Plans to turn historic Palestinian village into tourist site cause upset

Residents of the Palestinian West Bank village of Nabi Samwil are justified in their anger over Israeli plans to turn their home into a tourist attraction, argues Human Rights Watch.

HRW said the village, believed to be the burial site of the prophet Samuel, has struggled through more than four decades of hardship caused by the Israeli military.

"The Israeli military has choked off Nabi Samwil for years, and it is cruel to now make a tourist attraction out of the part of the village the military destroyed," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

"The military should be making sure Nabi Samwil residents can return and rebuild, not making their displacement permanent."

The latest development is being planned by the military's Civil Administration division and the Israeli National Park service.

Their plans include constructing an access road, walking paths, buildings for tourists, and an elevator in the village, but there has so far been little local consultation.

Last November, a hearing was organised to look into the construction, but it was conducted in Hebrew which many of the Nabi Samwil villagers could not understand.

When they protested this, they were told that procedure did not require Arabic translations to be made available, and that if they had wanted them, they should have made an official request beforehand.

Those who did understand the meeting walked out after Daniel Halimi, the Israeli planner working for the military, repeatedly stated "[Nabi Samwil] is not a village, it is a park".

In response to questions, he acknowledged that the plans included no new constructions for residents. "Hopefully the residents will realise they live in a park and not a village," Halimi said.

"The plan we're working on will help assimilate them to servicing visitors to the [tourist] site," added Mikhael Ben Shabat, head of the responsible planning subcommittee. "There are no residents in a park."

Since December, local residents have held weekly protests against turning the village into a tourist attraction. Israeli officials responded by announcing that anyone involved in the protest would be denied employment at the site.

Emek Shaveh, a Israeli archaeology research group, reported in 2013 that "the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian traditions identify Nabi Samuel as the burial place of the prophet Samuel".

They also pointed out that the area of the village mosque was originally a Christian holy site dating from the Byzantine period.

The village was first occupied by Israel in the Six Day War of 1967, causing many residents to flee. Then in 1971 without providing a reason, Israeli forces demolished many of the village's buildings.

One resident, who Human Rights Watch have simply named S, recounts the details of that time.

"Suddenly at 7am, the soldiers came into our home. The officer said he didn't know anyone was still living there," she said, but Israeli forces bulldozed her home anyway. "I moved into a sheep pen and built a kitchen," she said. "A few days later, the Israelis came and destroyed the kitchen."

In 1995 the Israeli military declared the village to be a national park. This meant the residents had no right to build or renovate houses, conduct business, or even plant trees.

In 2007, the Israeli security fence cut the village off from the rest of the West Bank while Israeli authorities made no provisions to allow the villagers to work in Israel.

Israeli authorities have not offered a defence of their actions based on military necessity or protection of the residents, to explain why they are preventing people from rebuilding or returning to the village.

Under international law, those are the only justifications for forcibly transferring inhabitants of an occupied territory from their homes, and those reasons can only apply on a temporary basis.

Both Israel and the Palestinian Authority have signed up to the 1954 United Nations Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict.

That convention requires an occupying power to "support the competent national authorities of the occupied country in safeguarding and preserving its cultural property".

Israel appears to be in breach of this, as it does not permit the Palestinian authorities to access the Nabi Samwil village, and they have also confiscated items of historical significance from the local mosque.

A subcommittee is considering objections to the plan, including one raised by Israeli human rights group Bimkom, which specialises in planning issues.

They point out that in other national parks, including ones in the West Bank, residential construction has previously been permitted.

The subcommittee has said that it will listen to some objections, but it has no jurisdiction to consider issues relating to international law relating to occupation.

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