Abed al-Karim Zubeidi has seen thousands of acres of land in the Salfit district of the occupied West Bank consumed by illegal Israeli settlements and Israel’s separation wall over the years.
As the mayor of Salfit, each Israeli development in the area has chipped away at his hope for the future. Most recently, Israel announced a $1.16 billion project for a rail line that will cut through Salfit.
When the settlement of Ariel established a cemetery, Zubeidi knew life would only become worse for Palestinian communities. Ariel was founded in 1978 and has grown into one of the largest settlements in the West Bank, with some 19,000 residents.
The cemetery was established about two years ago. While the area of the cemetery consists of less than two acres of land, its emotional ramifications on neighboring Palestinians have been profound.
“It’s a direct threat to our future,” Zubeidi told Mondoweiss. “It shows us that the settlers are going to stay. They will never leave our lands, because now even their dead are buried here.”
‘They are delivering a message’
Dror Etkes, who has headed research on settler cemeteries for Israeli rights group Kerem Navot, told Mondoweiss that at least 32 cemeteries have been established in the occupied West Bank and more are in their planning stages.
Etkes notes there was an uptick of establishing settler graves in the occupied West Bank following the Second Intifada, during which some 3,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis were killed.
“Since many settlers were killed, the question of where to bury them became a relevant question,” Etkes said.
However, it was also a political statement. Through the establishment of cemeteries in the occupied West Bank, “they [settlers] were making the point that this is our land and we will remain here forever.”
Indeed, according to Palestinians, the graves serve as painful reminders of the likely permanence of their situation.
“It is very hard to see these graves on our land,” Ghassan Daghlas, a Palestinian official who monitors Israeli settlement activities in the northern West Bank, told Mondoweiss.
“It affects us psychologically. The graves have a hidden message that they will never leave our country. They are delivering this message to future generations, their own government and the Palestinians.”
Since Israel occupied the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip in 1967, some 600,000 Israeli settlers have moved into the West Bank in violation of international law.
The first settler cemeteries built in the West Bank, according to Etkes, were spearheaded by religious extremist Israelis, such as those residing in Kiryat Arba, Gush Etzion and many of the settlements in the Ramallah and Nablus regions.
In recent decades, however, Israeli settlements that are “not necessarily religious” have also established cemeteries.
Ariel and Israel’s mega settlement Ma’ale Adumim both established cemeteries about two years ago.
In Judaism, dead bodies are considered “sacred”, Etkes explained. “You are not allowed to disturb them. Moving or opening a grave and moving a corpse is a very problematic and sensitive thing to do.”
Owing to the “sacredness” of graves in Judaism, up until recent years Israeli settlers were apprehensive about burying their dead in the West Bank, owing to the possibility of having to unearth them in the future.
However, nowadays residents of Israel’s well-established settlements have little fear that they will ever be dismantled in future negotiations between Palestinian and Israeli leaders.
‘An element of Israel’s Judaization plan’
Zubeidi tells Mondoweiss that when Palestinians in Salfit first noticed the cemetery, “it was a sign that the Israelis were going to continue taking over the West Bank.”
More than 70 percent of land in Salfit is designated as Area C — the more than 60 percent of the West Bank under full Israeli control where Palestinian development is not permitted.
On top of this, Palestinians in Salfit are not able to access thousands of acres of their lands owing to them being consumed for the development of Israeli settlements, roads and the separation wall — still only 30 percent complete in Salfit.
There are currently more Israeli settler communities than Palestinian ones in Salfit, with the population of the settlers, about 65,000, almost equaling the Palestinian population, estimated to be some 75,000.
However, this reality is not isolated to Salfit. Every Palestinian community has suffered from land loss and restrictions on their movement and access to land owing to Israel’s settler colonial project in the West Bank.
Zubeidi believes that the settler cemeteries are linked to Israel attempting to deepen the connection between the settlers and the land in the West Bank, while restricting the relationship that Palestinians have with their lands.
At the same time as Israel attempts to create an attachment between the settlers and the land, “there are new generations of Palestinians being born into a reality which sees them more and more prevented from accessing their lands.”
“Palestinians are growing up not even being able to see or touch their land,” Zubeidi said. “But now the settlers are planting their ancestors in the ground. They are trying to create a situation in which the next generation [of settlers] will have a stronger attachment to the land.”
“They come from Europe and Russia, but the ones who are born here are looking at this land as if it’s their home.”
Israeli settlers have also been known to periodically vandalize Palestinian cemeteries in the occupied West Bank.
Etkes points out that it is not just about the cemeteries connoting a sense of permanence, but the cemeteries are also established in strategic geographic locations in order to “place facts on the ground.”
“The cemeteries are creating links between greater chains of settlements,” he said.
According to Etkes, the cemeteries are often established outside of the built-up area of the settlement.
“Because you wouldn’t want to establish a cemetery so close to a built up area, they allocate new lands that wouldn’t normally be part of the settlement” to establish the cemeteries, he said.
Israel is using cemeteries as a way to “advance the greater project of Judaizing the maximum amount of land possible in the West Bank,” Etkes noted.
“It’s like any other element that contributes to Israel’s settler enterprise,” he added. “Whether it be an [Israeli] industrial zone, a commercial area, a gas station, or a settler outpost. Each of these elements are contributing to Israel’s greater plans in the West Bank.”