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Guns ’n Roses

This is for you . . . Israeli police distributing red roses to drivers at the lights of Kfar Kara. Photo: Rauf Abu Fani

Police hand out flowers to Arab drivers

Just one week after battling Israeli Arab protesters blocking one of northern Israel's most trafficked highways, Israeli police were at the same spot distributing flowers to local Arab drivers and wishing them well for the up-and-coming Ramadan holiday.

On my daily journey along Route 65 (Wadi Ara-Nachal Iron highway) nothing could have been more incongruous at seven in the morning than to see Israeli policemen, bulky pistols strapped to their sides, schlepping enormous bunches of flowers out of their vehicles and handing them out to Arab drivers at the Kfar Kara traffic lights.

Two police cars and one large police motorbike, although stationary and parked on either side of the traffic lights, had their blue lights blinking on and off as the officers distributed a long stemmed red rose to each and every driver exiting the 14,000 resident Israeli Arab Muslim village.

In my 45 years in Israel I have never seen Israeli policemen distribute flowers to anybody, and I almost twisted my head off my shoulders looking back to make sure I had not imagined this scene - policemen clutching large bunches of red roses and giving them out with beaming smiles and friendly pats on the shoulder to astounded Wadi Ara locals.

So much has happened in the last few months within a few square kilometers of this very spot. Most days I am out and about with groups from abroad explaining the sights and sounds of Wadi Ara and the Dotan Valley and it is difficult to keep up with changing events – unfortunately not too many of them as positive as policemen handing out blooms at the traffic lights.

Recently, another of the local villages (Umm al-Kutuf), became a victim of the tire slashing, vehicle burning and graffiti-spraying venomous 'Price Tag' terrorists – the only word in my law-abiding book that can describe those who carry out such acts. This is not vandalism, but terrorism.

Umm al-Kutuf sits on top of two small adjoining hills overlooking Wadi Ara on one side and deep into the West Bank on the other, with other Arab villages, the Green Line and the security fence close by

Sneaking in during the night, the Price Tag merchants of hate burned a number of cars and a minibus parked close to each other. The minibus was the same vehicle in which, a short time earlier I had spent the day traveling in the Galilee and Golan Heights, guiding a group of Jewish and non-Jewish students from overseas who were studying Arabic and Middle East studies at the nearby educational center of Givat Haviva.

Tariq Kabaha was our driver on that day. Tariq was the permanent driver of the vehicle, and for this reason it was parked outside his Umm al Kutuf home. Upset as he was, Tariq was also grateful that he did not lose his livelihood as within a few days his employer provided another vehicle. Nothing, however, can replace the shock and horror faced by Tariq, his family and neighbors who might well have also lost their lives. What price tag would there have been had human life been lost that night?

Police did not come with red roses to Umm al-Kutuf, but many Jewish Israelis living or working in the vicinity did. Staff of the Givat Haviva Jewish-Arab Center for Peace came armed with olive tree saplings that they planted together in the scorched and ash-covered earth where the vehicles had been torched, symbolically showing a collective finger to the cowardly perpetrators who sneak around at night with petrol and spray-paint cans and boxes of matches.

That incident did not spark demonstrations on the main road. That was brought about by the demolition of a three-storey house sitting on a major junction on the other side of the road and a few hundred feet from the entrance to Kfar Kara. Said Abu Sharkiya built the house in 1963 on family-owned land. The house, like hundreds more in the Wadi Ara region, was built without a building license, something almost impossible for the local folk to attain. In recent years the corner where the Abu Sharkiya abode stood was slated for the development of an interchange which is necessary due to the excessively heavy traffic leading off and onto Route 65.

The heavy traffic is the result of the development of the 760-family Jewish community of Katzir on top of the mountain and just over the Green Line from there - a group of four Jewish settlements. Another reason for the huge amount of traffic feeding on and off Route 65 at that point is the part Israeli-part Palestinian village of Barta'a where a massive souk (market) has developed over the last 10 years attracting huge numbers of Israeli shoppers, particularly at weekends, which puts unbelievable pressure on the Wadi Ara highway and byway road system.

The Abu Sharkiya family has been living under the threat of demolition for at least two decades. Abu Sharkiya refused the State offer to demolish the building himself. He even sat in prison a number of times for his refusal. Over the years small demonstrations were organized by the extended family, huge placards strung across the fences and between the trees surrounding the house, but the family exhausted all legal avenues to avoid demolition.

A week ago, in the middle of the night, a large police force surrounded the area as heavy machinery demolished the building. The Abu Sharkiya family, the elderly couple, a son and daughter and a number of grandchildren, were hauled out of bed and given little time to gather any personal items. They sat under the olive trees and watched their home and possessions being destroyed.

A few minutes' walk from the Abu Sharkiya home - these days just a pile of rubble on a hill between the villages of Kfar Kara and Ara, an enormous house had been under construction for 10 years. Beautiful arched windows and doorways, attractive roughly hewn stone and a red tiled roof with towers here and there, made it look like a palace under construction for a local princess.

That building was also under a demolition order, went through the courts and the builder of the unlawful construction also lost the case. Faced with the prospect of it being demolished by the State and having to pay a 100,000 shekel fine, as opposed to self-demolition, the owner decided to knock down the house he never lived in.

Building without permission is a common occurrence in the Arab sector in Israel. Many of those building a home of their own on land for which they have the ownership deeds are professional builders – or relatives in that profession who help out a brother or a cousin who needs to build before he can marry. When not moonlighting, building a home of their own or helping out a close family member build his, they are mostly employed in construction in the Jewish sector.

The Arab population in general, and especially in the Wadi Ara area, is between a rock and an extremely hard place, since, in the 65 years since the State of Israel was founded there has been little to no effort made to address the housing and development needs of the Arab population in the small towns and villages, For that reason many very impressive houses can be seen built in a rather higgledy-piggledy fashion as they have been put up where Arabs still own a parcel of land and it is immaterial if there is a suitable infrastructure or not.

The demolition of the Abu Sharkiya house on the corner was the rip cord of anger and frustration which built up in recent months after a number of other Arab homes in the region were demolished, but they were situated away from the main road and received little attention outside of the Arab sector. The demonstrators last week successfully blocked Route 65 and that got national attention.

The day after the Abu Sharkiya nocturnal demolition I passed by during another of my regional tours. My driver was a young Arab from Kfar Kara.

When I realized that the house had been demolished, and coming abreast of the rubble with hundreds of people milling around the remains, I asked the young driver what he thought of it all.

"I have very mixed feelings," he said to my surprise as the traffic lights changed and we turned to the left on the main road. 

Tariq Kabaha and burned out minibus at Umm ak-Kutuf.   Photo: Lydia Aisenberg

"You see that over there?" he asked, pointing to a gigantic orange and white antenna on the other side of the road – about 50 meters from the former Abu Sharkiya home and opposite a petrol station, the popular Aroma coffee bar and small supermarket at the entrance to Kfar Kara. "Well, that land is also owned by Abu Sharkiya and he allowed a mobile phone company to erect that cancer-causing antenna over our heads for $600 a month – so who knows, maybe he got what he deserved," he said with a grimace.

Nothing is black or white at the Kfar Kara junction these days. An announcement has been made of a planned further demonstration at the Abu Sharkiya corner pile of rubble next week, and I doubt either side will be coming armed with red roses or olive tree saplings. 

 

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Friday, 26 February 2021

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