LAND DAY: Palestine’s front line communities

The sumoud of rural communities in Area C is the only thing slowing down total colonization of the West Bank. Alice Gray reflects on the occasion of Land Day.

By Alice Gray. 31 March, 2015

Sumoud means ‘steadfastness’ in Arabic and has long been a vital component of the Palestinian struggle to resist Israeli colonization. Essentially it manifests as a refusal to give in to pressure to leave one’s land or country, or to abandon one’s culture: a form of ‘indirect action’ that is expressed through patient endurance in the face of ongoing oppression.

This daily struggle has come to comprise the warp and weft of everyday life in many Palestinian communities, particularly those in Area C of the West Bank who face continuous pressure to leave their land through both direct and indirect means. On Land Day, it is worth noting that their resistance to this pressure is both courageous and creative, and worthy of recognition as a central component of the Palestinian struggle.

The fight for Area C

Area C comprises 62 percent of the land area of the West Bank and is a designation that was created in 1995 under the Oslo Accords, when the West Bank was divided into zones of control between the newly created Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government.

Unlike Area A (which is controlled by the PA) or Area B which is under joint control, Area C is under exclusive Israeli control. It was envisaged that Israel would gradually withdraw from Area C, a vision which has never materialized as Israel has moved rather to consolidate its hold over land and resources, proliferating illegal settlements and military bases and digging deep wells to abstract water for the sole use of Israel (a move expressly forbidden under international law).

At the same time, Israel has tried to depopulate the area, both by directly attacking rural communities and demolishing their homes and infrastructure, and through indirect means including denial of access to vital infrastructure such as water, sewage and electricity networks and refusal to issue building permits (creating a pseudo-legalistic basis for the demolitions).

This has created a false dichotomy whereby rural communities can only access ‘modern’ conveniences through the abandonment of their land and culture. Refusing to move exposes them to direct harassment by both the Israeli military and illegal settlers who are not prosecuted for their violent behaviour by the Israeli military authorities who have jurisdiction over the area.

According to the UN’s OCHA, the Israeli Civil Administration has issued 12,570 demolition orders against Palestinian structures in Area C since 1988, and the process has been accelerating recently, leading to the displacement of 3,417 Palestinians over the last 5 years.

Whilst these statistics make grim reading, the depopulation of Area C would be progressing much faster were it not for the sumoud of the communities involved.

This depopulation would be nothing short of catastrophic were it to be completed. It would finalise the ghettoization of West Bank Palestinians, the total collapse of the farming sector and the disenfranchisement of Palestinians from any semblance of control over land or resources. In short, it would complete Israel’s matrix of control over the occupied population, whhich would be in a position of total dependency for their most basic needs.

Resisting displacement: strategies of sumoud

According to the UN, there are 297,000 Palestinians remaining in Area C, living in 532 residential areas. The strategies that allow people to survive draw much from traditional Palestinian cultural practices such as rain-fed farming, pastoralism and the construction of rainwater harvesting cisterns — strategies that have allowed communities to exist on this land for thousands of years.

Tree planting, particularly of the ubiquitous olive tree, has long been emblematic of Palestinian resistance to Israeli colonization, with the trees standing in firm refutation of any Israeli claim that land has been ‘abandoned’ by its owners, an artifice often used to justify its confiscation. Tens of thousands of olive trees are planted every year by Palestinian organizations and their international allies.

Other key strategies now include the restoration of rainwater harvesting cisterns, the construction of adobe brick buildings and reconstruction of demolished structures as well as the installation of off-grid renewable electricity systems: strategies aimed at increasing community resilience and sustainability. The support base for this movement is diverse, extending from Palestinian civil society and grassroots movements to international networks, NGOs and governmental agencies.

In 2011, the EU heads of mission released a report in which they identified Area C as being “crucial for Palestinian State Building” and recommended that all agencies focus their efforts on strengthening Palestinian communities’ presence there and improving access to basic services, while simultaneously trying to pressurize Israel into changing its planning law.

Since then there has been a growing level of support from the development community, coupled with a rejection of Israeli jurisdiction over Area C — a further sign, if one was needed, that the Oslo process is indeed dead. This support makes continued Israeli demolitions of internationally funded infrastructure projects a diplomatically awkward issue.

International support for this strategy looks set to increase. For example, last week, the EU released a statement condemning Israeli colonial activities and allocating €3.5 million to support further infrastructure projects for Area C communities. Even so, without broader restrictions on Israel such as international sanctions, this struggle is still only a delaying tactic, and creeping colonization will continue.

A new national strategy?

Recent moves by the Palestinian Authority suggest a transition to a rights-based struggle, drawing on growing recognition for Palestine in international institutions and pursuit of Palestinian rights via international legal mechanisms.

I refer of course to Palestinian membership of UNESCO in 2011, recognition of Palestine by the UN General Assembly in November 2012 and projected membership by Palestine of the International Criminal Court, due to come into effect on 1 April of this year.

In addition to this, though less well known, on 1 January of this year, Palestinians became signatories to 16 international environmental treaties, including the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal, the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, the UN Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses, and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Taken together, these moves pave the way for a new strategy regarding the pursuit of the human rights of Palestinians and the protection of their environment, outside of the traditional approach of pursuing bilateral negotiations with Israel which has now been proven to be ineffective.

However, this process is slow and international law lacks any enforcement mechanism; as evidenced by the totally ineffectual nature of the International Court of Justice’s advisory opinion on the illegality of Israel’s Wall issued in July 2004.

Nevertheless, an accumulation of evidence and indictments for serious breaches of international law by Israel against the internationally recognized entity of ‘Palestine’ may eventually create a case for international sanctions against Israel which could lead to real pressure for change.

Hanging on in hope

While this political maneuvering is taking place, sumoud remains the only defence for Palestinians living under the grinding reality of the occupation, and the only effective mechanism for putting the brakes on Israel’s colonial programme.

Just as the non-violent resistance movements in villages such as Bil’in has been the only effective mechanism for slowing the construction of the Wall, so the small, hard-won victories of rural communities in resisting displacement are slowing the colonization of the West Bank.

On Land Day, it is worth remembering that at a very fundamental level, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is characterized by Israel’s ambitions to control land and resources, and through them, the occupied population. Nowhere is this pressure more keenly felt than in the rural communities who are on the front line of resisting colonization.