Turmus Aya’s Palestinians threatened by settlement plan

Around 4000 Palestinians live in fear over recent encroachment from Israeli settlements.

Shilo settlement sits on a hill behind the olive groves of Turmus Aya [Leila Molana-Allen/Al Jazeera]


The Shilo Valley, Occupied West Bank – At the entrance of the Palestinian village Turmus Aya, in the occupied West Bank, a large sign, written in Hebrew, Arabic and English, warns visitors that “this road leads to Palestinian areas [sic]. It is dangerous for Israeli citizens to enter”.

Contrary to the sign’s warning, it is the Palestinian residents of this seemingly tranquil area who are more nervous, specifically about the recent encroachment from the Israeli settlements that surround their village.

Turmus Aya, home to around 4,000 people, lies in the shadow of a string of such settlers’ communities, which are illegal under international law. On a bump in the land directly to the north sits Shilo, a well-developed example, built in 1979 and home to around 3,000 illegal settlers.

An Israeli government sign at the entrance to Turmus Aya warns Israeli citizens not to enter [Leila Molana-Allen/Al Jazeera]

Last week, tensions rose in the area, after the Israeli government confirmed that Shilo and other nearby Israeli communities would be joined by the construction of the first official settlement in the occupied West Bank in nearly 20 years. Geulat Zion will be built on a hilltop east of Shilo, to house around 50 settler families removed from Amona, an unauthorised settlement dismantled after Israel’s Supreme Court ruled it had been built on private Palestinian land.

We feel like we live in a big prison. We are under pressure from Israel here. There are no opportunities in work or education and there is no help. There will be more killing, problems and arrests.

Mohammed, 21, resident of Al-Lubban Asharqiya

The fertile area is known as “Emek Shilo” – Shilo Valley – and is home to dozens of Palestinian villages and towns. “The settlers and the poor economic situation here are the reason why Turmus Aya is empty,” said Rabie, a Chicago-based Palestinian who hails from the village, where many of the elegant villas appear uninhabited. “People are scared of the settlers and the army.”

Now Rabie, who gave only his first name, only visits his Palestinian home for four to six weeks at a time before returning to the United States. “The Israeli army bothers us every day. They come to my house and ask what I’m doing there. ‘What am I doing here? I’m in my house’.”

He said villagers already experienced intimidation from settlers in Shilo, and more moving to the area would make things worse. “The farmers with fields on the edge [of Turmus Aya] don’t want to go to their fields. There is no life here. The occupation tries to take everything away from Palestinians.”

According to the Israeli non-profit organisation Peace Now, Israeli authorities originally proposed the Amona settlers move to a sub-neighbourhood of Shilo, Shvut Rachel East, but they refused.

However, authorities continued to grant permission for the construction of 98 housing units at this site, before agreeing to move the Amona community to neighbouring Geulat Zion.

The Shilo Valley has seen some of the most intense expansion of existing settlements and construction of new outposts in the past 20 years, and more is in evidence. On a visit to the area this week, Al Jazeera saw between 50-100 units under construction on the lower slopes of the existing Shilo settlement on a visit to the area this week.

Human rights monitors believe the area is a key part of plans to split the West Bank into segments horizontally, from the Green Line in the west to the Jordan Valley in the east, cementing Israeli control over the occupied Palestinian Territories.

There is a lot of thought behind this location [of the new Geulat Zion settlement],” Gilad Grossman from the human rights organisation Yesh Din told Al Jazeera. “It’s strategic.”

“There are two settlement policies going on here,” Grossman continued. “There are land grabs that push Palestinians back into their villages, thereby isolating them and limiting their opportunities. And then there is building in strategic blocks that divide the West Bank, which would make the creation of a viable Palestinian state difficult.”

According to Israeli monitoring group B’tselem, there are some 125 Israeli-government sanctioned settlements in the West Bank as a whole, as well as 100 “outposts”, which are built without official approval from Israeli authorities, but are often given retrospective permission.

Under international law, all settlements in the West Bank are illegal. Some 600,000 Israelis live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

From the point of view of Palestinians interviewed by Al Jazeera in the Shilo Valley this week, Geulat Zion is nothing new or special, but simply one of dozens of settlements and outposts that continue to creep further down the hilltops on which they perch. Whether or not the communities are officially authorised by Israel makes little difference.

Seventeen-year-old Mohannad has lived in Turmus Aya all his life and has witnessed settlement expansion first hand. “Of course, the number of settlers has grown in my lifetime here,” he said. “There are more checkpoints, more martyrs, more violence. Whenever I see a video of that violence on YouTube, I feel like I have been injured myself.”

“Palestinians have been suffering from outposts and settlements for years,” Grossman said. “Putting in another one will mean more land they can’t reach, as well as surrounding areas they are scared to go to, and more areas they can only reach maybe a couple of times a year with military approval.”

READ MORE: How are Palestinians resisting Israel’s settlement law?

The Shilo Valley is also home to some of the most extreme settlers, according to rights groups. Yesh Din has documented over 200 “ideologically motivated” crimes committed by settlers against Palestinians in this area.

“We have documented many, many cases of crop destruction, and land grabs, and if you go as far as the village of Sinjil, even arson cases,” explained Grossman.

The density of Israeli construction is particularly noticeable around the area’s small Palestinian villages, including Al-Lubban Asharqiya, Qaryut, Sinjil and Al-Sawiya, which are surrounded on all sides by settler communities.

Matters are complicated for these four villages. Human rights monitors believe they lie on the 1,000 dunams (one million square metres) of land that the Israeli cabinet declared as “state land” at the same time as approving the new Geulat Zion settlement. Al Jazeera could not independently confirm this, although UN maps show that the villages currently lie just outside Israeli-administered areas in the West Bank.

Declaring land as state-owned under Israeli law allows authorities to legitimise three previously unofficial outposts north of Ramallah in the West Bank. But for Palestinians, it raises fears about access to farmland and security.

“The people from these four closest villages really fear the worst,” said Ghassan Bani Fadel, who works for the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel, a monitoring group. “One villager told me that this land was his main income. ‘I don’t have any income elsewhere,’ he said.”

The hills around the Palestinian villages in the Shilo valley are increasingly being topped with Israeli settlements [Leila Molana-Allen/Al Jazeera]

Last week, Israeli army set up a temporary checkpoint at the entrance to Al-Lubban Asharqiya. Residents have not been ordered to leave, but the increasing presence of settlers in the area, as well as restrictions on movement and poor job opportunities, may force future generations out.

“We feel like we live in a big prison,” 21-year-old Mohammed told Al Jazeera, on Al-Lubban Asharqiya’s steep main street. “We are under pressure from Israel here. There are no opportunities in work or education and there is no help.” He added that the situation in the village was increasingly worse. “There will be more killing, problems and arrests,” he believed. “I don’t want to decide about the future. There will be no State of Palestine.”

The fear reaches beyond the immediate vicinity of the new settlement site in the Shilo Valley.

Khadr Ghaith, 46, who works in a quarry near the Palestinian village of Kafr Malik, feared intimidation and violence from settlers emboldened by official backing. “The Shilo Valley is very close to us here and we are afraid that they [settlers] will come down and steal from us or burn us,” he said.

“We are scared of the same fate as Duma,” he added, referring to the arson attack in 2015that killed a Palestinian baby and his parents. “Sometimes, I stay late at the quarry in our office, maybe until 1am. If they attacked us in the middle of the night, there would be no one to hear our screams.”


Source: Al Jazeera



Trump says US-Russia ties ‘may be at an all-time low’

As tensions rise over Syria, US president seems to walk away from campaign promise to improve ties with Moscow.

President Donald Trump has declared that US relations with Russia “may be at an all-time low”.

His top diplomat offered a similarly grim assessment after meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow earlier on Wednesday.

“Right now we’re not getting along with Russia at all,” Trump said flatly during a White House news conference.

Only weeks ago, it appeared that Trump, who praised Putin throughout the US election campaign, was poised for a potentially historic rapprochement with Russia.

But such a scenario seems highly unlikely as the two sides have clashed repeatedly over Syria in the wake of last week’s suspected chemical attack and US missile strikes.

“It’d be a fantastic thing if we got along with Putin and if we got along with Russia,” Trump said.

“That could happen, and it may not happen,” he said. “It may be just the opposite.”

Earlier in the day, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said relations are at a low point and marked by serious distrust.

“There is a low level of trust between our two countries,” Tillerson said in Moscow during a news conference with Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, adding that the “degradation” of US-Russian ties needs to end.

“The world’s two foremost nuclear powers cannot have this kind of relationship,” he said.

READ MORE: Trump – Putin’s best frenemy

US and Russia have recently traded caustic accusations following a US strike on a Syrian air base in retaliation to the  suspected chemical attack  on a rebel-held town in Syria, blamed by Washington on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is backed by Russia.

Tillerson’s comments echoed televised remarks by Putin, who earlier on Wednesday said the trust between the two countries had “deteriorated” since Trump was elected US president.

“One could say that the level of trust on a working level, especially on the military level, has not improved but has rather deteriorated,” Putin said in an interview broadcast on Russian television.

“On Syria, they are miles apart and it doesn’t seem that there’s been any breakthrough at all,” Al Jazeera’s James Bays, reporting from the White House, said.

Differences over Assad

Speaking to reporters, Tillerson reiterated Washington’s position that Assad must eventually relinquish power – a position starkly at odds with Russia, which has been bombing rebel-held areas in Syria in support of Assad’s forces since September 2015.

For his part, Lavrov warned against an international effort to remove Assad from power, citing the cases of Iraq and Libya to argue that the ouster of autocratic rulers by external forces leads to chaos.

He said Moscow was ready to resume a deal with Washington to avoid incidents in Syrian airspace as the two countries lead separate bombing campaigns.

“Today the president confirmed our readiness to return to its implementation on the understanding that the original aims of the air forces of the American coalition are reaffirmed, namely the fight with IS [ISIL] and al-Nusra,” Lavrov said.

The deal was suspended after US missile strikes against the Shayrat airbase following a suspected gas attack in Khan Sheikoun, in an act Moscow labelled “aggression against a sovereign state”.

Tillerson said the US is confident in its assessment that Syrian government forces used chemical weapons in the bombing on Khan Sheikhoun and alleged that Syria has used such weapons more than 50 times in the past.

Lavrov said Russia has no intention to “shield anyone”, adding that a United Nations chemical weapons watchdog must conduct an “objective and unbiased probe” into the attack that killed dozens of people.

Russian veto

Al Jazeera’s Rory Challands, reporting from Moscow, said the press conference highlighted the two diplomats’ “differences in style, in position and in views of the world”.

“There was no dramatic proposals made, no big deals discussed,” Challands said.

“The conversation was basically about how to stop it [the relation] from getting worse, not necessarily about grand steps to make it any better.”

READ MORE: What next for US-Russia ties after Syria strike?

The press conference came just moments before Russia again cast a veto at the UN Security Council, blocking a bid from the US, UK and France to condemn the suspected gas attack and push the Syrian government to cooperate with investigators.

China, which has vetoed six resolutions on Syria since the civil war began six years ago, abstained from Wednesday’s vote, along with Ethiopia and Kazakhstan.

Ten countries voted in favour of the text, while Bolivia joined Russia in voting no.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies

Welcome to ‘the world’s largest death row’

Despite allegations of rights abuses, Pakistan continues to be one of the five most prolific executioners in the world.

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Last year, Pakistan executed 87 people, making it the fifth most prolific executioner in the world, according to an annual report by Amnesty International [Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images]


Lahore, Pakistan – Exhausted from a full day’s work, 25-year-old student Sohail Yafat knew he had one last stop to make before heading home: a visit to a colleague’s ailing father at the Punjab Institute of Cardiology hospital, in his native Lahore, Pakistan’s second city.

Yafat never expected the police to be there, waiting for him. He was arrested, and bundled into a police van.

“There was no warrant. This was all purely on suspicion,” he says. “I was blindfolded, and I was brutally tortured and beaten on the way. I had never even entered a police station, so I had no idea of this world.”

That was the summer of 2001. The police and a complainant had named him as an accomplice in a murder case in the town of Sahiwal, about 150km south. What followed for Yafat was harrowing: 10 years of imprisonment during which he was tried, convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. In 2011, a court exonerated him, acquitting him of his crimes for want of evidence.

“I was subjected to third-degree torture. They beat the soles of my feet with bamboo sticks. I was beaten with whips. I was kept awake, bound so that I was positioned bolt upright and unable to sleep,” he recalls.

The maximum punishment for murder suspects in Pakistan is the death penalty – Yafat says he was terrified of receiving it. In the 10 years he spent in prison, having seen the conditions under which death row prisoners lived, he was determined to work for their rights, “to ease their pain”, he says.

In 2014, the government lifted a six-year moratorium on executions as part of a counter-terrorism plan. It then expanded the use of executions to include non-terrorism offences in 2015, saying the measure was needed to combat crime.

Last year, Pakistan executed 87 people, making it the fifth most prolific executioner in the world, according to an annual report on the global use of the death penalty released by Amnesty International on Tuesday.

Together, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Pakistan accounted for 87 percent of all recorded worldwide executions, the report said. China is widely believed to execute thousands of people every year, but data on executions “is classified as a state secret”, according to Amnesty.

In total, 1,032 executions were recorded in 2016, down by 37 percent, but death sentences were at the highest level since Amnesty began compiling statistics, with 3,117 people sentenced to death worldwide.

Of those, more than 360 people were sentenced in Pakistan, and are currently living on the world’s largest recorded death row, home to more than 6,000 prisoners.

Pakistan’s Interior Ministry had not responded to a request for comment by the time of publication.

INFO-GRAPHIC: Death penalty around the world in 2016

Overcrowded cages

Pakistan’s prisons are chronically overcrowded, partly owing to an overloaded justice system that incarcerates a large proportion of under-trial prisoners. As of April 2015, the country’s prisons held at least 80,169 prisoners, against a capacity of just 46,705, according to World Prison Brief.

Within the prisons themselves, special areas are designated for death row prisoners. As many as eight prisoners will be forced to share an eight-by-10ft cell, says Yafat, who spent years at the Sahiwal Jail tending to fellow prisoners.

“One death row prisoner had just about one and a half feet of space to himself within which to live,” he recalls. “He has to live, sleep and eat in that space.”

Prisoners are walked by guards for two hours a day, while handcuffed, often carrying their belongings with them as they are cycled between cells.

“You are a human being who has basic needs, but you no longer have any element of choice or freedom,” says Yafat of death row. “You cannot sleep or eat or wake by your own choice. You live like a robot. Every day, you live the same way.”

Rights groups say Pakistan’s justice system disproportionately convicts and sentences those in lower-income groups to death, given their lack of resources to arrange an adequate legal defence.

“Many people had no lawyers, and they were appealing [against their sentences] through the jail,” Yafat explains. “The hearings were ongoing for years – sometimes for more than 10 years, and often cases would be left by the wayside, with no one to take up the case from outside the jail to push for it to be heard. Often their lawyers would not show up for hearings.”

“Pakistan’s justice system is ridden with deficiencies and abuses of authority,” says Sarah Belal, director at rights group Justice Project Pakistan. “Police routinely coerce defendants into confessing, often by torture, and courts admit and rely upon such evidence.”

Allegations of torture to obtain confessions and improper investigative work by Pakistan’s police force have been well documented by rights groups and research organisations, although the state denies their use is policy.

Questions also remain about the efficacy of the judicial system. In October, Pakistan’s Supreme Court acquitted two brothers who were on death row for murder, but judges were astonished to find that the men had already been hanged a year earlier.

Moreover, defendants without access to funds “must rely on attorneys who typically provide only cursory and ineffective representation”, says Belal.

READ MORE: China, Iran, Saudi Arabia executed most people in 2016

‘I have nothing’

In 2003, police officer Khizr Hayat was arrested, tried and convicted for the murder of a man in his neighbourhood. Hayat has been on death row for 14 years, awaiting execution, while his mother has struggled to arrange for an adequate legal defence for him.

“I have spent Rs500,000 (roughly $4,800) so far,” says Iqbal Bano, the 70-year-old, who is ailing from an illness and is almost blind. “I have nothing, I have sold my jewellery and my clothes. I live in a rented house. I do not have any work, and I am sick myself.”

Bano had limited access to funds, and was forced to seek the cheapest lawyers she could find. Her son’s defence lawyer, she says, failed to call a single witness at the trial, forcing her, at one point, to appeal to the judge directly during a hearing.

Hayat suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, an illness that was diagnosed while he was incarcerated, but Bano has been unable to obtain the official report to present in court on appeal.

He has no idea he is about to be executed, says Bano.

“He tells me that don’t worry, I have been acquitted. Why are you crying?” she says of an occasion when she went to meet him after his execution orders had been issued. (The execution was later stayed by a court.)
The execution of mentally ill prisoners has been a particular concern, says JPP and UK-based rights group Reprieve. In October, while hearing an appeal against the hanging of a mentally ill prisoner, Pakistan’s Supreme Court decreed that schizophrenia was not a mental illness. Hearings in that case are ongoing.

Yafat has been working as an investigator since his release in 2011, with a particular focus on the cases of death row prisoners who may not have been given an adequate legal defence.

“I’ve been seeing this for 17 years – including the 10 years I was in jail: mostly those who are being executed or are on death row, most of those people just don’t have the resources and cannot afford the expenses of having their appeals heard in the superior courts.

“They would get court-appointed lawyers, who are paid just Rs1,000-Rs1,500 (roughly $10-15) as a stipend per day. So you can imagine what their level of representation, and association with their clients, is,” he says.
Meanwhile, the jails keep filling up. Pakistani law prescribes the death penalty for 27 offences, ranging from murder to kidnapping, rape, adultery, blasphemy, drug trafficking and even sabotaging the country’s railway system.

The last time Bano visited her son on death row, two weeks ago, he had stripped all his clothes off and was sitting there naked, she says. He kept repeating the words “the law, the law, the law, the law of Pakistan”, Bano recalls.

“I don’t know who killed that man,” she says, protesting Hayat’s innocence. “That only Allah knows.”

Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera’s web correspondent in Pakistan. He tweets @AsadHashim.

Source: Al Jazeera News

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