From the Worldwide Faith News archives

[PCUSANEWS] Israelis caught dozing

Date 8 Jan 2003 15:59:28 -0500

Note #7554 from PCUSA NEWS to PRESBYNEWS:

Israelis caught dozing
January 6, 2003

Israelis caught dozing

Some Holy Land quarrels are rooted in bitter property disputes

by Alexa Smith

BEIT SAHOUR, West Bank - Issa Rishmawi woke up one morning to discover
Israeli bulldozers plowing a road through his field.

He hadn't seen it or heard it because his fields are on the outskirts of Beit
Sahour, just under the bluff where Latin Catholics say the shepherds heard
the angels sing.

These ancient towns, Beit Sahour and Bethlehem, are side-by-side, so close
that only a local can tell where one ends and the other begins.

There is no singing in these fields now. 

Here the only sound is that of bulldozers churning up dirt to cut the first
phase of the Israeli government's security wall, now under construction on
the West Bank. It will run north from Bethlehem, swallowing up land from an
estimated 80 Palestinian towns.

The wall, which will cost tens of millions of dollars to build, will be
supplemented by electric fences, trenches, security cameras and electronic
sensors, and will be patrolled regularly by security personnel. It is
annexing Palestinian land where it will - not following at all the invisible
"Green Line" that ostensibly separates Israel from Palestine under
international law.

A number of human-rights groups, including the Israeli organization called
B'Tselem, are busily documenting the Israeli violations.

That's why Rishmawi isn't hurrying to the town line to see what has been

He's afraid of the Israeli soldiers who for the past two years have been
almost omnipresent, sweeping into Beit Sahour no fewer than six times.

Since a November suicide bombing in Jerusalem, an Israeli curfew has kept the
town's 30,000 residents under house arrest, excepting only a cursory
Christmastime respite. The people of Beit Sahour have been unable to leave
their homes, take a walk, shop or go to work. Only once in a while, on no
discernable schedule, is the curfew lifted for a few hours at a time.

Rishmawi has heard "through the grapevine" that the bulldozers changed their
direction and gouged their way onto a neighbor's property with a less severe
slope. But he's still out of luck. He can't plant beans or pluck fruits from
the almond and olive trees on his plot because no one is permitted to use
land within 75 meters of any part of the wall.

"So it means I can't even go to the land," he says with a shrug. "I can't use

Rishmawi claims he has never received a notice, letter, court order, cash
settlement offer, nothing at all, from the Israeli government that is cutting
an ugly swath through his land.

Now and then he gets a phone call from a fellow Sahourian, updating him on
the bulldozers' wanderings.

Although Rishmawi doesn't make his living farming (he's president of the
Palestinian Tennis Association), he observes that he and his neighbors in
Beit Sahour enjoy growing olives and almonds on their own land; they like
tilling their own soil.

"It gives you a special feeling," he says, explaining about the town's long
history of olive-growing and shepherding.

The city administration in Beit Sahour was planning to file suit in the
matter, but that case appears to have been trumped by a bigger problem: The
Israeli army has ordered the demolitions of eight apartment buildings, and
rejected two appeals in military courts. So the people whose land has been
bulldozed have been put on hold while officials defend the 40 Palestinian
families whose apartments are to be destroyed.

The demolition case is to be argued before the High Court of Justice, the
Israeli equivalent of the U.S. Supreme Court, on Feb. 21, according to Jowad
Boulus, the attorney representing Beit Sahour.

Danny Zaidman, an American-born Israeli attorney, says he has argued lots of
cases like this one - and lost the vast majority of them.

At the moment Zaidman is representing a family on the other end of Bethlehem
that is living in a house that seems likely to fall on the Israeli side of
the wall.

There, on the northern edge of Bethlehem - where the road to Jerusalem passes
the tomb traditionally said to be that of the Hebrew matriarch Rachel - no
construction has begun. Yet. The tomb itself is heavily fortified. It is used
for military operations. The Jerusalem road is blocked off with concrete
barriers, forcing drivers to use a smaller road to get to the city.

The Israeli government says without apology that it intends to annex the holy
site to Jerusalem, stretching the wall, and the borders of Jerusalem, until
they actually reach inside the current city boundary of Bethlehem.

"It is not going to be possible to stop these seizure orders," Zaidman says
with the air of someone who has been around that block before. "You can,
perhaps, change it, to minimize the damage. You can take (the army) on in the
places where they deviate from the map. You can engage the military
authorities to move the road 100 yards this way or that, to save this or that

"But it is rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. There is zero chance
of stopping this. It is happening, and it is going to happen. 

"But people (outside of the West Bank) do not understand the severity of
what's happening (in terms of the human) casualties."  

Staff members at the Applied Research Institute-Jerusalem (ARIJ), whose
office is actually in Bethlehem, butting up against the contested property at
the town's northern edge, say they do understand. And they have been trying
to say so in as concise a way as possible on their Internet site,, but have provoked little response around the globe.

ARIJ monitors changes in the West Bank's environment, geography and
demographics. The wall's construction promises to have profound effects in
all three areas.

"The problem that nobody wanted to (hear about) is going to happen," Jad
Isaac says. "Now everybody is seeing it."

To Isaac and his staff, what is happening in Beit Sahour is just an instance
of what is happening all over the West Bank - a land-grab, plain and simple.
The Israelis, he says, are taking as much uninhabited land from the
Palestinians as they can. The security wall is just one more instrument for
accomplishing it.

In the past two years alone, as reflected in the maps made by ARIJ, Israelis
have expanded 45 settlements on the West Bank, started 24 new ones and
established 113 new outposts - all clearly forbidden by international law.
The Geneva Conventions specify that occupying nations may not settle its
citizens on territory held by military force. Yet, according to Isaac, such
outposts are easily begun and, once begun, hard to uproot. A site is settled
by people in portable trailers and replaced gradually with permanent housing.

"One of the driving forces of this wall is the migration that's taking
place," Isaac says. "All of the areas taken are open space. The Israelis are
targeting Palestinian land, not populated areas. It is a colonization scheme,
loud and clear."

To Beit Sahour's mayor, Fuad Kokaly, this is all very bad news. He's a
forward-looking 40-year-old who would like to think that his three young sons
may one day raise families in Beit Sahour. The West Bank town has a
well-educated, middle-class Christian majority, and it features in regional
folklore because it has an essential tie to Bethlehem: It is the site of the
shepherd's fields.

	From the flat roof of the Kokaly house, it is easy to see how the
hillsides are being gobbled up. A huge settlement, Har Homa, crowns a ridge
to the left. To the right there are security roads (tracing the wall's
eventual path) that slice their way through olive groves. Over the ridge lies
fields like Rishmawi's. And the apartment complex with a demolition order
hanging over it.

When he was a child, Kokaly says, the hill where the settlement now stands
was one of the few bits of green space in this rocky terrain.

"I always look to that place and feel very sad," he says. "They are stealing
our land, and we can't do anything.They are creating more and more reason for
conflict. My children will be in conflict with them in the future because
they are taking all the land.  The settlers will be in big cities and we
will be in small villages, surrounded by these roads that we are forbidden to
build around. Palestinians will never forget that."

Kokaly served time in an Israeli jail during the Intifada of 20 years ago, a
fact that wins him some respect.

Beit Sahour has pursued industrial development. It has a few factories,
although most of them are in various stages of decline because of the
continual curfews and work stoppages.

In the early 1990s, the town had a verbal agreement with the Israeli
government for the creation of an industrial park on the outskirts of town;
but then the Oslo peace agreement was signed, giving the Israelis security
control of the area. The joint Israeli-Palestinian committee that was to sign
off on the site never got around to it. When the current Intifada started,
two years ago, many normal governmental processes came to a screeching halt.

Now the security wall is slicing up much of the land previously set aside for
industrial growth.

"The Israelis do not want us to create jobs here," Kokaly says. "They want us
for cheap labor. For 30 years of occupation, they did not want us to develop,
to depend on ourselves."

So, very little land is left for city planning. The land to the north is
occupied by Bedouin groups.

The churches - especially the Greek Orthodox Church - own huge tracts of
land, including the acreage that surrounds the shepherds' fields. Making the
holy sites a mixed blessing.

According to Kokaly, many farmers deeded property over to the churches during
Turkish rule, to avoid being taxed on their lands. Over the years, through
death and immigration, the properties accrued to the churches. The disputed
apartment complex is the outcome of what Kokaly calls "hard negotiations"
with the Orthodox Church. The project was launched in 1995 and initially was
meant to include 120 units for Beit Sahour families. A community association
is renting property from the Orthodox on a lease that is to run for nearly a
century. Some families are already living there.

Passing the site in a city truck, Kokaly waves at the olive groves scattered
over the hillsides, all owned by the Greek Orthodox.

"The land here is not holy," he says. "What is holy is the people, not the
land. It is a problem. We can't expand. The numbers in our population mustn't
increase. So, in 15 years, we'll still be the same. And what will happen?

"Immigration. Immigration. Immigration." 

That's the last thing Kokaly and other Sahourians want.

"Our children will not have land to build, farm or develop, pushing people
into voluntary immigration. This is Israeli policy.

 If the middle-class Christian population is pushed out, Kokaly says, the
less-educated and impoverished Palestinians who stay behind will be easier to

The subtext in the housing-complex debate is this fear of a future scarcity
of housing.

The army says the city ought to have obtained a permit before beginning
construction of the apartment complex. Boulos will argue before the Israeli
high court that it needed no such permit because Israel's security interest
does not supersede a municipality's right to license buildings under its

This is the court of last appeal.

It is not the first case in which Beit Sahour has found itself at odds with
the Israeli government. In 1988, the town withheld its taxes from the
government to protest the occupation, borrowing the slogan from the Boston
Tea Party: "No taxation without representation."

In that case, a curfew was imposed for 45 days. There were arrests, raids,
confiscations of property. But nothing shook loose much of the tax money.

Now the citizens of Beit Sahour pay their taxes to the Palestinian Authority.

"The money (the Israeli government) wants us to pay now," Rishmawi says,
referring to the back taxes, "we'd have to sell our houses - our children.
And we still wouldn't have enough."

But that's an old problem. There is a more urgent one now: the earth-moving
equipment of the Israelis. "The bulldozers, the caterpillars, are working
creating that wall, the fence, the trench, another fence, another trench,"
Isaac says. "Even Christmas Eve, the bulldozers were working here, expanding
the fence.

"They're working day and night."

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