Peace and Permits in Al Aqaba: A Palestinian Village Seeks Security in Area C
Haj Sami Sadik, mayor of the Palestinian village of Al Aqaba in the Jordan River Valley, gave this speech at the Peace Works Conference, sponsored by the Rachel Corrie Foundation in Olympia, WA, October 17-19, 2008.
When you visit our village of Al Aqaba in the West Bank, you will see our unique mosque with a double minaret in the shape of a peace sign. One hundred and thirty children will welcome you to our kindergarten. Ours is a Palestinian village in the Jordan River Valley, far from borders and settlements, in the area designated by the Oslo Accords as Area C. Despite many wrongs committed against us, we believe in peace. I am the mayor of the village and I have come to the US to ask Americans who care about peace to care about Al Aqaba.
The Israeli Army says our village looks like southern Lebanon, so starting in 1983, it used our village for training exercises. Troops burst into our homes in the middle of the night without provocation, shot live ammunition, and placed mines in our fields. Eight villagers were killed and thirty-six were wounded - and I am one of them. I have been wheelchair-bound since the age of 16. Seven hundred villagers moved to safer neighboring towns, leaving only three hundred in the village.
In 2002, in response to our petition, the Israeli High Court of Justice ruled that the Israeli Army had to remove one of three military training camps from village land and stop using our village for training practice - and the Israeli Army complied. With the court's decision in our favor, we hoped our villagers could return home. That's when we asked a US nonprofit, the Rebuilding Alliance , to help us build a better kindergarten. A minivan now brings 130 children and many mothers, Muslim and Christian, from throughout the region to our Al Haq kindergarten. The mothers join the Women's Cooperative upstairs where they make handicrafts to earn extra money.
In 2004, as we were building our kindergarten, the Israel Army Civil Authority issued demolition orders against the entire village of Al Aqaba, including the mosque, the medical center, nearly all the homes, and the kindergarten. We petitioned the Israeli High Court of Justice to overturn the demolition orders. On April 17, 2008, the three judges issued their verdict, stating that "Under no circumstances will buildings be allowed to stand without a valid building permit." However, they did not address the fact that building permits are unattainable in the 130 Palestinian villages in Area C of the West Bank.
In democratic societies, the local government of each city, town, or village creates the master land use plan that provides zoning for homes, shops, public buildings (including schools), and agricultural land. The municipality then issues building permits in accordance with its master land-use plan for the land they own. But Area C, which constitutes 60% of the West Bank, is under total control of the Israeli Army Civil Authority. According to the Israeli human rights group, BIMKOM: Planners for Planning Rights, the Israeli Army Civil Authority declares the130 Palestinian villages in Area C as "unrecognized," making residents lawbreakers just by living in their homes. The Israeli Army Civil Authority narrowly interprets 1943 British Mandate plans to summarily dismiss requests for building permits - but, simultaneously, it designates much of our land as "State Land," which is then made available for illegal Israeli settlements. So, while Israeli settlers form building committees and design master plans to meet their needs, our homes and schools are under demolition orders placed by the Israeli Army. Their demolition bulldozers will come at any time, now or years from now, without notice.
Seventeen embassies, UN agencies, and non-governmental organizations have invested in Al Aqaba since we built our kindergarten - and we are asking all of them to press the Israeli government to accept our village master plan so we can issue retroactive building permits. On my trip to the US, I've met with the US State Department and with senior staff members for Senators and Representatives. The State Department has expressed support, and it helps when Senators and Representatives call them to say they care about Al Aqaba. In turn, Congressional staffers will help - but they need to hear from as many constituents as possible so that when they call the Israeli Embassy, they can say that 1000, 3000, or 5000 people in their district care about peace and care about Al Aqaba.
I want my village to have the right to issue valid building permits
to secure the future of Al Aqaba. With this right, a glaring oversight
of the Oslo Accords will be overturned, showing our villagers
and the world that peace and justice are achievable through peaceful
means. America, as friends of Israel, you are the ones who can
best press for change. I hope you will urge your elected representatives
to act for peace and care about Al Aqaba.