By Julie Holm
On a beautiful sunny hike last Friday I realized how I constantly had my body, and my face, pointed in one direction only, making a subconscious effort not to see what was behind me. I enjoyed the silence and the stunning Palestinian nature. On the horizon I could see all the way from Jericho to Jerusalem, the busy cities looking like magical oases glistening in the sun. Focusing on the breathtaking scenery and enjoying the company, I was always, however, very aware that if I turned around and looked behind me I would see something that always makes me cringe and tenses up my entire body. Not much can make me quiet but this sight usually does the trick.
The Israeli settlements in the West Bank provoke me more than almost anything else. According to international law they are illegal, and yet, just last week, the Israeli Prime Minister formalized the status of three settlement outposts, thereby creating three new, illegal settlements.
Driving in the West Bank you cannot help but pass by a settlement. I always think they look fake. Usually located on top of a hill it is a cluster of identical houses, often with white walls and red roofs, lined up one after the other, surrounded by green gardens. If you didn’t know any better, you would think they were some kind of nice, quiet suburb, a wonderful place for kids to grow up. For those of us who do know better, they are anything but.
Once, I had a short drive through one of the largest settlements just outside of Jerusalem. Even from the inside it looked fake, as if the people who lived there were trying really hard to be something they are not. It was lush and green, had trees and flowers, perfect gardens and flawless, quiet roads. There were shopping centers and swimming pools, schools, playgrounds and women in pink training outfits, power walking on the sidewalk. Most of the residents of this exact settlement, Ma’ale Adumim are “economic settlers” finding the settlement a nice, cheap, area to live in just outside Jerusalem. This is the reason I even considered visiting this place, as most other settlements have residents who are far more ideological in their choice of neighborhood, and not that open to having guests.
The fact that many the residents of Ma’ale Adumim do not even really know that they live on Palestinian land, does not change much, however. They are still living there illegally, just like all the other 300,000 settlers in the West Bank. It is not only that they live there illegally, taking up more and more Palestinian land, that makes me depressed whenever I see a settlement. It is also the fact that the pristine houses and gardens are just a cover for what is really going on.
First of all, their green gardens and beautiful flowers, which are such a huge contrast to the surrounding, dry land, are only possible because the already scarce water recourses of the West Bank are diverted from Palestinian communities to the settlements. Furthermore, some of the olive trees adorning the settlements still have marks from heavy machinery and bulldozers. Once belonging to Palestinians, they were uprooted by settlers who replanted them in the settlements, a token of war perhaps. The pillage and destruction of nearby Palestinian villages by settlers happens almost weekly and although the violence they carry out is condemned again and again by human rights organizations, nothing happens. Just like nothing happens when new settlements keep popping up and the ones already built grow bigger and bigger even as the UN and governments all over the world condemn such illegal building on occupied territory. Not least of all, settlements are one of the biggest obstacles to renewing peace negotiations, as the Palestinians – rightfully so – do not want to negotiate with anyone who continuously steals their land and resources.
As we drove out of the parking lot after our hike, a car with four young Israeli settlers pulled in. They stepped out of the car and I noticed that they were armed with machine guns, an almost daily sight I should be used to by now. Yet I thought to myself, just like the settlements, the checkpoints and the wall cutting through the landscape, I will never get used to this sight for the simple reason that this just isn’t the way things should be.
Julie Holm is a Writer for the Media and Information Department at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at [email protected]