Palestinian settlements: Political irony, existential cruelty

By Harry Hagopian
10 Feb 2013

Until quite recently, two questions, at least, were being asked of Palestinians still residing in the occupied territories that comprise East Jerusalem, the West Bank, with both its northern and southern flanks as well as Gaza.

The first question was whether the illegal Jewish settlements being constructed on occupied Palestinian lands by Israeli radical or biblical ideologues - and incidentally with Palestinian labour in desperate need of income - will inevitably ruin their legitimate dream for an independent, sovereign and contiguous state called Palestine?

The second was whether Palestinians would look around them, notice the uprisings that are still - with all their warts, excesses or bigotries - seeking dignity and socio-economic justice region-wide and launch their own uprising against occupation? Or will they simply forfeit their dream whilst sitting under the remaining olive trees and lamenting their fates, let alone divisions?

Many sense that the success of the first Palestinian Intifada and the failure of the second Intifada had taken the wind out of most Palestinian sails and the peoples of this land had almost woefully accepted their fate as no better or worse than that of other fellow Arab men, women and children.

However, it seems that a novel form of protest against illegal settlements has started to take root in Palestinian political culture. Whether it will last the course is another ambitious question. For now though, it seems that Palestinians have found a way of challenging Israeli settlement-occupation with their own ‘settlements’ that are sometimes described as villages.

The difference - and it is a crucially important difference - is that Israeli constructions take place on occupied lands and are therefore illegal under International law - irrespective of what the likes of the Israeli caretaker Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu or ha-Bayit ha-Yehudi (Jewish Home) Party leader Naftali Bennet might care to opine - whereas Palestinians are merely re-creating their symbolic villages on their own disjointed but ancestral lands.

Of course every time those Palestinians manage to outfox the Israeli services and plant their villages - anything from temporary huts to tents - the media gets interested long enough for the ‘villagers’ to be evicted or dispersed by the army.

This movement of settlers (or should I say villagers) started in earnest last January when Palestinians put up a 24-tent protest camp on disputed land on the eastern outskirts of Jerusalem. They dubbed it Bab al-Shams ('Gate of the Sun' in Arabic) in consonance with a novel in 1998 of the same name by the Lebanese author and playwright Elias Khoury.

They yearned to draw attention to Israeli plans to build in the area known as E1 that could separate Jerusalem from the whole West Bank, let alone cleave the northern and southern flanks of the West Bank and render the emergence of any viable Palestinian entity - call it a state, a statelet or even a hamlet - even less tenable.

This was followed by a second initiative later in the same month when activists once more set up an encampment of four tents and a structure under construction to protest against Israeli intentions to confiscate land near Beit Iksa in the northwest of Jerusalem. They named this second ramshackle encampment Bab al-Karama or 'Gate of Dignity.'

Finally, residents set up four temporary huts and three tents near Burin, south of Nablus (in the northern West Bank). Their new ‘neighbourhood’ was called Al-Manatir which in Arabic denotes the traditional stone huts Palestinians built in their agricultural lands and which were used as shelter for the watchmen of the fields. The choice of this location, according to one of the intrepid activists in this movement, Abir Kopty, is the fact that Burin has lost much of its lands to Israeli settlements such as the religious Har-Bracha ('Mount of Blessings') one.

Will this movement spearheaded by a committee of activists manage to continue its surreptitious activities and in so doing highlight the struggle of Palestinian men and women to decolonise their lands and regain their statehood - not so much on paper or in the corridors of the UN General Assembly, but rather in the rural and urban suburbs of Palestinian lands? Will it fire up our collective political imaginations in the process too? Or will those Palestinians simply be outsmarted by the Israeli security forces who will nip in the bud this form of non-violent protest too?

I do not know the answer, since I am no prophet in a land abundant with ancient or modern prophets. However, what I can say is that those three attempts - whether Bab el Shams, Bab el Karama and Al-Manatir - are potent reminders that an occupying power can build its own illegal settlements on appropriated lands and get away with it whilst its original owners are forcibly prevented from doing so. This is not only a fierce case of political irony but one of existential cruelty too.

In the final analysis, I suggest that Israeli politicians should forsake their land-grab policies and in the process help sow the seeds of hope and peace for two peoples who vie for legitimacy and rights over the same small parcel of land. After all, it is almost axiomatic that citizenry rights are redundant unless they are vested with sovereignty too.

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© Harry Hagopian is an international lawyer, ecumenist and EU political consultant. He also acts as a Middle East and inter-faith advisor to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales and as Middle East consultant to ACEP (Christians in Politics) in Paris. He is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/HarryHagopian). Formerly an Executive Secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee and Executive Director of the Middle East Council of Churches, he is now an international fellow, Sorbonne III University, Paris, consultant to the Campaign for Recognition of the Armenian Genocide (UK), Ecumenical consultant to the Primate of Armenian Church in UK & Ireland, and author of The Armenian Church in the Holy Land. Dr Hagopian’s own website is www.epektasis.net Follow him on Twitter here: @harryhagopian

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