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The Surreal Story of Qawawis Continues

Take a trip to Qawawis and you step back in time, yet remain in a surreal and frightening present.

It’s an extraordinary place of stark beauty, situated at the extreme southern tip of the Occupied West Bank. Most of the people live in ancient limestone cave dwellings, variously enlarged and improved over the centuries. Yet each is swept spotlessly clean, belying first impressions that an ancient lifestyle means dirt and squalor.

Qawawis itself is tiny, home to just five Palestinian families. The population varies depending on who’s brother, sister, aunt or other relative happens to be around, but it is usually between 15 to 50 people. The permanent residents earn a skilful but hard living shepherding goats and growing crops in a harsh semi-desert landscape.

The survival of Qawawis as a living community is a minor miracle, quite apart from the climate, and the day to day hazards and uncertainties of subsistence farming. Over the past few years two illegal Israeli settlement outposts, founded by militant and very dangerous settlers, have been established on nearby land. Since the settlers arrived, they’ve constantly harassed, threatened, and sometimes physically attacked the people.

They’ve ruined wells and poisoned livestock. Three years ago, their tactics paid off and they managed to chase the families away from Qawawis. A single settler moved in, vandalized homes, and added a building of his own. Then in a biazarre twist it turned out that Israeli Army has it’s own designs on Qawawis, wanting to turn the area into a training/security zone. The army evicted the settler, and bulldozed rubble in front of the cave dwellings, hoping to seal them off forever.

The army’s action was premature. The people of Qawawis, with the help of international and Israeli human rights groups fought back with a court case that went all the way to the Israeli Supreme Court. The people won, and court found that Palestinians, not settlers or the army had the rights to Qawawis.

Unfortunately the judgment had a catch. The people were welcome to return, but on condition that no new buildings were constructed. So they returned, and they cleared the rubble, repaired their homes, shepherded their goats and sheep, planted their crops, and repaired their free-standing bread oven and outhouse. Both these structures are essential to the standard of living, which at best is very low.

Then they made a mistake; they added a simple tent-like canvas awning to both oven and outhouse to keep out the winter rains and the summer sun.

In the blinkered eyes of the Israeli administrators, these rudimentary and sensible improvements make both structures “new.” On the 27th March 2006 they served an order giving the people a month to demolish them, or the authorities would do the job themselves. So once again, there will be a court case, this time on the 27th April 2006, in Beit El near Ramallah, where lawyers will argue over the meaning of the word “new.”

Building of a very different kind has also been going on in Qawawis area. Despite the fact that the two settlements closest to the hamlet are illegal (all settlements are illegal under International Law, but these ones are also illegal under Israeli law), the authorities have been kind enough to provide the law-breakers with electricity, telephone lines, piped water, and a couple of new roads.

One of these new roads runs very close to Qawawis, and the Israeli Army, for ‘security reasons,’ has imposed a 100 meter ‘security zone’ on each side where no Palestinian is allowed to go. This means in some Qawawis homes, taking a few steps from your front door means you are in a military exclusion zone.

More trouble has come from the main road about 1km (2/3 mile) away. The Israelis have recently started building a “mini-wall” along the edge of the northern carriageway. Made of concrete blocks precisely 82cm high and built along the curb, they prevent vehicles from leaving the road and heading into the semi-desert beyond. They are also just high enough to prevent a sheep or a donkey leaden with supplies from crossing.

This poses a serious problem for Qawawis as this mini-wall will cut it off from Karmel and Yatta. These are the small towns that provide supplies and markets for produce. The mini wall itself is something of a mystery, it doesn’t appear on any publicly available Israeli or UN maps, and enquiries about its design, length, purpose, and on who’s authority it is being built have so far been fruitless. An ISM volunteer spoke to some of the workmen last week, and they said it will run from Karmel to Susya (approximately 10km, 6 miles). As one of the people of Qawawis said “we’re going to be in a prison here.”

Cave dwellings, a road, an outhouse, a bakery, and mysterious wall 82 cm high and six miles long (maybe). Only in the surreal world of the Occupied West Bank would such insignificant structures cause so much trouble.