Jul 24 2008

Collison Course in Palestine

Published by at 9:01 am under Articles,Palestinian politics

Following appeared in the Jordan Times

Collision course

Daoud Kuttab

Without realising it, an American philanthropic organisation, planning to set up a $16.5 million children’s hospital in Palestine, is on a collision course with radical Jewish settlers at a time that American officials are constantly repeating calls for a contiguous and independent Palestinian state. One wonders how someone like Barack Obama, who is presently visiting the region, would respond to actions by Jewish settlers preventing the creation of a hospital.

The story began on April 26, 2007 when the Israeli army unilaterally removed its military base from an area of land south of Bethlehem. Locally referred to as Ush Al Ghurab (which literally means the nest of the falcon, the area lies within the municipal boundaries of Beit Sahour, a Palestinian town built on the fields where Christians believe angels appeared to shepherds watching their flocks at night, heralding the coming of Jesus.

Once the Israeli army dismantled their equipment, the city’s Palestinian Christian Mayor Hani Hayeq, and the city council announced that they are willing to contribute the land free of charge to any local or international organisation that is interested in using it for the public good. At nearly the same time, a US-based organisation was looking for land to build an orthopaedic hospital for the children of Palestine. I remember a few years ago receiving a call from a college friend who is involved in the organisation and I had given them the phone number of my brother’s law firm. They checked out various buildings and land plots and finally settled on the offer from the Beit Sahour Municipality for the recently vacated land plot. The location had become much more important after the wall came up because all travel between south and north of the West Bank, which used to go through Jerusalem, has now been rerouted to an area south of Bethlehem and access to specialised care in Jerusalem is becoming harder to obtain.

CURE International, a Pennsylvania-based organisation that was interested in it felt that this would make the new hospital central for children from all areas of Palestine.

On its website (www.helpcurenow.org) CURE International said it hopes the state-of-art hospital in Bethlehem will be ready by 2010 and perform 1,000 orthopaedic surgeries a year.

“The Bethlehem hospital is unique in that it is bringing together three faith groups to build a facility of healing in a very volatile region,” said Dr Scott Harrison, the orthopaedic surgeon who founded Cure 10 years ago and serves as its CEO.

“Christians and Muslims will serve together at the hospital and will receive additional training at some of the leading hospitals in Jerusalem including Hadassah and Schneider,” Harrison said in a press release announcing the new hospital.

With land and money in hand the only obstacle that was holding up construction was a permit. But because the land was an Israeli military area it is listed as a “C” area, meaning that the Israeli army has administrative and security rule over it. The municipality and CURE International approached the Israelis and asked for permission.

Meanwhile, Jewish settlers focused on the same land for their protests. In May, they began a campaign to take over the land vacated by the army and establish yet another illegal Jewish settlement on it. Women in Green, a radical settler group, called for and succeeded in getting tens of ultra nationalists Jewish settlers to come and camp on the grounds despite strong opposition by Palestinians. In the May 15 call to settlement they even publicly opposed US President George Bush, who was on a visit to celebrate with the Israelis their 60th anniversary.

Local Palestinian activists prepared to counter the illegal settler occupation of their lands. Groups of young people along with international supporters decided to hold a counter demonstration to stop the settler activities.

After the initial settler action and strong Palestinian response, the settlers sought and actually got a permit from the Israeli defence ministry to carry out yet another activity, this time to stay at the location all night.

Since the settlers announced that they planned to stay until the early morning hours of July 15, Palestinians decided they would respond in a nonviolent manner by organising musical events that would blast music all night preventing the settlers from carrying out their activities.

The Palestinian experience is that Israeli settlement activities begin with the army taking strategic locations, followed by civilians slowly encroaching on the land once the army vacates it. The once-in-a-while all-nighters then require caravans and mobile homes and soon enough these illegal squatters start building settlements and their activities become de facto facts on the ground.

Palestinian officials, however paradoxically, did not allow the activists to act out their nonviolent protests. Signs were placed by the Palestinian Authority preventing any access to the site and Hayeq, a known Fateh leader, took a lead role in preventing Palestinian protests.

The attitude of the Palestinian Authority surprised many and eventually, word got out that Palestinian leaders were doing that to enable the Israeli government to approve the necessary permits to the municipality to build on that location. A rumour which quickly spread thereafter was that a senior Israeli official called one of the city councillors and informed him that the permit for the children’s hospital had been approved internally and would be issued soon. Palestinian sceptics called the unconfirmed news yet one more attempt to deflect public opinion. The leader of Women in Green, Nadia Mattar, on the other hand, issued a strong declaration vowing to fight the establishment of the hospital no matter what it takes.

If the history of previous Jewish settlement incursion is any reference then it is highly likely that what began as an Israeli army military base will now be visited regularly by settlers who will occasionally squat on the land, then they will bring their trailers, demand water, electricity and phone service and naturally, protection. The trailers will then be replaced by concrete houses that will be expanded as part of the natural growth and yet one more concrete obstacle to the peace process will be built up in front of our own eyes.

As Obama visits with the Palestinian president, I doubt that he will have any idea about the children’s hospital planned for the Beit Sahour. But I am sure that if he does get elected president of the United States, this obstacle will surely surface as a larger than life problem in the ongoing Palestinian Israeli conflict.

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