Veronica came to our offices to share her recent experiences as a human rights monitor working in the Occupied Territories with EAPPI*. In autumn 2015 Veronica was in the South Hebron Hills for three months where she met Mahmoud, a Palestinian farmer whose village is hugely impacted by Israel’s division and control of the land (click here for Veronica’s blog). The village is located within the territory known as ‘Zone C’ (shown in blue on the map below).
‘Zone C’ is occupied Palestinian land controlled by Israel; Palestinian agencies are responsible for education and healthcare within their own communities, but otherwise the territory is under full Israeli civil and military control.
Although Mahmoud’s village is situated within Zone C, a barrier has been constructed that cuts the village off from the rest of the Occupied Territories. This means that every time the family leave the village they must pass through an Israeli security checkpoint – this includes trips to the market for food, hospital visits and the school run.
Israeli settlements continue to be built in ‘Zone C’ year on year, despite the fact that the United Nations considers these to be illegal according to international law.
Living on land that is cut off by the barrier, as well as being surrounded by unwelcoming settler neighbours, Mahmoud and his family face numerous hardships and challenges. Some of these are of an architectural nature.
Architecture and the Israeli/Palestinian Conflict
The Israeli NGO Peace Now reports that between 2000 and 2007 the Israeli Civil Administration rejected 94% of Palestinian applications for buildings within Zone C while settlers built over 18,000 homes in the same area. Many Palestinian communities are also denied permission to invest in infrastructure such as repairing roads and electrical grids or laying pipes to connect to water supplies. Those who choose to stay are forced to risk building illegally and have their home subsequently demolished.
Mahmoud’s family have lived on this land for generations, but the authorities have placed a demolition order on his house because they do not recognise his right to the land. Many Palestinians do not possess deeds to their homes which are recognised by Israeli law. As he is Palestinian, if Mahmoud were to apply for planning permission, whether retrospective or for a new extension to accommodate his growing family, the chances of him gaining approval are virtually non-existent. Sadly, many other villagers in the Occupied Territories face the same threat. Just last week the Guardian online reported another 23 homes bulldozed in two West Bank villages, leaving over 100 Palestinians homeless. The UN reports that 207 buildings have already been demolished in the first 6 weeks of 2016, almost 40% of the total for the whole of 2015.
This biased planning system is one of several weapons being implemented in this conflict. An excellent book on the subject is Eyal Weizman’s ‘Hollow Land’, which meticulously reveals how Israel’s military strategy is executed through architecture in the West Bank. Weizman is an Israeli architect and Director of the Centre for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths, University of London. In 2011 he was commissioned by the European Research Council to lead a research project called ‘Forensic Architecture’, on the place of architecture in international humanitarian law. This short film, produced by Al Jazeera in 2014 gives a brief introduction to his research.
Veronica's Work as an EA
Veronica’s work as an Ecumenical Accompanier involves various activities from supporting local peace groups, advocacy and monitoring settler activities, to spreading awareness throughout the international community. Bravely, EAs also provide a ‘protective presence’ on the ground for Palestinians who are threatened by the settlers. Veronica described this as EAPPI simply ‘making their presence known’. For example, if a Palestinian family experiences threats from aggressive settler neighbours they can request help from the charity. The EAs will then visit the village in question and walk around, allowing themselves to be clearly seen by the settler neighbours. Sometimes they also stay over at the family house in the hope that their presence will deter the settlers from attacking the house during the night.
I asked Veronica why she decided to get involved. Her journey began with a tour of a fairtrade Palestinian olive grove run by Zaytoun (products available in UK independent shops and online). After meeting people there and witnessing the situation first hand, Veronica felt compelled to return to the region to help.
A few years ago I travelled to Lebanon with Cullinan colleague Aditya Aachi during our diploma studies at the Architectural Association. During that time we conducted educational workshops within UN refugee schools for Palestinian children. I will never forget the children and teachers I met, and carry a sense of guilt that I have not done more to help them.
Veronica’s story was inspiring and humbling, a reminder that we should never underestimate the importance of small acts. If we give up speaking out for those facing injustice then we undermine the principles of democracy and human rights that we enjoy as privileges of living in the UK.
* EAPPI is an non-profit programme working to end the illegal occupation of Palestinian land and promote peace and security in Israel/Palestine for both Palestinians and Israelis. They do not take sides in the conflict, however they are not neutral where international human rights laws are infringed. Their volunteers hail from many diverse religious and non-religious backgrounds and nationalities.
If you would like to find out more information about the occupation here are some useful links:
The United Nations’ Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) provides updates on the current humanitarian situation in occupied Palestine