The Cave People of Palestine

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GOING UNDERGROUND: Two Palestinian women stand at the mouth of their cave-turned-home in Mafghara.

Many Palestinians are forced to live underground

By Maher Abukhater

On a remote, barren hill overlooking Jordan Valley in the south of Palestine, Fadel Hamamdeh had set up a home in a cave.

Hamamdeh, his wife and five children had been living in the cave since the Israeli military authorities told them that their two-room metal shed (for them, their house) —built not far from the cave— was going to be demolished under the pretext that it was built without a permit and on land designated as Area C, which several Israeli officials have called for its annexation under the pretext that it is a “land without people.”

But the Hamamdehs are not the only ones facing this predicament.

Eight other families in the same area, known as Mafghara, southeast of the southern West Bank city of Hebron, are facing a similar fate.

Most of them had moved into caves in the same area as a precaution in case Israeli military units appear one night at their doorstep without a warning and demolish their sheds.

Residents say Israel wants to empty that area of its Palestinian Arab inhabitants, and therefore uses all kinds of pressure to get them to leave it.

Nearby sits a well-established and modern Jewish settlement built on land seized from the residents of Mafghara and known as Rikavim. Its Israeli dwellers have all sorts of facilities and government incentives to live there.

Commenting to Newsweek Middle East on the August 24 demolition of three structures in Umm Al Khair instances, Israel’s spokesperson for office of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) said that “in the town of Umm [Al] Khair, an illegal construction was started that had not been approved by the authorities. The local residents have ignored the enforcement and the orders of the Civil Administration and have continued to construct the illegal building project.”

When the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel signed in 1993 what has come to be known as the Oslo Accords (first accords in 1993 and the second Oslo Accords in 1995), more than 60 percent of the scarcely populated area of the West Bank was designated as Area C under full Israeli control.

The Accords state the situation was to last for only five years, after which Israel gives back the land to the Palestinians who would then establish their independent state on all of Area C and the rest of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

But more than 20 years later, the status quo remains the same. And now, Israel is building settlements in Area C and moved part of its own population into the area in clear violation of international law and signed accords.

At the same time, the Israeli authorities took strict measures to prevent the growth or even presence of Palestinians in Area C.

COGAT’s spokesperson on the other hand claims that the Israelis “emphasize that at the present time, the Civil Administration promotes a number of programs for the Palestinian population in Judea and Samaria (West Bank). Just in the past two weeks alone, it was reported that two new schools were approved for building in Area C for the Palestinian population. In addition, a master plan for the village Ta’anach in the Jenin area was approved this week by the Civil Administration and the village is expected to expand significantly because of the new master plan.”

The ceiling and walls of the cave where the Hamamdehs live, have grown black from the smoke produced by candles, oil lamps and the power generator used by the family. Spider webs cover parts of it.

Standing inside the cave for several minutes was sweltering, but Hamamdeh insists that life in the cave is not as bad as it may seem.

“It is cool and damp in the summer and warm in the winter,” he said of his alternative habitat.

Mafghara is one of 17 small villages, or khirbeh as called in Arabic, located in a large and barren area known as Masafer Yatta, that extends from the town of Yatta to the North, the Dead Sea in the East and the West Bank borders to the South.

There are about 200 people living in each Khirbeh, predominantly Bedouins from the Jahalin tribe who were forced out of their homes and land in the Naqab (Negev) desert, South of Palestine, after Israel’s creation in 1948.

Masafer Yatta has several hardcore Israeli settlements built there since Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967.

In Tuwaneh, one of the kihirbehs, children are unable to walk to their schools and back home without escort from international activists and sometimes Israeli military. Otherwise they will be harassed and sometimes beaten by settlers who live in nearby Ma’on settlement.

Umm Al Khair is the largest dwelling in Masafer Yatta where 1,100 people live. Israel allows residents to live in their small village but not expand outside its designated narrow borders for any reason, including natural growth.

Those who had moved outside and now live in khirbet Umm Al Khair find themselves in constant confrontation with the Israeli army and the settlers.

“Everything we have built outside our village line is subject for demolition,” Ibrahim Hathalin, head of Um Al Khair village council, told Newsweek Middle East.

Families, he said, are being forced to leave their homes to allow for the expansion of the modern and fortified settlement.

“They want us out. This is ethnic cleansing but we are not going to leave. This is our land. We are not afraid of them anymore,” said Suleiman Eid Hathalin, another resident of Khirbet Umm Al Khair.

The people of Umm Al Khair, and the rest of the khirbehs in the area who make their daily living from herding sheep and agriculture are constantly harassed if not by the army then by the settlers, who attack them and seize or kill their herd.

The Palestinian Authority has its hands tied as Israel bans any official Palestinian activity or providing services in this area.

Several mobile homes, schools, solar power generating panels and playing grounds in these areas have very clear EU posters on them to indicate that they were donations from the EU. The EU says it supports the Palestinians in Area C for humanitarian reasons, stressing that Area C is occupied territory and therefore it qualifies for humanitarian assistance.

But even this would not assure the Palestinians protection or shield from Israeli measures, including demolitions.

According to figures provided by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OCHA), Israel demolished more than 600 Palestinian homes in 2015, including 75 EU-funded structures worth over 200,000 euros leaving 688 Palestinians homeless.

In the first four months of 2016, Israel demolished almost 700 Palestinian homes, including 75 EU-funded buildings also worth more than 200,000 euros and leaving more than 800 Palestinians homeless.

Israel claims the EU-funded homes help the Palestinians establish facts on the ground, a situation it wants to make sure never happens.

The EU constantly condemns the demolitions and threatens to take action against Israel, including making it pay compensation. But so far, the complaint has not exceeded verbal denunciation and warning.

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