Gideon Levy

The Picturesque Palestinian Village That Doubles as an Israeli Army Firing Zone

The residents of the West Bank village of Aqaba live in fear of Israeli soldiers and tanks rolling into their village at night

The council head of the West Bank town of Aqaba, Sami Sadeq, sits in front of a mural depicting pre-1948 Palestine
\ Alex Levac

This is a little story about a little village that’s like nothing else under the sun of the occupation. It’s the story of a model village, which looks like a model apartment in a new construction project: deceptive, at times even hallucinatory.

Travelers on the road to Nablus that ascends from the northern Jordan Valley and passes the locales of Taysir and Tubas are suddenly confronted with an apparition. We know it’s not a midsummer day’s dream, because we visited Al-Aqaba 11 years ago, in the spring. But amid poor communities of shepherds whom Israel is making every effort to expel from this land, with soil embankments intended to suffocate them, verdant settlements and Palestinian towns whose residents sometimes serve as the settlers’ sharecroppers – amid all these looms a tiny village where some of the houses look like they’re made out of marzipan.

The homes in Aqaba are quite meager, although a few are new and colorful, including one that’s purple, but the center of the village and a few of its public structures seem to come from another world. There are colorful murals. One urges economizing in water usage; another declares, “We are all Jerusalem” in English. There’s a neat playground made of painted tires, a small cheese factory and another enterprise that manufactures tea, both managed by the local women’s cooperative, although men are also employed by them. Their products are exported to Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and Israel.

The distinctive turret of the local mosque soars to a height of 42 meters; at its summit two fingers seem to be signaling defiant victory. There’s a modest guest house with 35 beds, a kind of B&B, where, according to the local council head, whose offices are next door, Israelis sometimes stay the night. The village’s main street is divided down the middle by a row of trees, protected like a striped traffic island. Aqaba is also one of the only villages in the West Bank whose streets have names and whose houses are numbered – a veritable rift valley mirage.

The Palestinian village of Aqaba, in the West Bank.
Alex Levac

Presiding over all this bounty is Aqaba’s legendary council head for the past 20 years, Sami Sadeq. He’s been in a wheelchair since being shot, as a boy, by Israel Defense Forces soldiers who were training in his village, a fact that lends him a special aura.

Riding in his electric wheelchair, which he operates with astounding speed and skill, Sadeq makes the rounds like a sheriff, giving orders to workers who are whitewashing walls that have just recently been painted – like IDF bases of old, here, too, the walls are always being whitewashed – and hosting visitors from around the world. The German government donated a well, Japan built a clinic, the Belgians set up the playground, the British erected electricity poles, the United States built a road, and the Norwegians, too, have done much for Aqaba. Sadeq solicits the world’s help, partly by means of a splashy brochure he put out years ago, and the world has responded.

Sadeq visited the Knesset a few weeks ago, as the guest of MKs from the Joint Arab List, though not without squabbling with the security guards at the entrance over his wish to wear a keffiyeh. In the end, he was admitted with it, after being asked whether it was “for reasons of religion or reasons of demonstration.” Sadeq replied that he wears a keffiyeh in his village, too.

His lively personality, his good Hebrew and his language of peace make Sadeq an exceptional local council head. Not much has changed in his village since we were there in 2006, and he, too, hasn’t changed. The same well-cultivated village, the same wheelchair and the same problems. Now 62, Sadeq was wounded in 1971, four years after the onset of the occupation, by the gunfire of soldiers who were using the village as a training site. “I’ve stayed on the carriage for 46 years, and from the carriage I talk about peace,” he says.

Almost all Aqaba’s lands have been expropriated and turned into IDF firing zones – hardly anything is left for shepherds and farmers. Only 300 people remain in the village, 400 others having left because of the land grabs. But no subject disturbs Sadeq more than the army’s training exercises in the village. Maybe it’s because of his personal tragedy, maybe it’s the simple truth that army troops really have no cause to be in this quiet place, other than to use it for training. One way or the other, Sadeq is unrelenting. The local council head vs. the IDF.

He chalked up his first victory in 1999. Central Command HQ issued a document barring soldiers from using the village for training purposes. The IDF, which insists on calling the village “Hurba al-Aqaba,” or “Hirbet al-Aqaba” – the “al-Aqaba ruin” – promised at the time that its soldiers would be forbidden to move about between the residents’ homes. Training guidelines issued on June 7, 1999, state that armored personnel carriers are barred from the village. It’s a sensitive subject, because eight villagers have been killed over the years as a result of IDF training exercises and ordnance left lying around.

Tanks roll through Aqaba. Video: Alex Levac

A glance at the valley explains why: Opposite Aqaba the IDF built a small village of concrete structures where soldiers train for combat in a built-up area. One model village against another model village.

“At the time, the IDF trained here because they said it resembled southern Lebanon,” says Sadeq, who calls the army training facilities around his village “outposts.” He managed to get one such “outpost” removed in 2000, after petitioning the High Court of Justice.

After that, Aqaba was quiet: After issuing the guidelines and evacuating the training site, the IDF did not enter the village again. That is, until the end of last year. During the last three months of 2016, Israeli troops once again began to do training exercises at night there. On his laptop, Sadeq shows me images from December 8 that agitated him – of a tank and other armored vehicles driving by the local mosque. He has his secretary run the footage over and over, and the din of the tank rolling by fills his office. There have been more of these incidents in the interim, and the locals’ lives have become a nightmare. The children live in fear.

What just about every West Bank refugee camp endures almost every night must not happen in his village, and indeed, Sadeq does not accept this situation lying down. Attorney Netta Amar-Shiff sent a letter on his behalf to Central Command, which replied on February 6: “A military training exercise did indeed take place, in which the IDF forces proceeded along a road adjacent to Hirbet al-Aqaba from south to north. [The forces] consisted of a convoy of military vehicles as part of the training exercises in the area’s firing zones In the wake of your letter, it was decided to examine and refresh the training plans for the area, which will be approved at a senior level in Central Command.

“This will include the examination and updating of the guidelines for movement in the area, the ban on training in the built-up area of Hirbet al-Aqaba, maintaining contact with the residents about the training and restrictions on using live fire in the training, taking into consideration the location of the residents’ homes in relation to the training area. This will be done to reduce the disturbance to the fabric of life in the area, and beyond the strict rules.”

A joint patrol of army officers and representatives of the local residents was agreed on, and took place some time afterward.

In a region where the IDF brutally and arbitrarily evacuates entire shepherding communities, in some cases for many days and nights, in order to train – that letter is almost surreal in its content. Only Sadeq can extricate a reply like this from the IDF. And, indeed, quiet reigned again in Aqaba. Until Tuesday of last week.

At about 11 P.M. that night, distraught villagers called Sadeq: There were soldiers present, next to the windows of their homes. The local council head immediately set out in the pitch dark, lighting the way with a powerful beam. He rode in his wheelchair amid the soldiers and jeeps. He tried to talk to the commanding officer, he relates, and to show him the guidelines from 1999 and the February 2017 letter from Central Command. But to no avail. Three jeeps and about 50 soldiers invaded Aqaba.

They did not enter any of the houses – reinforcing the notion that they had come solely for training purposes. They did not shoot, but did practice the use of their weapons. They left the village at 3 A.M., and came back the next day in larger numbers. Again they did not enter the houses, again they remained in the village pretty much the whole night. Again the children of Aqaba cried in fear.

We asked the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit two questions:

A tank on the streets of Aqaba.
Reproduction by Alex Levac

(A) Why did IDF troops enter Aqaba on two nights last week?

(B) When is the last time the IDF trained in Maskiot and Ro’i, two Israeli settlements adjacent to Aqaba?

The following response was received: “A preliminary check has revealed that the exercise in question was not coordinated properly. As a result, appropriate conclusions will be drawn and directives for all forces in the vicinity will be tightened. Training exercises in the firing zone adjacent to Aqaba have been taking place for many years, with the cooperation of residents and in keeping with the understandings worked out regarding the extent of the exercises, subordinate to security needs. It should be noted that over the years, the village has expanded significantly, in violation of the law, a reality that led to complicated constraints with respect to IDF exercises in the area.

“Representatives of Central Command and the Civil Administration maintain an ongoing dialogue with representatives of the residents. Earlier this year, a tour of the area was organized, with the participation of representatives of the residents and their lawyer, for the purpose of accommodating their needs, and striking a balance between taking into account unregulated construction in the area, on the one hand, and training and security needs, on the other.

“It should be noted that during the past week, a lawyer representing the residents was in contact with Central Command with a number of complaints related to the actions of IDF forces, and her complaint will be responded to directly. The IDF will continue to operate in the area while preserving the fabric of civilian life of the residents of Judea and Samaria.”