Al-Aqaba village in the Jordan Valley after two homes, animal shelters and roads were demolished, 2011. (Photo: Keren Manor/Activestills.org)
July 4, 2012
On the Fourth of July, as Americans celebrate Independence Day, Israeli High Court Justice Esther Hayut will decide whether or not to demolish a Palestinian family's home, their goat barns, and three other small businesses owned by other villagers. The plaintiffs are all residents of the Palestinian Village of al-Aqaba, located in the Jordan Valley in Area C, the 62% of the occupied West Bank that Israel solely controls. Justice Hayut would do well to affirm the villagers' fundamental human rights and freeze all demolition orders while the High Court considers a new master plan rightfully designed to include all the land the villagers own.
In notices to al-Aqaba's attorneys at the Jerusalem Legal Aid and Human Rights Center, the Israeli Civil Administration presents false arguments. In addition, the Civil Administration both ignores the boundaries of private land registered to the village's families and ignores al-Aqaba's history with respect to its true population.
After having its first two master plans rejected, al-Aqaba filed a third master land-use plan on August 24, 2011, a compendium of maps and discussion detailing a vision for their village on a fraction of its land. In this most recent plan, al-Aqaba compromised on land area while projecting reasonable growth for their population, including displaced families returning home.
On June 23, 2012 al-Aqaba's attorneys received a one-paragraph denial letter from the Civil Administration’s High Planning Committee and a one-page transcript of their meeting (Originals In Hebrew, Translations into English).
Here's where things turn upside down. The Civil Administration denies the village’s existence, referring to "Herbet al-Aqaba — Demolished al-Aqaba" as a fait accompli. It is not.
Instead of accepting the villager's compromise, the Civil Administration accuses the village of designing a plan "for 'koshering' the illegal building that has been going on for years." They completely ignore the Catch-22 that makes building permits unattainable: the Israeli Civil Administration refuses to issue any building permits without prior approval of a Master Land Use plan, and issues demolition orders when families could not wait; but, once again, they refuse to approve al-Aqaba's Master Land Use Plan.
There's more: The Civil Administration states that al-Aqaba Village is a designated live-fire military training area. From 1971 to 2001, the Israeli Army used this village of 1000 residents for live-fire training exercises, busting into homes and firing guns and rockets — all without provocation simply because "it looked like Lebanon." Twelve people were killed and 36 wounded. The first victim was a 16 year old, shot three times by an Israeli soldier who later apologized. This man, in a wheelchair for life, is now the mayor of al-Aqaba, Haj Sami Sadek Sbaih, a man who despite all, remains deeply committed to peace.
That dark chapter in al-Aqaba's history ended in 2001 when live-fire training was stopped at the Israeli High Court's order. The Israeli Army signed an agreement with the village assuring that "the area for training will be made clear on a map [in advance], and their training will be without guns, with no shooting." In 2002, the Israeli Army even dismantled and removed its camp from the village.
The 1999 agreement was respected over the years — until June 27 last week, when Israeli soldiers entered the village firing bullets and mortars at 2:00 AM in exercises right beside the village mosque and mayor's home. Citizens and diplomats from all corners of the world pressed Israel to make the shooting stop. Thankfully the soldiers have not returned.
In the Civil Administration's final argument, again ignoring ownership of private land, they suggest the Village of al-Aqaba move into an entirely different town. They say the nearby town of Tayaseer is equipped to provide city services. Here Mayor Haj Sami proudly counters:
Justice Hayuz, our city services are much better. We invite you to visit our medical clinic, our mosque with double minaret in the shape of a peace sign, the Ibn Rush’d Library, a state of the art kindergarten and an elementary school with a school bus bringing children from all the towns nearby, visiting English teachers, a thriving guesthouse, electricity, dumpsters, and regular garbage pick-up.
So what's a fair decision? The Israeli High Court should immediately freeze all demolition orders; review land title boundaries for al-Aqaba and the surrounding area; and request then ratify al-Aqaba's next Master Land Use Plan on all the land the village owns or leases. Then the Israeli High Court should recognize the village's right to issue its own building permits in accordance with its master plan, just like any other town in the democratic world.
In this 45th year of occupation, the villagers' human rights cannot be held hostage to on-again off-again political negotiation. They need houses now, not some distant day when the peace process is complete. Israel’s High Court must acknowledge al-Aqaba's residents' fundamental rights - the rights to housing, education, healthcare, and employment– in their town on the land they own. Justice Hayuz, why wait?