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Ramiya: Invisible in the Galillee

February 24, 2014

Edited version originally published on Middle East Monitor

Interview with Salah Swaid

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An historic burial ground containing generations of the Swaid clan surrounded by suburban villas and a road connecting the neighborhood named after celebrated assassinated Israeli army general turned “peacenik” Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin which began construction in 1991 on the lands and dwelling of the Palestinian village Ramiya, positioned in the valley which separates the Upper and Lower Galilee between the Palestinian towns of Ba’ne and Sha’ab.

There used to be a water well here but they’ve destroyed it too” tells me Salah Swaid or Abu Nazih as many refer to him, 49 year old construction worker and father of 6 who’s been organizing much of the legal and popular struggle initiatives against the displacement of the unrecognized Palestinian-Bedouin village Ramiya by the ever expanding Jewish city of Karmiel. “We have documents pertaining all of this territory as belonging to Ramiya in the Tabu[1]”, Indeed Ramiya is registered in both Ottoman and Israeli records as a village with a name and defined borders.

Karmiel, the city which now surrounds it, was founded in 1964 as part of David Ben Gurion’s plan to “Judaize The Galilee”. In the 1950s Israel’s first prime minister toured the northern part of his newly founded state extensively and was very troubled by seeing Palestinian life carry on post-Nakba largely without the presence of Jewish colonies, he remarked that it felt distressingly like traveling through an Arab country.

Karmiel was first constructed as a settlement, to use the term which describes it in its own founding charter, on largely agricultural lands confiscated by the State of Israel from the Palestinian villages of Ba’ne, Deir Al Assad, Nahef, and Majd Al Krum for “Public’s purposes”.

they’ve confiscated the lands for public’s purposes even though there was already a public living on these lands because they don’t recognize the Arab public as a public as a population they only recognize in the Jewish public” reminds me Abu Nazih as it is indeed the unwritten law in the State of Israel with which the term “Public’s Purposes” has been used repeatedly inside what is internationally referred to as “Israel Proper” to drive the native Palestinian population off of their lands and livelihood in order to replace it with an immigrant-settler Jewish population.

 

My daughter asks me ‘the homes over there they are watching TV why can’t we turn the TV on?’”

 

The Story of Ramiya is a story of continual land theft and home demolition. No other town’s or village’s battle with land confiscation by the settlement of Karmiel is as extreme as Ramiya’s. Karmiel, along with Natzeret Illit otherwise known as “Upper Nazareth” are the flagship projects of the State of Israel’s “Judaization of the Galilee” plan.

The struggle of Ramiya is much more comparable to the struggle of other unrecognized Palestinian villages in the Naqab, the Jordan Valley and South Hebron Hills than to any other struggle of neighboring Palestinian towns and villages in the entirety of the Galilee against Israeli land confiscation.

Ramiya was a home to 1000 with its territory stretching 98 acres when today a mere 160 persons remain on land stretching only 10 acres, all of which has been confiscated during the biggest land-grab in Israel’s history since 1948, a day which has been commemorated as Land Day on March 30th 1976. Even the area on which 45 families remain to this day is considered JNF property according to Israeli law and the village is not recognized and remains without connection to electric or water grid. Karmiel’s police officers make periodic visits to deliver evacuation orders as none of the homes have any addresses on them. The city of Karmiel also contains no school or a kindergarten in the Arabic language and all of the children ride a bus to nearby villages for their education.

Today we get water from a dirty pipe, half of the people are sick because of this faulty pipe it’s not up to any legal standard but what can you do, the people have to drink

Are they billing you for this water?

We put a dial on the hose, you have no choice, the city will not let you take water without a dial” referring to the device which counts the amount of water that comes through this pipe which the villagers have to pay for at the end of every month.

My daughter asks me ‘the homes over there (pointing to their Jewish neighbors blasting stereos and TV noise out of their homes) they are watching TV why don’t we have the TV on? Their place is all lit up why don’t we have light like them?’ what can I tell her?” interjects Abu Nazih’s friend and Ramiya dweller Kheir Swaid.

Electricity we get with the generators, but let me tell you about these generators, a man works 2 full days to be able to buy the Diesel which will light up his house for a few hours” explains Abu Nazih.

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Ramiya on the left, Rabin neighborhood on the right

A number of months ago City inspectors arrived in Ramiya with a warning to not work the generators past 11pm as some of their Jewish neighbors in the surrounding neighborhood of Rabin have been complaining about the noise.

 

The Scream of the Invisible

 

Ramiya’s legal and popular battle with the city of Karmiel came to the fore in mid-2013 when Israel’s best and brightest thugs. The Special Patrol Unit otherwise, known as “Yasam”, broke into the village early in the morning, attacking residents and demolishing several steel shacks which most of Ramiya’s residents live in, threatening to crack more skulls if the villagers wouldn’t evacuate the entirety of Ramiya and promised returned “visits” otherwise. They’ve left with their loot which included several adult men and an elderly woman all trying to protect their homes.

The struggle for Ramiya has restarted that very day, for the first time in 20 years. Such shenanigans from Karmiel’s municipality were not seen here in over 20 years when construction began on the Jewish-only neighborhood of Rabin on the collective head of every Ramiya resident in 1991, demolishing the greatest bulk of homes, tents and steel shacks the villagers call homes.

most have had to flee, they now live in nearby towns of Ba’ne and Deir Al Assad, but a core few hanged on with endurance, they want to continue their life” Abu Nazih alluding to the 50 families which have remained in the village after the first sweeps of home demolitions and displacements by the municipality of Karmiel.

The struggle on the street began in conjuncture with the legal battle in 1991 culminating in a central Land Day march which took place in 1993 where over 2000 Palestinians were in attendance from all over the territory occupied by Israel in 1948. Following that over 5000 have marched against the demolition of Ramiya in a special protest organized by The High Follow-Up Committee[2] in 1995. The march went from Majd Al Krum to Ba’ne to Nahef and through Karmiel concluding in Ramiya.

The Legal struggle is a long one, they submit one unjust deal after another and we refuse it and sometimes they would send an order to us and we would refuse to follow it. We know that the right is on our side here and we wouldn’t forgo our right even though the courts are crooked. For us there’s no justice in the courts. These courthouses are not courthouses they are racism they are houses of racism they give backing to racism in Israel. It’s not justice, it’s not democracy.”

1995 also saw the first glimmer of hope for the people of Ramiya from its nearly 5 year legal battle in the Israeli courts against the Jewish National Fund, one of the State of Israel’s most important devices in executing Zionist ideology on the ground.

The High Court has decided to strike a deal with a number of Ramiya’s families in making them forgo claims to their current lands in favor 30 building plots to be given to them by the JNF inside the municipal territory of Karmiel with added farmland plots outside of the city, as the great majority of the residents’ economy was agricultural.

The deal was negotiated with the hearty recommendation from The High Follow-Up Committee For Arab Citizens of Israel. “They didn’t have contact with us following the agreement, as far as they were concerned our issue was resolved.”

 

Divide and Conquer

 

The JNF was not quick to begin committing its part of the deal and instead instructed its lawyers to begin a campaign of assembling signatures of evacuation from family elders imploring them to sign their family’s respective lands away and resettlement. The very first 3 families which JNF lawyers have signed with were incidentally owners of the biggest land plots in Ramiya.

In favor of this beside-the-court agreement the 3 families were handed 29 building plots ceded to them by the JNF while the remaining families were left empty handed, waiting for what was promised to them for 8 more years when in 2003 the building plots were finally made ready, but now they were only 29 plots and they were all registered as belonging to 3 families. when contacted for breach of contract JNF’s reply was that 29 was all that they were getting and if they had desired to build on those plots they now had to speak to the registered owners of these plots and JNF is the wrong address since those plots were signed off to 3 other families from Ramiya.

Hoping to instill divide and conquer strategy on the people of Ramiya JNF’s legal departments’ aims were partially impeded when some families united and filed for breach of contract with the Magistrate Court. The decision of the Magistrate Court came no later than November 24, 2009 implicating the JNF in breach of contract imploring them to add the full 30 plots inside the municipality of Karmiel.

By the time however almost 15 years have passed and the generation of schoolchildren now became parents increasing the amount dwelling space needed. Since the agreement of 1995 has been delayed for a decade and a half today it appears an implausible solution to the living demands of the new generation of Ramiya.

For me that agreement doesn’t exist anymore it isn’t applicable for the public anymore it isn’t applicable for any resident anymore.”

Despite the ruling imploring them to commit to the 1995 agreement 4 more years dragged on with no movement from the JNF until another court decision in a case involving 2 families from Ramiya who’ve filed a separate suit against JNF for their dwelling crisis.

On August 5, 2013 the judge in the latter case ruled against the two families imploring them to evacuate their lands and gladly capitulated to JNF’s demands in a ruling which states that all the families of Ramiya must sign their evacuation orders. Of any resident who wouldn’t sign the evacuation order within 90 days will then be considered as giving up his or her rights to the lands voluntarily and will be evacuated by force.

The residents, now collectively united due to this draconian court ruling, have filed an appeal which has not been heard in court yet. Despite that the judge refused to grant suspension for the evacuation order until the appeal was heard.

The people need to have a roof to live under there’s no other solution, there needs to be an agreement because the people cannot live without a roof they aren’t animals, the state needs to grab JNF and tell them ‘this is not right’ if it wasn’t a racist state. But this state is a state of discrimination a disrespectful state, a state with utterly no shame at all. that’s my opinion.”

 

Rightist Public

 

2013 was tumultuous year for Karmiel as it was the year of the municipal elections where incumbent mayor Adi Eldar, who’s remained unseated in the mayoral office for the past 24 years, faced off ideologically and factionally splintered opposition for another seemingly easy road to victory.

The majority of the opposition to the incumbent mayor, who became allied to Avigdor Lieberman’s rightist party Yisrael Beiteinu since the last municipal election, came largely from the right with a noted exception being one small party called Rainbow For Social Justice which was represented by the old and rusted Zionist and post-Zionist left in Karmiel.

But this time their number 2 on the list was a native of Ramiya, Kheir Swaid, a big burly and jolly taxi driver who lives in a 10 by 5 meter steel shack that has a drape in place of a door with his wife and daughters. He implores me for boycotting this municipal election “Rainbow is not perfect but it’s the only vehicle we’ve had to bring our hardship to the public’s eye”…”You see me I’m not a politician this is a foreign field for me completely but the other people from the village asked for me to step up and so I did. We had a big failing in the last election so this time we decided to add Meretz[3] to the list.”

When asked about the ties of the Rainbow party to Ramiya Abu Nazih explains: “Ramiya’s struggle and the Karmiel Rainbow party are two different things, Rainbow is the left, they ran for city council and they’ve contacted us. They’ve had supporters but it had nothing to do with Ramiya. Right they’ve had a representative from Ramiya in their second sit but this is one thing and that’s another”

Throughout the years you’ve been attempting to address the Jewish public of Karmiel?

Of course, we’ve addressed the Jewish public from the very beginning. The pubic in Karmiel is a rightist public and there is a public which these matters don’t interest them, doesn’t interest them what happens, their interests are like someone staying in a hotel, eat, drink, sleep and goodbye, the crisis in Ramiya doesn’t matter to them.”

In what ways did you address the Jewish public?

All of our flyers were in Hebrew, we went door to door, I’ve personally disseminated over 10,000 flyers for 10,000 homes in Karmiel, we’ve  ran from one home to another, from one neighborhood to another but what can I do most of the population is very rightist and the mayor is a rightist and a liar. He’s not content only with living on the lands of Ramiya, his house is 50 meters from here on my land. how do you want me to be? It’s a cancer he implanted a cancer in this place.”

Rainbow for Social Justice failed to grab a sit on the city council with only 650 votes out of a population of over 45,000. The core of its voters were Arab Palestinian residents of Karmiel which make up about 10% of the city’s population.

No actually This was a big achievement,” Abu Nazih adds ” they were only 100 votes away from a sit at the city council. The last election the party’s name was Karmiel for All, it got only 200 votes but it was a party of real cooperation between Jews and Arabs, it didn’t have Meretz”.

 

The Last Stand of the Invisible

 

The first order of business was organizing a big demo to announce the return of the popular struggle in Ramiya for the first time since 1995: “we’ve sent an invitation to the Follow-Up Committee, please oh sheikh oh representative come, everyone come in you’re welcome to join us and play the field, help us with what you can, you can kick with the lefty? Then kick with the lefty if you’re a righty? then kick with the right.”

The plans came to head with the first national rally for Ramiya in more than a decade on December 19, 2013. The rally took place in the center of Ramiya village surrounded by the Israeli neighborhood of Rabin with attendance of representatives from all Palestinian political parties and NGOs from the territory occupied by Israel in 1948 as well as grassroots Palestinian activists and mayors of Palestinian towns in 48.

There was as well a small bulk of left wing Israelis who’ve threatened to stage a dramatic walk-out unless all the speeches were translated into Hebrew.

Following the day of a rally a protest sit-in tent was opened for the public: “The purpose of the tent is for activity, its duty is that of a guarding post, there should always be people in the tent as they(Municipality) send the evacuation orders they know there are people here, that if they come to evacuate us then there’s going to be a war here, there are going to be clashes in the Galilee, in Karmiel too of course, there will be rioting between the two peoples, I don’t think this government needs this kind of crisis at all.”

Today activities continue to be held in the protest tent almost every day and special events planned for Fridays; Cultural and political events for children, as they are the majority population of Ramiya today, and for adults.

An open Palestinian grassroots group named Friends of Ramiya has been formed and holds frequent meetings in the tent to be updated on the situation of Ramiya and planning of weekly events and bi-weekly demonstrations which take place in various locations in Karmiel outside Ramiya.

Today it’s not like in the past, history has changed, mentality has changed. Today I’m sitting on this chair and tomorrow I’ll be in the ground and someone else will be in my place they don’t understand it”…”they keep calling our lawyers threatening that if we won’t sign the evacuation orders then that would mean voluntarily giving up of our rights but the people they have nothing to lose anymore. I don’t deserve this and I won’t go to the courthouse and they can do whatever they want. If they want to come and demolish then come and demolish. Do they want to come and kill us? Come and kill us, end of story. A person who’s lost everything what more does he have to lose? Hear me I don’t want to speak harsher words. The desperation has reached such heights it’s indescribable the people won’t give up. I think that the JNF is in trouble.”

                                                             

 

 

[1] Tabu refers to Israeli Land Registry which takes its name from the Ottoman Land Registry

[2] A national committee that is represented by all Palestinian political parties and mainstream NGOs to deal with matters pertaining to Palestinians who live in the territory occupied by Israel in 1948.

[3] Meretz a left-Zionist political party in the Israeli knesset

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