When 'Aliens' Show Up at a West Bank Construction Site

Vandalism and invasion of a housing project near Ramallah show that Jews are shocked by Palestinians building on Palestinian land. Security forces are doing little to catch the attackers, who've brought work to a standstill

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Khaled al-Sabawi, vice chairman of Union Construction and Investment, which is building the new housing project in Turmus Ayya, in the West Bank, with prospective buyers, Dec. 4, 2019
Khaled al-Sabawi, vice chair of Union Construction and Investment, which is building the new project in Turmus Ayya, with prospective buyers last year.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The Israel Defense Forces asks that we acknowledge its weakness in the face of anonymous Israelis who attack Palestinians and sabotage their property. This plea was heard Wednesday in one of the church-like courtrooms of the Supreme Court.

The person who asked the honorable justices to display understanding for the limitations of the IDF, as well as the Shin Bet security service, the Civil Administration and the Israel Police, was none other than the commander of the Binyamin Regional Brigade, Col. Yonatan Steinberg.

He implied that these organizations are unable to get their hands on an anonymous squad that regularly launches attacks in the same place. It’s not that we don’t want to do that, on the contrary, we’re having difficulties, said Steinberg – tall, uniformed, a black kippa on his head. According to Google he is a resident of Kibbutz Shomria in the south, home to settlers who were evacuated from Atzmona in the Gaza Strip.

The representative of the State Prosecutor’s Office, attorney Yuval Spitzer, explained the problem: “These same people who disturb public order … come from all over. Through the fields, by tractor, by Savana [van]. There are many small routes and agricultural land.”

Justice Dafna Barak-Erez asked: “Have there been arrests?” And Spitzer replied: “They just show up and then flee. It’s a challenge to arrest them.”

Col. Steinberg echoed him: “The challenge is great – to be effective in an open area that can be accessed from all directions. Some of these teenagers come wearing masks.” Whereupon Justice Yitzhak Amit wondered: “If you didn’t arrest them, how do you know that they’re teenagers?”

Steinberg hinted that this was the same persistent phenomenon, although he didn’t call it by name: “hilltop youth.”

The reason for the above-mentioned parties converging on the courtroom relates to the preparation of lots for construction on the land of the village of Turmus Ayya, northeast of Ramallah. The view – rounded hills interspersed with plains sown and planted. The quiet is heady. The air is clear. Palestinian middle class families are interested in buying a lot as an investment there, and eventually in building a house. A Palestinian company, Union Construction and Investment, has organized everything. The initiator of the project is the company’s vice chairman, Khaled al-Sabawi, a Palestinian Canadian.

Khaled al-Sabawi, of Union Construction and Investment, with prospective buyers in Turmus Ayya last year. Infrastructure work is now frozen there due to attacks on the site.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

But creation of the infrastructure for this project, which began in June 2019 and was supposed to end long ago, is stuck. Jews, who with the encouragement of the Israeli government over the past 45 years have taken control of land belonging to the villages of Turmus Ayya, Jalud, Qaryut and Maghair, and built posh settlements (Shilo, for example) and outposts whose reputation for violence precedes them (Esh Kodesh and Adei Ad, for example), were shocked by the idea of Palestinians building on Palestinian land.

They were whining that Sabawi’s project endangers the new settlement of Amihai (for evacuees of Amona, which was an outpost of the settlement of Ofra). The whining morphed into demonstrations and invasions of the private construction site. The continuation: “Unknown people” have sabotaged the access road that was paved there and also equipment on the site several times.

In August 2019 these alien individuals received support from Regional Brigade Commander Steinberg, who ordered that work be discontinued. The Palestinian firm petitioned the High Court of Justice through attorney Michael Sfard. In January 2020 the justices ordered the state to guarantee that infrastructure work at the site would continue and gave it 45 days to get organized – but on February 21, then-Defense Minister Naftali Bennett intervened and prohibited continuation of the work.

But Bennett and Steinberg’s directive does not have a leg to stand on, even according to the Israeli legal system, which encourages the takeover of Palestinian land. On March 20, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit made it clear that the obligation of the IDF is “to maintain public order in a manner that will enable the construction work” at the site in question.

And still, the work is frozen. The IDF has been in no rush to facilitate it. Union Construction is losing a lot of money, several of those families purchasing lots have canceled the transaction and potential buyers have been deterred. On October 12 the contractor and several workers took their lives in their hands and went to the site, not before informing the Civil Administration of their intention to resume work.

Suddenly soldiers appeared – yes, from the Binyamin Brigade – and stopped them. An officer from the District Coordination and Liaison Office explained to the soldiers that the work was legal and the laborers continued to work. Half an hour later, however, the aliens appeared, some astride ATVs, and began to throw stones at the workers. Steinberg’s soldiers, still at the site, began to talk with the invaders. The laborers left.

A representative of the Civil Administration contacted the contractor and told him that they could return – the laborers showed up the next day but so did the aliens, who threw stones and injured a worker in the shoulder. The workers fled, two military jeeps in hot pursuit, ensuring their disappearance. The Coordination and Liaison officer then told the contractor that the workers were allowed to return, but that the army wouldn’t be able to guarantee their safety.

“Why don’t you hire a security company for the nights?” Justices Ofer Grosskopf and Barak-Erez suggested to Sfard, at the hearing last week. For a layperson like me, it’s hard to decide if they were serious: In a place where the army, the Shin Bet and the police have failed, how do you expect a Palestinian security firm to confront a violent gang – and without weapons yet, because the Palestinian are not allowed to carry weapons in the area defined as B (under Israeli security control)?

Justice Amit closed the subject: In my experience, he said, either a private security guard cooperates with the trespassers, or they beat him up. Amit also wondered about the term “friction” used by the state prosecutor: When it is only one side that attacks, he remarked, that’s not “friction.”

Attorney Sfard expressed a fear that beneath the promises, the military establishment is winking at the rioters to continue to sabotage the work. For their part, Steinberg and Spitzer reiterated again that the army wants to carry out the rulings of the High Court, and to ensure that the construction will continue. The justices gave the army a week to “concretize” this willingness.

We will continue to stay abreast of developments.

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