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The Land Belonged to Them: Revisiting a Palestinian Family, 25 Years After Their Land was Taken

A quarter of a century ago, I watched Israel take the Palestinian Khatib family’s land. With a British film director, we filmed the bulldozers closing in on the garden wall of the house of Mohamed and Saida Khatib and their son Sulieman amid their little orchard of olives, grapes, figs, apricots and almonds, beside Saida’s old chicken coop.

“It’s mine – it was my father’s and my father’s father’s,” crippled old Mohamed told me. “What do you expect me to do?” His 35-year-old schoolteacher son was going to the Israeli court to prevent this act of theft, he said. The family had refused compensation. The land belonged to them.

You can still see on YouTube the family’s pathetic hopes – standing in the garden of their home – in the film we made in 1993, Beirut to Bosnia: The Road to Palestine. Channel 4 and Discovery showed this sordid tale of dispossession and hopelessness in a three-part series – the late Mike Dutfield directed – on why Muslims had come to hate the West. I think we all hoped, in a naive way, that with our film cameras and our interviews with Mohamed and Saida and the quarter-hour we devoted to their struggle to keep their land east of Jerusalem, we might somehow save them from the official theft of their property.

We should have known better. Maybe that’s why, as the years passed and the expanding Jewish colony of Psgat Zeev – named after the nationalist and Revisionist Zionist leader Zeev Jabotinsky –  moved down the valley below the Arab village of Hizme, I preferred not to return to the building site that surrounded the Palestinian family’s home and garden. From the main road, I could still see the track down to the house, but I could no longer see the building. There were too many red roofs and young, new trees and paved roads and Jewish settlers. The story was over.

We had done our best. Journalism is a transitory profession. I had wars to cover – in Afghanistan, Algeria, Bosnia – and the Khatibs were not the only Palestinians to lose their property to Israel’s massive colonial project in the West Bank, building homes for Jews and Jews only on Arab land. Besides, other wars – Iraq (again), Yemen, Libya, Syria – turned the spotlight away from the Palestinian tragedy.

But on the 25th anniversary of that old film we made – and on the 25th anniversary of the Oslo agreement that might, if it had not been so flawed, have saved the Khatibs – I was back in Jerusalem, and I could no longer ignore the track down to the house. Nor the absence, amid the modern Israeli housing blocks, of the garden where, day after day – for these films take many hours to shoot – we had talked to the family.

“We don’t eat, drink or sleep,” Saida had wailed to us then, white-scarved beneath the shade of the trees. You can still watch her today as she protests before our camera. “Do we stay in other people’s homes? My husband is crippled, we are both old. This is a tyranny.”

So a few days ago, I took the old road to Hizme village once again, a broader highway now, a big Israeli checkpoint on the corner and cut off from the Jewish settlement of Psgat Zeev by The Wall, that 25-foot high colossus which scars its way for miles through the West Bank. Hizme – its oldest stone houses are clearly more than 200 years old – was the Khatib family village, where I suspected the family must have gone after their home was taken from them.

There I found Sulieman’s brother Ahmed – whom I had never met before – and he phoned Sulieman who had not, as I feared, emigrated to Europe or America, but who now lived in a crowded apartment with his wife and five children scarcely two miles away. There I drove, and in the street was Sulieman, 60 now and a trifle broader in the beam but with the same ponderous accent in English and the identical politeness with which he invited us onto his land a quarter of a century ago.

A sadder man today, but not without a vain – a very vain – hope that perhaps the family’s legal case against the Israelis might be reopened. Had his family not expressed their willingness to stay within the Jewish settlement? Had they not been told that the land was needed for roads – for “public use” – rather than settlers’ homes? The family lawyers had failed them, Sulieman said. But they had never accepted compensation. “Compensation means you sold your land to them – and [then] you give them the right to have it.”

At first, I didn’t ask after Sulieman’s parents but I guessed what had happened. Not long after we filmed them, the Israelis had turned up at the entrance to the Khatib home. It was now October of 1993. Police, officials of the Jerusalem municipality – judiciously extended to include the old village lands of Hizme – soldiers and bulldozers were there, Sulieman said. “I was at school teaching that morning, and my family called me and told me the Israelis had come with big forces. I found everything was finished. After demolishing the house, they were also demolishing the land, the walls – even the trees, the chickens, doves, everything – they didn’t leave anything. They didn’t leave a stone. Even our luggage, they took it with trucks – the food, clothes, everything, the bedding.” For a few days, the Khatibs lived in a tent amid the destruction.

Yes, Mohamed and Saida were dead, buried in Hizme village. Mohamed died two years ago, Saida in 2002. “They didn’t forget the land,” Sulieman says. “They always regretted what happened and we hoped and had our faith in God that the situation would change and we would return to our land. My father used to bring water all the way from Hizme village on a donkey – you saw how many trees there were… But we can’t fight a state like Israel. They pretend they have courts and law, but it is for their benefit, not for others’ benefit.” For the rest of his life, Sulieman said, his father refused to eat almonds or grapes because they did not come from his garden.

So on a bright, hot, sparkling morning last month, Sulieman and I did travel back down to the site of his home. We stopped on the old track to the house where now some large boulders were placed across the earth. Sulieman gingerly walked between them and down a smart, paved road between villas with lawns and trees and red roofs and parking places for residents. No one noticed Sulieman – we only saw one man during our journey – and he walked with increasing confidence between the settlers’ houses.

“This is the first time I’ve come here, since this was built,” Sulieman said, looking over a low wall, down towards what was his family’s property. “It’s a strange feeling. I can’t imagine what was here and what is here now. I think our land begins there” – and here he pointed a little to the south. The settlers do not know his story, he said. “They don’t know what people suffered here before them.”

Sulieman peered over the wall. “Maybe, if we can look from here a little bit. That high tree is on our land. They didn’t leave anything of ours… the walls, the trees, they didn’t leave anything.”

I used to think that dispossession and courage are twins in the mind of a refugee. They are not. Dispossession is the end; courage, I fear, can be as pathetic as it is irrelevant. “I am sorry to see it now, in this state,” Sulieman said. “Now they [the settlers] are living luxuriously on the ruins of other people. They don’t know [our story] and they don’t know… what it was before. It’s a bad history. And when they demolished our house, even if it was ‘for public use’, as they claimed, they should have taken into account our feelings, our humanity… They made it flat land, as if there weren’t any trees, any walls, anything in it. [Your film] is the only remaining thing to remind us. Thank you for bringing me here. It’s the first time – as if it wasn’t my land. It’s for strangers now. What can we do? I’m sorry for everything that happened.”

Sulieman now works as a part-time English translator for the Al-Quds al-Arabi – “Arab Jerusalem” – newspaper. He has educated his daughters and is still ready, he says, to fight in court for his land. I wonder how realistic he is – I tell him, repeatedly, that he must find the Ottoman and British mandate deeds to his property, which he recalls reading before the family’s dispossession – and he knows nothing of the Israeli groups which oppose Jewish settlement in the West Bank. I do not say what I fear to be true: that he will never – ever – get his land back.

During our trip, he walked to another spot, near the boulders. “This road also leads to our land, I think. You see the far green trees – I think they mark the end of our land. It was there. You remember the bulldozers moving there?”

Yes, the bulldozers are there on our old film – driven by Palestinians, I remember, for Arabs still help to construct the colonies which take their land – and I asked Sulieman to identify the country he is looking at when he stares at the site of his family house. “It’s Palestine – but [with] Israeli buildings,” he replied. “It’s the land of Hizme [village] and Beit Hanina, all these houses you see. I consider myself living abroad, but in the same district… Just we hope from God that the situation will change and everything will change and the tyranny will change…” I notice at once that Sulieman uses the same word – “tyranny” – that his mother used all those years ago.

And what was he thinking, here in the settlement of Psgat Zeev, in this parcel of land that is/was part of Hizme? “I get confused,” he said. “Sometimes, I think I can do nothing – because, you know, this state, Israel, was established on the land of others, not just on our [individual] land. And it’s not easy to get it back from a state or a government like this. They are still expanding on other lands.”

True. And this is neither the time nor the place to speak of Jewish suffering or Israeli Orthodox Jews who believe that God – rather than any court – gave them the right to the lands of thousands of Arab Palestinians, including the Khatibs. Nor of the UN partition which the Arabs never accepted. Nor of the UN vote which brought about the state of Israel. Nor of Trump. Oslo hangs over us like a shadow. Can there ever be a Palestinian state? “No, I don’t think so. At the time of Oslo… at that time, we imagined, we thought – so we thought – there would be. But after this long time, the situation is getting worse…”

And there followed a familiar monologue which I have heard many times before, although its repetition should not detract from its earnestness. The Palestinians will continue to fight for their land, even when the world is distracted. Probably true. The Israelis could not steal Palestinian land without America and the lethargy of Europe. True, I’m afraid. As long as there is occupation, there will be no peace. Even more true. No, Sulieman will not leave “Palestine” – I still insist on quotation marks here – because it is his “homeland”.

But could Sulieman have imagined, when I met him and his parents 25 years ago, what would happen? “I didn’t imagine it,” he said. “And after this long time, after the wall and the settlements, you can’t even notice that this was once your land. Because they change the situation, the new houses, trees, streets, villas…”

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Robert Fisk writes for the Independent, where this column originally appeared. 

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