Just about a year ago, the little farming community of Al Bwera, located on the outskirts of Hebron, got some new neighbors. For around 20 years they’ve been living by the large Givat Harsina Settlement that, while illegal by international law, has been allowed and supported by the state of Israel. This settlement is insulated by a “buffer zone” comprised of an approximately 400-yard strip of former farmland that now resides behind a tall barbed wire fence.
At some point last year, a new dirt road was constructed out of the back of the suburban Givat Harsina Settlement, through Palestinian farmland, and up to the top of a nearby hill. Subsequently, a trailer appeared and what was known as a Settlement Outpost was established. These Outposts tend to spring up on the outskirts of Settlements and in a strategic fashion for circling farmlands and connecting the already existing larger Settlements.
The Settlement Outposts are completely illegal by everyone’s perspective, including the Israeli government. Well, sort of.
This particular Outpost was reported to the authorities, who did in fact come, declare it illegal, and place a demolition order on the Outpost. Later, the Israeli Army arrived with battle forces and bulldozers and ended up having a standoff with this group of Israeli Settlers. The standoff did end up with the demolition of the trailer, but not before a military jeep was overturned and burned. No arrests of the Israeli Settlers took place, even though they staged an armed resistance to the military and destroyed military property.
Within the week, the Settlers had returned with a new trailer and reestablished themselves on the site, with the charred remains of the jeep standing at the entrance of their compound like some macabre trophy. The army and the Israeli government did not bother to return to actually remove this group or return the property to the Palestinian landowners.
Last week while monitoring this area and providing a protective presence for the school children, we observed another interesting phenomenon. A large military bulldozer (identified by my friend Simon as a Caterpillar 950 Articulated Front End Loader) was moving gigantic scoops of rocks and building up a five-foot tall barrier between the Settler road and the Palestinian road. We asked the soldiers on the side of the road what the bulldozer was doing, to which they replied that it was erecting a security barrier. When we asked them for what purpose, they said, "to protect the Settlers."What is particularly revealing about this situation is that military personnel using military equipment were actively engaged in fortifying an illegal Settlement Outpost. While it may appear contradictory for the military to be assisting in establishing something that is technically illegal, this is actually part of a larger Israeli policy that the state itself refers to as “Facts on the Ground.”
In practical terms, the state of Israel has shown no indication that it wants to relinquish any control over the West Bank. On the contrary, it seems to want to annex large sections of this land to become a permanent part of Israel. The most famous expression of this intention came from then cabinet member Ariel Sharon who, addressing the Israeli public said, “everybody has to move, run and grab as many hilltops as they can to enlarge the settlements, because everything we take now will stay ours… everything we don’t grab will go to them.”
They primary way land is claimed here in the Occupied Palestinian Territories is by these Settlement Outposts which then become recognized by Israel and gradually fortified with security barriers, permanent roads, and utilities. Quickly they become verifiable “Facts on the Ground;” homes and infrastructure built by Israelis for Israelis. The argument during Peace talks then goes, “why shouldn’t these Israeli developments be part of Israel?”
In light of these ever-growing “Facts on the Ground,” the internationally recognized Green Line boundary between Israel and Palestine becomes more and more theoretical. What is tragic is that there are some other facts on the ground, some facts not accounted for or frequently noted. They are the facts of individuals and families displaced from their homes, they are the facts of the children we walk with daily who are growing up with fear and resentment in their hearts, there are the facts of whole populations entering into the roles of victim and victimizer, and both being dehumanized in the process.
There is much sadness here, but I’m glad that there is still yet another set of facts on the ground. There is the fact that a sizeable minority of Israeli citizens resists the cultural and institutional norms of their society and instead works for just policies in their government. There is the fact that the vast majority of Palestinians rejects violence and instead engages in the hard work of peaceful protest. It is these last few facts that encourage me and give me the hope and strength and courage to face the pervasive conflict and sadness in this land.