C. With actions, not words. In Judea and Samaria there are nature sites with incredible landscapes. We will expand the existing ones and also develop new sites. I invite all Israelis to go explore the land, to come to Judea and Samaria, to hike, to discover and to continue the Zionist project." (Note how Bennett sandwiches 'area C' between the Biblical 'Land of Israel' and 'Judea and Samaria'.

According to expectations, this week Trump will declare Israel's colonization of the West Bank as not anymore illegal and will give way to the annexation of the Jordan Valley and other parts of the West Bank. The US political stance obviously emboldens the settlement enterprise on the ground, like in Wadi Makhrour.

The AEI is working with a school in Battir where a group of 50 teenager students chose for advocacy an activity to encourage the continuing development of domestic and international Palestinian tourism in Battir, given the beautiful hiking paths there. The school, along the famous railroad, also area C is monitored by Israeli cameras and sometimes visited by bitachon [security] people.

The students feel that the project helps them to grow as personalities and better appreciate the surrounding Palestinian lands and orchards. Of course, there is the well-known thorn in the eye, the garbage thrown in or near the valley by picnickers, and the students call for cleaning it up.

In area C hardly any Palestinian police are able to function, so the area sometimes becomes a dumping grounds used by Israeli companies. Some parts of areas C have also become open to drug dealing. Annexation and taking over is prepared by making the land nameless, dangerous, dirty, lawless, and so on.

Obviously, the cleaning up of garbage thrown by locals during picnics is an issue. But most important is, according to the students, the encroaching settlement and settlers' activity which make the hiking paths deeply uncomfortable for Palestinians to travel - the construction of a new settlers road, the presence of settlers nearby the Palestinian hiking areas, the opening up of religious and archaeological places for settler tourism. The land is full of real or claimed graves of Jewish, Moslem and Christian holy persons, or sites associated with various religious events.

In Walajeh, a nearby village with a complicated history of expulsion and resettlement, and faced with many house demolitions, the villagers may soon not be able to visit a traditional picnic place near the spring of Ein Haniyeh, also in area C, since the Walajeh checkpoint will move deeper in the West Bank. In Christian religious folklore, this spring is the place where the apostle Philip baptized an Ethiopian Eunuch on the way to Gaza. The spring is presently visited by Jews and Palestinians, in the future it seems that Palestinians will not be able to visit it anymore, let alone able to develop it for tourism.

Years ago I remember that with the building of the Wall to the north of Bethlehem, the Bethlehem checkpoint moved also further south, to the urban border of Bethlehem. After some years I noticed that the area behind the checkpoint which used to be part of Bethlehem somehow became Israelized. Once it struck me while walking in that area after the Wall was built that suddenly, for the first time, I heard the loud playing of Hebrew music along the road.

In the case of Rachel's Tomb in the north of Bethlehem, annexation happens practically because people do not anymore remember what the tomb looks like, hidden as it is behind walls, while the younger generations feel it is not at all part of their living identity.

Annexation can take formally place, bad enough, but the creeping process of practical annexation is not to be overlooked.

January 26, 2020

Tags: Holy Land, Bethlehem, Rachel's Tomb, Toine Van Teeffelen, Ein Haniyeh, Annexation, Israel, Palestine

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