Doomed Palestinian village turns to Europe as last hope

France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom said Monday, Sept. 10, 2018, that its strategic location is important to maintain "contiguity of a future Palestinian state." Arabic reads "Jerusalem is ours, my beautiful school." (File/AP/Nasser Nasser)
Updated 16 September 2018

Doomed Palestinian village turns to Europe as last hope

  • Major European countries have warned that flattening Khan Al-Ahmar poses a grave threat to the already fading prospects of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
  • Critics of PM Netanyahu’s policies say the village has become a symbol for the ongoing displacement of Palestinians to make room for Israeli settlements

KHAN AL-AHMAR, West Bank: For the anxious Palestinian residents of Khan Al-Ahmar, there’s little left to do but wait.
After the West Bank hamlet lost its last legal protection against demolition late last week, Israeli forces could swoop in any day now to tear down the desert community’s few dozen shacks and an Italian-funded schoolhouse made from recycled tires.
Some hold out hope that Israel might be deterred by an inevitable international outcry over razing the community. Major European countries have warned that flattening Khan Al-Ahmar poses a grave threat to the already fading prospects of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The seemingly outsized international attention being paid to the tiny community is linked to its strategic location in the center of the West Bank. It’s an area deemed essential for setting up a viable Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, areas Israel captured in 1967.
Israel has portrayed the battle over Khan Al-Ahmar as a mere zoning dispute. Critics of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies say the village has become a symbol for what they describe as an ongoing displacement of Palestinians to make room for Israeli settlements.
With demolition now looming, dozens of activists, including foreigners, have been spending nights in Khan Al-Ahmar to show support. They sleep on mattresses spread out under green tarp covering the front yard of the Italian-funded school.
“We cannot prevent demolition,” said activist Mohammed Abu Hilweh, 30, from Jerusalem, as he stretched out on a mattress on a recent evening, settling in for the night.
“But we can resist, delay and when it happens, we can rebuild,” he said.
Khan Al-Ahmar is located a few dozen meters from a four-lane highway that runs east-west, effectively slicing the West Bank in half at a narrow waist and linking Jerusalem with the Jordan Valley.
The highway is also flanked by several Israeli settlements, including Maaleh Adumim, the West Bank’s third largest. A new settlement across the highway from Maaleh Adumim, called E1 by Israeli planners, would effectively block the remaining land link between West Bank Palestinians and east Jerusalem, their hoped-for capital. Khan Al-Ahmar sits just outside the area mapped for E1, which until now had largely been frozen under US pressure.
Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Palestinian official, called the planned demolition a “blatant attempt” by Israel to separate the Palestinians from Jerusalem. “It is absolutely imperative that the international community intervene,” she said.
For the past 25 years, the international community has favored the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel as the best hope for peace. But those hopes are quickly fading.
In a departure from predecessors, President Donald Trump, who has promised a new peace plan, has refused to endorse the two-state solution while recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, over Palestinian opposition.
The US State Department has said little about the looming demolition, referring reporters to the Israeli government for details.
By contrast, European governments have been outspoken.
“The demolition of this small Palestinian village would not only affect a local community,” EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini recently told the European Parliament. “It would also be a blow against the viability of the state of Palestine and against the very possibility of a two-state solution.”
Separately, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom warned in a rare joint statement that demolition would have “very serious” consequences.
For now, Israel appears to be moving ahead. After a decade-long legal battle, Israel’s Supreme Court rejected a final appeal earlier this month. Late last week, a moratorium on demolition expired.
Israel has not announced a date for the demolition, but earlier this week dismantled five corrugated metal shacks near Khan Al-Ahmar that had been set up by villagers a few days earlier in a show of defiance. On Friday, troops returned with heavy equipment, removing earthen mounds set up to slow demolition. Two Palestinians and an American-French law professor were detained.
The 180 residents of Khan Al-Ahmar are members of the Jahalin Bedouin tribe that has lived in the area since being expelled from the southern Negev Desert after Israel’s establishment in 1948. The United Nations granted them refugee status.
Shani Sasson, a spokeswoman for COGAT, the Israeli defense body responsible for Palestinian civilian affairs, said Israel has offered to relocate the villagers.
She said the tribe squats on land that is not safe for living, and that the Israeli government has prepared an alternative site just a few kilometers (miles) away with sewage treatment and access to water and electricity. She said Israel has invested over $2 million in the relocation project.
“We are doing them a service,” she said. “This is not against them, this is for them.”
Residents acknowledge that life in their village is tough. But they say there is no place they would rather live. They say Israel is trying to move them to a site that will be too crowded for their livestock and that sits near a sewage facility and a garbage dump.
“We Bedouin people like the desert life,” said Yousef Abu Dahouq, a Khan Al-Ahmar resident, sitting on a wooden bench near the school, sipping tea and smoking a waterpipe. “We live next to each other, support each other.”
The Palestinians and Europeans see a deeper Israeli agenda.
Khan Al-Ahmar is in the 60 percent of the West Bank that is known as Area C and remains under full Israeli control, according to interim peace deals from the 1990s that are seemingly locked in place because of diplomatic paralysis. The remainder of the territory is administered by a Palestinian autonomy government.
Area C is home to about 400,000 Israeli settlers and an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 Palestinians. Israel places severe restrictions on Palestinian development while supporting and promoting dozens of settlements in the area.
The EU has attempted to build numerous structures for Palestinians in Area C, only to see them demolished or rejected because of a lack of hard-to-get permits. Khan Al-Ahmar’s Italian-funded school was built from car tires because a construction permit could not be obtained.
“This is the situation on the ground: New settlements for Israelis are built, while Palestinian homes in the same area are demolished,” said Mogherini. “This will only further entrench a one-state reality, with unequal rights for the two peoples, perpetual occupation and conflict.”
The village chief, Eid Khamis, promised to put up a fight.
“They want to kick us out and build settlements and we will not let that happen,” he said. “It’s our land.”


Syrian and Russian troops sweep into Manbij as US withdraws

Updated 13 min 12 sec ago

Syrian and Russian troops sweep into Manbij as US withdraws

  • Standoff looms in northern Syrian town of Manbij as Turkish offensive continues
  • Trump's fresh sanctions fail to halt Turkish advance

MANBIJ, Syria: Turkey ignored US sanctions and pressed on with its assault on northern Syria on Tuesday, while the Russia-backed Syrian army roared into one of the most hotly contested cities abandoned by US forces in Donald Trump’s retreat.
Reuters journalists accompanied Syrian government forces who entered the center of the city of Manbij, a flashpoint where US troops had previously conducted joint patrols with Turkey.
Russian and Syrian flags were flying from a building on the city outskirts, and from a convoy of military vehicles.
US forces announced they had pulled out of the city.
A week after reversing US policy and moving troops out of the way to allow Turkey to attack Washington’s Syrian allies, Trump announced a package of sanctions to punish Ankara.
But the measures — mainly a hike in steel tariffs and a pause in trade talks — were less robust than financial markets had expected, and Trump’s critics derided them as too feeble to have an impact.
The Turkish lira, which had fallen on the expectation of tougher US measures, recovered after the sanctions were announced, as did its bond and stock markets, with traders noting that Trump had spared Turkish banks.
Trump’s unexpected decision to withhold protection from Syria’s Kurds after a phone call with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan a week ago swiftly upended five years of US policy in the Middle East.
The withdrawal gives a free hand to Washington’s adversaries in the world’s deadliest ongoing war, namely Syrian President Bashar Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies.
The United States announced on Sunday it was withdrawing its entire force of 1,000 troops from northern Syria. Its former Kurdish allies immediately forged a new alliance with Assad’s Russia-backed government, inviting the army into towns across the breadth of their territory.
Russian-backed Syrian forces moved swiftly to fill the void left by departing Americans from Manbij west of the Euphrates river, which Turkey has vowed to capture.
“We are out of Manbij,” said Col. Myles B Caggins, spokesman for the US-led coalition in Syria. Troops “are executing a deliberate withdrawal from northeast Syria.”
A group of journalists accompanied by Syrian army personnel journeyed into Manbij city where upon their arrival a group of people gathered, waving the Syrian flag and pictures of Assad.
However the reporters left when gunfire was heard and a group of some 10 young men in Kurdish YPG uniforms began breaking cameras and yelling.
Syrian state media said SDF fighters had opened fire on a march organized by the people of Manbij to welcome the army.
Trump’s pullout ends joint US-Turkish patrols of the Manbij area under a deal aimed to persuade Turkey not to invade.
Syrian state television broadcast footage of what it said was government troops entering Manbij on Tuesday, under their new deal with the Kurds. A resident inside the city told Reuters the Syrian troops were on its outskirts. Turkey-backed Syrian fighters said they would continue their advance toward Manbij.
A Reuters cameraman on the Turkish frontier reported heavy bombardment on Tuesday morning of the Syrian border town of Ras Al-Ain, where a spokesman for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces reported a fierce battle was taking place.

Opinion

This section contains relevant reference points, placed in (Opinion field)

Trump has defended his reversal of US policy as part of a plan to withdraw the United States from “endless” wars in the Middle East.
But his critics, including senior figures in his own Republican Party, cast it as a betrayal of the Kurds, loyal allies who lost thousands of fighters as the principal ground forces in Washington’s battle against Daesh.
The Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, said Trump’s sanctions were too little, too late.
“His announcement of a package of sanctions against Turkey falls very short of reversing that humanitarian disaster.”
Turkey says it aims to defeat the Kurdish YPG militia, which it sees as terrorists for their links to separatists in Turkey, and to create a “safe zone” where millions of Syrian refugees can be resettled.
The United Nations says 160,000 people have fled their homes as Turkish forces advance. The Kurdish administration puts the number of displaced at 270,000.
The UN Human Rights office said on Tuesday Turkey could be held responsible for war crimes by fighters under its direction, potentially including the assassination of Hevrin Khalaf, a leading Kurdish politician killed on the side of a highway on Saturday by gunmen who posted the incident on the Internet.
Turkish-backed fighters have denied blame for her murder.
Erdogan, who has pledged to continue military operations come what may, said Turkey was giving the world a chance to bring peace to the region.
“The international community missed its opportunity to prevent the Syrian crisis from pulling an entire region into a maelstrom of instability,” he wrote in the Wall Street Journal. “The European Union — and the world — should support what Turkey is trying to do.”
The Syrian army deployments into Kurdish-held territory evacuated by Washington are a victory for President Bashar Assad and his most powerful ally, Russia, giving them a foothold in the biggest remaining swath of the country that had been beyond their grasp.
Trump allies insisted Washington had not given its blessing to the Turkish offensive, and demanded a cease-fire.
“The United States of America simply is not going to tolerate Turkey’s invasion in Syria any further,” Vice President Mike Pence said. “We are calling on Turkey to stand down, end the violence and come to the negotiating table.”
Trump’s sanctions include reimposing steel tariffs and halting talks on a trade deal. But bilateral trade between Turkey and the United States is small — around a tenth the size of Turkey’s trade with Europe. Washington’s most effective form of economic leverage would be to hinder Turkey’s access to US financial markets, a step Trump has so far avoided.
“The sanctions are not related to banking, so the markets will have a positive perception,” said Cem Tozge, asset management director at Ata Invest.
In a potentially more damaging blow, German carmaker Volkswagen said it was postponing a final decision on whether to build a 1 billion euro ($1.1 billion) plant in Turkey, citing concern over “current developments” after international condemnation of the incursion.
European countries have criticized the offensive but have limited their response so far to announcing suspensions of arms sales, although weapons account for only a small fraction of EU-Turkish trade.
Trump said US troops would remain at a small garrison at Tanf in southern Syria “to continue to disrupt remnants” of Daesh. The base on the southern border is hundreds of miles away from the Kurdish area in the north that had previously been the main US theater.