Al-Ahram Weekly Online – 22 November 2001
Nimer Sultany leans forward to reveal the wound to the top of his head. Still visible through his cropped hair, more than two weeks after the Israeli police kicked him and hit him with batons, is a large, bloodied gash. “This,” the young lawyer says, “is how the police deal with us when we demonstrate non-violently.”
Seated under the billowing plastic sheeting of his town’s protest tent, Sultany points to the bulldozers 50 metres or so away, close to where he was attacked by the Yassam, an elite unit of the Israeli police. “They were like wild dogs. They just laid into us all; women, children, it didn’t matter.”
Hundreds of demonstrators, including students, local farmers, Arab members of the Knesset and activists from Jewish environmental groups, turned out on 30 October to protest at the confiscation of the town’s fields on the outskirts of Tira in central Israel.
After Sultany was knocked to the ground he regained consciousness in an ambulance to find himself lying by two Arab Members of Knesset (MKs), Ahmed Tibi and Issam Makhoul, who had also been beaten by police.
The forlorn protest tent and “Tira’s spirit of defiance” are all that now stand between the town’s dwindling land reserves and the relentless progress of the country’s biggest ever road, the 320 km Trans- Israel Highway. The eight-lane route will eventually stretch the length of Israel, from the Negev in the south to the border with Lebanon and Syria in the north. Its first sections are expected to open next year and the whole road will be completed by 2004.
The official justification for the highway is the need to bring the country’s less populated periphery closer to the centre, the sprawling suburbs between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. But unofficially the highway offers strategic and military advantages: it will improve access to the poorly defended areas of the country; provide a transport “spine” along the Green Line to supply the settlements in the West Bank; and it will encourage Jewish migration to the Galilee, a vital component in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plans to upset the Palestinian majority in the north.
But there is another bonus for Israel, according to Fihmi Kitane of the Al-Ahali Arab farmers’ cooperative project based in Baqa Al-Gharbiyye. The highway, he says, will drive a wedge between the towns and villages of the Little Triangle region, to the north of Tel Aviv, which is the most densely populated Palestinian area inside Israel.
As evidence of this, he points to a planning map of the Triangle’s fertile plain. It shows the highway weaving a path through the lands of towns and villages like Tira, Taibe, Qalansuwa, Zemer, Jatt and Baqa, while avoiding agricultural land owned by Jewish kibbutz and mitzpe (hilltop) communities. After the highway is built, each Palestinian town will be separated not only from its fields but from its neighbouring villages as well.
“Tira and Taibe are already so close together that under natural circumstances as they grow they would join together and form a large Palestinian city,” says Kitane. “Israel does not want that, especially with us being so close to the Green Line, so they are building a huge road to bisect the land between the towns.”
Israel’s Palestinian citizens have seen, since 1948, their freeholdings get systematically confiscated, leaving the minority, which comprises 18 per cent of the population, with less than three per cent of the country’s territory.
But Sultany says Israel is continuing by other means the land grab policies that it began in the 1950s and 1960s. In that period, the military government closed many Arab areas, expelled the inhabitants and confiscated their land, often on the pretext of security concerns, before passing it on to Jewish farming cooperatives or to development towns for new immigrants.
In the 1980s and 1990s, he says, the state has found a raft of other excuses to take Arab land. Most Palestinian villages have been encircled and hemmed in by infrastructure projects such as electrification and water pipeline programmes, bypass roads to service Jewish communities, and by the creation of nature reserves, often of dubious value.
Now the Trans-Israel Highway can be added to the list. Almost all of the 20,000 dunums (6,700 acres) of private land that must be covered in asphalt are Palestinian-owned. “We had 65,000 dunums of land in 1948 and now we have less than 10,000,” says Sultany. “In another 10 years it won’t be possible to find a spare dunum on which to build a new house, let alone continue farming.”
In Tira, the government is trumpeting the fact that it will compensate dunum for dunum all the farmers whose land is being taken. Sharon personally intervened the day after the protest, signing an agreement with the heads of the local councils of Tira and Taibe. The Israeli media hailed it as a solution that satisfied all parties. The farmers, however, have a different story.
“None of us agreed to the deal,” says Subhi Azzem, who owns seven dunums of land. “This was the same agreement we rejected months ago. Our council leaders signed the deal under great pressure from the government and without legal advice. The councils need their budgets approved and so dare not stand up to Sharon.
“It was a clever move by him because now if we want to protest we have to do so against our own councils and not the government.”
And although Sharon has given guarantees that the farmers will receive replacement land, Sultany remains sceptical. He points to the case of financial compensation agreed upon in 1996 when the government took a swath of land next to Tira to lay a line of electricity pylons. “Not one single shekel has been paid to anyone,” he says. “I don’t think the replacement land will materialise either. Is Israel about to reverse 50 years of land policy just because of protests in Tira?”
Sultany says there is even less reason to trust the government after the violent police reaction to the Tira protest. It had painful echoes of last October, at the start of the Intifada, when police shot dead 13 unarmed Palestinian citizens.
The leaders of the Tira campaign hoped to avoid a repeat of those events by emulating the peaceful protests against the Trans-Israel Highway conducted by their allies in the fledgling Jewish environmental movement.
Green groups oppose the highway on the grounds that it will increase air pollution, add to traffic congestion, contaminate nearby water supplies and damage wildlife habitats. The environmentalists’ first protest, a sit-in further south at Nahshonim in November 1999, led to a handful of arrests by police. All the demonstrators were released uncharged a few hours later.
But demonstrators at Tira got a different reception. Jalal Mansour, an engineer and local businessman, says the Yassam unit stormed the site, provoking stone-throwing by a few protesters that was much reported by the Israeli press.
He saw his 17-year-old son Youssef hit in the face by an officer. “He broke his teeth, the punch was so violent. Until that moment I really thought we lived in a country where we had the right to raise our voice in protest. Now I realise we don’t even have that right.”