“If you look around the zone today, it looks like Israel”. Mahdi Qadri, the 43-year-old Palestinian resident of Ain Al Hilweh village in the Northern Jordan Valley, describes how his home-area has changed in the last decade; “Israeli roads, Israeli bill-boards, the Israeli army and Israeli settlers”, he explains, “It’s Israel all around you, but you’re not part of it. You’re trapped in the middle”. Qadri’s village is located in the middle of the area which the occupation state has announced it will annex, coming July. An announcement that began as an election promise from both Benyamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz, now officially included in their agreement to form a unity government.
Earlier at the beginning of May, eleven European ambassadors in the occupation state expressed their opposition to what they called “a clear violation of international law”. But this violation is not new. In 1980, the occupation state unlawfully annexed eastern Jerusalem, officially splitting it apart from the West Bank. In the West Bank, annexation has been already undergoing for years, thorough settlement activity. Israel’s current annexation plans are in fact the continuation of a policy, which beyond the legal and political debate, has real-life implications, that Palestinians have to deal with on a daily basis.
Strangers at home
“I’m 71 now. Since I was a child and started to have consciousness, I found myself and my father living here”, Abu Saqer replies immediately, when asked since when his family has been living in the area; “My father told me that he found his father here too, and all the others before him. We live here before Israel and even before the British mandate”.
A generations-long presence that began to be threatened when Abu Saqer was a teenager; “Right after their occupation came, they declared all this region a military zone. They shot our cattle, confiscated it, and fined us up to 1000 dinars, only for pasturing our sheep out in the hills”. Mahdi Qadri recalls the first impact of militarization; “When the occupation declared this area a military zone, they told us that our staying here was illegal. They began to treat us as if we were the foreigners and the strangers, not them”.
But occupation soon turned into colonization, as Israelí settlers began to move-in in the late eighties, creating an increasing duality between two systems with two different laws, for different types of people. “The settlements occupied the same land we were blocked from accessing” points out Qadri, “It’s not a military zone when they decide to occupy it”. Settlements began to expand, grabbing more land. But according to Abu Saqer “their surface expanded, even though they haven’t increased as much in population. It’s about the land, not the people”.
This expansion also came at the expense of available resources in the region. The Northern Jordan valley is home to hundreds of native communities historically built near or around natural water springs, providing for agriculture and cattle raising. “The valley, in general, is a huge neutral water reservoir” explains Qadri, who’s village’s name, Ain Al Hilweh, means “the sweet spring”. “People used to get water from the spring and canalize it to the village. That’s how they cultivated and lived”. But settlements changed it all. To provide them with water, the occupation authorities have dug deep wells next to the springs, pumping the water up pipe-lines to the near settlements of Roeh, Hamadat, and Beqaot. “The springs all dried up, particularly since 2006” points out Qadri, “that’s when the settlements began to expand more rapidly. Before, we used to cultivate all our fields from the spring” he adds. “Today we don’t have enough water even for a bird to drink”.
But the lack of access to water is only part of a larger pattern of a crippled existence. Palestinian communities are also forbidden from building in areas under Israeli military control, called ‘area (c) ‘ in the Oslo agreements, including the Jordan valley. “The excuse is that our communities don’t have any urban plans”, says Abu Saqer. “Even when we hired a civil engineer to draft an urban plan and presented it to the occupation authorities, they refused it”.
Forbidden to build, Palestinians limit themselves to the already-existing structures, many of which are barracks and tents. Any new structures are demolished. “At Ain Al Hilweh we all have demolition orders and any new structure is demolished immediately” says Mahdi Qadri, adding that “the occupation police have weekly monitoring patrols that come and check if we are building anything new”. Abu Saqer’s community, Al Hadidiyah, for example, has suffered demolitions on seven different occasions, “the last time in 2013, the occupation made 32 demolitions in our community in 16 days only”, says Abu Saqer.
At the same time, Israeli settlements of Roeh, Hamadat and Beqaot continue to expand right next door. When asked about their urban plans, Abu Saqer laughs spontaneously before replying: “Settlements are a state-policy, they don’t need urban plans!”.
Front line of a battle for existence
While Israeli colonization undermines the capacity of Palestinians in the Jordan valley to continue to rely on agriculture, it makes it even more difficult for young Palestinians to acquire education in their communities. “My daughter is in 7th grade” says Abu Saqer, “she walks every day 3 kilometers to the road to catch the school bus to the city of Toubas”.
Unable to build or create schools locally, and lacking educational support even from the Palestinian authority, many children in the Jordan valley miss on education. According to Mahdi Qadri, “out of 250 children in our community, only 170 go to school. For young people who find it difficult to make a living from cattle, or want to study, the only choice is to leave”.
Despite these conditions, and despite the lack of support, Palestinians in the Jordan valley continue to stand up to annexation with their own presence. “It’s a daily confrontation between them and us” says Abu Saqer, “when settlers try to take a place, we go with our tractors and start to plow the soil right in front of them, to show them that this is still Palestine”.
A confrontation that underneath the surface of legal and political rhetoric, constitutes the real flesh and bone of what annexation looks like in real life. “It is true that we feel trapped inside Israel”, insists Mahdi Qadri, “but it’s not yet done as long as settlers can see us around. We are the only obstacle in front of them”.