E-1/Bab ash-Shams: What Happened, What it Means, What Next

Last week, a group of Palestinians launched a well-planned, well thought-out, non-violent protest in the area known to the world as E-1, with the establishment of a tent encampment at a site dubbed Bab Ash-Shams.  As was widely reported in the Israeli and international media, the Israeli government responded rapidly and vigorously, evicting the protesters and declaring the area a closed military zone.

The Basic Facts

The status of the site:  The protest took place on land the Palestinians claim was privately owned.  This claim cannot be confirmed without a surveyor, but on its face it is reasonable, and according to an investigation by Haaretz, the land is indeed private.. Construction of the E-1 settlement is planned on the 12.5 sq. kilometers of the area that was declared, in a highly problematic procedure, as State Lands – based on the argument that these are lands where no specific owner could make a rigorous claim to title (a very common occurrence, since these lands were owned/occupied by recently sedentary Bedouin tribes who were resettled in the area, by Israel, following the 1967 war). However, there are pockets of land within the E-1 area and on its perimeter whose owners succeeded in meeting the Israeli-imposed standards of ownership.  These are, indeed, Israeli-recognized privately-owned lands.  It appears that the Palestinian demonstration took place, at least in part, on such a site. That said, the question of the status of the land is only of cardinal importance if one adopts the assumptions that “State Land” is Israeli Land, to which Palestinians have no claim (for an excellent discussion of this issue, see this article by Aeyal Gross in Haaretz).

The court injunction:  The Palestinians received an Israeli court injunction, in advance, preventing the evacuation of their protest.   Specifically, the Court granted a temporary injunction forbidding “the evacuation and/or the demolition of the tents erected on the lands of A Tur, east of A Zayyem, unless there will be an acute security need. The respondents will respond to the motion for an interim injunction within 6 days.”  The inclusion of the “an acute security,” terminology provided the Netanyahu government a thin pretext for taking action against the protest – one they took full advantage of.

The security question:  The tents were set up in an isolated desert area, so even if the status of the land was in question, no credible argument could be made that the tents and protesters represented a threat to security or public order.  No roads were obstructed or interfered with by the protest, it was not adjacent to any built-up area, Israeli or Palestinian, it posed no nuisance, and the gathering at the site posed no risk to settlers or Israel.

The Israeli government response:  It appears that Netanyahu government made two claims as a basis for taking action against this Palestinian protest.  First, it claimed that while the injunction prevents the dismantling of the tents, it didn’t apply to the evacuation of the protesters.  Second, the Netanyahu government asserted that there was an acute security threat, and a threat to public safety.  It has been hinted that one way the State Attorney justified the latter assertion was by citing the threat made by Israeli right-wing extremists to challenge the Palestinians.  It has also been reported that the State gave the court a sealed secret “opinion” to back up its security argument.

Did the IDF violate the Court’s order?  While it can be argued that the IDF did not violate the letter of the Court injunction, it certainly violated the spirit of the injunction – and used extremely problematic reasoning to justify its actions. The notion that a few hundred non-violent protesters with 20 tents in an isolated desert area pose a security threat doesn’t pass the laugh test.  If, indeed, the State Attorney cited the Israeli right-wing extremists threat as an argument for taking this position, this is yet another example of Israeli authorities allowing those threatening illegal actions (the Israeli extremists) are granted veto power over those acting within the law (the Palestinians).  This is something that has been seen in the past in the context of blocking access by pro-peace organizations to Hebron, among other things.

The Message of the E-1/Bab ash-Shams Eviction

The Netanyahu government’s eviction of protesters from the Bab Ash-Shams protest site was technically legal under Israel law (with the term “legal” defined by Israel law, rather than any other objective standard). It was also, by all substantive and objective measures, outrageous, putting some ugly truths on stark display for the entire world to see:

(a)    “Security” is a political issue:  The current Israeli government’s definition of a “security threat” is not confined solely or even most prominently to threats to Israeli lives or Israeli borders; it extends to any Palestinian action, however benign and non-violent, that threatens the current government’s ideological vision for the West Bank and East Jerusalem.  This was evident in the Netanyahu government’s response to the Palestinian non-violent, pro-two-state solution approach to the UN, and it is equally evident in this government’s self-righteous response to the Palestinian protest in E-1.

(b)    Basic rights don’t exist under occupation:  Palestinians living under occupation do not enjoy the rights of free speech and or non-violent protest/demonstration.  This is in contrast to the rights enjoyed by Israeli protesters in Tel Aviv, or Israeli extremists setting up illegal outposts on hilltops across the West Bank.  For those constantly asking “where is the Palestinian Gandhi?” the Israeli response at E-1, along with its harsh response to unarmed Palestinian protests in Bil’in, Nilin, Nabi Saleh, etc, provide a clear answer.

(c)    Not all “outposts” are equal, not all Court orders equally compelling:  The Israeli government’s rapid action to evict Palestinian protesters from Bab ash-Shams stands in stark contrast to its unwillingness to remove illegal outposts erected by Israeli settlers.  Even when there are clear orders from Israel courts to evacuate these Israeli outposts, successive Israeli governments have engaged in outrageous foot-dragging tactics – tactics that appear to be geared to allowing settlers to dig in at the sites.  The Netanyahu government has, in this regard, gone even further than previous governments, in adopting an official policy aimed at “legalizing,” through any means possible, the illegal outposts.  Removals of illegal settler outposts has occurred only after Israeli courts have cornered the Israeli government and deprived them of all other options, and have been offset by compensatory “gifts” to the settlers in the form of new settlement approvals.

(d)    Palestinian non-violent protest, and any other Palestinian initiative, will be crushed:   Netanyahu’s message to the Palestinians, encapsulated by the response at E-1/Bab Ash-Shams, has been clear and consistent:  you have no option but to give in and give up.  He has made clear that negotiations offer no political horizon for Palestinians to achieve the goal of their own state, and will be used only to further discredit and humiliate their leaders. Efforts to achieve gains through non-violent diplomatic moves, like going to the UN, will be framed as diplomatic terrorism. Non-violent protest, even protest legal under Israeli law, will be crushed – and framed in terms that make clear to the world that this is just a new form of unarmed terrorism.   And violent protest – which Israel appears to be deliberately pushing Palestinians toward – is terrorism that, too, will be crushed, and will be exploited to make the case that the issue is not Israeli actions and policies, but that the Palestinians do not want peace and hunger to kill Jews.

(e)    Israel contiguity counts; Palestinian contiguity doesn’t:  Following the announcement late last year that the Netanyahu government was expediting approval E-1, settlement supporters and apologists launched a spin offensive, insisting that the construction of E-1 is compatible is contiguous Palestinian state. That spin offensive, targeting both the media and government officials, was intended to counteract analysis – including from Terrestrial Jerusalem – that construction of E-1 will effectively dismember the West Bank and prevent the emergence of a viable, contiguous Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem.  That spin offensive was dealt an unintentional blow in the context of the E-1/Bab Ash-Shams protest, when Prime Minister Netanyahu explained the government’s harsh reaction to the Palestinian protest by stating: “We will not allow anyone to harm the contiguity between Jerusalem and Maale Adumim.”  With this statement, the world now witnesses the spectacle of Netanyahu and those behind the E-1 spin offensive insisting that 3500 permanent settler units and 12,000 new settlers do not however harm the contiguity of a future Palestinian State, while at the same time arguing, in an indignant tone, that 20 tents and 200 Palestinians unacceptably “harm” contiguity between Jerusalem and Maaleh Adumim.

What Next from Netanyahu?

The events in E-1/Bab ash-Shams were clearly welcomed by Netanyahu as an election prop.  He succeeded in portraying a small group of non-violent Palestinians protesters into a surrogate for Iran, and in doing so doubling down on his claim to be the protector of Israel’s security against great enemies out to destroy it.

We are now in the final week counting down to Israeli elections.  In the past, Netanyahu has initiated a Jerusalem event in the days before an election in order to motivate his base. In 1996, there was a massive “Peres will divide Jerusalem” campaign, which is often cited as having been the decisive factor in Netanyahu’s victory in those close elections. In 1999, behind in the polls, Netanyahu tried to close the Orient House (he was prevented from doing so by a Supreme Court injunction obtained by Danny Seidemann).

It is possible that these latest events in E-1 will satisfy Netanyahu’s appetite for a pre-election Jerusalem event; however, given his history, and given the fact that he is concerned about losing votes to Naftali Bennett on his right, nobody should assume this will be the case. The question is, should he decide to initiate a new Jerusalem provocation before the elections, what are the likely candidates? The most obvious high-profile settlement schemes have already been put in play (see previous reporting from TJ), making it more difficult to guess.  However, we think the following to be most likely:

  • The formal statutory publication in the Israeli press of the two E-1 town plans (E-1 Plan 420/4/7, for 1250 units, and E-1 Plan 420/4/10, for 2146 units), allowing Netanyahu to deflect right-wing rumblings that he is holding up implementation of the plan and to show he is, as he has claimed, serious about building E-1.
  • The announcement of the approval of Givat Hamatos D, for 1100 hotel units.  It is still not clear if the plan was approved by the Regional Committee, but there is reason to believe that it may have done so. (It should be recalled that in January 2013, Netanyahu instructed the Regional Committee to keep quiet about its approval of Mordot Gilo South, for reasons of political expedience.  It is possible the same thing has happened in this case).
  • The publication of tenders for either Ramat Shlomo or Mordot Gilo West.

What next from the Palestinians?

The wide media coverage generated by the E-1/Bab Ash-Shams protest effort seems likely to generate additional, similar efforts.  With the political process at a standstill and with the Netanyahu government opening the floodgates on settlement expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, such activism could draw welcome attention to the plight of Palestinians and the Kafka-esque rules that govern their lives.  At the same time, the Israeli government’s rapid and decisive response to the E-1/Bab Ash-Shams reinforces its message of zero tolerance for Palestinian non-violent protest in the West Bank, and doubly so when that protest runs up against right-wing expansionist plans.  If the experience of Bil’in, Nilin, Nebi Saleh, and elsewhere tell us anything, it is that Israel has no good response to Palestinian non-violent protest, and, as a result, is left with only bad responses – responses that over time will likely become more violent.