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Soccer and settlements

As soccer grows in popularity in the U.S. and more fields sprout up around the country, in some places in the world building a field is not just about love of soccer, but about freedom. Such is the situation in Wadi Foquin, a small agricultural village in the West Bank of the occupied Palestinian territories. The village council of Wadi Foquin began construction on a soccer field in the summer of 2015 to accompany a newly built park providing recreational space for their children, youth, and families. The soccer field is to serve not only Wadi Foquin, but also children and youth from surrounding Palestinian villages—and even possibly Israeli children in a future extending equal rights to Palestinians. This vision prompted United Methodist partners to generate financial support for the project. 

But in August, construction on the soccer field was halted when the village council received orders from Israeli occupation authorities to stop the project. The field was being built on land that fell under a 1,000-acre confiscation order issued to West Bank villages in 2014 declaring the area “state land.” Confiscation orders are part of ongoing land annexation that is slowly erasing Palestinian territories from the map while increasing the footprint of Israel’s illegal settlement project in the occupied West Bank. Just this past month another 370 acres were declared “state land” near Jericho in the Jordan Valley.

{mosads}Previous land annexation in Wadi Foquin in the 1980s led to the construction of Betar Illit, one of the largest illegal settlements in the West Bank. Betar Illit now hosts 60,000 Israeli settlers, in contrast to the modest population of 1,300 in Wadi Foquin. Raw sewage runoff from the hillside settlement has harmed the agricultural life in the village—up to 150 farmers have reported damage to their produce. And to add insult to injury, in June the Israeli military accompanied bulldozers into the village to destroy 1,300 fruit trees on land owned by two farmers. Given the pattern of appropriation and destruction, villagers fear that forced removal from their land is an inevitable outcome of the runaway train called military occupation. 

Members of the village of Wadi Foquin visited the U.S. and met with State Department officials in November 2013 to express their concern over land confiscation, settlement expansion, and the threat to their very existence. They were told at that time that official U.S. policy was anchored in the peace talks facilitated by Secretary of State John Kerry. They were told that the issues in Wadi Foquin, and those in other villages, would hopefully be resolved by a forthcoming peace agreement.

Those peace talks are now dead. Proposed French-led talks have so far been rebuffed by Prime Minister Netanyahu. Land confiscation and settlement expansion, however, are very much alive and have continued at an accelerated pace. One thing is crystal clear: A partner for peace does not confiscate another’s land and then build their own homes upon it. State Department spokesperson John Kirby underscored this conclusion in a press briefing last month, stating, “We view Israeli settlement activity as illegitimate and counterproductive to the cause of peace.”  

A delegation from Wadi Foquin was in Washington, D.C. today, Feb. 23, to brief congressional offices on the latest encroachments upon their lives. Leading the delegation was Mayor Ahmad Sokar, who, at 32 years of age, is the youngest mayor in the West Bank. In addressing a group of Californians prior to his departure for Washington, D.C., Sokar remarked, “We come to speak to you as Palestinians—but more importantly, we also come to speak to you as human beings. Our children and youth deserve a future just as much as any other children and youth in the world.”  

This is the vision and spirit behind the soccer field and its adjoining park—to provide opportunities for the children and youth of Wadi Foquin to live life freely, as we do, and with the inalienable right to build our own playgrounds and soccer fields for our children and youth on our own land. 

Palestinians have been treated as political pawns in Middle East politics far too long. With ongoing Israeli attempts to legitimize and legalize settlement construction, it is time for the best creative minds among U.S. lawmakers to craft concrete policy initiatives to address the illegality of settlement expansion and land confiscation. The public declarations of the State Department must be undergirded by policy initiatives that will give teeth to their words. 

Yoshii is the chair of the Friends of Wadi Foquin and pastor of the Buena Vista United Methodist Church in Alameda, California. 

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