[This is partially a rewriting of a report of Al Aqaba and partially my own work taken from my recent interview with Haj Sami. More personal stories will follow.]
Al Aqaba used to be one of many villages comprised mostly of tents (and sometimes a few small buildings) in the Jordan Valley. Before the occupation, it was home to hundreds of people, most of whom were either farmers or shepherds. Although a relatively new village (only 100 years old), the people living there legally purchased their land. After the occupation, the inhabitants of Al Aqaba suddenly found themselves in Zone C—the zone that was supposed to remain only two years under military control. The Israeli government makes a habit of not recognizing small villages as legitimate (regardless of who paid for the land) and in 1970 they were annexed as part of the military closed zone and prevented from building on their lands. Soon after, three camps for military training were erected, with one right at the entrance of the village.
Until 2003, the military camps were the primary problem for the locals here, particularly because the army used live rounds, grenades, and bombs near (and sometimes in) the village and nearby farmlands. These live rounds “accidentally” caused over 50 casualties, affecting men, women, and children of all ages. This military training also caused extreme damage to the natural environment: the soldiers routinely set fire to the fields the village used to feed themselves and their livestock. Haj Sami, the mayor of Al Aqaba, was recently telling me that the army has actually “captured” residents’ sheep, putting them in corrals at the checkpoints and detention centers. He had to petition to get them back. (I’m sure the sheep are a huge threat to Israeli security.) Hundreds of others have been killed indiscriminately. (I think it’s rather self-evident that livestock is the primary income of many of the people around here and the loss of even one sheep or goat can cause financial duress to a family).
In 2003, the village won a landmark victory when the Israeli High Court ruled that the army camp at the entrance of the village had to relocate. By that time, over 70% of the village’s original 1000 residents had left. With hopes that these former residents could return, the Village Council appealed to international organizations to help them create a place that could thrive, regardless of the occupation. Over the years, the leadership of Al Aqaba managed to successfully petition the Israeli Court of Justice to stop a number of the harassments, preventing tanks from entering the village, raids on the individuals’ houses, and stopping the use of live ammunition within the village proper, yet the Israeli government continues to deny the right of the villagers to build on their own land (similar to what’s happening in East Jerusalem). Demolition orders are continually served to all post-occupation structures in the village, and the fields where the people graze their livestock and/or grow their crops are still being destroyed through training maneuvers. By denying them the right to build on their land, the Israeli government is continuing a forced displacement of the majority of the residents of the village.
The Village Takes A Stand
In defiance of orders not to build, and with a strong intention of preventing their village from simply “disappearing,” the village council decided that they would develop their land, army or not. Now, thanks to their hard work and international support, there now exists at Al Aqaba a school, a library, a women’s health center, a cheese factory, a sewing cooperative, a tea factory, a guesthouse, and a mosque that serves the entire region. They’ve also managed to pave many of their streets and provide most of the residents with electricity and even internet. Of course, each of these buildings have been served demolitions orders from the army (some of which have been carried out), and the army continues to train up to within a kilometer of the village proper (with live rounds). They are also being prevented from hooking up to the water lines nearby Tubas, and instead must truck in all of their water (most of the natural water sources in the West Bank are controlled by the Israelis).
Despite all of this, building continues and the residents of Al Aqaba, with the help of their mayor Haj Sami, continue to try to live as normal a life as possible. They’ve diversified their incomes by making cheese and teas and through their sewing cooperative. They’ve built a number of homes for villagers to return to. They also have a successful kindergarten and mixed K-8 school.
Visiting Al Aqaba is a joy. They welcome visitors of all nationalities and religions and the place is quite peaceful (when the Israeli army is not training). If you’d like to see one of the many forms of non-violent resistance in the West Bank, would like to meet some excellent and innovative people, or would simply like to visit the beautiful Jordan Valley, the guest house is always open. And again, visitors of all backgrounds, nationalities and faiths are invited to stay and meet with the people of this Jordan Valley community so they can share their story with the world and secure their future.
More information (and directions to the guest house) can be found at http://alaqabaguesthouse.wordpress.com/
More information on the situation in Al Aqaba can be found at http://rebuildingalliance.org/4879-2/