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The blue velvet hills of my youth have been destroyed

Raja Shehadeh | The Guardian

5 July 2009

I can remember the appearance of the hills around Ramallah in 1979, before any Jewish settlement came to be established there. In the spring of that year I walked north from Ramallah, where I live, to the nearby village of A’yn Qenya and up the pine-forested hill. A gazelle leapt ahead of me. When I reached the top I could see hills spread below me like crumpled blue velvet, with the hamlets of Janiya and Deir Ammar huddled between its folds. On top of the highest hill in the distance stood the village of Ras Karkar with its centuries-old citadel that dominated the area during Ottoman times. I had been following the worrying developments of extensive settlement-building elsewhere in the West Bank and wondered how long it would be before these hills came under the merciless blades of the Israeli bulldozers. I didn’t have to wait long. A year later the top of the hill was lopped off and the settlement of Dolev, then a cluster of red-tiled Swiss-style chalets, was established.

Now, more than 25 years later, Dolev has expanded and taken over the hills to its north for vineyards. Numerous highways for the exclusive use of its Jewish settlers connect it to the many other settlements in the area and to Israel’s coastline. Those settlers travelling to and from Israeli cities where they work can only see road signs indicating other Jewish settlements. They encounter no Palestinian traffic on the roads nor do they see any Palestinian villages. No wonder then that I was once stopped by an armed settler and interrogated as to why I was taking a walk in his hills. When I asked him what right he had to be there, he answered: “I live here.” He then pointedly added: “Unlike you, I really live here.”

Not a single year has passed since Israel acquired the territories in 1967 in which Jewish settlements were not built. Had it pursued peace as assiduously, surely it would have achieved it by now. Instead, whenever the US pressed for a peace initiative, the “proper Zionist response” was the creation of new a settlement. The pattern of settling the Ramallah hills illustrates well the workings of this doomed policy. The Jewish settlement of Talmon was established in 1989 on the lands of the Palestinian village of Janiya, when the government of Yitzhak Shamir was being pressured to agree to start negotiations with the Palestinians. Talmon B was established, about two miles away, when the US secretary of state, James Baker, arrived in Israel two years later to broker the first ever peace conference between Israel and Arab countries.

At that time, Shamir dismissed the new settlement as “just a new neighbourhood”. The signing of the Oslo accords under a Rabin government in 1993 led to the building of a road connecting Dolev to Beit Eil, running through private Palestinian land. This winding road passed through the beautiful wadi linking Ramallah to A’yn Qenya, causing extensive destruction to the ancient rock formations and olive orchards along the way. One rockface that I particularly miss used to be studded with cyclamens during the late winter months, coming down all the way to the spring – which was also destroyed.

The Israeli policy of speeding up settlement construction in the face of US diplomatic pressure shows no sign of changing. Following the latest US administration declaration that Israel must impose a complete freeze on settlements, the country’s defence minister, Ehud Barak, declared last week the decision to establish 300 housing units in Givat Habrecha (Hebrew for hill of the blessing), one of the 12 outposts near the settlement of Talmon in the Ramallah hills. A few days later, on 29 June, he announced a further expansion of the illegal settlement of Adam, where 50 families are to move to a new neighbourhood located on a relatively large parcel of land outside the built–up area of the settlement. This also violates the Israeli commitment in the road map agreement not to expand the area of existing settlements.

This demand for a freeze on new settlements – which is not accepted by Israel even temporarily, as one Likud minister underlined today– falls short of what should happen if a viable peace is to be achieved: a complete evacuation of all the settlements built illegally in the territories occupied by Israel in 1967. Some would say this cannot possibly happen, given that there are around half a million Israeli settlers living in the West Bank. But who would have thought in 1962 that it would be possible to evict a million French Algerians who had been living in the country for almost a century and who represented roughly 9% of the population ?

Until this happens, we will have a continuation of the present reality where there is a single apartheid Israeli state encompassing pre-1967 borders and the Palestinian occupied territories. The sad truth is that when Israeli illegal settlements come to an end, as they must, Palestinians will not be able to undo the damage caused to the landscape by this massive, politically motivated development.