BETHLEHEM - In the orange glow of another sunset, Awad Abu Swai, 36, stands underneath a towering fig tree, a sample of its fruit in his hand. He peels back the bright green skin to expose crimson jelly and seeds inside.
"The Israeli military came inside the valley and cut about 50 apricot and walnut trees since May. And now, they are coming to cut more trees. This is all because of what they are building through this land -- my land. Here, they are building a sewage channel to run raw sewage through this valley collected from four Israeli settlements near here." Abu Swai is one of approximately 4,000 residents of the Palestinian village of Artas, located southeast of Bethlehem city. Artas is known regionally for its succulent vegetables, and fruit and nut trees. But over the last few months Israeli occupation forces have brought dozens of bulldozers to the eastern valley fields of Artas to construct a wall that will cut villagers off from this fertile land, while a concrete tunnel for raw settlement sewage grows longer each day.
Efrat settlement colony, part of the Gush Etzion settlement bloc that stretches around several villages and towns near Bethlehem, sits perched on a hill over Artas. Below the settlement, a colony which houses approximately 9,000 Israelis and immigrants, Israeli bulldozers and earth movers work day and night constructing the sewage channel and building the wall.
Artas villagers have kept up an active and defiant campaign over the last year after unofficial information was leaked to the community that the village was in danger. Villagers watched in shock as bulldozers kept moving down the hillsides from Efrat toward the orchards on the valley floor.
Since May, Abu Swai has led actions as head of the popular committee in Artas, inviting international and Israeli peace activists to join villagers in their fight against the occupation administration's designs on this land.
Non-violent protesters have been shot at, beaten and arrested by Israeli occupation soldiers and private settlement security guards. Abu Swai tells IPS that he was imprisoned for five days after being badly beaten by an Israeli soldier during a non-violent demonstration as he tried to protect his land.
Elsewhere across the West Bank, Palestinian villagers are facing land confiscation as illegal settlement colonies expand and tumble down hillsides. Some are watching as crops and orchards become poisoned and contaminated from raw sewage being actively pumped into their land from the sewage treatment facilities inside Israeli settlements.
South of Artas village, sewage from the Gush Etzion settlement bloc is slowly decimating the farming village of Beit Ommar, a small community reliant on its agricultural exports. Next to a vineyard owned by several families in Beit Ommar sits Gush Etzion's sewage treatment facility, surrounded by a fence with barbed wire. Two pipes jut out from the edge of the brackish open water pool, aimed directly at the vineyard.
"Here, you will see that the land is black. This is where the sewage is pumped when the sewage pool from the settlement gets too full," Musa abu Mariya, 29, a farmer and Beit Ommar community leader tells IPS. He points to an area in front of the facility that was once full of Beit Ommar's apricot and plum trees.
"The bulldozers came about two years ago and started to pile dirt into a circle so that the overflow from the pool would go there." Abu Mariya says that every few months, especially in the rainy season, Gush Etzion starts to pump overflow sewage over the fence and into this built-up area -- an open and unprotected pit. "The water just shoots right out. It is destroying all of these crops on Palestinian land."
Abu Mariya tells IPS that a whole area in this vineyard is now completely contaminated because of another open pipe leaking sewage. On the other side of the sewage facility, a small orange pipe connected to the facility cuts through the barbed wire fence and opens directly in front of the vineyard. Dirty, foul-smelling water drips from the end of the pipe.
"Look at these grapes," Abu Mariya says. "They are not good here. Before the sewage plant started pumping water here, these grapes used to be beautiful and delicious." On one grapevine, the leaves are yellowed and curling, and the grapes themselves are grey and withered. "They are obviously sick grapes," Abu Mariya remarks. "They are all poisoned and dirty. This is from the water that they pump onto this land from the sewage."
Jeff Halper, Nobel Peace Prize nominee, former professor of anthropology at Ben Gurion University and co-founder of the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions, tells IPS that this otherwise banal issue of sewage infrastructure is consistent with broadening Israeli policies of Palestinian dispossession.
"Infrastructure sounds innocuous, but the partisan planning behind it simply pushes Palestinians out of historic farmlands that are ether expropriated for settlements or Israeli-only highways, or which are flooded by sewage by settlements with no sustainable infrastructure of their own.
"Planning by the Israeli authorities is done with impunity regarding the Palestinians," adds Halper. "It is merely one more means, more subtle than actual transfer, to alienate them from the lands and, in the end, render the greater Land of Israel cleansed of all but remnants of non-Jewish populations. It constitutes a crime of genocide, a crime taking place in the light of day and over six decades, that must be urgently addressed by the international community."
Meanwhile, Abu Swai says he remains anxious as the sewage channel expands each day and the village prepares another round of direct actions against the confiscation and destruction of Artas. "We are going to the (Israeli) Supreme Court in two days to await a decision...they should determine that all of this destruction is illegal. We have certificates of ownership for this land from 1936. We hope we get justice." (END/2007)
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