On the 12th October, Peace Now hosted a group of 50 Italians representing Europe for Peace in the Middle East. The group began their West Bank tour in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheih Jarrah below a house which has been recently occupied by right-wing settlers after the expulsion of its Palestinians occupants. The new occupants, bemused by the attention they were receiving, responded by photographing those below. The coach then headed north, through the main checkpoint out of the Jerusalem municipality, past signs warning Israelis of entering Area A territory, as per the Oslo Accords, and stopped to observe a view of the barrier. There, the visitors had the opportunity to meet three IDF conscripts. In fact, contrary to their expectations, the soldiers expressed great sympathy with Peace Now’s aims, and resented having to defend the settlers. Many of the Italians were visibly perturbed to learn that the soldiers were as young as 19. The group then continued north to the illegal outpost of Givat Assaf, named after a settler who was killed on that spot by a Palestinian.
Following that, the group then drove further into Palestinian territory to the settlement of Ofra, one of the largest in the West Bank. The settlement is particularly significant because it was once used as an army base, but then the soldiers asked to bring their wives and family, and before long, Ofra became an entirely civil settlement under Begin’s watch. The matter is further complicated by the fact that while the Israeli government insists that no settlement is built on private Palestinian land, thereby differentiating settlements from outposts, it has since emerged that Ofra is indeed built over such land. This, therefore, would make Ofra illegal even under Israeli law. After a ride through magnificent scenery, the coach stopped by the small settlement of Halamish (population 975) where continued settlement expansion can be seen.
For many, the highlight of the tour was the stop at the Palestinian village of Ni’lin. Ni’lin has risen in prominence due to the most successful peaceful demonstrations that have taken place in the West Bank against the barrier. For almost 18 months, its inhabitants have been staging protests every Friday against the barrier which cuts off a third of the village’s fertile land for Hashmonaim and Modi’in Ilit, Israeli settlements. Despite intentions, the demonstrations have often turned violent after provocations by the IDF, and a number of unarmed Palestinians have been killed by live fire, such as the 10 year old Ahmed Moussa, who was shot as he tried to cut the razor wire of the fence. The fence has since been replaced with a concrete wall. The leader of the movement, whose own nephew had been killed, stated his intention to fight for peace, justice and coexistence, while declaring that the Palestinians are the last people in the world to be under occupation. Teenagers displayed their gun wounds, smoke canisters littered the ground and an eight year old boy, whose mother was killed by soldiers, shamefully posed for photos by some cacti plants. The Ni’lin tour concluded with a visit to a recently built museum, adorned with pictures of the riots, the names of villages depopulated during the Nakba, and slogans like “Stop ethnic cleansing” and “Merkel, why should we Palestinians continue to pay for the Holocaust?”.
The tour finished with a brief stop to Modi’in Ilit, the largest West Bank settlement, (population 41,900) which was granted city status last year. Yet again, construction work of a new neighbourhood was visible in open defiance of international calls for a freeze. The Haredi ‘city’ had a remarkably different feel to the isolated, hilltop settlements that had been seen earlier.