Palestinian Villagers of Deir Istiya Fear Roadblock's Creeping Permanence

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The main entrance to Deir Istiya last week. Ambulances are prevented from using the fastest and shortest route into the village. Credit: Amira Hass

The question of who’s giving the orders doesn’t matter to residents of the Palestinian village of Deir Istiya, in the northern West Bank. They don’t concern themselves with trifles such as whether it’s the low-ranking Israel Defense Force commander from the adjacent base, which is near the Jewish settlement of Yakir, or the battalion commander or perhaps the brigade or division commander.

What’s important to the residents of the village, which is on the road between Salfit to the south and Nablus to the northeast, is that the army repeatedly closes the main, northwest entrance to Deir Istiya for weeks on end before reopening it briefly only to block it again.

They are told that it’s in response to the alleged throwing of rocks or Molotov cocktails, or the burning of tires. Soldiers have also blocked side entrances, through the olive groves, with boulders.

And once, after villagers cleared a dirt berm with their hands, the soldiers blocked the entrance with boulders — boulders from Yakir, according to a villager of around 50 who has worked in Israel and in West Bank settlements since he was a teen. “Yakir is on our land, meaning the rocks that block our way were brought from our land,” he said with a smile that ranged between acceptance and astonishment at the absurdity.

The closure of the main entrance cannot stop young people from hiding in the olive groves and throwing rocks before running back to the village, but it does keep ambulances from using the fastest and shortest route into Deir Istiya. It prevents students from going straight from the village to the university and blocks Palestinian Authority employees from the most direct commute. Instead, everyone uses the narrow, winding roads within and between villages.

Navigating around the rock barrier

The closure lengthens the journey, costing precious time especially for laborers who work in Israel or in Nablus. Taxis coming from the north discharge passengers, usually loaded down with parcels, at the side of the highway. Children and old people, particularly women, navigate their way through the earthen mound and the rocks alone, only to board a shabby-looking taxi van on the other side, waiting to take them home.

The IDF Spokesman’s Office told Haaretz by phone on Thursday that each closure of Deir Istiya’s main entrance is only for a few hours. But that contradicts reality, as experienced by the villagers and documented by activists from Engaged Israeli Dharma, an organization that combines action for social justice with the practice of Buddhism. The disparity between reality and IDF claims was noted in two letters sent by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel in late October and early November to IDF Judea and Samaria Division Commander Tamir Yadai. The letters have yet to be answered.

Also unanswered has been the claim that the closure is illegal, contradicts the military commander’s obligation to the welfare of the occupied population and constitutes prohibited collective punishment. ACRI’s request for the legal foundation of the closure has also gone unanswered.

In addition to the closures, foot patrols of six soldiers frequently make the rounds of the village in the afternoon or evening. They force shops to close and detain young people for a few hours, occasionally slapping one here or there. At night soldiers enter the village, firing tear-gas canisters and concussion grenades at darkened homes. Residents wake up from the noise and the burning tear gas.

Seven Jewish settlements

These raids are nothing new in Deir Istiya, home to around 4,000 people. Over the years, seven frequently-expanding Jewish settlements have been built on the land of the village (in Wadi Kana) and the surrounding area. But since last summer’s war in the Gaza Strip the raids and road closures have become more frequent.

In the past several months, IDF soldiers have arrested a few dozen young people from the village. Around 30 of them were prosecuted, convicted and sentenced to between six months and two years in prison for throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails. Several cases are still under investigation. Fathers who work in Israel fear their entry permits will be revoked, as has happened to a few of them.

Amal Abu Hijleh, the mayor, took office last week as part of a rotation agreement. She sits, with her red ponytail and wearing a colorful sweater, in her very modest city hall office, going over a list of residents who are behind on their electricity bills. Abu Hijleh’s 20-year-old son Wisam was arrested at home on January 12.

According to his lawyer, he is still being interrogated by Israel’s Shin Bet security service at the Jalameh (Kishon) detention center in northern Israel, and is denying all accusations against him. Last week, his custody was extended by eight days.

“They came around 2:30 at night, Abu Hijleh related. “We woke up to the sounds of banging on the door. We knew right away it was soldiers, but I still asked who it was and they yelled back ‘jesh [“army” in Arabic], open the door.’ I said I wanted to dress and wake the children so they wouldn’t be frightened by soldiers barging into the room, but they kept shouting and I opened the door. ‘Want to see the sons,’ a soldier yelled.’ They didn’t let me wake Wisam. They approached his bed. Two soldiers grabbed him under the arms while he was still asleep and got him up. Then they shined a flashlight in his eyes. We protested and they yelled ‘sheket, sheket’ [“quiet” in Hebrew]. They took him out to the street barefoot and in pajamas. We said we wanted him to dress and they yelled at us. We ran to bring him clothes when he was already in the street and they yelled at us. They told me to go back inside. I refused. They told my husband to order me back inside. Outside on the street, I took two rocks and told the soldiers that if they dared hit my son, I would throw the rocks.”

Sometimes, before a detainee is released, the area Shin Bet commander calls the young people in for a talk. One of the young people from Deir Istiya who had been detained and released told Haaretz that a Shin Bet coordinator they called Capt. Afik had showed him on a computer a picture of his home and neighborhood in the village, named his siblings and what each of them was doing and even mentioned the make and model of his father’s car.

He said “Capt. Afik” then told him, “You can’t play around with us. I want to advise you, like one brother to another, don’t make trouble. When you’re with 10 of your friends, five of them are mine. When you’re with three, two of them are mine.”

Unidentified perpetrators

The villagers are astounded that as long as the entrance to the village is blocked, the army does not claim that someone from Deir Istiya threw rocks. But the moment the boulder barrier is cleared, the IDF again claims that an unidentified perpetrator, who has not been apprehended, threw rocks and it blocks the entrance once more. Abu Hijleh and other villagers are convinced that the rock-throwers are collaborators who were recruited by Afik or his predecessors.

They are convinced that the goal of the frequent closures is to permanently seal the main entrance to the village and cut it off from its land and olive groves and orchards in Wadi Kana, thereby completing the Israeli expropriation process begun in the 1970s.

At 3 P.M. on Wednesday, only one week after the last closure, the entrance was reopened. A few hours before, Haaretz had sent questions on the matter to the IDF Spokesman’s Office. Its response:

“The IDF does not employ a policy of collective punishment. In recent months, following an increase in the incidence of hostile destructive activity on the main road next to the village, it was decided to close the main entrance for a few hours after [each] incident, in order to address the incident directly and enable the forces to secure the road.

“In these instances as well, in order to enable the villagers to continue to conduct normal life to the greatest extent possible, entry and exit from other roads was permitted. In addition, we are unaware of any instances of violence on the part of soldiers toward residents of the village.”

Amira Hass tweets at @Hass_Haaretz

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