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Har Adar is over the green line, but its residents don't like to be called settlers

by Uri Blau           15 March 2013   Haaretz

In this quiet and affluent neighborhood, harsh treatment of Palestinian labor is strictly enforced

Palestinian workers leaving Har Adar at the end of a work day. Photo by Emil Salman

Life beyond the Green Line offers plenty of bizarre situations, but it’s hard to compete with the surreal scene that has been going on for years behind the fence that surrounds the settlement of Har Adar, located outside Jerusalem. A few dozen meters from the community’s westernmost houses, the home of the 18 members of the Palestinian Fakya family sits all alone. The house, built in the early 1970s, is officially part of the nearby Palestinian village of Katana. In effect, it is about two kilometers from the village center, but right next to Har Adar. The separation fence built in the area in the middle of the last decade cut the house off from the village, so now the house is trapped between that fence and the barrier surrounding the Jewish community.

At 6:30 A.M. on a recent Wednesday morning, five members of the family are standing in the bitter cold and trying to get their mule, which for some reason was wandering around freely, back where it belongs so they can head to school. The eldest son is worried about being late for class. The minutes pass and at 6:45 they finally accomplish their mission and start walking toward the exit from their private prison: a big, ugly cement bridge with an electric gate operated by Israel Defense Forces soldiers by remote control.

When the kids reach the gate they press the intercom button, look into one of the numerous cameras that operate 24 hours a day there, and hope that the anonymous soldiers won’t take their time before opening the gate for them. This morning the gate opens right away. Sometimes, the kids say, they have to wait. This is the private checkpoint of the Fakya family. Whenever they want to go to the village from their home, and back again, they have to pass through it.

When the separation fence was being built, the family house was cut off from the water and electricity supply. They’ve been reconnected since then to the electricity grid, but for eight years, the Fakya family has had no running water. Every two or three weeks, a tractor comes from the village carrying a large black water tank that is placed in the yard. The family members fill buckets with the water to be used for drinking, bathing, washing dishes and other needs. A hot shower is out of the question.

In testimony he gave to B’Tselem − The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories in 2005, Nijam Fakya, the head of the household, said: “We shower once a week. And our water usage has changed too. We used to clean the house every other day. Now we clean it just once every few days − and only sweep the house and clean the dust. You may be shocked if I tell you that we’ve forbidden the men, including me, to use the bathroom − to save water in the toilet, which uses four liters each time you use it ... And I also can often feel the taste of the soap on the dishes because there isn’t enough water to rinse them properly. I wonder if the neighbors who live not far from us suffer from the same problems.”

Years have gone by since then but not much has changed. When we visited, Fakya was sitting in an armchair in the yard, trying to get warm. He pointed out the remnants of an animal pen that he built and that was destroyed a few months ago by inspectors from the Civil Administration. He adds that because of their proximity to Har Adar, the family requested to be connected to the settlement’s water supply, but was turned down.

Aviram Cohen, the council head, confirms this. When asked why he wouldn’t consent to connect Nijam Fakya to the water supply, he replies angrily: “He’s a squatter! He was a soldier in the Jordanian Legion who killed some of our finest young men ... Because of a lack of enforcement by the administration, this guy took over lands that are not his ... He’s more connected to Katana, those haters and enemies of Israel. All criminals. They made him a road with a bridge that cost a few million, NIS 3-4 million, so he can go down and get hooked up to Katana. Let him take water from Katana.”

How did this strange situation arise, and why was the family cut off from its village? Activist Dror Etkes, who has been monitoring Israel’s land administration policies in the West Bank for the past decade, explains: “It’s a policy based on the assumption that if you make life miserable for the 18 family members for long enough, eventually they’ll abandon their house and then the settlement will be able to expand onto their land. This is the reason why the family, despite the fact that it lives something like 10 meters from the fence of the wealthiest settlement, has had no running water for the past eight years. And why the Civil Administration will never permit the family to enlarge its house by so much as one square meter.”

Substantiation for Etkes’ explanation can actually be found in the protocols of a July 2005 Har Adar council meeting. “Apparently, on the Nijam matter, the defense establishment will accept the community’s position and the hill ‏(about 150 dunams‏) will be included within the fence,” said council head Cohen at the time.

The Defense Ministry did not respond when asked why the family’s house was left trapped between the fences, and what Har Adar’s involvement in the decision was. Following another inquiry from Haaretz, ministry representatives provided this response: “In the wake of your request, Defense Ministry representatives visited the house to examine the issue of the connection to the water supply. The homeowner did not present any evidence or any infrastructure that proves that the house was ever connected to the water infrastructure of the village of Katana. At the same time, in light of Mr. Nijam’s request to make possible a water connection from the village of Katana to his home, to be carried out by the Katana village council, the Defense Ministry agreed to allow the laying of the pipe that will cross the route of the security fence in that location. Also, it was agreed that there shall be another meeting with engineers from both sides in order to finalize the technical blueprint.”

Political underpinnings

If there was a dictionary entry for “settlement-lite,” Har Adar would constitute the perfect illustration: There are no checkpoints on the road leading to it, no soldiers roaming around, and the only Arabs one sees on the way are those selling hummus in the nearby village of Abu Ghosh. The drive to the community, founded in 1986 and located 13 kilometers from Jerusalem, is quiet and picturesque. The road curves upward past various buildings and continues amid the woods toward Kibbutz Ma’aleh Hahamisha. The Green Line passes right past the spot where the guard booth at the entry to Har Adar is. Cross that line and you’ve entered the territories.

Har Adar. Residents don’t like to be called 'settlers."

In the early years of its existence, Har Adar was part of the Mateh Binyamin Regional Council, but later became an independent entity. The residents still recall how, before the separation fence was built, it was just a short drive to Ramallah via the Palestinian village of Bidu and its lively market.

Har Adar is now one of the most well-off communities in Israel, with a socioeconomic status similar to that of places like Ramat Hasharon and Kfar Vradim. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, in 2009, the average monthly wage for a salaried employee living there was NIS 12,698. A half-dunam empty lot in Har Adar costs NIS 2 million on average. For a house on such a lot, the price would be double.

There are currently about four thousand residents, among them General ‏(res.‏) Yisrael Ziv and General ‏(res.‏) Danny Rothschild, the head of the Policy and Strategy Institute at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya; former Foreign Ministry legal adviser Alan Baker; Bank Mizrahi-Tefahot CEO Eli Yunis; Deputy State Prosecutor Orit Sonn, and many others.

In Har Adar people don’t like to be called “settlers.” They really don’t feel like settlers, and in fact their voting patterns in the recent Knesset election also attest to this: Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party won the majority of votes here ‏(27.32 percent‏), followed by Labor ‏(19.79 percent‏), Likud-Beiteinu ‏(17.25 percent‏), Meretz ‏(10.47 percent‏) and Hatnuah ‏(9.27 percent‏). The party most closely identified with the settlement movement in Judea and Samaria, Habayit Hayehudi, received just 95 votes here, or 4.74 percent of the total.

One might expect the character of the place to have a moderating influence on relations with the Palestinian neighbors. But here, of all places, one finds economic exploitation of Palestinian workers, strict enforcement of restrictions on their movement, and harsh statements by the council head.

The Bidu checkpoint, at the eastern edge of Har Adar, stirs to life four times a day: at 7 A.M. to let the workers in, and at 2 P.M., 4 P.M. and 5 P.M. to let them out. The rest of the time the place is deserted. Behind the yellow electric gate one sees the road, the separation fence, and right after that, the first houses of Bidu. About 200-250 workers pass through here each day on their way to work in Har Adar. Most work in construction, either for contractors or directly for homeowners. About 15 work for the local council. The latter wear a bright vest for identification, enabling them to work in the streets, unlike the others.

Stray dogs

Around 1 P.M., a 63-year-old Palestinian man is standing next to the checkpoint, a yellow-plastic spray tank by his side. He explains that he is going in to work his farmland, which is relatively close to the fence. He shows me his agricultural entry permit, which is different from the other entry permit he uses for days when he’s working in construction. More and more workers gather around. They have three-month work permits issued for specific workplaces in the settlement. All are men in their thirties or older, family men from nearby villages, dressed in faded work clothes. Some carry work equipment, others bags of clothes or food. Most are dropped off by their employers, who drive up in new cars and then quickly make a U-turn and leave.

All of a sudden, a peculiar scene is revealed. Two Palestinians are walking up the hill, work tools in hand.

“You came here on foot?” I ask one of them.

“We work here close to the checkpoint, there are no houses around, so it’s okay,” he hastens to reassure me.

“If there were houses here we wouldn’t be allowed to walk here,” he clarifies.

So it is in Har Adar, as in the other Jewish communities beyond the Green Line: Palestinian workers are prohibited from walking around inside the settlements ‏(see box‏). The official security guidelines for the community are based upon IDF directives that say, “It is strictly forbidden for workers to walk from one construction site to the other in the community.” They also say: “Workers must remain only in their place of employ. It is the responsibility of the contractor and the homeowner to ascertain this; the workers are to be driven from the Bidu gate to their place of work, and then back at the end of the work day.”

So if the workers just want to go to the grocery store, to move from one site to another or just to go rest in the park during a break, they need a ride. No one denies that the prohibition on workers being able to freely walk around the community is strictly enforced.

What happens if Har Adar security personnel see a Palestinian walking around, I ask the two workers who came from the hill. “They immediately take him to the checkpoint, take away his work permit, and that’s it. He can’t work anymore,” answers one of them.

This answer is repeated by others and also confirmed in a conversation with one of the security personnel who is patrolling the place.

“If they spot me crossing the road here, they’ll throw me out immediately,” says a Palestinian who works as a plasterer, pointing at houses across the way.

The workers seem to accept this situation with resignation. Asked for their reaction, the same answer kept being repeated, with slight variations: What can we do? We have to earn a living.

With workers not permitted to walk freely about the community and their bosses not always available, an internal transportation service has developed, which the workers pay for. So, some of the workers that arrive back at the checkpoint get out of beat-up white pickup trucks that go back and forth around the community, serving as service taxis.

When two workers get out at the checkpoint from a shiny new car, I ask the woman driver, who says they are renovating her house: Don’t you find it a little problematic that they aren’t allowed to walk around here?

“No,” she answers candidly. “The whole situation in the country is a little abnormal, so relatively speaking, it seems okay.”

In fact, all the Har Adar residents I spoke with did not have trouble with this situation. A man who works in the grocery store said that Palestinians who shop there only come with the taxis because of “security reasons.” Others who were asked said that the prohibition was meant to help prevent break-ins.

But the oddest response came from council head Aviram Cohen, who has served in that post for nine years and is expected to run for another term in the election scheduled for October. He is 65, a colonel in the reserves, a fighter pilot who was wounded in the Yom Kippur War and, in addition to his position as council head, is an investor in startup companies. Cohen was elected as an independent but is identified with the Kadima party.

A proposal he made at a July 2005 council meeting may be somewhat indicative of his attitude toward his Palestinian neighbors. He wanted the name of a street in Har Adar called Mevo Hakfar ‏(“Village Alley”‏) to be changed, because “this name has a negative connotation because of its proximity to Katana.” To judge by the most recent map of the community, the proposal did not pass.

In a phone conversation, after he nearly hung up on me for referring to Har Adar as a settlement, Cohen explained that the motives for the prohibition against Palestinians walking around were in fact humanitarian. “It’s not that it’s forbidden for them to move around ... Quite the contrary. The conditions here for walking are very tough. Sometimes they have to go from one end to the other, something like two and a half kilometers, in winter when it’s cold, lugging tools. So I said, ‘We can’t have this, we need to treat them humanely. We can’t have them just running about from one place to the other. Whoever is employing them has to drive them. If they want to go to the grocery store, they should drive them there.’ I personally employ a Palestinian worker who works for me on Fridays in the garden and I get up at 6:30 to pick him up and then later I bring him back, very respectfully, to the gate.”

But these are orders that come from the security coordinator.

Cohen: “It’s both a security directive and a humanitarian one. There’s no reason they should be wandering freely around a community where I have 450 schoolchildren walking around on their own and another 260 in preschool. I don’t want there to be any unfortunate friction as could happen ... Did you know that there’s actually a directive from Central Command that the contractor has to put a security person at the workplace to guard the Palestinian workers? I’m doing this by using comprehensive security within the community ... Believe me, no matter what you may think, there are masses of people who want to work here.”

Later that week, in his office, Cohen explained that from the moment the directives restricting the Palestinians’ movement were adopted, the rash of break-ins in Har Adar was halted: “There were some cases in the past: ‘He looked at me this way,’ ‘He touched that girl’ − what do I need that for? I don’t want there to be friction with Palestinians who are wandering around freely.” Then he immediately adds, “By the way, I also have a problem with stray dogs and I’m dealing with them too. Not that I’m comparing, God forbid.”

Handling fee

The Palestinians who come into Har Adar to work, like those who work in other places in the West Bank, go through a long series of security checks before they are issued an entry permit. The permit, valid for three months, is issued by the state for free. But in Har Adar, things work differently: The community collects NIS 280 for each permit for each worker. Many of the workers say that this sum is deducted from their pay.

In a phone call to the council offices, I inquired about the procedures for bringing a worker in through the Bidu checkpoint. “You need to come here and fill out forms,” said the woman who took my call. “Each worker costs NIS 280 − the permit is good for three months. We need the employer’s ID and he has to come here and fill out forms.”

What is the NIS 280 for?

“That’s a handling fee paid to the council for dealing with the workers.”

It’s a one-time payment?

“No. Every three months.”

That’s not how it works in other places.

“That’s how it is in Har Adar.”

So I’ll take it off the worker’s pay?

“That’s your business. The money has to be paid.”

What ‘handling’ do you do?

“We go to get the permits. The security coordinator drives to Beit El, spends half a day there.”

The Palestinians who work in Har Adar are supposed to receive at least minimum wage. The 15 who work for the council have better conditions and also get social benefits. Others say they earn NIS 120-200 a day. The ones who don’t work for the council say that they end up paying NIS 280 every three months: Sometimes it comes out of their pay and sometimes they work overtime for it. Several locals confirmed that they take this money from the workers. A survey of a number of other settlements where Palestinians are employed found that this fee is unique to Har Adar. With hundreds of workers coming in every day, the handling fee for their permits adds up to quite a nice sum.

Indeed, a look at the Har Adar budget shows that income from “assistance in obtaining various permits from the Civil Administration” came to NIS 270,000 in 2011 and grew to NIS 320,000 in 2012. The council head does not believe the Palestinians who say that they are the ones who pay for the permits that allow them to work in his community. He chooses to illustrate this with a joke about an 80-year-old man who informs a friend that he’s been sleeping with the friend’s wife twice a week. “So he said so,” the friend tells the elderly guy. “Anybody can say anything.”

Why do you collect this fee?

Cohen: “We’re dealing with some very serious budget problems. Granted, residents here aren’t short of money but that has nothing to do with the council’s problems. We have to deal with the central government for budgeting of a balancing grant that we barely got, and we have no other sources of income. We basically found ourselves providing services to the employers of the Palestinian workers, be they residents or contractors. Twice a week somebody from the security department goes to arrange these permits ... With legal consultation, with a legal opinion ... I can charge money for this. A contractor who wants to can go to Beit El himself or he can obtain this service from the council. It’s legal. Whoever doesn’t want to use this service doesn’t have to. Right now there are a couple of contractors who choose to do it themselves.”

The excuse of the security coordinator’s precious time may sound good, but the protocols of a March 2011 Har Adar council meeting show that his salary is paid by the Defense Ministry. Cohen himself said at that meeting that “the council pays him a salary based on a budget transferred to the council from the Defense Ministry.”

Toward the end of the meeting with Cohen, I show him a bit that was written by the late playwright Hanoch Levin: “Security Orders for the Occupied Territories: A man walking down the street glancing nervously from side to side − he shall be suspected of being an Arab terrorist. A man walking down the street gazing calmly ahead − he shall be suspected of being a cool-headed Arab terrorist. A man walking down the street and gazing heavenward shall be suspected of being a religious Arab terrorist. A man walking down the street with eyes cast downward shall be suspected of being a timid Arab terrorist. A man walking down the street with eyes closed shall be suspected of being a sleepy Arab terrorist. No man walking down the street − the suspected Arab terrorist is ill. All of the above suspects are to be arrested. In the event of an escape attempt, a warning shot shall be fired in the air. The body shall be transferred to the Forensic Institute.”

For a moment there, Cohen is left speechless.

Permitted and forbidden

The Israel Defense Forces’ directives regarding the entry of Palestinian workers to communities beyond the Green Line say that workers shall not be permitted to walk around the settlements. They also say that workers are supposed to be checked with a metal detector if available, and warn that it is strictly forbidden to humiliate the workers during this inspection. The procedures say there is to be one armed guard for every 10 workers.

In correspondence with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel in 2008, Captain Sivan Omer of the legal adviser’s office for the IDF in Judea and Samaria said: “There are directives regarding the entry of Palestinian workers into Israeli communities. These directives were issued by the IDF and the Border Police for the area surrounding Jerusalem. The directives detail a series of conditions, formulated by security officials, regarding the employment of Palestinian workers in the communities, and these include possession of an identity card, a valid magnetic card and a specific work permit. The rules do say that the presence of an armed security guard is required, that the workers are to remain at the work site, and that the transportation of the workers within the bounds of the community shall be carried out by the employer or his representatives only.

“These directives were designed to reflect a balance between the desire to enable the employment of Palestinian workers in Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria ‏(including workers who would not obtain permission from security officials to work in Israel‏), and the large security risk entailed in the entry of Palestinian residents to Israeli communities and their unsupervised movement within the community.”

An attempt to find out if these directives are still in force today ran into hurdles and a buck-passing. The IDF Spokesman referred the question to the Border Police and to the Jerusalem District Police, who, after looking into it reported back that they have no connection to any such directives or their enforcement; they referred us back to the IDF spokesman, who eventually said: “There is no IDF involvement in directives for security procedures in Har Adar, which is in the Jerusalem district of the Israel Police. As a rule, out of a desire to maintain the security of residents of the settlements in Judea and Samaria, the IDF instructs the security coordinators of the communities about security procedures related to the entry of Palestinians with work permits to their communities. As for the legality of the procedure in question, the military commander has the authority to grant an entry permit to a worker and to set the conditions for issuance of this permit.”

Attorney Tamar Feldman, director of the human rights department at the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, says that such directives are unreasonable, disproportionate and should be annulled: “The security officials are the ones who issue permits to the Palestinian workers in the settlements on the basis of comprehensive security checks that they do. If they’ve decided to issue a permit to a worker, that means they don’t think he presents a security risk, and therefore there is no justification in placing conditions upon and restricting his movements in the area.”

Feldman labels the restrictions “draconian, humiliating and hurtful” and says they carry “a strong whiff of racism and discrimination.”