“Friends, residents of Judea and Samaria,” Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich said at the start of a videotaped statement that was posted on his National Union party’s Facebook page on November 24. For the next three minutes, he expounded on his ministry’s plan to fix the (imaginary) transportation discrimination that Jewish residents of the West Bank suffer compared to other Israeli citizens.
“We’re currently at the height of a master plan for transportation in Judea and Samaria that looks 30, 40, 50 and 60 years ahead,” he promised. He then laid out the details.
The first of the dozen or so roads he mentioned was a bypass road around the Al-Arroub refugee camp. We’ve started paving it, he said.
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In fact, since early November, bulldozers have invaded the vineyards, in their autumn orange and gold, as well as the restored ancient stone terraces of Halhul and Beit Omar, turning over the land, raising clouds of dust, digging, uprooting, swallowing up trees and leveling the ground until it’s impossible to tell what it looked like two days earlier.
Instead of the vineyards and terraces, a new section of Route 60 is being built between Beit-Fajjar Junction (also known as Gush Etzion Junction) and the southern entrance of Halhul. It will be about 10 kilometers (6 miles) long (of which nearly 2 kilometers is an expansion of an existing road) and 80 meters wide, except at two intersections where there will be exits and the road will be 150 meters wide.
To build the road, 401 dunams (99 acres) of agricultural land were expropriated in April by order and signature of Brig. Gen. Ahvat Ben Hur, at the time head of Israel’s Civil Administration in the West Bank. Officially, this is called “purchasing ownership and taking possession,” after the signatory is convinced “that purchasing ownership of the land is for the public’s benefit” and that the road to be built “answers a public need from the standpoint of both transportation and security.”
Construction of the exit near Al-Arroub will require the demolition of some of the buildings belonging to the Al-Arroub agricultural college.
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Even without hearing Smotrich, three farmers from Halhul who saw the bulldozer and the backhoe crawling over their family’s land Tuesday knew quite well that the minister wasn’t talking to them.
“It’s not just the land they took from us for the road itself that’s gone,” said Adel Abu Rayan, a man in his 50s. “Everything around it will go too. We won’t be able to get to our land on the other side of the road. We won’t be able to plant, sow and work it.”
He was speaking based on experience with other roads that Israel has built in the West Bank in the heart of agricultural areas to link the settlements to each other and to Israel. Over time, prohibitions, restrictions and roadblocks spring up, and it becomes harder and harder to access the land and work it. And because construction is forbidden in any case, this will essentially become absent or theoretical land.
“They’re building a highway here,” said 35-year-old Maher (not his real name) as he joined the conversation. “Their engineer, who was walking around here a few days ago, told me it will have six lanes – two in each direction plus an emergency service lane on each side – and a concrete barrier along the sides.
“How will we get off the highway onto our land? We won’t be able to go in a tractor or on a donkey. And on foot, how is it possible to carry tools or crops?”
Bulldozers that never stop
That engineer, Maher said, spoke openly: “I want a driver who leaves [the settlement] Kiryat Arba to be able to go 120 kilometers per hour and reach Jerusalem without stopping.” This echoes Smotrich’s statement to his friends, the Jewish residents of Judea and Samaria.
“We’re at the height of doubling the Tunnel Road, including digging a second tunnel,” Smotrich said, referring to the road that connects the Gush Etzion settlement bloc to Jerusalem. “In three or four years, we’ll be in a situation where from Jerusalem to Kiryat Arba we’ll be driving on a two-lane road on both sides.”
Maher’s summary of the situation was a bit different. “In 15 minutes, a settler from Kiryat Arba will be in Jerusalem,” he said. “But we’re forbidden to enter Jerusalem. And even for someone who has a permit, it takes an hour or two because we’re forbidden to drive to Jerusalem on the express road” – the Tunnel Road – “that’s built on Palestinian lands.”
We met on a wide dirt road that runs east from Route 60 to their vineyards, in an area known as Hawawer, opposite the road that leads to the settlement of Karmei Tzur. The entrance to the road was blocked by two police cars, and as the police stopped the Palestinian cars turning onto the road, they took the opportunity to give them tickets on various pretexts.
A bit further east, near the bulldozers that never stopped digging, two Israeli cars were parked. Alongside them was a group of men in black with “security” written on their backs. They chatted among themselves in fluent Arabic and said we couldn’t take pictures. “They’re Bedouin,” Maher said, showing me a video he filmed a few days earlier of the destruction of Beit Omar’s vineyards.
An Israeli all-terrain vehicle arrived. The driver got out, spoke with the bulldozer drivers and stopped by the security men. The Halhul farmers concluded that he was important, so they walked over to tell him about their vineyards.
The man asked me to move away because he doesn’t speak with the media. His car bore the name of his company, Margolin Bros. Engineering & Consulting Ltd.
This is what is written on the firm’s website about the new project under its management: “A new road bypassing the Al-Arroub refugee camp and the village of Beit Omar, about 10 kilometers long (near Efrat in Judea). The assignment is a safe, secure road. The road includes security elements like extensive protective walls made of concrete, floodlighting of the area near the road and security cameras and other technological devices. The road is in a dangerous area that’s under threat, the heart of Judea. Developer: Netivei Israel. Planner: The Levy-Shtark company. 340 million shekels [$98 million]. 2018-2022.”
Abu Rayan, Maher and the youngest member of the group, 27-year-old Mohammed Tawaya, were all raised on a family tradition of growing grapes that passed from grandfather to father to son to grandson. “The taste of grapes from Al-Shuyukh is different from those of Al-Arroub, which is different from those of Beit Omar, which isn’t the same as those from Halhul,” one said proudly of the area Margolin calls “dangerous and under threat.”
The grapes are watered solely by rain. “The land beneath us is full of water,” one explained. “But even if we wanted to add crops that need irrigation, we’re forbidden to dig wells. The water isn’t for us.”
Yet even without irrigation, “each bunch of grapes can weigh as much as three kilograms,” Abu Rayan said, adding that after Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967, “the Israelis came and took our seeds to develop their own grapes.”
I said that in my view the new varieties that have been developed have no taste, and their texture is like plastic. They agreed. Abu Rayan said grapes grown industrially are also full of pesticides, adding that he has heard that exports of these grapes are sometimes restricted or canceled.
“And then they flood Palestinian markets in the West Bank with them,” Maher – the bitterness never leaving him – jumped in. “And people don’t buy our grapes.”
‘We don’t exist for them’
The bypass road will also pass through an area where, over the last four years, terraces have been restored and new agricultural roads built, with the goal of making life easier for farmers, expanding the area of cultivated land and encouraging more families to return to working the land, thus also increasing their incomes. It’s not yet clear how badly the road will damage this 1,600-dunam area, which was rehabilitated by two Palestinian nongovernmental organizations with funding from the Dutch government (the farmers covered around a quarter of the cost).
Part of the route also passes through an area that hasn’t been worked for a long time and hasn’t yet been rehabilitated.
We continued down the dirt road and stopped at the border between the cultivated land and the neglected area. It was easy to see traces of the bulldozers, whose teeth had turned over the land and leveled a long, wide stretch.
All along this stretch were poles marking the route, and one of them bore a sign saying “Netivei Israel – The National Transport Infrastructure Company Ltd. Boundary of the right of way. This area is owned by the State of Israel.”
Abu Rayan, who reads Hebrew, was furious. “Look what’s written here! That the land is owned by the State of Israel!” he exclaimed. And Tawaya added, “We don’t exist for them.”
Other Israeli cars passed us, driving as if they owned the place, on a road that until not long ago served only Palestinian farmers. The driver of a red car stopped, looked out and asked, “What’s going on? Is there a problem? Do you have land here? Have you spoken to me before?” Maher identified him as Boaz, from the Civil Administration’s department of transportation infrastructure.
Abu Walid, a man of around 60, walked by us on foot. He had tears in his eyes. He owns a plot that was included in the rehabilitation program, but it lies near the route of the new road and will be destroyed. His vineyard has already been uprooted.
I pointed out that the “purchasing” order said owners could receive compensation for their land. Abu Rayan responded emphatically, “This is our land. I won’t become a kafir” – an infidel – “over 200 dunams.”
The bypass-road plan to benefit settlers near Hebron was submitted to the planning authorities in 2003. They approved it in 2012 after objections were rejected and changes were probably introduced. But only in April did they order the land expropriations.
“People fell asleep while the plan wasn’t being implemented,” Maher said. “Today, they no longer have the strength to object.” Not totally accurate. In July attorney Ghiath Nasser, who who represents the affected municipalities and residents, submitted to the Civil Administration a long list of objections to the expropriations and the route. The objections were rejected, partly on grounds that objections had been filed a decade ago.
He petitioned the High Court of Justice, also asking for an order to suspend the work. Justice David Mintz, a resident of the settlement of Dolev, ruled that there was no place for such an order and gave the state a month to file a response, while the vineyards continue to be uprooted and the land turned over. Abu Riyan, Maher and Tawaya are not aware of these legal proceedings. They feel abandoned.
Maher said: “With all the roads that they’ve paved and are paving for the settlers at the expense of our lands, Halhul will turn into a camp” – a crowded refugee camp. “They want us to leave the land, become construction workers to make a living, and build their settlements.”