Resistance in Bethlehem’s Villages

Christmas is coming. My e-mail has returned at least one plea to help Bethlehem – Christ’s birthplace crucified by Israel’s segregation wall; 25 foot-high concrete punctuated by militarized watch towers surrounds the entire town. PEACE BE WITH YOU reads a huge legend on the wall without (apparently) the slightest trace of irony; stenciled in English. Hebrew, and Arabic, it’s signed, ISRAELI MINISTRY OF TOURISM.

What lies beyond Bethlehem – the Bethlehem province or “governate,” – is equally shocking, though invisible to the casual visitor. According to a May, 2009, UN report, Bethlehem governate’s total land mass is 660 square kilometers, but only 13 per cent remains for Palestinians to use. The rest has vanished under the Greater Israel’s ever-expanding colonies and “outposts”; its ever-lengthening wall (declared illegal in 2004 by the International Court of Justice: Israel and its US backer have simply ignored the ruling); and Israel’s designation of most of Bethlehem’s region as “Area C”. (The Oslo Accords diced the West Bank into Areas “A” — Palestinian Authority (PA) rule; “B” –PA and Israel joint rule; and “C” – Israeli rule. Area C is 60 per cent of the West Bank).

Palestine’s Stop the Wall campaign, launched in 2002, has been waging nonviolent resistance here to retain and regain land – weekly demonstrations in the village Al Mas’ara, land-reclamation in other villages (clearing stones, preparing the land for planting, petitioning the Palestinian Ministry of Agriculture for supplies and trees), and rallying a population exhausted by over three decades of “peace process” that has meant only land-theft for the Palestinians.
Stop the Wall was launched by activists like 65-year-old Sharif Omar Khalid whose roots go back to Palestine’s Land Defense Committee (a nonviolent movement begun in 1980), and younger activists who cut their teeth organizing the first Intifada (1987-1990). 46-year-old Jamal Juma, the Campaign’s coordinator, says that when Israel began building the wall in 2002, he and other activists realized an unprecedented danger.

“We saw that this was a huge political project,” he commented this past October. “The whole country [Palestine] was under siege, all the villages . . . We [began] building a movement against the wall”. The campaign built popular committees in villages menaced by the wall. From 52 of these in 2005 it has consolidated into ten committees, governing a region (the Bethlehem region is one). The campaign can’t possibly cover the entire Palestinian population so it focuses on “hot spots” – places where the wall intrudes or is about to be extended, and land where settlers and soldiers harass villagers.

In a field near the village Artas, south of Bethlehem, stands a mammoth rectangle of cement surrounding two giant circles of piping. This was to be an Israeli sewage dump, part of a waste project servicing the Israeli colony Efrat and neighbor-colonies to Bethlehem’s south and west. Stop the Wall and Artas villagers are litigating against the sewer in Israel’s Supreme Court. The case is still pending.

60 apricot trees once grew where the cement and pipe sections now rise. They were on a trajectory leading straight through Artas’s 182-dunam green belt (a dunam is a little over a quarter-acre). Over twenty kinds of vegetables flourish in this rich agricultural matrix. Abu Swayk said it would all be destroyed by the sewage dump, the run-off cascading down and permeating the fertile land. As it stands, the sewage housing seems just a nibble into a small plot of land. But think: Israel wants to dump the colonists’ excrement where people once raised crops for their living. Moreover, since 1967 such “small” confiscations have been a motor force driving the Greater Israel – the Jewish state’s continuous expansion beyond its borders.

I remember the West Bank in the 80s when I reported here regularly. The landscape was Mediterranean, rippling with dry-wall terracing; olive trees’ silvery leaves billowed in the wind; fruit and nut trees and grape arbors etched darker greens against the grey of stones and taupe colors of earth. You could still see old Arab architecture in West Bank villages – beautiful pale stone with rounded arches over doors and windows; vaulted ceilings within homes. There were scattered colonies, but none of the sprawling suburbs and whole cities that slice and dice the region now.

Returning here in 2002 after a fourteen-year absence was like waking up in another country. The hills were freighted with bland, California-style urban sprawl buttressed by a vast prison network for containing the natives whose presence so annoys the Greater Israel — the wall in its early forms, huge holding-pens called “checkpoints,” mazes of other barriers, and Jewish-only super-highways that made me feel I was somewhere in New Jersey. The state of the villages was also a shock: Israel almost never lets Palestinians build beyond their urban limits, so Palestinian expansion can only be vertical. New, Palestinian multi-storey buildings, so different from the traditional one-to-two-storey village architecture, are as faceless – ugly, even – as the colonies.

Maps can tell you a lot about the extent – and design – of Israeli colonizing within the West Bank. (The colonies divide the land, isolating Palestinian urban centers: the wall is a mighty force in this and in de facto annexation of Israel’s colonies to the Jewish state.But nothing ever prepares you for really being there. At some point this past fall, having spent days in group taxis and cars scribbling down the names of colonies and Palestinian villages, trying to get some geographical hold, I finally understood: all my points of reference had vanished. The landscape I had known in the 1980s was gone. The West Bank’s very geography is under assault as surely as historic Palestine’s after 1948 when Israel destroyed over 500 Arab villages. What is here today can be “disappeared” tomorrow – the apricot field is one of thousands of cases.

When Israel announced it intended to build the sewer, Artas villagers protested that the waste project would destroy the region’s livelihood. In desperation they even suggested an alternate location on a nearby hillside. Israeli officials retorted that the hillside was to be “a nature reserve” (to date, the area remains stony and barren of trees); they added that it would be too expensive to build there. “This is not my problem, it’s yours, and you aren’t allowed on my land,” rejoined 36-year-old villager and Stop the Wall activist Awad Abu Swayk, whose family once owned hundreds of dunams in the region.

A protest by Stop the Wall activists, villagers, young Israeli and international sympathizers, began in May, 2007. Everyone camped in the threatened apricot field, sleeping there for eighteen days. They even tied themselves to the trees. “We were never less than 25 persons, sometimes 80,” Abu Swayk told me this past October. “But finally when they came around 3:30 in the morning of May 21, they blocked all the entrances to the area. They said it was a military zone.”

The Israeli military forbade any media. But an Israeli activist sneaked in a video camera, later producing an excellent documentary In the video*** you see two soldiers on the hilltop; then they’re close-up in the camera’s lens. One, a lean, smiling man in his late teens or early twenties, asks Abu Swayk, “How many people are sleeping here?” Abu Swayk: “If you’re civil and you aren’t dressed in uniform you can drink tea with us.” The young soldier grins: “I need to know how much time because it is not regular here.”

Very early the next morning the soldiers came and dragged the young Israelis off — they went limp as they were hauled away. A gigantic bulldozer gouged out swathes of the grove, tossing aside the lush trees with their fruit like so much trash. On the video all the carefully tilled earth disappears before your eyes; the entire grove lies heaped amidst boulders. An older villager in kuffiyeh and rusty black coat gazes with eyes full of tears. The villagers throw no stones; they utter no angry words. They sit, huddled and forlorn, mourning their fallen trees and ravaged earth.

The soldiers stand grinning and chatting. This is just routine – a joke, even. “Oh God!” screams Awad, “They destroyed our trees! I swear on almighty God we will return to plant the trees!” (Abu Swayk was arrested with other villagers: Youtube footage shows him being thrown to the ground and kicked).

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This past October Abu Swayk took me to see the sewage mounting and the ruined plot of land. The apricot grove was about five of 120 dunams inherited by 53-year-old Mahmoud Yusef Kalawi from his father and grandfather, both full-time farmers. So far, beyond the five dunams destroyed for the sewer housing, Kalawi has lost nothing else, but last February Israel announced it was confiscating another 1771 dunams for the construction of a brand-new settlement. Kalawi’s 115 dunams are included. Stop the Wall has brought another suit in Israel’s Supreme Court and it bucks Kalawi up to continue farming.

During the Jewish holidays we found him in a plot adjacent to the land where the sewer housing rises. One of a small minority of Palestinians with permits to enter Israel, he works there six days a week as a builder, leaving home at 5:30 AM and returning at 8 PM. Sundays and Jewish holidays he works on his farm. In the late afternoon the sun was going down; sheep and goats browsed in the brush. Kalawi and his wife and children were preparing the terrain for planting. He has a deeply lined face that smiles readily and is full of good cheer – remarkable, given his ceaseless labor, the trauma of his loss, and his anxiety about the future..

On top of which, the Israeli military has continued harassing him. One day this past fall while he was bulldozing his land, soldiers appeared. Kalawi told me, “They took the number of the bulldozer, and said, ‘What are you doing here? Building? Digging a well?’ “(Israel forbids Palestinians to dig wells. Israel’s water-confiscation and rationing for Palestinians is a separate story. “‘I’m just planting as our people do,” he told the soldier. “You can see for yourselves we’re not building,’” Despite Kalawi’s pleas, the soldiers made him stop his work and stand in the sewer housing for an hour. Then they allowed him to go back to his labors, warning he should stay a hundred meters from the sewer.

After that, Bethlehem Stop the Wall members and internationals came to stay with him while he worked. Guarding people like him is imperative: so many others have left their land out of fear and exhaustion.  Of course, this is what Israel wants. As Defense Minister Moshe Dayan once put it, “You Palestinians, as a nation, don’t want us today, but we’ll change your attitude by forcing our presence on you.” You will “live like dogs, and whoever will leave, will leave.” (Gershom Gorenberg, Accidental Empire, p.82).

By backing and helping farmers, bringing them services (bulldozers; plants; roads for accessing their fields) Stop the Wall makes life more bearable for some, persuading them not to leave, and expanding its base. The campaign also travels, trying to raise awareness and inspire energy. “We try to coordinate all the villages, go to the mosques,” said Abu Swayk, explaining the campaign’s efforts to arouse popular resistance. “Everywhere I go I say, ‘You have to be aware. You’re losing your land.’”

* * *

Artas once had 13, 830 dunams of land. Israel has already confiscated 69 per cent of that for its colonies. If Stop the Wall were to fail in its litigation against the most recent confiscation, Artas would be left with only 18 per cent of its former wealth. Excavating the mountains for the settlement would create debris and havoc throughout the agricultural valley. “No more lettuce,” comments Abu Swayk. “No more onions, cucumbers, potatoes. Nothing will be in this valley.”

In the midst of loss, every defense, however small, is urgent. Two years since the apricot grove was destroyed, Abu Swayk has been able to keep his promise to replant the trees. Stop the Wall petitioned the PA Ministry of Agriculture to buy new ones for Kalawi: 65 have already been delivered. In early December another 65 will come.

Other victories: through litigation in 2007, Stop the Wall was able to prevent at least part of the wall from being built into Artas. In May, 2008, it raised money among Artas villagers to rent a bulldozer to clear a small dirt road so farmers could reach their land more easily. The PA Ministry of Agriculture is financing another such road; construction is due to start during the Christmas season. On November 22 an e-mail arrived from Mazin Qumsiyeh, who teaches at Bethlehem University announcing a victory on lands belonging to the village Um Salamuna, very near Artas: “[O]ver 150 Palestinians and internationals participated in an activity to reclaim and plant olive trees on a threatened hill in an area called Um Salamuna.  Um Salamuna already lost significant amount of its land to colonial . . . settlements . . . The wall that includes the settlements has not been completed in this area and is slated to zig-zag to capture the hill we worked on. . . .”

Bethlehem’s Stop the Wall committee also plans to dig seven wells on Artas land lying next to the segregation wall. “We will go to court if the Israelis stop us.” What if the army comes? “I expect the army will destroy what we do. But we will do it two, three, four times. We will not stop.”

ELLEN CANTAROW, a Boston-based journalist, has written from Israel and the West Bank since 1979. This article is part two of a series, “Heroism in a Vanishing Landscape,”about non-violent Palestinian resistance to Israel’s occupation. She can be reached at

For a comprehensive argument that land-seizure is meant not for “security,” but for expanding Israel’s borders, see this report by B’tselem, an Israeli human rights organization.

For a description of Palestinian architectural restoration now underway in 50 villages see RIWAQ – Center for Architectural Conservation –




Ellen Cantarow, a Boston-based journalist, first wrote from Israel and the West Bank in 1979. Her work has been published in Le Monde diplomatique, the Village Voice, Grand Street, Tom Dispatch and Mother Jones, among other publications, and was anthologized by the South End Press. More recently, her writing has appeared at CounterPunch, ZNet, and Alternet.