NEW YORK - Human Rights Watch, a prominent watchdog body, has asked Israeli military to drop a project in occupied West Bank’s Palestinian village to turn into an archaeological tourist site, saying the move is severely harming the resident’s livelihoods.
In a statement, HRW also called for lifting excessive restrictions that keep the Palestinian villagers 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 told Human Rights Watch. 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, HRW said.
“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, HRW said 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, HRW said. Under international law, those are the only reasons they can forcibly - if temporarily - transfer inhabitants of an occupied territory from their homes.
Reuters adds: Israel’s Jerusalem municipality approved building plans on Wednesday for 558 new homes in the occupied West Bank, land that the Palestinians want for a future state.
A municipality spokeswoman said the local planning committee had approved requests by private contractors for the construction work in the settlements of Har Homa, Neve Yaakov and Pisgat Zeev.
The three settlements are in a part of the West Bank that Israel annexed to Jerusalem, in a move that has not been recognised internationally, after capturing the territory in the 1967 Middle East war.
The Palestinians have said that expansion of Israeli settlements, which most countries deem illegal, could derail US-sponsored peace talks which resumed in July after a three-year break.
The municipality spokeswoman said that the initial plans for the new dwellings had been approved years ago.
The Palestinians are seeking a state in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Israel pulled its troops and settlers out of the Gaza Strip in 2005, and the enclave is now run by Hamas Islamists opposed to the present peace drive.
Har Homa and Pisgat Zeev are in one of the areas in the West Bank that Israel says it intends to keep in any future land-for-peace deal with the Palestinians.
Three weeks ago, Israel published tenders for 1,400 new homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Anti-settlement watchdog Peace Now said at that time that Israel had announced plans for 5,349 new homes in those two areas since the peace talks restarted.