Commemorating 60+ Years of the Systematic Murder of Palestinian Land. The first part of a three part series for Land Day
As I stood on the roof and watched Jerusalem stretch in front of me, with the sun reflecting on the golden Dome, I felt angry and felt how unfair the world is. I was born in Jerusalem, went to school there and practically grew up there knowing almost every corner, every street and every alley in it. I have more memories in Jerusalem than any other place in the world, all cherished ones. But now, I am not allowed into the city anymore because I am Palestinian. As I stood there, with tears in my eyes, I envied every Palestinian with an American or European passport, because they can come and visit Jerusalem. I envied every foreigner who can visit the city whenever they choose. I even envied the birds singing on the cypresses before me, because they could fly over Jerusalem and fill their eyes with its beauty and their lungs with its air. In my childhood, Jerusalem was the only major Palestinian city I knew well and loved. In the eyes and mind of a child, to me Ramallah was a cold city, Bethlehem was the “village” nearby, Nablus and Hebron were the places “to visit my uncles in Israeli prisons” and Jericho was too hot. Only Jerusalem was perfect: with its bustling Old City, the old bus station, Salah Al-Deen Street, Al Musrarah, the walk to the Notre Dame, the walk down Wadi Al-Joz and up to Al-Tur and the walk up to Ras El Amoud. I walked on the roof and saw the mountains on the Jordanian side, clearly visible during mild weather. Late afternoons, coming back home from school, one would witness a breathtaking sight going down the steep street in Sawahreh: a marvellous mixture of simple houses, some with old traditional domed roofs, barley fields or olive groves spreading against a curtain of mountains. Between the mountains and the last of the houses a strip of blue was visible. We always thought it to be the Dead Sea. Well, I personally still like to think of it as the Dead Sea. It was a combination of colours that rarely showed itself, but when it did, it was truly breathtaking.
To the south I could see Mount Herod in the distance. I have watched this artificial mountain since my childhood and always wondered at its shape. It always looked far away to be reached, but at the same time so close, an integral part of the view surrounding my home. I used to think about the impossibility of climbing that mountain, because it had steep sides, one would keep slipping and would never reach the top. I did “climb” that mountain years later, during the work on a TV documentary on Bethlehem. During the 2002 IOF invasion of the West Bank, my parents told me that Israeli fighter jets used to pass over Sawahreh on their way to Bethlehem. After a few minutes, the sound of explosions would rock the sky, as the IOF bombarded Bethlehem and the surrounding towns, villages and refugee camps. Since hearing this, every time I see Mount Herod I can’t help thinking of Israeli jets on their way to destroying yet another part of Palestine and kill innocent unarmed civilians. In Sawahreh, Israeli jets roaring in the sky were always a common thing. Some of Sawahreh’s vast lands had been confiscated for so-called “security reasons” and were used as a training area for the IOF. We would often hear sounds of explosions and the house would shake, or hear Israeli jets coming and going. One time, my sister, my brother and I thought that they were preparing for war, and since we had no army of our own, had no jets or tanks or bombs to protect ourselves, we held a meeting to decide on the best way to protect the family. The only solution we could think of was to build an underground shelter. I don’t know where we got the idea of a shelter from, since Palestinians have no shelters, but most probably from one of those WWII films the Israeli TV kept showing. We did start digging, using our hands and small pointy stones, but realized after a while what a lengthy and hard process that was, and instead decided that in case a war does break out we would use the water well as a shelter, i.e., after removing all the water.
One would think what a beautiful view, Jerusalem on one side, Bethlehem on the other with mountains and an imaginary sea in the background. Unfortunately, this scenery is interrupted by the Jewish illegal settlements Maale Adumim and Kidar, spreading themselves on Palestinian hills. Many Palestinian villages and town are surrounded by illegal Jewish settlements. Some are surrounded by settlements from one, two or three sides. Others are surrounded by illegal settlements and the Apartheid Wall. Sawahreh is surrounded by the illegal settlements of Maale Adumim from the northeast and Kidar from the east and by the Apartheid Wall from the west. Kidar settlement is the closest to us. Before the first intifada, Kidar settlers used to come and walk through our main street, among Palestinian houses. So sure they were of themselves, acting as if the land belonged to them. I remember once we were playing in the land, when a group of settlers walked up the street. We stopped playing and just watched them. I didn’t understand settlers and settlements much at the time, but I remember knowing that these people had no right to walk on our streets. We used to spend our holidays in Dheisheh refugee camp, where the IOF would shoot to kill little children, and then we would come back to Sawahreh, where settlers were walking our street. Those close to Kidar used to sell home-made white cheese and yoghurt to the settlers, who thought us too quiet and peaceful, so they called us “Kiryat Shalom” or the village of peace. It was something I always felt ashamed of, knowing that the settlers thought us too peaceful to bother with, while their army and their fellow fanatic settlers were attacking Dheisheh and killing people there. If the illegal settlers of Kidar were so very interested in peace with us, why did they steal our lands to expand their settlement, knowing that our livelihood depended on these lands? You can’t have peace with your occupier, because the only peace they will offer you is a masquerade, not a real and just peace. In Palestine, power cuts are a regular thing, and whenever we had no electricity and had to study using candle light, which often hurt our eyes, I used to look through the window and watch Sawahreh, Abu Dees and Ezariyyeh drown in complete darkness, while Kidar and Maale Adumim would be lighted like a Christmas tree. Even as a child this made me think of how unfair the situation was and that these settlers and these settlements don’t belong here.
I remember as a child how “far away” Maale Adumim seemed. But as I grew up, so did the illegal settlement. The danger of this expansion never really registered in my mind until one night I dreamt that I opened the window of my bedroom to find myself looking into the courtyard of a Jewish house. The settlement had eaten the land all the way from where it stood till our house, and our house and the land surrounding it was next. I woke up sweating and my heart beating fast. So real was the threat, I realized at the time, that I knew it was not a mere nightmare. The next day I went at the back of the house to the spot where one could get a direct view of Maale Adumim and tried to calculate how much time we had before my nightmare became reality. I thought we still had time to act, but I was mistaken. Since the 1990’s the settlements have been expanding and are eating more Palestinian land at an unprecedented pace. In this area there are several illegal Jewish settlements such as Maale Adumim, Alon, Almon, Kidar, Kefar Adumim and Mishor Adumim, with a combined population of some 40,000 settlers. The largest, Maale Adumim was established in 1975 on confiscated Palestinian land and lies 14 km to the east of Jerusalem. It has a population of 35,000 illegal Jewish settlers and a jurisdictional area of 50 km². Road networks have been also established to connect Maale Adumim and neighboring settlements with Jerusalem and with the Jordan Valley. Palestinian land would be confiscated, declared a “closed military zone” and later used for illegal settlement expansions.
On the day of my arrival to Palestine for a short visit, I watched in shock as I passed Maale Adumim at how huge it has become. Within the space of two years, since my last visit, it had doubled in size, to say the least. Standing there on the mountain top, with a wall surrounding parts of it, it reminded me of a fortress from the middle ages. Although I am a fan of fortresses, this one brought only anger and disgust. The lands opposite it, which I distinctly remember were planted with olive trees, had become bare land, the trees uprooted and the land destroyed to make way for more illegal settler houses and roads. At the entrance to Maale Adumim stood a single olive tree, as huge as life and older than any illegal settler on this land. It was clear that this tree had been uprooted from some Palestinian field, maybe even from our confiscated land, and replanted here. Macabre, I thought and could only shake my head at the sad view of that lonely olive tree. Olive trees are like Palestinians, they grow in groups, surrounded by family and friends. That tree stood there alone, a reminder to every Palestinian that this is what the so-called peace process had done to us, and that if this process is allowed to go on, every single Palestinian will end up like that tree, alone and uprooted.
The plan to expand Maale Adumim, known as the “E-1” Plan, which was initiated by Rabin in 1994 and approved in 1999, led to the confiscation of yet more Palestinian land. This Plan is an important part of the “Greater Jerusalem” scheme, which includes Maale Adumim, Beitar, H´Givat Ze’ev, Gush Etzion, the Ariel bloc, the Hashmonain bloc and the Jordan Rift, and aims at annexing large areas of the West Bank to Jerusalem. This plan expands the jurisdictional boundaries of Maale Adumim and its satellite settlements to the Israeli Jerusalem municipal boundaries, linking Jerusalem with surrounding settlement blocs and linking the Maale Adumim bloc with with other settlement blocs such as Pisgat Ze’ev, Pisgat Omer, Neve Ya’acov and the French Hill. Also, a wall is being built around Maale Adumim and its satellite settlements, which will completely encircle East Jerusalem and 61 km² of Palestinian land. The “E-1” Plan aims to completely cut off Jerusalem from the rest of the Palestinian Territories, disconnecting the geographic contiguity of Palestinian Territories by dividing the West Bank into two parts, thus ensuring that no viable Palestinian state would ever come to existence. Last year, roads were paved and a bridge, main junctions, public squares, police stations, checkpoints and side walls were built in the “E-1” area. This area will cover some 13,000 dunums confiscated from Palestinian villages around Jerusalem and is to house an additional 15,000 illegal settlers. Two Israeli-only roads will connect settler roads southeast of Bethlehem with roads to the northeast, including connecting Maale Adumim and other Jerusalem settlements with the Ramot Ashkol settlement. For the construction of these roads, tens of houses in Sawahreh, Abu Dees and Al Tour are to be demolished. To prevent Palestinians from entering Jerusalem or using Road Nr. 1 that passes through the E-1 and Road Nr. 60 that passes through East Jerusalem, an “alternative” road is being constructed for Palestinian use and is to connect the Southern West Bank with its Northern part. For the construction of this road, the IOF issued a military order in 2007 confiscating 1,128 dunums of Palestinian land from villages between Jerusalem and Maale Adumim, i.e. Sawahreh, Abu Dees, Nebi Musa and Al Khan Al Ahmar.
Blocking the southern entrance of Sawahreh is the “Container” checkpoint, which is now being expanded to become a permanent border-like crossing. Passing the checkpoint, one would not imagine what beautiful landscape lies behind the Israeli stone blocks and control tower. Locally, we call it “Barriyeh”, the wilderness or the prairies. Green meadows decorated with red poppies wherever one looks. My favourite spot there is a low area, surrounded by hills and naturally-formed stone structures. Here, running was not possible because of the tall vegetation that covered the place. We would imagine ourselves swimming and race each other or play hide and seek. Then, when we would feel hungry, we would have something to eat under the olive trees. Relics of family history decorate caves in that area and cherished memories of childhood lie behind the checkpoint, making them off-limit to us. The last time I went there was just before leaving for Germany and I had not set foot again. Our lands there, including the olive fields, which were a source of income for my family, were confiscated in 2003. Today, only those few who originally had their houses behind the checkpoint are allowed in, but no one knows how long before their houses will be demolished for some reason or other so as to close the area completely.
The “Container” checkpoint is a passage between the north and the south of the West Bank. It is one of more than 630 Israeli checkpoints and road barriers all over the West Bank, aiming to restrict Palestinian movement on Palestinian land. Travelling to the south, one would have to take the “Wadi Al-Nar” road. Wadi Al-Nar, the Valley of Fire, is most probably called so because of its steepness and the danger of driving there. It was a dirt road connecting Sawahreh with Ubediyyeh, rarely used except maybe by villagers travelling on donkeys. With the signing of the so-called peace process, Jerusalem was closed to most Palestinians and this road was used instead as a link left between the south and the north. If one is stuck behind a truck on that road, the meaning of “Valley of Fire” becomes clear, for when driving up the road, one has the continuous feeling that the truck will turn over any minute and everything behind that truck would be squeezed underneath it. As children we would follow the shepherds with their herds whenever we could. We would eat figs, search for snake nests in caves and play at the old ottoman stone circles. Every time we were there on the hills, we would go exploring a bit further. It was mostly steep hills, where we learned to slide slowly down a hill, using our left foot as a break. Here, there were no illegal settlements and no IOF soldiers, or at least they were not visible. When it was time to go home, instead of taking the direct way, we would go all around the hills, passing the “sacred river” to the old Sawahreh houses and further back home. The “sacred river” as we called it, was a small “river” running through the Wadi Al-Nar. Greenery was along both sides of this river, giving it a genuine river look, like those we used to see in cartoons. The vegetables growing around the riverbanks were double the size of the ordinary vegetables we would buy from the supermarket. Later, and to our great disappoint, we found out that the reason for the extraordinary growth of these vegetables was the waste water. This “sacred river” was actually the flow of waste water from Maale Adumim and other settlements in the area. Not only was their waste water contaminating our lands, their solid waste was being dumped and burned on our lands as well. Several studies have shown that illegal Settlements comprise a major environmental threat. Waste water and industrial waste from settlements is dumped on Palestinian lands, contaminating the soil and the water supply. Palestinian plans to treat waste water are usually rejected by Israel, and in one incident Israel insisted that a treatment facility for Tulkarem be built on the other side of the Green line, for no other reason than to use the treated water for its own interest.
During my last visit to Palestine, I wanted to see these hills again and enjoy the beauty of a Palestine that was free of illegal settlements and IOF checkpoints. It was late afternoon and as I looked around me I saw Mount Herod in the distance, with Palestinian villages decorating the hills all the way from there to Jerusalem. And opposite them, Palestinian hills extended all the way to meet the Jordanian mountains in the horizon. There was no Apartheid Wall, no IOF checkpoints and no settlements. Although I knew they were there, breaking the natural bond between Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank, they were not visible from where I stood. I saw the old stone houses with the traditional domed roof, a herd of sheep with a shepherd who was playing the flute, the sunset adding a magical touch to the whole landscape, and there, at that moment I felt what it would feel to live in a truly free Palestine. I started taking photos and wondering how long before the Israelis would wipe out this landscape and all traces of Palestinian existence here. I went home, thinking that the Palestine I grew up in is not the Palestine of today. The Palestine of today is the rest of the so-called peace process with its illegal settlements, the Apartheid Wall, the IOF checkpoints and “Herrenstraßen” that are eating Palestine from inside, like a cancer, destroying the land piece by piece. I remembered that lonely olive tree in front of Maale Adumim and hoped that those still disillusioned by the “peace process” would wake up and act before it was too late.
Reham Alhelsi is a Jerusalem-born Palestinian. She has worked extensively in the Palestinian Broadcasting Company and since 2000, when she moved to Germany, has trained at various radio and TV networks including Deutsche Welle, SWR and WDR. She is currently writing her PhD in Regional Planning with a focus on Palestinian Land Management and local government.