It’s a day that won’t be forgotten in the arid, far-flung village of Al-Karmel, in the southern reaches of Mount Hebron. Even now, two months later, the resident are overwrought when they tell the story of what happened, their rage and feeling of humiliation still palpable.
No blood was shed that day, no one was arrested or beaten, no home was demolished, no disaster occurred. But still, in Al-Karmel they haven’t forgotten. The mayor of the nearby city of Yatta remembers; the lifeguard, the gardener and the eyewitnesses remember. But above all it’s the children who remember: It was they were removed, forcefully and under the threat of rifles, from the water, because the settlers were coming. The lords of the land swept into the park under the aegis of the Israel Occupation Army, which kicked the Palestinians out of the only recreation site in the area.
It was April 7, the third day of Hol Hamo’ed (the intermediate days) of Passover; the same thing also happened a few days later, albeit on a smaller scale. But everyone in Al-Karmel remembers the day apartheid came to their ancient pool.
Isa Abu Sabiyah was at his home in the village. He’s 45, unemployed, the father of five children. In the late morning he noticed dozens of Israel Defense Forces soldiers swooping down on the swimming pool at the bottom of the slope below his home. He became anxious; he’d never seen so many soldiers at the pool.
Birket Al-Karmel, an ancient water reservoir, was renovated in recent years, at a cost of millions of shekels, and turned into a recreation site. We visited this pool many years ago, when it was still a neglected site dating from the Ottoman period. We watched the children of Al-Karmel jump from high up into the stagnant water, risking their lives with every leap. A series of pictures taken at the time by photographer Miki Kratsman became iconic images.
The pool was renovated with funds from Yatta and donations, collected from both wealthy West Bank Palestinians and from abroad, at a cost of about 4 million shekels ($1 million), and the place was transformed. The pool is surrounded by a low wall, to prevent from jumping in, and the city now is planning to install a high fence, to prevent access to the site when it is closed. The terraces, decorative landscaping, Hebron stones, washrooms and a spring that gushes from the rock next to the pool – all make this one of the most spectacular outdoor sites in the West Bank.
The renovations are scheduled to be completed this year. A restaurant and café will be built, at a cost of another 1.2 million shekels, says Yatta Mayor Mussa Mhamra, in addition to the fence. The fence is obviously sorely needed.
Abu Sabiyah watched as the soldiers rushed into the park. They surrounded the pool and ordered the children, all of them Palestinians, out of the water. Abu Sabiyah remembers that there were about 20 children swimming at the time, and all of them were forced to climb out. There were a few dozen local adults on hand as well. The soldiers, reinforced by a contingent from the Border Police, concentrated them all one corner of the park.
The troops’ “cleansing” operation was quickly accomplished. Abu Sabiyah called the Yatta municipality, which manages the site, to report on the intrusion. The mayor rushed over immediately, but to no avail.
Later that day, the lords of the land arrived. Hundreds of settlers. It was the Passover week holiday, and this was, according to the ads, a heritage trip sponsored by the Susiya Tour and Study Center, under IDF protection, as usual.
Some of the settlers jumped into the water, others stood and listened to the guides, who explained that this place belongs to the Jews. A few prayed – Abu Sabiyah says some of the men also put on tefillin.
“They even put dogs in the water. Did you ever see dogs in a pool? We don’t do that, but they do,” he adds.
This week, B’Tselem: the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, posted photographs shot by one of its field investigators of this disgraceful event. Hundreds of settlers, the men in skullcaps, triumphantly encircle the huge pool while a few of them splash about in the water. The Palestinians stand to one side, in the corner allotted to them, shamed and cowed, while armed soldiers secure the settlers.
It’s important to point out that all this occurred in Area A, which under the Oslo Accords is under Palestinian control. But who cares?
“If I go now to the [nearby] settlement of Carmel, would anyone let me in?” Abu Sabiyah says bitterly. “Would I be allowed into the settlement of Maon? And why would I go there, anyway? They come here only to make trouble.”
The settlers’ frolicking went on for about two hours, until dusk. The uninvited guests left at about 5:30 or 6 P.M. The settlers left, the soldiers left, the Border Policemen left, too.
A similar event occurred again about two weeks ago. The park’s gardener, Yakub Abu Haram, relates that at dawn on May 28, when he arrived for work, he saw a military force there, and about 10 settlers in the pool. The soldiers tried to prevent him from entering the site, even after he told them he works there. The lifeguard, Osama Mhamra, says that he too saw the soldiers from his house, before he left for the pool.
The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit says that the army has no information about this more recent occurrence.
As for the event during Passover, the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit offered the following response when asked whether it’s the army’s task to secure events in which settlers invade Area A: “On April 7, 2015, specific authorization was given by the relevant personnel in Central Command for settlers to enter a pool in whose area the biblical settlement of Carmel was located in the past and which is now in Area A. Nothing exceptional was recorded during the event. The Palestinians were allowed to be present in the area of the compound, and there were Palestinian attendants there.
“As a rule, Israelis are not allowed into Area A, and any such entry requires specific authorization of the GOC. After the entry during Hol Hamo’ed of Passover, no additional entry of soldiers into the pool area has occurred that is known [to the IDF].”
A few children were playing in the pool this week in the middle of a broiling-hot day. There’s still no shade at the site; creating shaded areas will be part of the next stage of development. Mayor Mhamra arrived in his pickup, accompanied by a uniformed security man from the Palestinian Authority and a member of the municipal council. Mhamra and the councilman have saved a video clip of the Passover visit on their cellphones.
The mayor heads a metropolitan area that covers a huge area and has 110,000 inhabitants. The Al-Karmel pool is its only recreation site. A lawyer and a member of the Palestinian People’s Party, formerly the Communist Party, he was active on the Committee for the Protection of the Lands, a Palestinian organization. Only after the interview does he reveal that he speaks fluent Hebrew, as does the councilman, Yasser Bader. The two have just come from the village of Susiya, which the Palestinian prime minister, Rami Hamdallah, visited that day in the company of European diplomats who came to protest Israel’s plan to demolish the village.
Mhamra, in a white shirt, denies that the settlers’ visit on Passover was pre-arranged with him. “We have bitter experience with the settlers in the region,” he says. “They are undesirable guests here. They are ‘guests with swords.’ We will treat them in the same way they treat us. If we can go to Tel Aviv, if there is peace and equality, then we will host Israelis here. Now we will build a fence here and post guards day and night, so that similar incidents do not recur.”
To which the muscular lifeguard, Osama Mhamra, adds, “You know, if I were to try to get to Al-Aqsa [on the Temple Mount], I would be shot.”
Gideon Levy tweets at @levy_haaretz