On Wednesday evening, 21 May, the city of Bethlehem officially welcomed the Palestine Investment Conference, which was seen as an important political moment by the current Palestinian Authority leadership of President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. The conference was publicized under the banner of promoting investment in Palestine, and stimulating the government and private sector to attract foreign investment in order to enhance economic development as a first step for the building of the future Palestinian state.
Yet, while the conference organizers put all their efforts into trying to create a social and political climate amicable to international capital investment in the region, the Israeli military occupation on the ground and Israeli policy against Palestinians totally contradict any expectation of hope and positive change. For example, one day before the opening of the conference, Israel announced that hundreds of new housing units would be built in the settlement of Efrat, located just a few meters from the building that hosts the conference.
Only a couple weeks ago, during the commemoration of 60 years of the Palestinian Nakba, as US President George W. Bush was standing on the other side of the Separation Wall, celebrating Israel’s 60th anniversary of independence and simultaneously promising the Palestinians to solve their political problem and suffering before the end of his term, Jewish settlers demonstrated who the real decision making powers on the ground are. While Palestinians from Beit Sahour commemorated the Nakba all around the city, a group of approximately 80 settlers broke into a plot of land on a hilltop which lies between Bethlehem and Beit Sahour on its eastern side, called Oush Grab, with the intention of taking over the site for a new settler outpost.
Because Oush Grab is situated on a hilltop with a 360° view of the Bethlehem region, it is a very strategic location. An Israeli military base was located on this site until it was abandoned by Israeli forces in April 2006. During the second intifada, the base served as a launch point for Israeli military incursions into Bethlehem. Prior to 1967 the Jordanian military, which had bought the land from Palestinian owners, located a military base on the same site. When the Israeli military took over the camp, they expanded its borders to include private land around the base. Following the Israeli military redeployment in April of 2006, the private land was returned to its landowners and the land with its original border was placed under the jurisdiction of the Beit Sahour Municipality. However, the top of the hill, where the neglected military buildings are still located, remains under Israeli military law, being located in Area C. This meant that the Israeli authorities prevented Beit Sahour Municipality from developing a children’s hospital on the location, as it had originally planned. Negotiations for building, which began this year between the municipality and the Israeli Civil Administration under the mediation of United States Agency for International Development (USAID), are still in progress. In the remainder of the camp, however, the military order has been lifted and a master plan to build a public garden and a recreation area for the community has been adopted and its implementation has already begun.
As Bethlehem has always suffered from lack of open and recreational spaces, the project was well received by the entire community. Some local and international NGOs are playing an active part in this project. One example is an organization for international development that is teaching children about leadership, environmental awareness and tolerance by way of recreational activities. International and Palestinian youths worked this winter on the land of Oush Grab as part of a Palestinian/international winter camp organized by the Alternative Information Center (AIC) and International Palestinian Youth League (IPYL).
Settlers from different settlements around Bethlehem, including those from the nearby Har Homa and Gush Etzion settlements, arrived with journalists, claiming that this land belongs to them and that it contains a hidden stone with Hebrew writing etched into it. According to the settlers, the action was also a natural response to the visit of President Bush who, they believe, is out to destroy Jewish settlement in the West Bank. Moreover, a number of the settlers reported their actions to be intended to prevent Palestinian use of this site, which they argue is too close to their homes and therefore liable to endanger them. Lastly, it was a message of warning to the foreign investors roaming around Bethlehem for the conference.
The following day, the settlers returned to Oush Grab to mark the buildings with Jewish and racist graffiti and to hang their flags. They told the media their plans were to return in the coming week in order to prepare the site for Jewish residents.
According to the Palestinian Governor of Bethlehem District, these actions did not happen by chance. They reflect the reality of Israel’s intentions to continue its settlement policy in the West Bank and particularly in the Bethlehem area. The glaring evidence for this is the belt of approximately 12 settlements which surrounds Bethlehem. According to research centers and map experts, Israel has a master plan for the Bethlehem area (which includes Bethlehem, Beit Sahour and Beit Jalla) and the new outpost of Oush Grab, in the eastern side of the belt, between the Har Homar and Efrat settlements, will be used to hermetically seal the Bethlehem area with a system of bypass roads and closures, cutting it off from all nearby Palestinian villages. The intent is to prevent any natural urban development for the Palestinian towns in the district.
Hence, the possibility of a new settlement in Oush Grab poses more than merely an immediate security threat to the Palestinian community. It also threatens the future of the surrounding villages, detrimentally affecting the freedom and the safety of thousands of Palestinians living nearby. It threatens the existence of the new public park, as well as the access of private landowners to their farms. It threatens to destroy the safe, open and public space many organizations have worked so diligently to create, dissolving, one time more, the efforts of international organizations to help the Palestinian people. And, ironically, at the very time that prominent speakers at the Palestine Investment Conference are waxing philosophically on the bright economic possibilities for the Palestinians, this move by the settlers threatens any possible economic plan for the area, plans which require freedom of movement and political stability in order to succeed.
A committee including local and international NGOs and organizations has been established with the intention of protecting the site from this new settlers’ outpost. The committee is working hard to providing activities at the site, as an expression of its different possible uses. At the moment, youths are painting the buildings of the former military base in order to cover the racist graffiti of the settlers. Palestinians and internationals are determined to defend this Palestinian land from any other attack.
International visitors and press are welcome to see the positive steps the community has taken in creating the park and in organizing cultural activities on the site, juxtaposed with the destructive wishes of the settlers.
While international investors from all over the world are in Bethlehem discussing possible economic investment plans for the region, it is important to show them and the international community the impossibility of achieving significant success on the economic level without strategic, concerted action at the political level to transform the current situation.
This is also the position the Palestinian NGO Network, together with the General Union of Palestinian Charitable Associations and several legislative council members such as Mustafa Barghouti and Khalida Jarrar, as expressed in their statement on 17 May. Here they remark on the non-existence of a political framework which can ensure the success of any economic plan. Therefore, promoting misconceptions about the existence of a meaningful peace process that has the potential bring with it better conditions and a positive environment and improve economic performance, will only serve to deepen the frustration felt by the Palestinian people, who continue to witness harassment, barriers to movement, closures, and a siege on the ground.
The aim of some economic partnerships seems to be to use Palestinians as a bridge between the Arab world and Israel. This serves only as a bypass around all political issues in order to achieve the normalization of investments.
“Our role as Palestinians,” says the statement by the legislative council members, “is to reject totally this policy of normalization.” Money will not end the ongoing violations and denial of rights the Palestinians face in their daily life.
Palestinians need their freedom and independence first, and, as long as the Israeli military occupation and settlement policy continue, no economic plan can possibly be successful.