Al Walaje (Bethlehem, West Bank).
“My land extended beyond the Wall. I used to have olive trees, apricots, plums, lemons. I also had 65 hives and more than 100 sheep. Then Israel planned the Separation Wall. They uprooted 100 olive trees and destroyed my hives. Now just nine sheep and few fruit trees are left. But even those are dying: the dust raised by the bulldozers for the construction of the Wall are killing them”.
Ahmed Abu Nidal is 65 years-old and he is a father of six. He welcomes us in the small garden outside his house, in the village of Al Walaje, just outside Bethlehem. His two-storey house of white stones is located directly on the path the Israeli authorities have chosen for the construction of the Wall. The work will be completed shortly and Al Walaje will be surrounded by a concrete barrier, eight meters high. The residents will have a personal military checkpoint: it will open at 5 in the morning and close at 5 in the evening.
Land confiscation began long time ago: “They haven’t even had the decency to tell me that they took my land – Abu Nidal says with an ironic smile, while he sips mint tea and lights a cigarette of Palestinian tobacco – They left some documents in the garden. The Wall is not finished yet, I can still walk on my land until they will build the checkpoint. But I can’t work on it. Beyond the barrier, there are my parents’ graves, the Israeli army built a tunnel that starts from my house and passes under the road. Just in this way I can visit my deceased loved ones”.
Al Walaje is traditionally a farming village. In 1948, the Israeli forces expelled its inhabitants from their homes and forced them to move to a nearby hill, where now the village stands. “Today for me it’s so difficult to bring food home,” Abu Nidal continues. “The production is not sufficient: what we produce, we consume, we aren’t able to sell anything in the market”. Abu Nidal was also a beekeeper, but the Israelis have destroyed the hives. He had dozens of sheep, but now has no space to let them graze. From the terrace of his house, the landscape is a valley planted with olive trees, green and beautiful. Beyond the furthest hills, now occupied by Israeli settlements that molest the view, you can glimpse Jerusalem.
“When the Wall will be finished,” Abu Nidal explains with an embittered voice, “they would kill also the atmosphere, this amazing landscape. The most fertile part of my garden has been confiscated for the Wall and the settlement expansion. They take the land saying that they are not ours, but they belong to the City of Jerusalem. They have already demolished 35 houses owned by Palestinian families of Al Walaje and many others are under demolition order”.
“To appeal to the Israeli Supreme Court? And for which purpose?” he asks. “Who steals is Israeli and who judges is Israeli: the self- absolution is sure. They feel they are above the law, even the international law. But sooner or later my children and I will have back our country. It is up to the people to make a revolution, not to the leaders who go to New York and ask someone else to give us a State”.
Before saying goodbye, Abu Nidal insists on giving us sage and walnuts. He offers us an excellent Arabic coffee and mint tea. And he continues to speak with a dignity that moves, while his gaze runs back to his land.
The Palestinians are largely farming people. The land is not only their main source of income: it is a symbol of their heritage and their culture. As an old farmer in the village of Battir says, “the land is our mother and the mother must be respected”.
With the construction of the Separation Wall, a snake of concrete eight meters high and 723 km long once it is completed, Israel has confiscated 10.2% of the West Bank lands. The barrier doesn’t follow the Green Line, the official border drawn after the 1967 Six- Day War: it enters violently inside the Palestinian territories and it eats square kilometers of land, preventing the population from accessing agricultural land, water resources, schools and health services.
According to OCHA, the United Nations agency for Humanitarian Affairs, about 18% of Palestinians who live along the Green Line are now unable to cross the Wall in order to work their own lands. Israel controls 67 agricultural checkpoints: the few farmers who have a permit issued by the Israeli authorities can cross the gate controlled by the Tel Aviv army only on certain days of the year. Only 19 checkpoints are open 365 days a year.
This is the case of Falamiya, a Palestinian village in Qalqiliya district, in the North West of the West Bank: here the agricultural gate opens every morning at 5 am and closes at 5 pm. It is not, however, the case of the nearby village of Jayyus: the few farmers with the required permit can enter and exit only from 5.30 am to 6.30 am, from 12 am to 1 pm and from 3 pm to 4 pm. If someone needs to go out at different times, he cannot do it: he is a prisoner in his own land.
We meet Abu Hazzam, a 60 years-old farmer, the lucky owner of a permit to work the land owned by his family since generations, but now trapped beyond the Israeli barrier. At 6 am we find him at the entrance of Jayyus checkpoint, ready to face a long day of work. “It’s hard work alone the land,” Abu Hazzam says. “This is the season of olives, avocado, mandarins and guava. But just few of us are allowed to cross the checkpoint and we never manage to finish the work. In order to obtain a permit, you must present your identity card, the certificate of land ownership issued by the Israeli department and a document from the Israeli court stating that your land lays beyond the Wall. Generally I obtain permits for 1, 2 or 3 months. Then I have to apply again. My son is 32 years- old and managed to get the first permission of his life just one year ago. From 2005 to 2011 he applied 32 times, but Israel always refused for ‘security reasons’. They issued permits to allow him to enter Israel, but not to work his own land”.
With bitter irony, Abu Hazzam lists the ongoing humiliation that the inhabitants of his village are forced to endure by IDF soldiers: each morning they are checked, undressed and subjected to metal detectors. Meanwhile, at dawn, workers arrive in dribs and drabs at the checkpoint: someone with the tractor, someone on bike, someone on the back of a donkey. They smile: “Sabah al kheir”, good morning.
The soldiers stop them at the entrance, inspect the tractor, order the farmers to enter into a small room where they will pass through the metal detector. Some soldiers intimate us to move away, then they come close. Probably, they are not more than 20 years-old: “We treat them well – one of them says – We are obliged to control them. They are not dangerous, but the 1% could be a threat. Anyway, I don’t understand why they complain. They should thank us: what lies beyond the Wall is the land of Israel, but we have conceded them to work it”.
Probably the young soldier, who embraces a M16 rifle with nonchalance, thinks that this is the situation. But those lands, confiscated by the occupying forces, are owned by Palestinians. To keep alive the right to work them, the farmers are forced to ask permits hundreds of times, to enter and go out when Tel Aviv wants, working almost alone hectares of land and losing much of the harvest. The land is one of the most important sources of income for families in the West Bank. In order to obtain a permit, you must have a clean criminal record: anyone who has been arrested for political reasons will never get that document. Each year, about 700 minors are detained in Israeli prisons because they have participated in demonstrations against the occupation. It means that the next generation will have enormous difficulties to work the family land beyond the Wall.
A hard blow to the already fragile Palestinian economy, almost totally dependent on the Israeli one. Especially if you take into account one of the most used legal instruments: Tel Aviv applies to the West Bank an old Ottoman law stating that those who do not work the land for a period ranging from 3 to 5 years lose all property rights. A simple equation for the occupation forces, a concrete and terrible tool to confiscate agricultural lands to the already exhausted Palestinian people.
Bans on prohibiting farmers from carrying beyond the Wall the necessary machinery to work the fields, checkpoints, lack of access to water resources controlled by the Israeli authorities and continuous attacks by Israeli settlers are together a vicious cycle that is causing the collapse of the employment rate in the agricultural sector (in 2010 fallen to 9.8%) and a hike of the price of agricultural products, in favor of Israeli ones.
A people deprived of its land is destined to disappear. Israel understands this. But hope never dies. We found the resistance, the real one, in the words of Mohammed, an elderly Palestinian farmer from the village of Hussan, East of Bethlehem: “My little piece of land is just few meters far from an Israeli settlement. Every time I plant olive trees, the settlers come during the night and uproot them. It happens every time: I plant, they destroy. What do I do? Plant other trees. I will never leave my land. I will continue to plant olive trees. I will never give up the dream of a free Palestine”.
Emma Mancini is an Italian journalist in Israel/ Palestine.