One Year After: Update on the Situation in Al Aqaba and Yanoun Villages

One Year After: Update on the Situation in Al Aqaba and Yanoun Villages

When I was asked to go back to two villages I had visited last year to write an article on the situation in al Aqaba and Yanoun, I was very pleased. I have been impressed by Yanoun and Al Aqaba; these villages that have resisted years of harassment and attempts to erase them from the map. Yanoun is located next to Nablus, and is surrounded by the settlement of Itemar. As a result of repeated attacks, all the residents of Yanoun were forced to leave in 2002. They all came back after a permanent international presence had been established. Since then, the villagers have stood together against the continuous threat of the settlers.

 Al Aqaba, and its charismatic mayor, Sami Sadek, stands as another outstanding example of resistance against displacement. Located next to the Jordan valley, close to Tubas, the village lies in a very strategic location. Over the years, the pressure from the Israeli army has increased. The Israeli soldiers had been training around the village and even inside, provoking many injuries. The mayor was himself shot and subsequently became disabled. Most houses and structures, including the mosque, the kindergarten, and the health clinic received demolition orders. Over the years, many families left the village. But Sami decided that he would not let his beautiful village die. He convinced some families to come back, managed to get funding from various organizations and governments to help build infrastructure, submitted petitions to the court, and mobilized a network of support from all over the world. With all his effort, Al Aqaba is far from dying, on the contrary it appears stronger every year and his villagers are more determined than ever that nobody would push them away from these beautiful landscapes. I went there for the first time four years ago. Since that time, I have seen the development of a new paved road, clinic, kindergarten, and new greenhouses, as well as a mosque whose minaret is one of the highest in the West Bank and can been seen from far as a symbol of determination.

I was eager to go back and discover what had happened during this year. Unfortunately, as in most places in Palestine, the situation on the ground is moving in one direction only; the Palestinians are increasingly squeezed into a territory on which they have less and less control and that shrinks every year.

Still the spirit of resistance remains in these villages.

In Yanoun, I easily found Adnan, one of the members of the local council. He was picking olives on his land with his wife and son. Every year the olive harvest season is tensed because it usually entails more attacks from the settlers. The villagers cannot have access to most of their lands, in particular to the ones located next to the settlement. Last year, they were able to harvest only after some coordination between the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli army was arranged, but only for 5 days. The harvest requires at least one month. This year there has been no coordination so far, so the villagers do not know what to expect. The Israeli army that is supposed to protect them from the settlers in this critical time drive quickly through the village once a day. As an international from the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI) who stays in Yanoun put it: “if the settlers call the army, the soldiers are there in 5 minutes, if the Palestinians do, it takes them 3 hours”.

Since the last olive harvest, the saddest news was about Mohammad Hamdan Bani-Jaberm a sheep-keeper from the nearby village of Aqraba who had been stabbed to death. He was found on the lands of Yanoun, not far from the settlement. It is highly probable that the settlers did it, but the investigation never led anywhere. The settlers continue to come regularly down to the village, always heavily armed. The week before our visit, they set up a checkpoint on the road together with the soldiers. Adnan also told me the story of Ahmad Na’im and his family who received an eviction order from the army. The family lives in a tent and uses caves for several months of the year to house their goats. They stay in a very strategic location that dominates the surrounding valleys and hills, and has some water sources, or in other words the perfect location to expand or start a settlement.

As we moved on closer to the village, we saw people peacefully harvesting the olives, together with the internationals. However, there were far less people than last year, probably because of the poor quality of the olives. The international team of the ecumenical accompaniers had just arrived about two weeks before and already witnessed at least two incidents. In the first one, the settlers came down and stole olives from trees belonging to the village. Another time, a group of Israelis came to the village in four-wheel drive vehicles, driving around noisily, arguing that they were doing some tourism in what they considered a “free place” where consent from the population was not needed.

We wished them good luck for the olive harvest, and moved on to Al Aqaba village. As we drove inside Al Aqaba, we noticed some new infrastructure, a new wall and a bus stop. Sami was waiting for us under a tree next to the clinic and the new sign that says “Welcome to Aqaba”. The situation in Al Aqaba has not changed dramatically. The court decisions concerning the demolition orders have once again been postponed. The number of demolition orders has gone up to thirty-two, with six new this year. The army is still coming to the village from time to time. Still Sami stands firm against intimidation. He proudly announced to us that another family came back this year to Al Aqaba. We then visited the family that I visited last year, still living in shacks. They are very poor and they also know that any new house in Al Aqaba would be destroyed, therefore they do not want to build a house. The only change was that the plastic on the roof had been replaced by zinc sheets. They always live in fear of being expelled. It is especially hard on the woman, who stays most of the time alone as her husband works in the next village.

On our way out of the village, we decided to try to go through the checkpoint of Tayassir which is known to be a very difficult one. It is one of the entrance points to the Jordan valley, which has been de facto annexed to Israel. Lost in the middle of nowhere, the checkpoint is quite impressive with its structures of concrete and turnstiles, and a high military tower. It contrasts with the beautiful surrounding environment. Foreign passports in hand, the soldiers let us walk through without problems. However our driver and his West Bank ID from Bethlehem could not pass. When we asked why, the soldiers simply replied that “these are the rules”. Only Palestinians who reside in the Jordan valley can go through. The Jordan valley has thus become out of reach for Palestinians. This was only confirmed by the next checkpoint that we attempted to pass, in Hamra. We were told that beyond this point “this is Israel” and that a Palestinian from Bethlehem needs a special permit to be able to go to this area. It was not the time to make a presentation of international law and geography but still we pointed out that beyond this point it is still considered as the West Bank and that the Jordan valley is still an occupied territory according to international law.

Earlier during the day, we were also prevented from going through Huwwara checkpoint to get to Nablus. We thus had to take a roundabout way dozens of kilometres long to reach our destination, basically going West and North to go East. In total, we went through a dozen of checkpoints, could not go through three checkpoints and it took us four hours to go from Al Aqaba to Bethlehem, although they appear on the map to be only around 100 kilometres apart.

The day was difficult, however definitely worthwhile. If anybody has doubts about the Palestinians’ spirit of resistance of Palestinians and their willingness to stay despite the worsening situation, one should take the journey through Palestinian villages and talk to people like Haj Sami. It will definitely give you the urge and reason to stand by their side.


Anne Paq is a photographer and the coordinator of a photo and video project at
al-Rowwad center in Aida refugee camp.
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