In the morning hours of November 16th, 1999, forces of the Israeli army entered several small cave villages in the South Hebron hills and expelled over 700 of their Palestinian inhabitants. This did not occur in time of war. It was done by the Barak government, which we thought was trying to obtain peace. When we started the struggle to return these inhabitants to their homes, it was not merely a struggle for human rights and justice. It is an issue that lies at the heart of the struggle for peace between our two peoples. The case of the South Hebron hills constitutes the essence of the entire conflict: One society entered the territory of another society and is pushing it out in an ongoing historical process. This is the conflict in a nutshell, the bone of contention.
Several data will illuminate my point:
Before Zionist immigration to Israel began, the absolute majority of Jews in the country was concentrated in four towns: Jerusalem, Hebron, Tiberias and Safed. They constituted about 10% of the population, and as urban dwellers, possessed almost no land. Zionist immigration, starting in the second half of the 19th century, included the purchase of land and its settlement. All this was done under cooperative foreign rule without asking the indigenous population. As a result of the 1948 war, most Palestinians left (expelled or escaped) over 500 localities and became refugees. About 155,000 Palestinians remained in the country (I refrain from the arguments over the number of refugees). Prior to the founding of the State of Israel, in 1948, Jews owned about 8.5% of the land, and they constituted about one third of the local population (within the “green line”). At present, Arabs inside Israel own 3.5% of the land and constitute 18% of the population.
In the wake of the 1967 war, a similar process took place in the occupied territories: At present, about 5000 Israeli settlers in the Gaza strip hold about 30% of the land (populated by 1.2 million Palestinians), and abot 200,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank control about 42% of the land (vs. 2 million Palestinians). A similar picture is found in East Jerusalem, where Israel has expropriated about 73,000 dunams and settled about 180,000 Israelis. In the Golan Heights, most Syrian inhabitants became refugees, and there are about 15,000 Israeli settlers.
These statistics are cited here in order to illustrate the process of pushing the Palestinians out of their own territory. The amazing thing is that the Oslo Accords did not halt the process. When they were signed in 1993, there were slightly over 100,000 settlers in the West Bank. At present there are about 200,000 setllers, which shows that the process of pushing Palestinians out has only gained momentum.
It must be understood that in such a process, thousands of Palestinians lost their lands and their livelihood. It means that nearly 1000 homes of Palestinians were demolished by Israel since the signing of the Oslo Accords (September 1993) until the Al Aksa Intifada broke out. The expulsion of the Jahalin for the sake of expanding the settlement Maale Adumim, and the expulsion of the cave dwellers in South Hebron Hills, also took place after the Oslo Accords.
Unfortunately it is impossible to carry out a peace process while Israel continues to drive the Palestinians off their lands. This is the essential cause of the conflict between the two peoples. This is the background of the erruption of the Al Aksa Intifada. In the late 70’s Israel declared an area of about 86,000 dunams in the South Hebron hills a military zone. Soon several settlements were raised in the region and the struggle began against the cave-dwellers, who were “hindering the expansion” of the settlements. So at the beginning some cave dwellings were demolished, and finally people were expelled (between July and October 2001 additional expulsions took place).
This is only one of the ways to take over Palestinians’ lands and pass them on to Jewish hands. This is done in the occupied territories as well as inside Israel.
It should be noted that during the present war, Israel continues to confiscate lands for the settlements. Since Sharon rose to power, about 34 new strongholds have been raised, which will become new settlements, or, expand existing settlements. The founding and expansion of settlements have become Israel’s catch. Now, even if the Israeli government might sincerely want to choose the path of peace, it would fear that the price of peace should be a civil war: between the settlers – advocating a nationalist-religious ideology – (together with their supporters on the extreme right), and the government, obliged to evacuate them by force of peace accords.
I assume that the Palestinian leadership faces no lesser obstacles on the road to peace. Signing a peace agreement with Israel – not including the unrestricted right of return – might inspire revolt in the refugee camps. Only an end to expropriating the Palestinians’ territories would prove that Israel sincerely means to make way for peace.
Amos Gvirtz is the Chairman of ICAHD