Palestine: Women cope with siege in Jordan Valley

Electronic Intifada

Israeli military forces have demolished 27 houses in the Jordan Valley in the occupied West Bank over the last two weeks. More than 140 Palestinians have been rendered homeless by the demolitions, while Israeli settlement expansion continues to threaten more land and restrict water access — affecting the vitality of dozens of Palestinian villages in the area. According to the Jordan Valley Solidarity (JVS) campaign, an organization working with local communities, Israeli military and police jeeps and two bulldozers invaded the Bedouin community of al-Hadidya on 21 June. The bulldozers “demolished seven residential tents, 18 animal shelters and four kitchens, leaving 32 people homeless,” the group reports (“Big wave of demolitions in the Northern Jordan Valley,” 21 June 2011).

Al-Hadidya is located near two illegal Israeli settlements, which are built partly on the village’s farmland, according to JVS. The area is surrounded by three military bases and is a designated “closed military zone” by Israeli forces. JVS adds that there have been nearly a dozen demolitions of Palestinian homes in the village since 2007 “with many of the residents having had their homes destroyed multiple times.”

After the demolition of al-Hadidya, the bulldozers drove on to nearby Khirbet Yerza, where they demolished two homes and two animal shelters. As a result ten people were left homeless,” JVS reports. The group filmed the demolition in al-Hadidya, which left the Daraghmeh family homeless, and uploaded the video to YouTube (“Khirbet Yerza Demolition,” 21 June 2011).

In the video, JVS reports that this is the second time in five months that the Daraghmeh family suffered a demolition of their home, and that the family was not given a demolition order before the destruction of their property on Tuesday.

Wave of home demolitions in the Jordan Valley

The demolitions in al-Hadidya and Khirbet Yerza come on the heels of a massive demolition inside the village of Fasayil on 14 June. The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) states in a report that more than 100 persons — including 64 children — were left homeless after Israeli forces destroyed 21 structures, including 18 homes (“Jordan Valley homes demolished, 103 left homeless,” 15 June 2011).

ICAHD co-director Itay Epshtain says in the report that the latest demolition of Fasayil “is part of an ongoing ethnic cleansing of the Jordan Valley … It is Israel’s overt policy to demolish Palestinians’ homes in the Jordan Valley to allow for land expropriation and for neighboring settlements to encroach on Palestinian land.”

Fasayil resident Khaled Abdallah Ali Ghazal added he was intent on rebuilding his destroyed home. “We have nowhere else to go, we will rebuild,” he says in the same report.

Meanwhile, on 20 June, demolition orders were handed out to Palestinian homeowners in Jiftlik, a village in the central Jordan Valley, months after Israeli officials came to “take pictures of the structures” that were listed for demolition, according to a JVS report (“3 new demolition orders in Jiftlik,” 20 June 2011).

The demolitions could happen on 11 July, JVS states, but the three families who were given the demolition orders are planning to challenge them in court.

It happens very rarely that lawyers obtain a cancellation but sometimes they obtain a freeze. It enables people to stay in their house [until] the end of the freeze,” JVS reports. If the court rejects the appeal, 17 persons could be left homeless.

State of siege in Area C

These attacks on Palestinian villages are part of a wave of home demolitions across Area C in the West Bank. Under the Oslo accords signed by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization in the mid-1990s, the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip were carved up into areas A, B and C, the last of which indicates full Israeli control.

Sixty percent of the West Bank is designated Area C, including East Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley. Under the Oslo regulations, Area C is administered and controlled by the Israeli government and its military, which has declared three-quarters of the land as “closed military zones” or nature reserves, and therefore “off-limits” to Palestinians. Approximately 40,000 Palestinians live in Area C.

At the same time, illegal Israeli settlements are continuing to expand on Palestinian land in the Jordan Valley for the benefit of Jewish settlers and Israeli agriculture, resulting in an increase in home demolitions and land appropriation.

The Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem reported recently that that there have already been more home demolitions in Area C in the first six months of 2011 than took place during all of 2010. The report states that since January more than 700 persons, including 341 children, were displaced after 103 homes were destroyed in Area C of the West Bank (“Sharp increase in West Bank home demolition,” 22 June 2011).

This is a sharp increase in home demolitions in Area C,” B’Tselem states in the report. “In 2010, by comparison, the Civil Administration demolished 86 residential structures. In 2009, the figure was 28.”

Israeli settlement and resource theft in the Jordan Valley

In an in-depth report released by B’Tselem on Israeli policy in the Jordan Valley, released in May, the organization states that 9,400 Israeli settlers live in 37 different settlement colonies in the Jordan Valley and the northern Dead Sea areas, including seven outposts not yet authorized by Israeli officialdom.

The report also finds that Israel has used the “absentee property law” enacted during the initial years of ethnic cleansing and dispossession in the 1940s and the 1967 war to take over more Palestinian land and allocate it to the settlements after Palestinians were driven out of their homes by military force and prevented from returning (“Disposession and Exploitation: Israel’s policy in the Jordan Valley and Northern Dead Sea,” 12 May 2011 [PDF]).

By the end of 2010, B’Tselem reports, the Israeli government had approved funding for the construction of dozens of housing units in two settlement colonies in the northern Jordan Valley. The government says that Jewish settler population growth in the Jordan Valley has been “modest” and is therefore trying to encourage more settlers to move into the area by providing economic incentives.

Along with the promise of cheap land in the Jordan Valley, those settlers are given massive amounts of water from the underground springs, which used to provide Palestinian communities with irrigation for abundant crops and running water in their homes year-round. Those springs have run dry in the last few years as Israeli settlements divert water systems for their own use.

In a summary of the report, B’Tselem says that those settlers are “allocated 45 million [cubic meters] of water a year from [wells], from the Jordan River, from treated wastewater and from artificial water reservoirs. This is almost one-third the quantity of water accessible to the 2.5 million Palestinians living throughout the West Bank. This generous water supply has enabled settlements to develop intensive farming methods and to work the land all year round, with most of the produce being exported” (“New report exposes scope of Israel’s economic exploitation of Jordan Valley,” 12 May 2011).

Effect of Israel’s policies on women and children

In interviews held in person in late April, residents of two villages in the Jordan Valley told The Electronic Intifada that these types of widespread demolitions and water restriction policies have a catastrophic effect on the village communities — especially on women and children.

The Electronic Intifada spoke with several women involved with the Auja-Fasayil Joint Women’s Center, a community organization based in Auja village that is helping to support local women and families with trade skills training, education and economic opportunities since Israeli policies have severely impacted farmers’ livelihoods.

Currently home to approximately 5,300 residents, Auja was known for its abundant crops of produce and grains. Farmers exported watermelons, bananas, citrus fruit and wheat to other areas in Palestine and across the border to Jordan as well. The area was famously rich with natural water springs, which would cascade down hillsides like waterfalls.

Residents told The Electronic Intifada that people had developed sustainable ways of sharing water resources amongst the communities through an intricate system of canals — some which date back to the ancient Roman era.

Our main source for livelihood was the water itself,” Suheir Nujum, 37, and a member of the center’s General Assembly, said. “But now, with the development of settlements, central areas of the canals have been confiscated. [Israel] has diverted our water with irrigation systems to the settlements.”

Just in the past several years, Nujum said, most of the village’s land has become dust-dry and barren, forcing villagers to sell their parcels of empty land to large-scale chicken farmers who sell poultry meat elsewhere in the West Bank. The income for families in the Jordan Valley, in places like Auja, Nujum explained, was dependent on community agriculture. In a dramatically short period of time, since Israel began diverting water to illegal settlements within the last decade, their lands have dried up and unemployment has skyrocketed.

We now have two options,” Nujum said. “The younger population either works with the Palestinian Authority, or works in agricultural farms in a nearby settlement.” She pointed out the shocking indignity of the latter option, as this is the first generation of indigenous people in the area to not enjoy their own economic sustainability drawn from their own land but rather forced to work on land that has been taken over and appropriated by foreign settlers.

Israel is not allowing us to survive as people in Auja. They’re taking it away from us,” she added.

Now we can’t grow the grain to feed the sheep”

Nujum said that the effect on women under this type of stress has become significant. “Women in Auja and other communities in the Jordan Valley are very well-educated,” she told The Electronic Intifada. “Many of us have finished college. But there are limited opportunities for women to generate income for our families, so that is why we built this community center.”

However we used to be entirely self-sufficient. We used to have livestock, and we would feed them with grain that we grew,” Nujum said. “Now, we can’t grow the grain to feed the sheep. We don’t have sheep to make dairy products. There used to be so many options for feeding your family. So the women — well-educated women — are at home without jobs. We used to work side-by-side with the men on the land.”

Umm Hamza, 47, the center’s public relations officer, told The Electronic Intifada that she was formerly a farmer, along with her husband. Now that the water has been diverted to the nearby settlement, both she and her husband have been unemployed. “If you look at it, it’s all intertwined,” she said. “Our children used to take care of the land. Now there’s nothing for them. The land used to bring the whole family together to take part in farming. We didn’t need anyone from the outside to help us.”

These days, she said, the community is dependent on finding menial labor jobs from outside the village to bring in income, and women must buy lower-quality, imported produce at high prices in order to feed their families.

Umm Hamza also said that water for drinking, bathing, cooking and irrigation now must be brought in by truck, and bought from the Israeli water company Mekorot. The company is known for its discriminatory water policies and regularly cuts off water supplies to Palestinians across the West Bank, especially in the Jordan Valley.

The water is filthy,” Umm Hamza explained. “Our children are getting sick from drinking it. And sometimes we wait days or months without water in the village.”

Umm Hamza and Nujum said that villagers in Auja and Fasayil are forced to pay Mekorot for the distribution of unclean water, while just a short time ago, abundant water used to be clean enough to drink from the canals and agricultural crops were well-irrigated.

Nujum said that everything has dramatically changed in her village. As her family and community struggle against the next home demolition, settlement encroachment or water cut-off, she explained that working alongside other women in similar situations at the women’s center is empowering, but that something needs to be done about Israel’s devastating policies in the Jordan Valley before it’s too late.

We used to live the best life, with what we had here — from our own sources. We’d love to go back to our tradition of working on our land. It was our main source of income, it was a way of life. It wasn’t too long ago that we had this life, and now it’s all gone.”

Nora Barrows-Friedman is an award-winning independent journalist, and is a staff writer and editor for The Electronic Intifada. She also writes for Inter Press Service, Al Jazeera, Truthout and other outlets, and regularly reports from Palestine.

Siham Rashid translated for this article.