As you pass through the West Bank, you can’t help but notice the illegal Israeli settlements dotted high up on the hills. They are easily identifiable: red tiled roofs, Western-style houses, barbed wire, checkpoints and watchtowers.
The closest settlement to Haris, the little Palestinian village where I live, is called Revava. Two kilometres away, next to Kafil Haris is Ariel, and just a few more kilometres down the road is Tappauh, which overshadows the olive gloves of Yasuf. The settlements are always built next to Palestinian villages, in order to dominate them and to displace them.
Ariel is by far the largest of the three, home to more than 20,000 settlers. On September 19, I made my first trip to Ariel, accompanied by two of my colleagues from the International Women’s Peace Service.
We were going to Ariel in order to get to Tel Aviv, to attend a rally outside the Kabbalah conference that Madonna was attending. Although we normally travel in Palestinian vehicles, with their distinctive green and white numberplates, they are not allowed to travel on the Israeli highways into the city. Instead, we had to catch a bus to Ariel and then catch a settler bus to Tel Aviv from there — yet another privilege available to internationals but not to Palestinians.
As the bus into the settlement wound its way up the hill, passengers in European-style clothing clambered on. Part of me wanted to ask if they knew that this land they were building upon was stolen.
Unfamiliar with the city, we randomly jumped off near a children’s playground, which turned out to be located next to the main public swimming pool, complete with water slide.
Water is one of the most valuable resources in the Middle East. In Ariel, unlike in the Palestinian villages, water is everywhere: at the pool, in the lush green park lawns dotted around, in the fountains and water features that dominate in the public areas.
The Salfit district is rich in water, but the six artesian wells located here are controlled by the settlements. The settlements’ water consumption is five times as great as that of Palestinian villages, many of whom are not even connected to the network. Those that are connected, must pay four times what Israeli settlements pay for water.
Children and soldiers wandered past, visiting the pool to cool down on a hot and muggy day. Soldiers dropped their packs and automatic weapons and sat on the grass, chatting amongst themselves.
I was struck by the familiarity of the city. The houses looked like the houses you would find out in the newly developing areas of Sydney or Melbourne or any other major Western population centre. It was so normal, so peaceful and so disturbing for being so, in the middle of this occupied country.
Palestine’s vegetation is hardy, like its people. At times it is sparse and the land is mountainous, dry and sometimes arid, but there is a haunting beauty about it. The Palestinian villages that I visited fitted into this beautiful landscape. But this beauty is constantly disrupted. In the week preceding my Ariel visit, Israeli Defence Force soldiers in jeeps had entered many of the villages, including Haris — where they threw sound grenades and smoke bombs, often at the children and the school.
In Nablus, which is officially sealed off to international observers, the IDF killed four people, including a 19-year-old woman who was simply standing on the roof of her house.
In Ariel, we stopped to look down at Khifal Haris and the scarred land that marked the route of the illegal wall the Israelis are building across the West Bank. I wondered if any of the residents of the suburban homes surrounding us ever wondered about their Palestinian neighbours. Did they ever think about the havoc and destruction that their settlements and army brought? Did they ever question their right to be here? Did they even know the name of the village below them?
Palestinian villages are not listed on Israeli maps. Throughout the West Bank, Israeli signposts disappear them by omission. When local villages attempt to erect signs indicating the name of their village, the signs are torn down time and time again by the settlers, erasing their existence again and again.
It was soon time to catch the bus to Tel Aviv. As we left Ariel, I felt tired, angry and sad.
For settlements like Ariel to exist, Israel must repress, terrorise and displace the indigenous people of Palestine. It must steal their natural resources, it must use force and it must use collective punishment to terrorise the local Arab population into submission.
While settlers in Ariel enjoy well-paved roads and lush parks, almost unlimited access to water, modern schools, cultural centers and health clinics, the Palestinian people in the villages surrounding Ariel must endure constant surveillance and harassment and restrictions on their movement. They must also endure contaminated water, ruined roads and having their land stolen and their homes and olive trees destroyed.
Despite their air of “western normalcy” and “suburban looks”, these settlements are political and predatory. The Israeli government continues to invest substantial effort and funds to establish, expand and defend the settlements. Israeli settlers and new immigrants to Israel are offered cash incentives to move there, housing is subsidised and extensive funds are spent on infrastructure and defence. The goal is to create permanent outposts which can expand and perpetuate Israeli control over the West Bank.
As long as settlements like Ariel, Tappauh and Revava exist, the lives of Palestinians will continue to be controlled and regulated and they will be an obstacle to peace.