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Delicious shakshuka

I recently visited a friend’s home for dinner. She lives about a half-hour drive from Tel Aviv, when traffic is light. In her small town of about 7000 people one can feel the cool hilltop breezes and see stunning views. As in much of Israel the flowers are remarkable, spilling over every white picket fence. In the middle of her town is a house of worship, a generously appointed community center, a country club with pools and tennis courts, and a small park overlook. Slightly down the hill is a small collection of neat stores and cafés. As the day was turning into evening boys were playing basketball on a shaded court, men and women were on the tennis courts and children were running around the streets. My friend was so welcoming, cooking us a delicious traditional dinner of shakshuka and introducing us to her wider family who came from several different towns to join us.

Alfei Menashe’s town logo

My friend’s town has been the cause of several court cases and deep concern on the part of human rights advocates. When the security barrier was built to include it in Israel, it created pockets of Palestinian land and villages all cut off from one another. A United Nations Relief and Works Agency report from last year describes the effects of the barriers that surround my friend’s town:

“The Ramadin tribe fled the Negev in 1948 and settled in what is now known as Ramadin village.  Small herding clans subsequently splintered away from the village, and the Ramadin Al Janubi community moved to its current location south of Qalqilya in the 1950s. In 1983, the Israeli settlement of Alfei Menashe was established on grazing land used by the community, and in 1995, Ramadin Al Janubi received its first stop-building order.

Israeli authorities have issued demolition orders for some 30 structures over the years, although no demolition has ever occurred. In August 2003, the Barrier was built to include Alfei Menashe on the ‘Israeli’ side, thereby enclosing five nearby Palestinian communities, including Ramadin Al Janubi.

View of the new barrier from my friend’s house. This leaves Ras al-Tira on the West Bank side of the wall, but the Bedouin village (not in photo) remains inside the wall.

In 2004, these communities submitted a petition to reroute the Barrier to the High Court of Justice (HCJ), which ruled in their favour. Two years later, the Ministry of Defense published its plan for the new route, effectively leaving three villages on the West Bank side. Ramadin Al Janubi and another Bedouin community, however, remained inside the Alfei Menashe enclave. The Bedouin communities again petitioned the HCJ, but the Court rebuffed them and approved the new Barrier route. Shortly thereafter, the Civil Administration began offering relocation packages, which the communities rejected.

Israeli authorities issued four final demolition orders in September 2010 and informed community members that their displacement may be imminent. Since 2009, community members have faced increasing obstacles in accessing the rest of the West Bank, as well as in bringing goods – especially food – across the Barrier. Meat, dairy products and eggs were all banned for some time. Ongoing community efforts, with support from the PA, UNRWA and other UN agencies, have improved the situation somewhat, but restrictions remain in effect.

In September 2011, the Israeli military transferred control of the Jaljoulia checkpoint, which controls crossings in the area, to the Crossing Points Administration (CPA). Since the transfer, community members must exit their vehicles 400 metres from the checkpoint and remove all items, after which they must walk to the checkpoint and pass through security checks and scans. According to community reports, a crossing that once took ten minutes now routinely requires several hours.

In addition to these inconveniences, the new checkpoint procedures undermine community safety. In one incident, a fire broke out, and the fire truck – which had to travel from Qalqilya, as Israel considers the community to be under PA control – arrived just as community members extinguished the flames themselves. According to villagers, an Israeli fire truck had arrived right away, but did nothing beyond ensure that the fire did not spread to Israeli areas.

These new procedures have also further restricted UN access to the community, with UNRWA and other agencies unable to cross Jaljoulia checkpoint. In practice, CPA authorities do not respect any distinctions for humanitarian actors and insist on carrying out vehicle inspections, contrary to ratified UN Privileges and Immunities. As a result, UN staff must access the community from Israel, greatly complicating visits by staff who hold West Bank IDs. Among other consequences, this has resulted in many staff – including UNRWA-funded mobile health clinics – being effectively unable to reach the area. One can find another description of the situation at the blog of a Palestinian non-violent democratic reform movement.

Alfei Menashe seems to have a very high quality of life

In this article from the Winnipeg Jewish Review, a local Alfei Menashe real estate agent and council member are quoted about the town seen from my friend’s balcony. Their comments sound to me very much like blaming the victim. “‘Now the villagers of Ras Atira belong to Mahmoud Abbas, [President of  the Palestinian Authority], not us.  He can look after them,’ says Meir. ‘Now some of them regret  the change,’ said Levy. ‘Some of the villagers work in construction and are building our new projects in Alfei Menashe.  They need to feed their families and now because they are on the other side of the fence it is harder for them to get here. So Israel now is going to have to build a gate near their village along the security fence so they can get to work in Alfei Menashe.  The army will have to man it an give them  approvals to come in…Now, belatedly, some of them realize that  had they not moved the fence they could have probably become Israeli citizens [if  and] when a peace agreement is signed…That would have given them more benefits..But, now it’s to late,’ he adds.

Even in my last weeks here in Israel and the Palestinian Territories I am learning more about the conflict and how it manifests in peoples’ daily lives.