Palestinian tent city challenges Israeli ‘doomsday settlement’

Overlooking the tents of Bab Al Shams in the West Bank. (WNV/Andrew Beale)

Overlooking the tents of Bab al-Shams in the West Bank. (WNV/Andrew Beale)

As dozens of activists poured out of their buses, voices from the top of the hill shouted down at them in Arabic. Even without a working knowledge of the language, the message was clear to me: Hurry up and get over the ridge before the soldiers see us. The activists had traveled by convoy to join the roughly 250 people already present in the makeshift village of Bab al-Shams (Gate of the Sun), still a modest spread of sand-colored tents.

Bab al-Shams is in the E1 area, located between East Jerusalem and the existing settlement of Ma’ale Adumim. E1 entered global consciousness in November, when the Israeli government stirred up controversy by announcing it had approved 3,000 new building permits there. The decision came immediately after Palestinians achieved non-member observer status at the United Nations, in keeping with threats made by Israel to accelerate settlement construction if pursuit of the U.N. bid continued. Despite international condemnation of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s announcement, the Israeli government appears ready to press ahead with settlement expansion.

Construction in the E1 area, first proposed in 1994 by then-Prime Minister Itzhak Rabin, has long been frozen. The proposal has been called a “doomsday settlement” because of its profound implications. As the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem explains, construction in E1 will isolate Palestinian East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank, as well as effectively cut the West Bank itself in two, thereby decisively dashing any hope for a two-state solution. Furthermore, The Electronic Intifada reports that 2,600 Bedouin living in the E1 area will be displaced if the planned settlement construction is made a reality.

Following the tent city’s rapid appearance yesterday, Israeli security forces locked down all the roads leading towards Bab al-Shams. In addition to being stopped at the single usually-unmanned checkpoint between Ramallah and Ma’ale Adumim, the activist convoy I was on was stopped again at a “flying” checkpoint hastily set up to counter the flow of activists to Bab al-Shams. Everyone on my bus was instructed to say that our destination was Nablus if the soldiers asked us.

The two buses pulled off to the side of the road near Ma’ale Adumim, and we quickly made our way over the nearest hill, where we were invisible from the road. After a half-hour hike, we arrived at Bab al-Shams, greeted by a crowd of jubilant Palestinians and international solidarity activists.

Tent at Bab al-Shams. (WNV/Andrew Beale)

Tent at Bab al-Shams. (WNV/Andrew Beale)

The tent city consists of around 25 military-style tents manned by Red Crescent medical personnel, residents of the surrounding towns and villages, and volunteers from all over the West Bank.

Ahmad Hijaz, an activist I spoke with in Bab al-Shams, had arrived from Ramallah at 8 a.m. yesterday morning and spent the freezing night huddled around a fire. He told me that Bab al-Shams was meant to be a message to pro-settlement factions in Israel. “We are telling the Zionists that we exist. We are here. We are still standing,” he said. “We are really tired of peace talks. We have to do something — not anything violent. We are just staying here in peace.”

Hijaz said that nonviolence forms a critical part of Bab al-Shams’ message to the Israeli government. “We can just resist them in peace,” he said. “We tell them, ‘We are not moving. You can do whatever you want, but we are not moving.'”

Bab al-Shams is a project of the Popular Struggle Coordinating Committee, a nonviolent resistance group that organizes weekly protests in six West Bank towns. The PSCC’s most famous victory came in June, 2011, when the Israeli government, under pressure from a sustained nonviolent campaign that included legal action and regular protests, rerouted a section of the apartheid wall near the village of Bi’lin. Protests continue in Bi’lin, however, as the wall still stands near the village.

Bi’lin resident Jaber Aburahmeh, one of the organizers of the Bab al-Shams project, gained experience in nonviolent resistance during the struggle in his village. He said Bab al-Shams faced a series of logistical problems, such as providing food and water for all the activists as well as simply getting them there, but he was pleased with the result.

“At least the number of people here is not bad,” he said.

Despite a temporary injunction from Israel’s Supreme Court forbidding security forces from removing the tents, Aburahmeh said he expects the IDF to clear the area in the near future. “We expect they will come and destroy the tents, but we don’t know when,” he told me. “They never respect any permit or anything.”

Aburahmeh said Bab al-Shams is meant to be permanent, and the tent city will remain until it is forcibly removed. He was optimistic about the project’s chances of resisting construction in E1.

“Nonviolent resistance always works,” he said.

UPDATE (1/13/13 10:30 EST): Bab al-Shams was evicted forcefully by hundreds of Israeli security forces overnight, causing injuries to journalists and protesters resisting peacefully. Coverage: International Solidarity Movement, International Middle East Media CenterElectronic Intifada, FT, +972 Magazine.

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