Pushing Palestinians off their land — by pumping sewage onto it

Not content with ongoing demolitions in Umm al-Kheir and the destruction of its taboun, settlers in nearby Carmel have resorted to piping their waste onto the land belonging to the village.

By Yossi Gurvitz, for Yesh Din

A delegation from the Center for Jewish Nonviolence helps rebuild a demolished home in the Palestinian village of Umm al-Kheir, July 12, 2016. The Israeli settlement of Carmel is seen in the background. (Michael Schaeffer Omer-Man)
A delegation from the Center for Jewish Nonviolence helps rebuild a demolished home in the Palestinian village of Umm al-Kheir, July 12, 2016. The Israeli settlement of Carmel is seen in the background. (Michael Schaeffer Omer-Man)

The usual problem with reporting on what happens in the West Bank is lens width, an essential physical problem: you want to focus on the details, and hence need to narrow the lens. Yet the details themselves are part of a greater picture, demanding a wider lens.

On the face of it, what happened in Umm al-Kheir in the south Hebron Hills in December 2016 is a minor event — barely worth mentioning. A sewage pipe was built in the settlement of Carmel, causing the settlement’s waste to pour directly into land belonging to the Palestinian village of Umm al-Kheir. Technically, it’s nothing more than an insignificant squabble between neighbors.

Except these aren’t your typical neighbors. Umm al-Kheir was built in the 1960s by Bedouin refugees who were expelled in 1948 from the Tel Arad region. Unfortunately for them, they were re-occupied by Israel in 1967. The village is located in Area C, which means it is under full Israeli military and civil control. One might have expected that Israel would invest in the place, since the villagers are under its authority, and since Israel, as is well known, is not an apartheid state.

Of course, that did not actually happen. Israel didn’t much care for the small Palestinian village, and in 1981 the settlement of Carmel was built nearby. Carmel is supposedly sitting where Nabal the Carmelite (see 1 Samuel 25:3) used to live.

So the Palestinians lived there first? No matter. The government – in the guise of the Civil Administration – is on the side of the invaders. Umm al-Kheir had a taboun: traditional oven built from mud and hay, which was used by the villagers to bake bread.

A Palestinian family sits in the remains of their demolished home in the West Bank village of Umm el-Kheir, South Hebron Hills, April 6, 2016. (Wissam Hashlamon/Flash90)
A Palestinian family sits in the remains of their demolished home in the West Bank village of Umm el-Kheir, South Hebron Hills, April 6, 2016. (Wissam Hashlamon/Flash90)

In order for it to function, the taboun had to operate at all times. The smell emanating from it was disliked by the residents of Carmel, and they demanded its demolition, claiming it was an illegal structure. The villagers began a legal process, and managed to get an order delaying the demolition.

The legal process was apparently too slow for the opponents of the taboun, and in November 2013 a group of Israelis came from the direction of Carmel – escorted, of course, by IDF soldiers – and attempted to extinguish the oven’s fire. They failed to do so, but several days later an unknown person came at night and poured a bucket of water into the taboun.

I visited Umm al-Kheir several weeks after the incident. You can see the taboun yourselves — it’s not quite the Tower of Babel. A small hay and mud construct. And here’s the thing: it’s no longer there. The Civil Administration – the whitewashed name Israel gave to what was once known as the Military Government – demolished it upon receiving legal authorization, several months after it was photographed.

The Civil Administration didn’t stop there: throughout 2016, its representatives came to Umm al-Kheir four separate times, demolishing a total of 16 structures. The last raid took place in February, which left two structures demolished.

And yet, the residents hold on to the land with everything they have, and for a very simple reason: they have nowhere else to go. Even though they live in Area C under the authority of the Israeli government, and even though they were there before Israel occupied the area, they have been offered nothing. Prime Minister Netanyahu spent not a single meeting, not to mention 60% of his time (as his chief of staff said he did for Amona), dealing with the plight of 160 human beings.

Since July 2016, report the villagers, drones have been buzzing above Umm al-Kheir, photographing every attempt by the villagers to build anything. If something is built, it is quickly demolished. These demolitions do not interest the Israeli media, and one would be hard pressed to find interviews with people whose lives are actually destroyed because someone else covets their land.

A Palestinian family sits in the remains of their demolished home in the West Bank village of Umm al-Kheir, April 6, 2016. (Wissam Hashlamon/Flash90)
A Palestinian family sits in the remains of their demolished home in the West Bank village of Umm al-Kheir, April 6, 2016. (Wissam Hashlamon/Flash90)

But they have nowhere to go, so they stay there. And Carmel doesn’t want them there. So what do you do? After the demolitions, the invasions, the threats, the assaults, and the dread, comes the pollution: Carmel’s sewage simply seeps into the land of the natives.

This isn’t an accident. This isn’t one tidbit in a series of unrelated events. This is the latest piece in a pattern that has been slowly built over 30 years — a pattern in which land grabbers and Civil Administration personnel mix with each other until one can no longer tell them apart. A pattern which, when completed, will leave no remnants of a village that existed almost 20 years before Carmel was ever built. The goal is dispossession of non-Jews of their land, and every trick will do. From this standpoint, the Umm al-Kheir story is a microcosm of the Israeli occupation in the West Bank.

This case is particularly easy to ignore, since the people living in Umm al-Kheir are so different from us. They are villagers verging on nomads. You are reading this text on a computer or a smartphone; they need a taboun fueled with animal dung to bake their bread. We have all grown up with the narrative of inevitable progress, claiming that such a way of life must make way for the Western way of life. We are witnessing an allegedly natural process.

Only there is nothing natural about it: it is wholly the result of decisions made by human beings, decisions whose purpose is to dispossess one group of human beings for the benefit of others. And when all is said and done, if we truly believe in the extremely radical idea that all human beings possess equal rights, then we cannot allow our cultural biases destroy the lives of 160 people. This means we must not stay silent.

Written by Yossi Gurvitz in his capacity as a blogger for Yesh Din, Volunteers for Human Rights. A version of this post was first published on Yesh Din’s blog.

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