Children at protest village Bab al Shams
While Barack Obama is making headlines in his first visit to Israel and the West Bank as president, in the hills of Jerusalem, Palestinian activists have quietly rebuilt a protest encampment that was raided and demolished in January. Bab al-Shams, Gates of the Sun, was built on privately owned Palestinian land in the West Bank targeted for Jewish settlement; and in its first incarnation it ushered in a wave of protest involving the creation of other Palestinian villages on Palestinian land, often ending in demolitions, arrests and even settler violence.
Constructed in regions delineated to Israeli security control under the Oslo Accords, these protest villages defied strict planning regulations and sought to allow Palestinians the ability to build and live on their own land, on their own terms. With President Obama poised to be in Ramallah on Thursday, Palestinian activists are banking on the distraction of all the fanfare to give them time in order to make headway on this new form of political dissent.
“We refuse Obama’s visit,” said Mohammed, 24, from Nablus and a student at nearby Al Quds University. Mohammed heard about Bab al-Shams while at school. After classes he and three others joined the activists in building the new village. “It’s a very patriotic event,” yet crafted from “basic concepts of the Palestinian cause,” chimed in his classmate Samir, 24.
“Our message is that our rights are not up for negotiations between America and Israel,” said Hasan Faragi, 32, from Bethlehem. Faragi is head of the Fatah Youth Movement, but like many other demonstrators who reestablished Bab al-Shams, he is organizing outside of the political party framework. Bab al-Shams is a product of the Popular Struggle Coordinating Committee (PSCC) and their work typically reflects a cross-section of Palestinian society. From villagers, to urban-Ramallites, to children, to political leaders such as Mustafa Barghouti, the PSCC’s Bab al-Shams stands apart from other actions protesting the president’s visit.
Bab al-Shams is “a creation of an idea,” explained Fatima, 21, who is also affiliated with the Fatah Youth Movement. Fatima participated in the first Bab al-Shams, joining the protest after it was declared a closed military zone. We spoke on Wednesday just one hour after the area was again declared closed by the Israeli army. But unlike the first Bab al-Shams, the military was noticeably aloof. Foreign journalists passed unimpeded through the new checkpoint set-up, which bars Palestinians from entering with cars or bags. Yet the resourceful activists hiked through a nearby valley carrying mattresses, flood lights and even a children’s slide. The mood was inescapably jovial, and by nightfall most were enjoying coffee and tea, lounging by one of the handful of campfires.
When Bab al-Shams was erected the first time it was in protest of an Israeli announcement approving settlement construction in the controversial E1 area, a corridor between Jerusalem and the Ma’ale Adumim settlement bloc. Now three months later and three other protest villages later Bab al-Shams continues to reclaim the same piece of land.
The first Bab al-Shams was located one hilltop away from the spot where the latest tents and playground equipment rest. The owners of the land are four families from nearby Ezeriya; but because of military regulations, Palestinian property holders are not legally able to build here. Adjacent to Bab al-Shams are two Jahalin Bedouin villages, and their tin and tent structures make visible the stark limitations of being Palestinian and living on one of the pieces of land most sought-after by Israel’s hard right.
Just beyond Bab al-Shams is a highway and the electric glare of one of Israel’s largest settlement blocs. If E1 is developed for settler use, Palestinians will lose access to the highway, which functions as a passageway from the north West Bank to the south West Bank. For the permanent residents of E1, Jahalin Bedouin who were forcibly relocated from the Negev to the Jerusalem hills, a settler-controlled E1 would mean the loss of their homes and livelihood. “A long time ago during the Roman era this was a church,” said Atilla, 35, as he pointed to an oculus in what appeared to be a cave, but which he described as religious ruin.
“This is where the cross used to hang,” he said directing his gaze to an enclave in hall. Atilla is a resident of Jabal al-Baba, the Jahalin encampment adjacent to Bab al-Shams. Because he stands to lose his home, Atilla and two other Jahalin Bedouins joined the PSCC in constructing Bab al-Shams.
The three tents at Bab al-Shams each posted banners acknowledging Obama’s visit: “Obama: Our freedom is not up for negotiations.” But the U.S. president’s visit seemed far from the activists’ radar. One organizer, Kifah, explained that they planned this action two months ago– Obama’s visit just offered an opportunity to re-start Bab al-Shams.
“We will sleep on the ground. We don’t have blankets, we don’t have anything, just tents,” continued Kifah. Though two mattresses arrived late, at around 10 pm, most villagers were not concerned about where they would sleep or having enough food or water. “Our prisoners are one hunger strike for 240 days, so if we don’t eat for two or three days, it will not be difficult,” said Kifah.