By Adam Keller
Note: This account ends with an urgent request for donations, with the intervening text explaining exactly why they are very much needed. If you have no time to read everything, please go to the end - that is, in fact, the most important part!
April 17, morning - A few activists outside the the Supreme Court building in West Jerusalem, Palestinians and internationals and myself from Gush Shalom - holding up photos of the Aqaba village kindergarten, served with a demolition order a few weeks ago.
The wheelchair-bound head of Village Council, Haj Sami Sadeq, was refused a permit to attend the hearing. Because he was not allowed to come, a plan to have the Aqaba kids themselves come here themselves also did not materialize. Although children do not need permits to cross checkpoints, their parents (also not granted permits, though the hearing would decide the fate of their homes and village) just could not send their children off, knowing they themselves would not be allowed across if anything went wrong.
The media was not very enthusiastic about taking up the story. The Supreme Court hearing took place less than 24 hours after the bloody day in Gaza, where angry Israeli forces went on a rampage after three of their soldiers were killed in an early morning ambush, and killed no less than twenty Palestinians in a few hours - militants, children and a well-known journalist.
The story of Aqaba - a small village, tucked up in a faraway corner of the West Bank, whose inhabitants had never even thrown a stone - seemed minor in comparison, and only a single French Press Agency reporter and a Palestine TV crew showed up. Still, it was a major drama - the fate of a village to be decided in the neat and antiseptic circular courtroom, by judges who never saw the place or met any of the hundreds of people living there, and whose tiny village faces no less than thirty-five demolition orders. The mosque, the clinic, the kindergarten, the roads, and nearly all private homes - in fact, virtually te entire village - are all threatened with destruction. (The most recent demolition order was that for the kindergarten - built with funding by the US-based "Rebuilding Alliance" and with a second floor funded the Japanese and Belgian Embassies and the Norwegian People).
Previous to the hearing, Adv. Eli Tusya-Cohen, the Israeli lawyer representing the villagers, had a meeting at the Military Government's "Civil Administration" headquarters in the settlement of Beit El, where a "compromise" was offered. A kind of immunity from demolitions would be given : the area within an (arbitrarily drawn) line, comprising about twenty percent of the lands of the Aqaba lands and including some private houses as well as the public buildings ( kindergarten, clinic and mosque). However, the rest of the village lands would remain exposed to demolitions; specifically, the army would get a free hand to destroy several houses lying just a short distance outside the "protected area", in each of which a family with ten or more children lives.
The army's offer was the starting point of the Supreme Court proceedings. Presiding judge Edmond Levy and his fellow judge Miriam Naor were clearly of the opinion that it was a "generous offer" which the Aqaba villagers ought to grab - since they were law breakers who had built without permits and the state would be within its rights to destroy all the houses. "If you reject this offer, you are playing 'all or nothing'; should the court reject your petition, your clients might be left with nothing" warned Levy.
Adv. Tusya-Cohen, while careful to keep to the polite forms of speech required of attorneys addressing judges, did not budge: "I would not dream of sacrificing some of my clients in favor of others, assent to some of them becoming homeless in return for others living more securely. Such an act would be contrary to the fundamental ethics of the legal profession.
Of course, this court cannot legitimize illegal construction, and I would not consider asking for such a thing. Still, Your Honors should consider that the state's conduct in this whole affair was a fundamental miscarriage of justice. Aqaba has no zoning plan except for the one made by the British in 1945, more than sixty years ago! The population has increased, its needs enormously changed. It was the state's duty to set up a team of experts, to draw up an up- to-date Master Plan, according to which building permits could have been issued - not to stick to a completely obsolete plan, decades out of date and completely unfitting with conditions on the ground, making my clients into law-breakers against their will."
The representative of the state had little to say, limiting himself to commenting that there did exist "An up-to-date Master Plan drawn up for a neighboring village". To this, Adv. Tusya-Cohen responded: "I am happy for my clients' neighbors, towards whom the state did fulfill its basic duty, but this benefits my clients not at all. I am all the more surprised that the state did not do the same for them".
Judge Levy intervened: "If anything, your clients should have appealed in the first place to have a new Master Plan drawn up, instead of creating illegal facts on the ground". This gave Adv. Tusya-Cohen the opening to introduce a crucial precedent: "Your Honors, an analogous situation had existed in the village of Wallaje in southern Jerusalem. There was no up- to-date Master Plan, houses were built illegally and many of them demolished. But voluntary organizations offered to draw up such a Master Plan for Wallaje at their own expanse, and the Jerusalem Municipality, having authority in this case, agreed to declare a three-year moratorium on house demolitions in Wallaje pending the completion of that plan.
There is no reason why a similar arrangement could not be made with regard to Aqaba. There is an organization, the Committee Against House Demolitions - whose representatives are present here in this courtroom - which is willing to take up this burden."
The judges did not make a clear answer to this, and shortly Judge Levy grunted: "Well, we heard all that the sides had to say. The three of us will confer and let you know our decision".
Clearly, there is little reason to feel optimistic about the judicial appeal, beyond hoping that it would buy some more time for Aqaba (and making the best use of that time). There was no way I could reassure Haj Sami Sadek - the mayor of Aqaba, who despite his physical disability had been courageously and persistently conducting the struggle of his fellow-villagers for so many years already, and who phoned me full of worry on that evening. The people of Aqaba feel extremely anxious, with the sword of destruction hanging over their heads by a thin thread. However people elsewhere support and identify with them, we can go to sleep without wondering if our homes would still be there on the following night!
Still, there are also some reasons to be hopeful. The Civil Administration's willingness to offer any concession - however inadequate and unacceptable in itself - is a significant change. I have been following the struggle of Aqaba for many years, and until now the military authorities' position had been that the village just should not exist and that its inhabitants should "relocate" to nearby Palestinian towns, such as Tubas or Tayasir. Army officers told that explicitly to Haj Sami and other villagers, many times over the past decades. They offered all kinds of inducements and threats, and were always answered with a clear "No!", in the best Palestinian tradition of "Sumud" - steadfastly holding on the soil,come what may.
And the reason for this prolonged military effort to erase an inoffensive tiny village are not far to see, either: the "Alon Plan", a central element of Israeli government policies since 1967, calls for keeping the Jordan Valley under permanent Israeli rule. Aqaba is on the western edge of the Jordan Valley - and therefore, erasing Aqaba would make it possible to extend the area "Free of Arabs" by that many kilometers westwards. I am ashamed to admit that such naked racism is the guiding motive of civil and military officials in the country of which I am a citizen; unfortunately, I have no doubt that such indeed are their motives.
Anyway, the army's new willingness to recognize the presence of Palestinians at Aqaba - however circumscribed they want to make it - is a significant change in a decades-long nasty policy. This is due first and foremost to the incredible courage and steadfastness of the Aqaba villagers themselves, and also to the willingness of people around the world - both grassroots organizations and the embassies representing governments - to invest in this village, as well as to the solidarity struggle which was waged - and should continue to be waged - inside Israel and internationally.
It is important to note that despite Judge Levy's talk of "all or nothing", the army is unlikely to really destroy the kindergarten (or the mosque and clinic and roads), even if the court rejects the appeal. The protests which were already made and the international attention - in particular, the visit of American diplomats to Aqaba a week ago - seem to make the price of such an act prohibitively high for the government.
In the message I got from Donna Baranski-Walker at the US-based "Rebuilding Alliance" (the group that built the kindergarten), she quotes Adv.Tusya-Cohen as saying that "American pressure from Senators and Congress is the only way the Civil Administration will approve Aqaba's Master Plan and issue building permits. She adds that "off the record, U.S. State Department officials said that the calls from Senators and Congresspeople are really helping them (the State Dept) with this case, because it gives them the ability to make the case a high priority and follow-through accordingly."
Therefore "Our work in the week ahead is to get as many Senate and Congressional staff as possible to call the Israeli Embassy and the State Department to request the Civil Administration accept the village's comprehensive Master Plan". (For details on how to do that, look up the Save Aqaba website, http://www.saveaqaba.org/)
As stated to the court by Adv.Tusya-Cohen, ICAHD (Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (see http://www.icahd.org/eng/) is willing to take up the burden, and work with the Rebuilding Alliance to coordinate planning on behalf of the village. BIMKOM - the association of Israeli architects and town-planners set up for the purpose of making exactly such challenges to ethnically-biased official planning policies (see http://www.bimkom.org/aboutEng.asp) - is willing to help out. The Rebuilding Alliance has also sent a request to the Rand Corporation, a U.S.think tank working in the area to develop plans that can meet local needs.
In fact, we don't have to start quite from scratch. The Aqaba already drew up its own Comprehensive Land Use plan three years ago, with funding provided at the time by the Palestinian Authority. However, the military authorities were able to just brush that plan aside and proceed with the issuing of their demolition orders and terrorizing of the villages. What is needed is to get started right away reviewing the plan to confirm that it meets Israeli standards, and to push it under the army's (and the judges') noses assertively enough that it would not be brushed aside again. The review and filing of the plan, legal expenses, and outreach costs all require funding - quite considerable sums of money - and that is where we ask your help.
Donations could be sent via the Rebuilding Alliance, at 457 Kingsley Avenue, Palo Alto CA 94301, USA or online via the DonateNow button at http://www.RebuildingAlliance.org, or call them at 650 325-4663 for bank transfer info.
The people of Aqaba depend on all of us, all over the world, opening our hearts and our pockets. We must not fail them!
Yours, Adam Keller