'If they build here, there will never be peace with Israel'
As Israeli plans to build settlements on the disputed E1 area continue, Matthew Kalman meets the Bedouin people of Ma'ale Adumim who face eviction from the land
From the roof of City Hall in Ma'ale Adumim, municipality spokesman Hezki Zisman has a glorious view in all directions that doubles as a basic geography primer on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
From a distance, the undulating hills, Bedouin encampments and limestone villages rising to the tower-topped mountains of Jerusalem radiate a natural beauty that seems to provide a storybook setting for peace. On closer inspection, the landscape is dotted with military checkpoints and bisected by a concrete security barrier to halt the passage of would-be suicide bombers into Israeli-controlled territory.
As both sides search for the elusive formula that might defuse the conflict that divides the residents of neighbouring hills, recent plans announced by Israel have raised fears that the delicate political tapestry of this complex landscape will be permanently altered.
To the west, the outskirts of East Jerusalem cascade over the Mount of Olives into the deep valley that divides this large West Bank settlement of 40,000 residents from the nearby Israeli capital. To the south lies Abu Dis, a Palestinian-controlled village and home of Al-Quds University, where Yasser Arafat constructed a parliament building for the future state of Palestine only to see it sealed off from neighbouring Jerusalem by the 30-foot high Israeli security wall. To the east, the spectacular folds of the Judean desert plunge 700 metres towards Jericho and the Dead Sea before the horizon soars again up to Amman and the Mountains of Moab.
But Mr Zisman's focus today is to the north, across the main highway leading from Jerusalem to Jericho, where the mayor of Ma'ale Adumim unveiled a plaque in September 2009 renaming the five-square-mile plot of largely barren hillsides as the settlement's newest neighbourhood, Mevasseret Adumim.
"There is no more land, no other area for Ma'ale Adumim to expand in any direction," Mr Zisman says. "It's important because we want to come close to Jerusalem. It's a strategic place for the country. It sits on the main road."
The area, known as E1, has remained almost deserted despite the mayor's plaque. A single winding road dotted with roundabouts leads to the only permanent building, a heavily fortified regional police HQ opened in 2008. There are street lights, electricity cables and water mains, but no houses. Plans to build 3,900 homes have been frozen by international pressure since 2004. A bridge linking the area to the mother settlement across the highway constructed a decade ago has been blocked by boulders.
The Palestinians consider E1 a vital land bridge linking Ramallah and Nablus in the northern West Bank to Bethlehem and Hebron in the south. Its border would allow the future Palestinian state one of its few points of strategic contact with East Jerusalem.
"If implemented, these plans would alter the situation on the ground on a scale that makes the two-state solution, with Jerusalem as a shared capital, increasingly difficult to achieve," says Foreign Secretary William Hague.
But last week, Israel defied international objections and revived the E1 development plan in response to the PLO's successful upgrade of its mission at the United Nations to the position of a non-member state.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said yesterday: "Everybody understands that these suburbs are going to remain part of Israel as a final settlement of peace. The same applies to the narrow corridor that connects Ma'ale Adumim to Jerusalem. This was part of all the plans."
He added: "You'll have a Palestinian state between Gaza and Judea-Samaria, the West Bank, and they are divided by 60 kilometres. That doesn't preclude a Palestinian state, but the fact that Ma'ale Adumim will be connected to Jerusalem in a corridor that is two, three kilometres long, that somehow prevents a Palestinian state. That's not true. It's simply false."
But Abdullah Arare, a Bedouin shepherd tending his flock of 450 goats with his daughter on a hill in E1 overlooking the police station, is certain the Israeli prime minister is wrong.
"This is Palestinian land. If they build here, there will be no peace," says Mr Arare. "How can we build a state without land? This is the link between the cities in the north and the south."
A few miles to the west, close by the security wall that marks the border with Jerusalem, Ibrahim Saidi, his four wives, 30 children and numerous grandchildren, graze their 1,000 sheep and goats and nine camels on the other side of E1. "We have been here for 50 years," says Mr Saidi. "If they build here, we will be unable to graze our flocks and I will have to double the amount of feed I buy for the animals. I can't afford it. I'll have to sell the flocks and stop being a shepherd."
In the neighbouring patch of land just across the wall in occupied East Jerusalem, there is a similar fear of upheaval.
Jadua Al-Kurshan, 55, lives in a valley under the north Jerusalem neighbourhood of French Hill, known in Arabic as Kurshan and in Hebrew as Nahal Og. The community of 17 families, about 90 people, is the last remaining Bedouin encampment within the municipal boundary of Jerusalem. On 1 November, the local planning committee published Plan 13900 advocating the removal of Mr Al-Kurshan's community so the valley can be used as an industrial waste landfill before being landscaped into a new public park.
It is not the first time the Jerusalem authorities have tried to move the Bedouin. The area was an empty space miles from the city when they first moved there in the 1970s. Now the new Israeli suburbs built across the pre-1967 border are creeping towards them.
"Four years ago the municipality gave us an eviction order. We went to court and won. They were told they couldn't remove the people because they didn't have enough evidence to enforce the order," Mr Al-Kurshan says.
The Jerusalem Municipality says Plan 13900 is the result of years of research into possible locations for a badly needed dump that will afterwards be beautified for the benefit of all residents. "There are illegal buildings on the site that have been the subject of legal proceedings," says a spokesman. "The court decided that the moment the municipal building plan was approved the demolition orders would be enforceable."
Sari Kronish, an architect at Bimkom, a group that raises human rights issues in planning procedures in Jerusalem, says the environmental arguments in favour of a landfill and park disguise a policy in which parks are being used to close off development opportunities for Palestinians in East Jerusalem.
"I'm concerned at the complete disregard for the people who live there at the moment and the fact that the plan does not include any alternative solution for the people who have livelihoods in this area," says Ms Kronish.
A Bimkom report on plans for national parks in Jerusalem suggests the motivation is as much political as environmental. "Their intention is to curb the development of the Palestinian neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem," says Ms Kronish.
In the Kurshan/Nahal Og valley, the implications of that policy flow beyond the municipal boundary. The Israeli land barrier that Palestinians fear will destroy the geographical integrity of their future state and weaken its physical connection to Jerusalem begins in Kurshan, which connects directly to E1 and from there to the settlement of Ma'ale Adumim.