Without realizing it, an American philanthropic organization, planning to set up a $16.5 million children's hospital in Palestine is on a collision course with radical Jewish settlers at a time that American officials are constantly repeating a call for a contiguous and independent Palestinian state. One wonders how someone like Barack Obama, who just visited the region, would respond to actions by Jewish settlers preventing the creation of a hospital.
The story began on April 26, 2007, when the Israeli army unilaterally removed its military base from an area of land south of Bethlehem. The area locally referred to as Ush al Ghurab (which literally means the nest of the falcon) lies within the municipal boundaries of Beit Sahour a Palestinian town built up on the fields that Christians believe angels appeared to shepherds watching their flocks at night heralding the coming of Jesus.
Once the Israeli army dismantled their equipment, Hani Hayeq, the city's Palestinian Christian mayor, and the city council announced that they are willing to contribute the land free of charge to any local or international organization that is interested in using it for the public good. At nearly the same time, a US-based organization was looking for land to build a children's orthopedic hospital for the children of Palestine. I remember a few years ago receiving a call from a college friend who is involved in the organization and I had given them the phone number of my brother's law firm. They had checked out various buildings and land plots and finally settled on the offer from the Beit Sahour municipality for the recently vacated land plot. The location had become much more important after the wall came up because all travel between south and north of the West Bank which used to go through Jerusalem has now been rerouted to an area south of Bethlehem and access to specialized care in Jerusalem was becoming harder to obtain. CURE International, a Pennsylvania-based organization that was interested in it felt that this would make the new hospital central to children from all areas of Palestine.
According to its web site CURE International said that it hopes that the state-of-art hospital in Bethlehem would be ready by 2010 and would provide 1,000 orthopedic surgeries a year. "The Bethlehem hospital is unique in that it is bringing together three faith groups to build a facility of healing in a very volatile region," said Dr. Scott Harrison the orthopedic surgeon who founded Cure ten years ago and serves as its CEO . "Christians and Muslims will serve together at the hospital and will receive additional training at some of the leading hospitals in Jerusalem including Hadassah and Schneider," Harrison said in a press release announcing the new hospital.
With land and money in hand the only obstacle that was holding up building was a permit. But because the land was an Israeli military area it is listed by the Israelis as a "C" area meaning that the Israeli army has administrative and security rule over it. The municipality and CURE International approached the Israelis and asked for permission.
Meanwhile Jewish settlers focused on the same land for their protests. In May they began a campaign to takeover the land vacated by the army and establish yet another illegal Jewish settlement on it. Women in Green, a radical settler group called for and succeeded in getting tens of ultra nationalists Jewish settlers to come and camp on the grounds despite strong opposition by Palestinians. In the May 15th call to settlement they even publicly opposed US President George Bush who was making a visit to celebrate with the Israelis their 60th anniversary.
Local Palestinian activists prepared to counter the illegal settler occupation of their lands. Groups of young people along with international supporters decided to hold a counter demonstration to stop the settler activities. http://www.imemc.org/article/56014. After the initial settler action and strong Palestinian response, the settlers sought and actually got a permit from the Israeli defense ministry to carry out yet another activity, this time to stay at the location all night. Since the settlers announced that they plan to stay until the early morning hours of July 15th , Palestinians decided they will respond in a nonviolent manner by organizing musical events that will blast music all night preventing the settlers from carrying out what their activities. The Palestinian experience is that Israeli settlement activities begins with the army taking strategic locations, followed by civilians slowly encroaching on the land once the army vacates it, the once in a while all nighters then require caravans and mobile homes and soon enough these illegal squatters start building settlements and their activities become de facto facts on the ground. See earlier story of the way settler perceive the issue.
Palestinian officials, however paradoxically, did not allow the activists to act out their nonviolent protests. Signs were placed by the Palestinian Authority preventing any access to the site and the Hani al Hayeq, mayor of the city, a known leader of Fatah took a lead role in preventing Palestinian protests.
The attitude of the Palestinian authority surprised many and eventually, word got out that Palestinian leaders are doing that to enable the Israeli government to approve the necessary permits to the municipality to build on that location which were being met with settler opposition. A rumor that has quickly spread thereafter was that a senior Israeli official called one of the city councilors and informed him that the permit for the children's hospital has been approved internally and will soon be issued. Palestinian skeptics called the unconfirmed news yet one more attempt to deflect public opinion. The leader of Women in Green, Nadia Mattar, on the other hand issued a strong declaration vowing to fight the establishment of the hospital no matter what it takes.
If the history of previous Jewish settlement incursion is any reference then it is highly likely that what began as an Israeli army military point will now be visited regularly by settlers who will occasionally squat on the land, then they will bring their trailers, demand water, electricity and phone service and naturally protection. Then the trailers will be replaced by concrete houses which will be expanded as part of the natural growth and yet one more concrete obstacle to the peace process will be built up in front of our own eyes.
As Barack Obama visits with the Palestinian president, I doubt that he will have any idea about the children's hospital planned for the Beit Sahour area. But I am sure that if he does get elected President of the United States, this obstacle will surely come up as a larger than life problem in the ongoing Palestinian Israeli conflict.
Daoud Kuttab a Palestinian journalist and former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University is back in the Middle East. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org