Jericho, Occupied Palestinian Territories - In the early hours of Friday February 7, Israeli troops stormed a protest encampment north of the Dead Sea and forcibly evicted the activists who had taken up residence there. Dozens of people were arrested, and several were injured.
Just a week earlier, at mid-afternoon on Friday January 31, several hundred Palestinians and a handful of international activists had streamed through the dilapidated buildings and parched palm trees of Ein Hijleh, a protest village built atop the remains of a destroyed Christian hamlet in the Israeli-occupied Jordan Valley.
The activists, who remained among the ruins despite repeated attacks and threats of eviction by Israel's armed forces, had planned to rebuild and refurbish the village, reaffirming a Palestinian presence in the region and directly opposing Israel's strengthening colonisation of the area.
A similar encampment - named Al-Awda [Arabic for "Return"] - was created under the cover of darkness on the night of Saturday February 1, near Israel's "Bisan" checkpoint in the northern Jordan Valley, but was stormed and evacuated by Israeli armed forces around midnight on Sunday.
Reclaiming the village
The re-appropriation of Ein Hijleh and the creation of Al-Awda are the first of many actions planned by members of Melh Al-Ard ["Salt of the Earth"] - a newly established national action campaign composed primarily of young Palestinian activists. Their actions are an attempt to offset what they deem to be the one-sided efforts of US Secretary of State John Kerry in his role as intermediary within the current set of peace negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian authorities.
"This isn't just about Israel's increasing Judiasation of the Jordan Valley," said Irene Nasser, an activist and member of Melh Al-Ard. "It's a response to Kerry's plan, which will basically allow Israel to annex the Jordan Valley in its entirety."
Our nation is indivisible. It is our duty to defend it.
Although the specifics of Kerry's proposed peace plan are yet formally unknown, elements of the proposal have been widely reported within Israel. reports suggest it would allow for a prolonged Israeli military presence in the area - complete with top of the line US-supplied surveillance drones - to be reduced in accordance with the security situation after a period of 10 to15 years.
"This is a refusal of the peace process, of the division of historic Palestine, and of the division of the West Bank into Areas A, B, and C," Manal Tamimi of Nabi Saleh told Al Jazeera, shortly after arriving at the protest village. "Our nation is indivisible. It is our duty to defend it."
The establishment of the protest villages are reminiscent of four similar encampments established by many of the same activists in early 2013. Bab Al-Shams, Bab Al-Karama, Ahfad Younis, and Al-Manatir were all destroyed by Israel's armed forces within days of their creation; however, their creativity marked a new phase in the expanding strategy of Palestinian direct-action resistance.
Ein Hijleh under siege
Forcefully depopulated by Israel's army during the Six Day War in 1967, the ruins of Ein Hijleh belong to the monastery in the neighbouring Palestinian Christian village of Deir Hijleh. Officials at the monastery, one of the oldest in the region, gave Melh Al-Ard permission for their reclamation project.
Before Friday's eviction, the Israeli army mades daily incursions into Ein Hijleh, taking counts of Melh Al-Ard’s numbers and threatening to declare the private church land a closed military area.
Technically, the entire West Bank is under military rule... We often see Israeli authorities use this law to prevent pro-Palestinian demonstrations and crack down on the freedom of Palestinian speech. If it were [Israeli] settlers in their places, things would be different.
"It makes no difference if it's private or public land," said Sarip Michaeli, spokesperson for the Israeli human rights group, B’Tselem. "Technically, the entire West Bank is under military rule. Israeli military commanders are technically capable of declaring any area a closed military zone.
"They're supposed to be created via specific guidelines - preserving the peace, for example. However, we often see Israeli authorities use this law to prevent pro-Palestinian demonstrations and crack down on the freedom of Palestinian speech. If it were [Israeli] settlers in their places, things would be different."
More than 25 people, including one German diplomat, have been detained by Israeli forces - either within the protest village itself, or at one of the checkpoints surrounding it. The most violent clashes happened on Monday evening, when Israeli soldiers shot live ammunition and tear gas canisters into the village in attempts to drive the occupiers out.
"The village is still under siege," said Diana Alzeer, spokesperson for the Popular Struggle Coordination Committee, before Friday's military action at the site. "The army is in the village and circling around it every day."
Vehicles of any sort, including those carrying European Union diplomats, medical teams - and even a prominent Palestinian bishop - have been prevented from entering the area. Those determined to reach the village must make the two kilometre trek by foot.
"They've cut our water supply four times in the last 24 hours," Alzeer told Al Jazeera on Wednesday night. "Three times this morning and one time last night. I took a video of it."
Coordination with nearby villages had been sustaining the activists in the face of Israel’s siege on the tiny protest village; neighbouring Bedouin communities have been delivering bread and water on horseback throughout the week.
Despite the watchful eye of the Israeli military, which maintained a near constant presence around the village outskirts, those re-occupying Ein Hijleh managed to be productive, organising into groups to clean up debris, rebuild stone walls, plant saplings and construct furniture. The town that was largely destroyed during the 1967 war was beginning to show new signs of life.
Mustafa Barghouti, a member of the Palestinian parliament, explained that such direct actions "are not about improving the conditions for negotiations; it's about providing an alternative strategy… we need to change the balance of power.
"This is about establishing an alternative strategy based on popular resistance, BDS [boycott, divestment and sanctions] and Palestinian unity,” Barghouti concluded.
Palestine's bread basket
While the Jordan Valley has the potential to become what Oxfam International claims could be "the Palestinian bread basket", Israel's restrictions on the use of land, water and construction in the valley has left Palestinian residents impoverished while nearby Israeli settlements flourish.
Palestinians are restricted to using six percent of the land, while those who live in illegal Israeli settlements, who account for 13 percent of the valley's population, control 86 per cent of the valley. If such restrictions were removed, the Palestinian economy would stand to gain an additional $1 billion a year in agricultural revenue, say economists.
Some 9,500 Israelis live in 37 Jewish-only settlements and outposts scattered throughout the Jordan Valley, according to the Israeli human rights group, B'Tselem.
Israel's settlements in the Jordan Valley - illegal under international law like those throughout the rest of the West Bank - have established industrial farms that sell high value crops both domestically and abroad.
Heavy government subsidies and a favourable export status have turned these illegal colonies, which label their products as being "made in Israel", into profitable corporations, according to a 2013 report by the Palestinian human rights organisation, Al-Haq.
Israel's desire to retain the Jordan Valley, be it via Kerry's peace plan or by other means, were made clear in December 2013, when a committee within Israel's Knesset voted in favour of a bill calling for the formal annexation of all settlements in the Jordan Valley to the state of Israel, labelling them a "strategic defence line".
But just days later, former Mossad director Meir Dagan disagreed in public, arguing that citing security reasons in attempts to retain the Jordan Valley amounted to a "manipulation" of the facts.
This back and forth regarding Israel's annexation is beside the point, argues Sarip Michaeli of B'Tselem.
"The Israeli authorities have treated the Jordan Valley as if it's been de facto annexed for years," said Michaeli. "Most Israelis don't even view it as an occupied area over the green line."
Despite the carnage wrought upon Ein Hijleh on Friday, protest leaders have vowed to return, to rebuild and to renew Palestinians' claim to land long since thought lost to the bullets, bombs and bulldozers of the Israeli military.
Israeli spokespeople did not reply to requests for comment on the destruction of Ein Hijleh by time of publication.
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