The Black Road

It is impossible to write about Kafr Qaduum without mentioning the ‘Black Road’.

The Black Road

The Black Road

Kafr Qaduum is a small town dating back to the sixteenth century and lies to the west of the Qedumim settlement. This illegal Israeli settlement[1] was established in 1977, though the confiscation of land started almost immediately after the occupation in 1967 with an Israeli military base built on an existing Jordanian one. This was later civilianised and more land was occupied and added to it. It now has a population of approximately 4,000 people, roughly equivalent to the current population of Kafr Qaduum. The Israeli organisation ‘Peace Now’ which keeps a watch on settlement growth, states that roughly half of the land is privately owned Palestinian land. Land registration is a huge issue in Palestine as much of it was never registered. When I first went to Kafr Qaduum, the then leader of the local council told me that after the six-day war land which did not have the ‘tabo’ i.e registration of land dating from the Ottoman Empire was particularly targeted by the Israelis for confiscation. Owners were given a fortnight to claim their land. Many of those who had fled during the fighting did not hear of the instruction until it was too late. 11,000 out of a total of 19,000 square metres of Kafr Qaduum land is now under Israeli control. This expansion is still going on.

Qedumim settlement from the olives groves of Kafr Qaduum

Qedumim settlement from the olives groves of Kafr Qaduum

This was my third visit to Kafr Qaduum during the olive harvest to provide protective presence, usually for a week each time, once for only a day. The Qedumim settlement is classified by Peace Now as ‘ideological’, in other words, the settlers live here as a political act to claim this land for Israel. There has been a history of settler violence against Kafr Qaduum, ranging from desecration of their graveyard and destruction of property to actual violence against people. There have even been case of settlers occupying houses belonging to people of Kafr Qaduum.

The settlers are in control and are backed up by the Israeli army. Back in 2008 on my first olive picking trip I was turned out of an olive grove because settlers objected to us being too near the settlement.  The soldiers told me it was a closed military zone. I asked for the paperwork and was shown a document in Hebrew on which the ink was barely dry. I doubted its authenticity because such documents have to be issued from a central office, but I had no way of arguing.  Two years ago, as an Ecumenical Accompanier, I returned to that same olive grove at the request of Palestinian farmers, two of whom had been attacked and hospitalised the previous day. We had no trouble that day but I was shocked to see a whole additional block of houses had been built further down the hill and into the Palestinian olive groves.

On the west side, Qedumim has been built right down to the main road from Kafr Qaduum to Nablus, the central hub of the whole of the northern West Bank. The settlement has also taken some land on the other side of that road. In 2003, the Israeli army sealed off the road to Palestinians because it was now deemed to be too near the settlement. One could argue that the settlers feel unsafe but nobody compelled them to build quite so near an existing road. The result is that villagers from Kafr Qaduum cannot not go directly to nearby Nablus but have to go a detour of 14 kilometres along winding roads through another village, adding considerable time and expense to their journeys.

Many representations from the Kafr Qaduum council to have the road re-opened came to nothing. Three years ago, local people began to hold demonstrations every Friday after Mosque. These escalated and became quite celebrated. People come from other villages to join the demos. It usually ended in violence of some sort. Demonstrators throw stones and burn tyres; Israeli soldiers fire tear gas, sound bombs, flares, skunk[2] and latterly, live bullets.

Left over cannisters from tear gas, sound bombs, and bullet casings.

Left over cannisters from tear gas, sound bombs, and bullet casings in Abu Ramis’ grove.

I would not condone demonstrators throwing stones but they are unarmed and I would question the proportionality of the Israeli armed response. It is also a violation of international law, because as civilians in an occupied territory, the demonstrators are Protected Persons. Military necessity can legitimate the use of live ammunition, but not during a demonstration against unarmed protestors.

The amount of tear gas fired into Kafr Qaduum is a severe health risk. It is almost impossible to seal houses well enough to stop it filtering through. There have been serious incidents of people suffering from respiratory problems while in their homes. A number of children were hospitalised in December last year when tear gas entered their house while they were asleep in bed. An elderly man died in his house in January this year[3]. The road has become blackened from the remains of burning tyres and black dust from tear gas cannisters. The demonstrations have led to a wave of night incursions by the army and widespread arrests. Almost all families have members who have been in prison.

Abu Rani

Abu Rani

We began our week picking with Abu Rani whose groves start at the black road. His was a typical story. He has no source of livelihood other than his olives. There is no work in the area. His children will probably all leave; two have left already; one to work in Qalqilya and another to America. On Monday morning we could still smell the skunk from the previous Friday. All over the grove there were spent tear gas canisters, flares and bullet casings.(photo of cannisters etc.) He showed us burned out trees which had caught fire from flares fired in the grove and told us he had lost 30 trees. He was very nervous and very anxious when I tried to take photos. We were picking without permits. This was because permits are only granted for about three or four days per olive grove and his groves are too large to pick in that time. We were watched all day by Israeli soldiers in an army vehicle parked across the valley. We assumed they had noticed our presence on the surveillance cameras trained in our direction.  Abu Rani had visited his groves nearer the settlement the previous day to prepare how he would pick them and been turned away by settlement guards. Lack of access to olive groves eventually causes their degradation. If they are not tended during the year, weeds grow up, compete with the trees for water and yields suffer. I wondered how British or Irish farmers would survive in that environment and how they might feel.

Before I left, I heard from the Ecumenical Accompaniment programme that the road was going to be re-opened on a trial basis, with a manned checkpoint from the beginning of November for public vehicles only.  I wondered why it could not have been done earlier avoiding all that pain and misery. The reason given is that settlers have complained about the tear gas, which if the wind is in the wrong direction, also blows towards their houses. It’s a victory of sorts. Even better would be to open the road altogether so that the citizens of Kafr Qaduum would be able to use the road freely as they and their families have done for generations.

Post Script:

After I left my group accompanied farmers who had permits to visit their land closer to Qedumin and reported several incidents with soldiers and settlers. Here is an example of one of the Incident Report which they filed to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights:

“Went with Maher and his wife to their land near the settler outpost again to finish 30 minutes picking.   Lieutenant , with three other soldiers, came to ‘greet’ us and wish us a good day and tell us we could start picking!   Packed up things and walked for an hour to their other land.  When we arrived three IDF soldiers were laughing at Maher and said we could not go into the grove.   Told us we could sit on the ground, but must not touch the trees.   Maher and other farmer who was already there, questioned why we had to go as we had picked in a similar area earlier in the morning, which they did not believe.   We continued to question and they told us it was ‘the law’.   We asked him to phone the Ltn, but instead he phoned his commander.  One of the young soldiers was rude and offensive to us and we told him it was not acceptable behaviour, we were older than him and he should respect us. We sat and had breakfast and the Commander who we had seen on Sunday came with the same settler security officer who immediately took pictures.   They told us it was a Closed Military Zone and we asked why suddenly and they said it was the law.   We were told that we could not stay, we had to leave because it was a Closed Military Zone.   We said that if we had to go we needed to be escorted back as we did not know the way.   She readily agreed,   Soldiers were conversing with her and we heard the word ‘propaganda’ used.   We finished breakfast and were then taken in the while settler security vehicle to the ‘gate’.  No conversation from the settler.” 

There is no law preventing people from harvesting their olive trees on their own land even if it is close to a settlement. The use of declaring an area to be a Closed Military Zone to prevent olive harvesting was specifically forbidden in an Israeli Court ruling in 2008.

I am no longer an Ecumenical Accompanier and the views expressed in this article are entirely my own.

[1] The Fourth Geneva Convention, (Article 49):  The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.’

[2][2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skunk_%28weapon%29

[3] http://www.haaretz.com/weekend/twilight-zone/.premium-1.567765

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