Israeli riot policemen detain Palestinian activists during an eviction of the Palestinian camp “Bab al Shams” in the E1 area, West Bank, Early March 24, 2013. (Photo: Oren Ziv/Active Stills)
Early Sunday morning following President Obama’s departure from the region, Israeli police raided Bab al-Shams, a newly established protest encampment. The raid came four days after Palestinian activists re-established the protest village in the E1 area of the Jerusalem hills, located in the buffer zone between Palestinian villages and the settlement of Ma’ale Adumim. Bab al-Shams is the most well known of four such encampments that have been established in recent months to protest the Israeli occupation. Around 200 Israeli police clad in riot gear, affixed with green glow sticks, set upon the protesters. In groups of two to five, the officers dragged them to a different hilltop where buses were waiting to transport the demonstrators away from their shelters.
Palestinians from Bab al-Shams detained by Israeli police en route to Ajeeb checkpoint, 24 March 2013. (Photo: Allison Deger/Mondoweiss)
The evacuation began shortly after 1am, when armored vehicles and police jeeps amassed at three points surrounding Bab al-Shams, including the palm-tree lined entranceway to Ma’ale Adumim. One hour later, Israeli forces drove into the Jerusalem hills from a dirt military road. The actual evacuation itself took only ten minutes, with hundreds of police officers easily overwhelming the small group of activists at the encampment. Journalists were pushed to the side as activists linked arms and sat on the ground. Mustafa Barghouti, the leader of the Palestinian National Initiative, was the first person detained. While most of the demonstrators would later be dumped at Ajeeb checkpoint near Bir Nabala, Barghouti, along with three others, were arrested and taken to Ofer military prison.
Palestinians from Bab al-Shams being released from Ajeeb checkpoint where they were detained following the eviction of their protest village. (Photo: Allison Deger/Mondoweiss)
The activists knew what to expect because some previously were ejected from other protest villages, including the first Bab al-Shams, a similar encampment that was demolished also after a few days. Upon hearing the Israeli helicopter fly overhead at 1:15 am the group knew a one-hour lull would be next. They cheered and sang. Then those who hadn’t eaten that day quickly downed soda and chocolate wafers called Ali Baba, a Palestinian brand of candy. “Yalla, bye-bye,” said Kifah, a Palestinian activist from Bil’in, after our last moments elapsed before the police arrived. “They are already here, behind the trees,” he explained.
At night E1 is dark and most of the lights on the hilltop come from low clouds reflecting the moon. Standing at Bab al-Shams, awaiting the impending destruction of the protest encampment, the neon lights of Ma’ale Adumim glare with an orange tint. The brightness from the settlement outshines the soft, blue haze peering out from lights in nearby Eizeriya, the Palestinian village closest to Bab al-Shams. An even more striking contrast is the lack of electricity in the E1 area. But this lack of light is not an indication of an uninhabited zone. Instead, it is the consequence of Israeli military law that prevents the Jahalin Bedouin, who have resided there since the 1950s, from connecting to the electricity grid.
Palestinians rejoice after being released from Ajeeb checkpoint, following the Bab al-Shams eviction. (Photo: Allison Deger/Mondoweiss)
During the day it was easy to forget the area encapsulating Bab al-Shams is at the heart of Israeli plans to permanently sever the West Bank in two. On Saturday a wedding was held, and one professor at al-Quds University held a lecture for her international law class inside one of the tents. Despite the jovial tone, the raid at Bab al-Shams was inevitable because building without Israeli permits is cause for eviction and demolition under military law. Bab al-Shams was constructed on land privately owned by four families from nearby Eizeriya, situated in Area C, which under the Oslo Accords is solely controlled by the Israeli authorities. Although the landowners were not present at the camp, residents from Eizeriya, as well as a nearby Jahalin Bedouin encampment, were among the staple participants of the short-lived village. One of those participants was Eizeriya resident Sami, a 32-year-old.
“Half of these mountains where these houses are built belonged to my grandfather,” said Sami, as he extended his index finger towards the north end of Ma’ale Adumim. Asked about E1, where Sami used to play as a child, he described it as still looking “the same except for all of these houses in the valley.” Sami had just returned to his village only 10 days before, after living in the U.S. for his entire adult life. Wearing Timberlands and other popular Western labels, he looked like an American. Yet after a decade of experiencing post-9/11 discrimination as an Arab in the U.S., Sami returned to his former village. Now, however, Eizeriya is not the sleepy village known for the Christian pilgrimage site called the House of Lazaras from the biblical village of Bethany. Looking again at Ma’ale Adumin, he remembered how in his youth it looked more like an outpost and not a suburb. “In my time it was just a bunch of trailers. And now it’s called a ‘city’ and not a ‘settlement’.”
During the Second Intifada Sami’s family sent him away from the chaos that left many of his peers imprisoned or dead. “It was the smart thing to do, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do,” he said. Sami went on to explain that he did not want to be the last generation in his family to live in Palestine. “Well, I had a choice to make if I want to live as a sheep or stand up and do something.”
Below the ridge where Sami was sitting runs a single highway located between the protest village and Ma’ale Adumim. It is the only open passageway between the north and south West Bank. But the Israeli announcement last fall to construct 3,000 new residential units and 1,000 new hotel rooms in E1 will likely compromise Palestinian access to that road. As a matter of policy Israeli officials create what is known as a “Quality of Life” road, or segregated Palestinian-only streets that are situated between tall concrete walls or in tunnels. While a quality of life road has been started near Ma’ale Adumim there appears to be no continued construction.
Construction in E1 would deal the final death blow to the two state solution, which in part is why Palestinians chose that site for the camp, which coincided with Barack Obama’s visit.
While President Obama praised returning to negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders during his visit, he conspicuously did not call for a settlement freeze. Yet unimpeded Israeli construction, particularly in the location of the protest camp, threatens to sever the West Bank into disconnected regions. Thus, Bab al-Shams is a reflection of how Palestinians are seeking out new modes to resist the usurpation of their land at a time when previous efforts have failed. Still, despite the creativeness of the action, Palestinians were only able to sustain the village for a matter of days. At this point it is unknown if these actions alone can face off against Israel’s drive to connect Jerusalem to the first tier of settlements in the West Bank. But activists like Kifah from Bil’in say such tactics are necessary to “awaken our people.”