Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 10 December 2014
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade
Palestine and Israel: Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel
Mr. Patrick Costello:
I have recently returned from the EAPPI placement in Bethlehem where I lived and worked for three months. There are a variety of chores which include supporting Palestinian children with access to education, observing the situation at checkpoint 300 in Bethlehem which is one of the largest in the West Bank. One of the main chores is working across the Bethlehem Governorate supporting the local villages. Two of the most pressing issues which are inter-related with these villages are the actions of the Israeli Government in terms of settlement building and the actions of the settlers themselves. I shall speak about those two issues which are inter-related but I will split them into Government actions and the settler actions.
Bethlehem is about 5 km from Jerusalem and is cut off entirely from Jerusalem by the illegal separation barrier that runs across the north of Jerusalem and down to the east around Beit Jala so that it is sandwiched and is open only to the south and to the east. During my time in Bethlehem the Israeli Government announced the confiscation of 4,000 dunams of Palestinian land. This was described by the Israeli NGO, Peace Now, as the largest land confiscation in over 30 years. The land would come from the areas surrounding five Palestinian villages, Al Jab‘a, Surif, Wadi Fukin, Husan and Nahalin, all of which we worked in and had close contacts. When this was announced we reached to these villages to find out what was happening on the ground. We called our local contact, Nasser El Din in Al Jab’a who was incredulous. He said this could not be happening here as they have already taken all our land. We arranged to meet him the next day or the following day and he admitted that it was happening, that they were taking their land. They had already taken so much of the farm land in the village but they were coming back for what was left. He was heartbroken. He said, "We struggle to save money for years to buy one dunam of land and they come and take 4,000 in the blink of an eye". All of this land is lost. It will soon be surrounded by state land which will eventually become a new settlement. These confiscations have been accompanied by road closures, closing the road that connects the village to its neighbouring village Surif. Road blocks were being put on them in the name of security cutting Palestinian freedom of movement.
One of the other villages badly affected was Wadi Fukin in the north of the Bethlehem Governorate which is already squeezed between the Green Line and the Settlement of Beitar Illit. The Settlement of Beitar Illit rises above it, similar to Benbulben, as a giant hill with about 45,000 settlers living in it compared to a population of 1,300 in the village of Wade Fukin. The head of the village council, whom we met on numerous occasions, Ahmed Sukkar, explained that most of the land being confiscated was land further down the valley that was the village farm land. This village, like most Palestinian villages, has huge levels of unemployment and relies on agriculture and selling the produce grown in the fields. Some 70% of the village’s economy is based on selling what is grown on the farm land, land that will soon be lost. This will utterly devastate the village. Given its position, squeezed between the Green Line and the Settlement, Ahmed Sukkar described it as similar to living in a giant prison.
It is important to realise that the confiscation of the 4,000 dunams comes on the back of the confiscation of 1,000 dunams in the region in April. Between the two of these and lands previously taken, such as the lands Nasser El Din mentioned, there is a huge contiguous piece of land that stretches from Beitar Illit to Gvaot right down to Kfar Etzion which was one of the first settlements built in the region in 1967. The president of the Gush Etzion Council was very positive about what was happening. Gush Etzion is the settler council and essentially he is the settler mayor in the area. He described with great joy in the Israeli press how Gvaot was going to be a new city for the settlers in the Gush Etzion area. With the confiscation there was constant expansion of the settlements. Beitar Illit was building a new hill to continue its growth. A flat settlement was growing constantly while we were there. There was never any type of settlement for these whatsoever.
The Jerusalem municipality announced the building of 2,500 homes in Givat Hamatoswhich is just inside the Green Line but north of Bethlehem, so it is in the area where land is already lost on the other side of the wall. In the past few days before the Government was dissolved before the election, the finance committee diverted huge moneys into settlement buildings away from other services such as education and quickly dissolved parliament so that nobody could do anything about it.
It is important to remember that these settlements are illegal under the Geneva Convention. Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention states clearly that "The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies." This expansion, coupled with the land confiscations undermines the ability of these villages to survive, pushing Palestinians off the land, which is also illegal under Article 49. The continued growth of settlements is not just a threat to the two state solution but is also an ongoing war crime under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. Ireland as a signatory of the Geneva Convention has a responsibility to act on war crimes. That was the Government action. We then had action by the individual settlers and the individual settler communities.
One of the obvious aspects is the growth of illegal outposts. These outposts are rudimentary settlements built by settlers. They are illegal under Israeli law as well as international law, but little is done to dismantle them. They can start as a tent or a trailer and slowly grow from there until there is a full settlement with buildings growing and taking over more of the land. The outpost covers more than just the footprint of the tent or caravan because they would set up a security exclusion zone around it. So they are very significant in taking over land.
One of the most significant of these outposts is Khallet Annahla, which is just south of the main municipal area of Bethlehem. This piece of land was under court dispute and instead of waiting for the court decision, settlers went and built a tent on land that was privately owned by a Palestinian farmer. This action was condemned by the courts. Things they had done, including opening a new road, were declared illegal. Still it was not dismantled by the army or police. There are no attempts to move it on. Khallet Annahla is very important because if a settlement is built there it starts to cut off Bethlehem from the south. Bethlehem is cut off from the north and the west. Khallet Annahla and linking through to Tekoa provides a block at the bottom to block it off from the south.
To the east of Bethlehem there is a former Israeli military base. When the Israeli army left in 2006 the Palestinian Authority tried to acquire it to turn it into a hospital. It has been taken over by a group called "the women for Israel's tomorrow" also known, as the women in green. They are attempting to establish a presence here calling the development "Shdema". Their website refers to the importance of Shdema as providing a contiguous path from Jerusalem to Har Homa, a large settlement in east Jerusalem just north of Bethlehem, into Shdema and down to Tekoa and Nokdim, which are slightly further south. They emphasise that it is important to create a unified presence of the settlements which would cut off Bethlehem to the east.
Around the Gush Etzion area, villages such as Wadi Fukinare are essentially surrounded by settlements. This is repeated across the West Bank in places such as Yanoun, but this is now Bethlehem that will be surrounded, cut off and choked. Bethlehem is one of the largest and most ancient of the Palestinian cities. It has always been a significant Palestinian city and will now be at serious risk of being surrounded by settlers and choked from any further growth or development. This is a significant deterioration and undermines any sort of two-state solution. If we believe a two-state solution is fair and want to work towards it, the settlement building will totally destroy it.
Alongside this are the violence and harassment we have witnessed from the settler community. As the settlements grow so do the violence and harassment from the settlers and the army. Article 27 of the 4th Geneva convention states that an occupying power has a responsibility to protect against threats and acts of violence towards civilians and their property. I have witnessed the failure to protect Palestinians from settler violence which constitutes a breach of Article 27 and this will be further exacerbated by the increased settlement expansion. There are clear violations of international law throughout the area.