Skip to main content

Israel: Military Choking Palestinian Village, Planning Tourist Site

Draconian Curbs on Building, Working, Access to Essentials of Daily Life

(Jerusalem) – The Israeli military is severely harming livelihoods in a Palestinian village in the West Bank that it plans to turn into an archaeological tourist site. The military should drop the project and lift excessive restrictions that keep residents from building or farming on their land and that limit their freedom of movement.

Decades ago, the Israeli military demolished many buildings in the village, Nabi Samwil, a few kilometers northwest of Jerusalem, without notifying residents in advance or providing them with an explanation, residents said. In 1995, the military declared the area a national park, using that explanation to deny residents the right to build, renovate, conduct business, or plant trees. Since 2007, Israel’s separation barrier has cut the village off from the rest of the West Bank, and the Israeli authorities do not allow most of the residents to travel or work in Israel. Israel announced plans for an archaeological tourist site in the village in June 2013. Israeli authorities have not consulted residents about any of the plans.

“The Israeli military has choked off Nabi Samwil for years, and it is cruel to now make a tourist attraction out of the part of the village the military destroyed,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director. “The military should be making sure Nabi Samwil residents can return and rebuild, not making their displacement permanent.”

Since December, residents have held weekly protests against turning the archaeological site into a tourist attraction. Plans commissioned by the Israeli military’s Civil Administration division provide for building an access road, parking, buildings, and other structures for visitors to the archaeological site. An Israeli official managing the excavations told residents on December 27 that anyone who participated in the protests “does not get to work” at the site, residents and Israeli rights activists said.

The Israeli military occupied Nabi Samwil, whose name means “Prophet Samuel”, in 1967. Seven families fled then, villagers told Human Rights Watch. The military’s 1967 census says that 66 residents remained. In 1971, villagers said, the military bulldozed about 30 buildings in the center of the village, near the mosque – the area the military is now planning to turn into the tourist site.

As the military prohibited rebuilding the homes or new residential construction after 1971, the remaining villagers moved into houses and structures whose owners had left in 1967, including a structure to house sheep, a few hundred meters east of the mosque. The military demolished some renovated buildings, apparently because they were renovated without military permits, residents said. In 1995, the military designated the “Nabi Samuel National Park” on a 350-hectare tract encompassing the entire village and its surroundings. The national park plan effectively prohibited building new structures or infrastructure.

The Israeli authorities have provided no justification based on military necessity or protection of the residents for preventing people from rebuilding or returning. Under international law, those are the only reasons they can forcibly – if temporarily – transfer inhabitants of an occupied territory from their homes.

The national park plan designated the area around the village mosque – including the remains of homes and other buildings the military had destroyed in 1971– an archaeological site, where the Israeli Parks and Nature Authority, under the auspices of the Israeli military’s archaeology staff office, began excavations in the 1990s.

Emek Shaveh, an Israeli group focused on archaeology, reported in 2013 that, “the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian traditions identify Nabi Samuel as the burial place of the prophet Samuel,” and that the area of the village mosque was originally a Christian holy site dating from the Byzantine period. There is currently a Jewish prayer area in the basement level and a Muslim prayer area at the entrance level of the mosque building. Emek Shaveh submitted an objection to the plan, arguing that it was wrong to turn a destroyed Palestinian village into an archaeological site. The group argued during a military planning hearing in November that plans to build an elevator for tourists on the outside of the mosque building could harm the site.

Because the Israeli military considers the area a park, officials have no plans to improve the village’s infrastructure or to allow new buildings, a planner said at the military planning committee hearing, which Human Rights Watch attended.

The route of the Israeli separation barrier cuts deep into the West Bank, leaving West Bank villages – where around 11,000 Palestinians live – between the barrier and Israeli territory. The military designated this land “seam zone” areas. As with other villages in seam zone areas, the military only allows Palestinians whom it has registered as permanent residents of Nabi Samwil to cross a checkpoint to the rest of the West Bank, and severely restricts the goods they can bring in with them.

In one case, forces at the checkpoint held up a school bus for hours because one student tried to bring a sack of bread into the village without prior permission.

The checkpoint and other Israeli restrictions on residents’ movement, such as road-blocks cutting off access to other villages, make it difficult and time-consuming for the 250 residents of the village to travel to and work in the rest of the West Bank. At the same time, Israel considers most of the villagers Palestinian West Bank residents, and prohibits them from traveling or working in Israel without special military permits.

The military has thwarted residents’ attempts to generate income by setting up small businesses, including their own efforts to attract visitors to the historic site. In September, the military confiscated a carwash that a villager had set up in June, after issuing an order stating that he did not have a building permit. The resident said that he owns the plot of land.

Human Rights Watch spoke to two residents who said that the only jobs available to them in the village were to work for the military’s archaeological staff by excavating their village’s demolished homes. Ten men from Nabi Samwil are employed to excavate the site, they said – four of them born in homes that the military demolished in 1971 and that are now included within the archaeological site.

In separate court cases pending before the Israeli High Court of Justice, the military is seeking judicial approval to forcibly displace residents of the Palestinian villages of Susiya and Khirbet Zanuta, in the southern West Bank, because of archaeological finds at the sites. In a third case, state authorities delegated the operation of an archaeological tourist site, the “City of David” in the Silwan neighborhood in East Jerusalem, to a settler group, Elad, that has evicted Palestinians from their homes. Israeli authorities have also demolished other Palestinian homes and structures in Silwan.

The Israeli daily Haaretz reported on June 18 that officials from the military’s Archaeological Staff Office, in the Civil Administration division, removed a 200 - 300 year-old stone, inscribed in Arabic, from the wall of the Nabi Samwil mosque in May. The military archaeologists removed the stone without consulting the residents or the Muslim waqf, or endowment, which owns the mosque site. Human Rights Watch observed informational plaques set up by Israeli authorities at the site that refer extensively to the site’s Jewish history and religious significance, but contain only passing reference to its Muslim heritage.

Israel has ratified, and Palestine acceded to, the 1954 United Nations Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, which requires an occupying power, as far as possible, to “support the competent national authorities of the occupied country in safeguarding and preserving its cultural property.” Israel does not permit Palestinian authorities to access Nabi Samwil, Susiya, Khirbet Zanuta, or Silwan.

The Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 prohibits Israel, as the occupying power, from making life so difficult for Palestinians in occupied territories that they are essentially forced to leave their communities. Deliberately violating this prohibition against “forcible transfer” is a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions and prosecutable as a war crime.

“Israeli authorities not only exclude Palestinians from any role in managing their cultural heritage, but are perverting archaeology into a tool to drive Palestinians out of their communities,” Whitson said.

Life in the Seam Zone
Residents estimated that about 50 residents have left Nabi Samwil for other towns in the West Bank since 2010 to escape poverty, poor housing conditions, and restrictions on movement.

Israeli forces control all access from the rest of the West Bank to Nabi Samwil at a checkpoint outside the village. Residents are allowed to carry food and goods for personal consumption and use, but forces at the checkpoint have blocked deliveries of humanitarian aid. In October 2013, for instance, on separate occasions, the forces blocked delivery of water tanks and chickens donated by Norwegian People’s Aid.

A Norwegian newspaper, Dagen, reported that the water tanks were intended to allow villagers to grow and irrigate their own vegetables, reducing their food expenses. The military initially said that the tanks did not qualify as “humanitarian” assistance, but ultimately told Haaretz that it had blocked their entry on the grounds that residents had no permits to set them up in Nabi Samwil, a natural park where “any construction… requires a permit.” The soldiers at the checkpoint eventually allowed residents to bring in the water tanks one at a time over the next several months.

Residents told Human Rights Watch that forces at the checkpoint had also blocked the delivery by Norwegian People’s Aid of about 400 egg-laying chickens, because the number of birds indicated a “commercial” rather than humanitarian use. Residents said the chickens would die if left unattended, so they strapped the chicken cages onto a donkey that walked through hills around the checkpoint to reach the village. Human Rights Watch observed photographs of the donkey carrying the chickens.

Residents described numerous incidences of harassment by forces at the checkpoint; in each case, Israeli rights activists, including with the group Machsom Watch, corroborated the residents’ accounts.

In February, soldiers prohibited a resident driving home with his family from another part of the West Bank from crossing the checkpoint because he had a small canister of cooking gas in the car. After the family returned the canister to another village and returned to the checkpoint, soldiers delayed the car from passing for several hours. An official later told an Israeli human rights activists that cooking gas was a “chemical substance with multiple uses” that required “prior coordination.”

In September, soldiers blocked a school bus for five hours because they said a girl was “trying to smuggle” in a large bag of bread. Officials threatened to press charges against a man escorting the children on the bus who had argued about the delay. On October 15, the soldiers denied entry to a man qualified to ritually slaughter animals for the Muslim feast of Eid al-Adha due to a “technical error,” but still refused him entry after the computer error was fixed, the Israeli daily Haaretz reported.

In 2012, forces at the checkpoint detained Eid Barakat, a resident in his 50s, for trying to “smuggle” bags of barley feed for the village’s livestock past the checkpoint, on the basis that they constituted “commercial” goods prohibited in seam zone areas, according to Barakat and an Israeli rights activist.

Israeli forces have entered Nabi Samwil and subjected residents to apparently unnecessary security measures. According to a complaint filed on March 1, 2013, by Machsom Watch, a border police jeep entered the village at 7 p.m. on February 24, and Israeli border police ordered all the children to come out of their houses and stand outside. The children stood outdoors for half an hour, until the border police left the village without having questioned any children or residents.

At 5:30 a.m. on December 25, Israeli forces entered homes in the village without showing search or arrest warrants and detained six teenagers and young men, alleging they had broken into vehicles on an unspecified date. Israeli forces held them at Ofer, a military detention facility nearby in the West Bank, releasing them December 31, on 700 shekels (USD $200) bail each.

The Israeli government argues that its restriction of West Bank Palestinians’ freedom of movement is justified on security grounds. However, the Israeli policies in question restrict the movement of all Palestinians, rather than targeting individuals considered security risks. As the UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination noted in 2007, Israeli policies “targeting a particular national or ethnic group, especially through the wall, checkpoints, restricted roads, and permit system, have… had a highly detrimental impact on the enjoyment of human rights by Palestinians, in particular their rights to freedom of movement, family life, work, education, and health.”

The Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 prohibits Israel, as the occupying power, from “[i]ndividual or mass forcible transfers” of the Palestinian population in the West Bank unless required for their own safety or imperative military reasons. The prohibition of forcible transfer extends to cases in which the military makes life so difficult that people are essentially forced to leave.

The convention does not distinguish residents of a particular locale, such as an area designated by the occupying power as a national park or a “seam zone,” but refers to all protected residents of the occupied territory. Even in cases where an occupying power is permitted to require residents of the occupied territory to leave their homes, it must be temporary and the residents must be allowed to return as soon as possible. Deliberately violating this prohibition is a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions and prosecutable as a war crime.

S., a resident of Nabi Samwil in her 70s, told Human Rights Watch that the Israeli military demolished her home in the middle of winter in 1971. “Suddenly at 7 a.m., the soldiers came into our home. The officer said he didn’t know anyone was still living there,” she said, but Israeli forces bulldozed her home anyway. “I moved into a sheep pen and built a kitchen,” she said. “A few days later, the Israelis came and destroyed the kitchen.”

She and eight relatives still live in two rooms in the same structure, which the military has prohibited them from renovating, she said. In 2002, she said, the Palestinian Authority gave her some olive trees. “I planted them and built a fence around them on eight dunams [0.8 hectares] of land I inherited from my parents,” she said. “The army destroyed the fence and uprooted the trees.”

The village’s elementary school comprises a 20-square-meter one-room building and a portable classroom donated by the queen of Jordan, where pupils from grades 1 through 4 study. The Israeli military has refused requests to expand the school building, and issued a demolition order against the portable classroom, an outbuilding with the school’s toilet, the swings in the school playground, and the fence separating the school’s play area from a road, because the national park plan prohibits the construction or expansion of public buildings, the school principal told Human Rights Watch.

Israeli military authorities have severely restricted residents’ livelihoods on the basis of claims that they violate the National Parks Law. Under the law, Nabi Samwil residents who own land retain possession, but cannot make physical changes on it without the approval of both the Nature and Parks Authority and the military’s Civil Administration division. However, these authorities have rarely granted such permission, residents told Human Rights Watch. The park plan allows registered owners to expand residential buildings by a maximum of 20 percent. But because many residents moved into vacant homes after the military forcibly displaced them in 1971, most don’t own the homes they live in.

Barakat showed Human Rights Watch an order the military issued to him to uproot 95 fruit trees that he planted in 2011. The order does not contest his claim to own the land, but prohibits its use for agriculture because it is inside the national park. On October 31, 2012, Barakat said, the military demolished a cow pen and two store-rooms he owned. The military also demolished seven other buildings in Nabi Samwil that day, according to records collected by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The following month, the French consulate helped Barakat build a new sheep pen. On March 12, 2013, the military issued a “stop-work order” against the new pen – the administrative step before the military issues demolition orders.

To earn income, Barakat and other residents opened a small carwash in a vacant lot near the entrance to the archaeological site on June 13, 2013. Five days later, the military issued an order stating that they had built the structure illegally, without permits. Barakat said that he owns the land. In early September, Israeli forces destroyed the sun-shade, advertising poster, and bamboo fence the residents had built, and confiscated the industrial vacuum cleaner and water hose at the site.

In December, the Israeli manager of the archaeological excavation site told a resident who opened a stall selling peanuts to visitors that he would not be given work at the site “so long as you have the peanut stall out here,” said residents who overheard the conversation. The man closed his stall and was given work excavating the site.

The Military Plan
In 2013, the military submitted a plan, “Development in Nabi Samwil National Park,” 51/107/03, including the archaeological site. The plan, commissioned by Israel’s National Parks Authority and the military Civil Administration division, allows building on 2,400 square meters, including an access road, walking paths, buildings for tourists, and an elevator. Residents of Nabi Samwil told Human Rights Watch that the military did not consult with them regarding the plan. Some of the remains in the archaeological site “are structures and installations from the destroyed Palestinian village, which were built on top of earlier remains,” notes a report by Emek Shaveh, the Israeli archaeological group that opposed the plans.

Nabi Samwil residents attended the first part of the hearing about the plan in November. It was conducted in Hebrew, which some of them did not understand. When a participant asked for the proceedings to be translated into Arabic, one of Israel’s two official languages, the head of the subcommittee, Mikhael Ben Shabat, said that the rules of procedure did not require the hearing to be translated and that he had not received a request in advance.

The Nabi Samwil residents walked out after the Israeli planner working for the military, Daniel Halimi, stated repeatedly, over their objections, that “this is not a village, it is a park.” He acknowledged in response to questions that his plan did not provide roads, sewage, or electricity infrastructure to residents. “Hopefully the residents will realize they live in a park and not a village,” Halimi said. “The plan we’re working on will help assimilate them to servicing visitors to the [tourist] site.” Ben Shabat added, “There are no residents in a park.”

Nir Shalev, a representative of Bimkom, an Israeli rights group that specializes in planning issues, objected, saying that Israel has a precedent of allowing residential construction inside national parks, including for settlements in the West Bank. The subcommittee, which is considering some objections to the plan, stated that it had no jurisdiction to consider Bimkom’s objections that the plan violated Israel’s obligations under the law of occupation.

Israeli authorities issued demolition orders against a temporary protest tent immediately after residents first set it up during a demonstration in December near the entrance to the archaeological site. Residents have erected the tent each Friday as part of their weekly protest, removing it at the end of each protest.

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.