Eviction of Bab Al Shams exposes Israel as a lawless state
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was clearly troubled by the establishment of Bab Al Shams, a Palestinian protest village erected on privately-owned Palestinian land, the planned route of what Israel calls the “E-1” corridor in the occupied West Bank.
The E-1 area was to be capstone of Israel’s settler-colonial enterprise, a long segment of housing units expanding east from the Jews-only mega-settlement of Maale Adumim, permanently severing East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank and virtually slicing the West Bank in half. And now, 400 Palestinians and their supporters stood directly in the way of the plan.
“We will not allow anyone to touch the corridor between Jerusalem and Maaleh Adumim,” Netanyahu declared (“Israeli security forces evacuate activists from Palestinian tent outpost in E-1 area,” Haaretz, 13 January).
On 12 January, Netanyahu dispatched a lawyer from the justice ministry to the high court to argue for the immediate eviction of Bab Al Shams. Despite the government’s vehement objections to the presence of the Palestinian village, the high court issued a temporary injunction preventing its eviction for six days pending further deliberations.
As the clock struck midnight on Saturday night, Netanyahu summoned his lawyers to author a statement overriding the high court. Treating the court’s ruling as a mere suggestion, the Israeli justice ministry concocted a justification that was as ludicrous as it was predictable: “There is an urgent security need to evacuate the area of the people and tents,” it claimed, suggesting without evidence that a few hundred unarmed activists presented a grave threat to public safety.
I arrived at the site of Bab Al Shams about two hours before Netanyahu ordered its eviction. The main entrances to the tent encampment were sealed off by squads of Israeli police. A police commander told me and other journalists that no reporters were allowed inside the area. Though he claimed to hold a formal order from the military, he failed to produce any kind of documentation.
An Israeli journalist told me he had been told earlier in the evening by Israeli army GOC Central Commander Nitzan Alon that he was free to travel anywhere in the West Bank, but that “this [Bab Al Shams] was something different.”
In order to enter Bab Al Shams, me and three colleagues had to first navigate the narrow, pothole-scarred roads of al-Zaim, an impoverished Palestinian town severed from the rest of the Jerusalem municipality by Israel’s separation wall and a checkpoint. Though al-Zaim is already an overcrowded, under-serviced ghetto prevented from expanding to meet the needs of a growing population, the construction of the E-1 corridor would enclose it on all sides, consolidating its isolation and forced immiseration.
At a muddy field strewn with trash at the outskirts of al-Zaim, we climbed out of a small car and hiked towards Bab Al Shams, walking for 3 kilometers along a craggy path in the bone-chilling cold. There were no signs of any army presence on our way, only vehicle caravans heading out of the village to gather more supplies for the next day.
When we arrived at the base of the tent encampment, we found Palestinian National Initiative Chairman Mustafa Barghouti giving an interview to one of many international news outlets embedded in the village. Barghouti had helped provide Bab Al Shams with medical supplies, supplementing a growing infrastructure that included an Internet hotspot and a kitchen.
At the entrance of the village, I found about a dozen residents of Bilin village huddled around a campfire, sipping coffee and smoking cigarettes. “Forget about the food,” Billin popular committee leader Abdallah Abu Rahme joked. “If we don’t have cigarettes and coffee we won’t survive a night here.”
For almost eight years, the popular struggle had been focused in rural villages near the Green Line, the 1949 armistice line marking the boundary between Israel and the occupied West Bank. Residents in these areas have waged a relentless unarmed struggle against the separation wall.
In the past year, activists began to take their tactics beyond the weekly ritual of village-based protests, organizing creative direct actions like the blocking of settler access roads and a raucous protest in the Rami Levy settlement supermaket. Bab Al Shams was evidence of the new era of protest in Palestine, attracting Palestinian activists from inside Israel and from northern West Bank cities like Nablus and Jenin not normally associated with the popular struggle.
I spoke to Hamde Abu Rahme, a videographer from Bilin, about the progression of protest tactics from the embryonic phase of the popular struggle to the birth of Bab Al Shams.
“The people here have so much practice with resistance over the years, and that explains our success,” Abu Rahme told me. “We have a strong system of organization and of deciding what we all want, how to best handle the army, and how to make sure everyone’s needs are looked after. With all the roads closed, it wasn’t easy to make this village happen, but people still came through the mountains and were willing to stay here for three days without enough food, without shower, in the freezing cold. You can see that people really want to be here, that they are not acting because they have to be here.”
Abir Kopty, a Palestinian feminist and human rights activist serving as spokesperson for the Popular Struggle Coordination Committee, challenged the widely reported notion that Bab Al Shams was simply a Palestinian version of an Israeli “settlement” or “outpost.”
“There is a huge difference here,” she told me. “We are building on our own land unlike the settlers who are occupying and grabbing land that isn’t theirs.”
At the same time, Kopty conceded that organizers of the protest village were reacting directly to Israel’s colonial tactics.
“I do admit that we want to change the rules of the game,” she said. “Israel has been imposing facts on the ground and we are doing exactly the same. We want to impose facts on our land. So, yes, it might seem that we have taken a model from them but the difference is that we are building on our land and we are not taking others’ land and building on it.”
At around 12:30am, I rode out of Bab Al Shams in the back of a pickup truck loaded to the gills with journalists and activists. We had no idea whether the army was set to raid tonight, or if it might wait another day. With the news that the high court had issued a temporary injunction against the eviction, we assumed the government would wait to secure formal permission. We were wrong.
Towards the end of the rocky path leading into Bab Al Shams, and just outside al-Zaim, we barreled by a detachment of Israeli border police officers milling around a group of jeeps. It was clear now that the raid was imminent, and that even if we wanted to re-enter Bab Al Shams, there was no way back inside.
Two hours later some 500 border police troops in full riot gear marched into Bab Al Shams and carried its inhabitants away by force. According to reports from some of the 150 or activists inside, the police attacked journalists, pushing them to the periphery of the encampment so they could not record the brutality. Photos of those injured during the raid suggest that the police severely assaulted those who refused to leave quietly. Six Palestinians, including the artist and activist Hafez Omar (a photograph of injured Omar is circulating on Facebook), were so badly wounded they required treatment at the Ramallah Hospital.
Under pressure from right-wing upstarts amidst a heated election contest, Netanyahu ordered the eviction of Bab Al Shams in flagrant contempt of the country’s high court. And not one of the judges issued a word of protest. In a state guided not by the democratic rule of law, but by the colonial imperatives of the occupation, Netanyahu’s roguery was business as usual.