Israel today evacuated a Palestinian tent village in the sensitive E1 area near Jerusalem, invoking military powers to shut down the nonviolent demonstration despite a temporary court injunction against dismantling the camp. (Editor's note: The original version misstated the nature of the court injunction.)
Palestinians established the Bab Al-Shams village two days ago, pointedly mirroring a tactic used by some Israeli settlers to establish facts on the ground, to protest the steady expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. It’s part of what they hope will become a broader nonviolent movement to pressure Israel.
“We have to move from reaction to taking the initiative, as we did with this activity,” said Mohammed Khatib, a protest leader from the town of Bilin and one of the protests at Bab Al-Shams. “I think it will be an inspiration and a turning point for Palestinians to participate in this activity.”
Israel signaled that it was unwilling to tolerate nonviolent protest in E1, citing security concerns. But while E1 is among the most poignant and provocative locations Palestinian protesters could have chosen, critics of the Israeli government’s crackdown say it hardly amounted to a security threat.
“Is this going to incite the local goat population to sedition?” asks Daniel Seidemann, an Israeli attorney and founder of Terrestrial Jerusalem, which tracks developments that could jeopardize a two-state solution. “It is transparent that this was a use of military authority in order to thwart a nonviolent and legitimate political protest.”
Crucial patch of land
E1 is a crucial connector between Jerusalem and one of the largest Jewish settlements in the West Bank, Maale Adumim, which Israel would like to retain under any peace agreement with the Palestinians. It is also highly controversial, since critics say it would effectively divide the West Bank in two; the narrow corridor for north-south traffic that would remain, they contend, would be impractical in many cases and potentially vulnerable to Israeli closures for security reasons.
Last month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Israel would revive plans to develop E1, eliciting an unusually strong statement of disapproval from the US State Department. The move was seen as both punishing the Palestinians for pursuing statehood recognition in the United Nations, and bolstering Mr. Netanyahu’s standing with right-wing voters ahead of Jan. 22 elections.
Netanyahu had appeared to quietly back off those plans in recent weeks, but the events in Bab Al-Shams village revived the issue. After weeks of polls showing that he was rapidly losing ground to Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett, who advocates settlement and opposes a Palestinian state, Netanyahu took swift action.
"I immediately called for the area to be closed off so there would not be large gatherings there that could cause friction and breach the public order," said Netanyahu in his weekly cabinet meeting today, according to a translation by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. "We will not let anyone block the continuum between Jerusalem and Maale Adumim."
A tourist destination?
The Palestinians had presented the village to Israel’s High Court of Justice as a tourist destination to learn about Bedouin culture, and had secured a temporary court injunction barring evacuation unless there was an urgent security threat.
But Israel countered over the weekend that the Palestinians had misrepresented the project and ordered all the protesters off the land until it could be determined whether it was indeed private Palestinian property, as the protesters claimed.
“An urgent evacuation is needed because of urgent security concerns in order to prevent a serious breach of public order,” wrote Osnat Mandel, a senior official in the state attorney’s office, according to Haaretz.
Mr. Seidemann says the E1 area, like many areas of the West Bank, had been declared state land – a common occurrence when no firm claims of private ownership can be made. Even within the E1 area, however, there are pockets of private ownership, says Seidemann, adding that he doesn’t know for sure the status of the land where the Bab Al-Shams village was established.
But despite the evacuation at around 2 this morning, Mr. Khatib says he sees Bab Al-Shams – named after a Lebanese novel about the yearning of Palestinians for a state of their own – as a success.
“The tents are still there,” he says, adding that a powerful message has been conveyed to the international community. “This shows the reality of the occupation forces, how they deal with [protests], how they use violence.”