“Please don’t normalize this, these are people’s lives you are talking about,” said Yousef Bisharat to a group of journalists. Bisharat, who hails from Al-Makhoul, is one of more than a hundred people whose homes were demolished by the Israeli army on September 16, 2013.
The small village, situated in the northern part of the Jordan Valley, saw army bulldozers arrive at around 4:30 am that Monday. Twelve families were left homeless when the bulldozers left. Mr. Bisharat’s comments were quickly translated by Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian chief negotiator who also seemed to be directing the media event. Mr. Erekat added that “these people are not Bedouins, they are the rightful owners of this land.”
Piles of rubble, old pieces of furniture, children’s coloring books, and prayer beads were mixed with gravel and dust, empty water troughs, and several solar panels–silent symbols of past aid deliveries. This was the scene on September 19, just one day before diplomats delivering emergency relief supplies were violently met by the Israeli army. This unsettling image was observed by a group of approximately forty Palestinian volunteers from the FADOC youth project, brought to Al-Makhoul by MA’AN Development Center (MA’AN), as well as a group from the International Solidarity Movement. (FADOC is a global program that provides funds and training for community programs.)
On that Thursday morning, the FADOC group also witnessed two Israeli army vehicles overseeing the territory while World Food Program (WFP) staff were unloading a truck of supplies. Before the group of volunteers started setting up several tents using materials left from the prior demolition, they decided to wait for the WFP to leave so they wouldn’t jeopardize their aid delivery. “Do not provoke the army when you are putting up tents,” a United Nations Development Programme representative who was also present at Al-Makhoul advised the employees of MA’AN. “For example, do not position yourself in a way that the soldiers might think you are about to throw something at them,” he explained in order to make sure clashes do not break out as the work begins.
It began with the setting up of a tent which served as a shed for sheep. In the process, we were occasionally being photographed by Israeli soldiers who did not intervene or demand the dismantling of the structure. When a group of development workers were asked why the volunteers were allowed to build this tent—since the rebuilding of demolished homes isn’t permitted–one worker responded, “That’s because this one is for animals, not for people.”
Later on, a small area of rubble was cleared and another tent was set up. Towards the end of this effort (at around 11:30 am), a convoy of cars appeared on the road and in a highly cinematic manner approached the demolition site. Minutes later, the second tent was surrounded by professional video cameras, as well individual photographers, documenting the rubble and the volunteers’ work itself. Mr. Erekat started the on-site press conference, and a whirlpool of journalists quickly formed, extending their arms with microphones towards him. Mr. Bisharat spoke up and urged the international community not to be silent about what happened, and the group was directed towards a different location at the same site.
Then, as if the sole reason to move the press members was simply a change of scenery, another official expressed his condemnation of the situation, and the press members were urged to go back to their vehicles. “Now, back to the bus,” Mr. Erekat said, indicating there was no time for questions.
In less than an hour, the site became almost as empty as it was in the morning, with just a couple of journalists still filming and taking pictures.
By 3pm, the volunteers had left, only to worry that the tents could easily get demolished by the army again. It is not a secret what happened the next day: aid brought to Al-Makhoul was confiscated, diplomatic immunity brutally disregarded when the army manhandled a French official, and an “international outcry” – as it was so often referred to by the press – was amplified.
In the midst of this scandal, an interesting question to ask is whether the reaction of the international community – or, essentially, the press coverage of the demolitions at Al-Makhoul – would have been the same if not for the Israeli breach of diplomatic immunity that Friday.
“What if it had been a Palestinian official or journalist that had got thrown onto the ground instead?” asked the advocacy coordinator for MA’AN Development Center, without trying to any intention to trivialize what happened. He points to an unfortunate outcome of this scandal: “How quickly it was the attack on diplomats that became the center of attention and not the tragedy of more than a hundred people having lost their homes.”
The answer to another crucial question depicts a status quo scenario for the Jordan Valley. International condemnation, of any scale, of both the demolitions and the breach of diplomatic immunity, seems to be a reasonable reaction–yet what can possibly follow? Can that be enough for the EU and other political entities to exert pressure on Israel to prevent such demolitions from happening? A more realistic and forceful response is highly doubtful, at best.
“We didn’t get any eviction notice, any warning,” Mr. Bisharat said to the press. The normalization of such evictions that he asked not be perpetuated, unfortunately, seems to be already in place. Demolitions in the Jordan Valley have become a common practice, with no change on the ground likely to come. According to the advocacy coordinator at MA’AN, international organizations and national governments know exactly what is happening in the Jordan Valley. “Even if it is [government] aid projects that get destroyed, it is not worth sacrificing their relations with Israel; they rely on Israel to provide visas and other things. It makes perfect sense,” he notes.
The future of the Jordan Valley remains gloomy, and Al-Makhoul is hardly an exceptional case in this context. “We have nowhere else to go,” said Mr. Bisharat.