Another impression from my travels gathering material for Our Way to Fight. It needs no additional comment from me, but I do invite yours.
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Turning to the village of al-Nu’eman:
While my Israeli friend Efrat Ben-Ze’ev argues with the soldier, I watch an elderly Palestinian man approach the barrier on a donkey. Below the rider’s djellaba, his sandalled feet nearly touch to the ground, and swing gently to the donkey’s measured pace. This man has only two options here: the road barrier or the turnstile. On the road only motor vehicles can pass through the checkpoint, and through the narrow turnstile only pedestrians, in single file. There is no other way to enter or leave the village of al-Nu’eman.
Efrat and the young soldier argue in Hebrew, but from their tone I can read that the exchange is not friendly. Then suddenly with a jerk of his helmeted head the soldier orders us through. Efrat tells me she dropped the name of an officer she met here a few months ago. “Maybe I shouldn’t have used his name just now,” she says. “Maybe I should have kept it for a more urgent situation.” Such are the dilemmas of challenging a military occupation from the occupying side.
We drive on. Watching the elderly man recede in her mirror, Efrat worries aloud, “How will he get through the turnstile?” Clearly the question is rhetorical.
The modern history of al-Nu’eman could have been written by Kafka. Home to some twenty-two families, the village lies between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, small houses strung along a short, crumpled hilltop road. In 1967, Israel annexed East Jerusalem and with it a constellation of Palestinian villages, including al-Nu’eman.
In organizing its post-1967 system of population control in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, the military administration slotted al-Nu’eman residents into the West Bank, instead of Jerusalem. Although technically they live in annexed East Jerusalem, their ID cards say they live in the West Bank, and are therefore not allowed to be in Israel, including Jerusalem, which includes al-Nueman, without permission from the military authorities. The people of the village break the law simply by living where they have always lived. Sometimes the soldiers refuse a resident entry to the village by claiming “there is no such thing as al-Nu’eman.” Their justification: the army arbitrarily renamed the village al-Mazmuriyya. By the occupier’s logic, the people of al-Nu’eman live nowhere.
We drive up a narrow twisting road into the village. Up here a breeze moderates the late summer heat. I imagine how cold it must be in the wet, windy winter. In the valley below, the wall – here a wire fence with monitoring devices – and the settlers’ road cut through the land. Beyond we can see the villagers’ olive groves, so close but now effectively out of reach.
When the separation barrier was erected here in 2003, it enclosed al-Nu’eman on three sides. Shortly after, the checkpoint was expanded, then the settlers’ road was built, then a military base, then the Mazmouriyya “trade terminal.” Plans are pending for a section of the Jerusalem ring-road to cut through here. Each of these constructions swallows more village land, with no benefit to the villagers. All attempts to seek justice from the Israeli military, government and courts have failed. Even when the court has ordered some modest remedy for al-Nu’eman, little comes of it.
We pass a small building with an open yard – it’s the children’s centre, says Efrat, where Israeli and international volunteers worked with villagers to build a few playground structures from recycled materials. The playground is empty today, the street deserted at midday in the holy month of Ramadan. Nearby, an empty house will become a computer centre for young people, funded by solidarity groups in Britain.
On ground that looks dust-dry, Sharifa’s house is fronted by a small garden, with a few sparse fruit trees. The house looks unfinished, with partial walls and no sign of new construction. Efrat explains, “For the whole family they have only four rooms, not very big, and a kitchen. Since 1996 they’ve wanted to expand the house. But in the mid-1990s the municipal government suddenly remembered that this is Jerusalem land, and to build anything you need a permit. Of course being Palestinians they could never get a permit, so they continue to live in this makeshift house. That’s how it is here.” When people build without a permit, even complete a wall, their houses are subject to demolition by the army. Several families here have already suffered this fate.
Sharifa Shawawra opens the door to us, a smiling young woman in jeans, long-sleeved shirt and headscarf. Her delight at seeing Efrat is palpable. It strikes me as the kind of relief a prisoner might feel on visiting day.
Efrat Ben-Ze’ev came here first in 2002 with Ta’ayush, an Arab-Jewish citizens’ partnership that undertakes practical projects to defend Palestinian lives and communities. When Israeli bulldozers destroyed village water pipes, Ta’ayush volunteers repaired them. Now Efrat visits on her own, or she brings people like me from other countries to witness the strangling of al-Nu’eman.
The two women chat in Arabic. Efrat speaks carefully, reaching for words – she’s learning the language slowly – and Sharifa nods encouragement. A small boy peeks at us wide-eyed from an inner room. Sharifa calls out to him, and soon he brings us juice, but only two glasses. It’s Ramadan, Muslims are fasting. Shukran, says Efrat, thank you, but we want to respect the fast too. Smiling, Sharifa waves away the protest. We are guests, so hospitality comes first. The juice is grape, pale and sweet.
Sharifa is 21. Efrat told me earlier that she is studying at Al-Quds Open University in Beit Sahour. What are her goals? With Efrat translating, Sharifa replies, “I want to finish my BA, and maybe my masters, then I’d like to be a teacher in the university if I can, or at least in a school.” The nearest primary school is located in the next village, the nearest high school a little farther. To get to either, she would have navigate the checkpoint and its too-familiar interrogation room.
Is it difficult to get through? “Always,” says Sharifa. “When you go out of the village you are screened and searched. You must take off your shoes, your coat, and your bag is searched. It’s the same again when you come back.” Has she been stopped? She nods. “Almost every time there is a story. It happens to all of us from the village. When there are male soldiers I have to stand for fifteen minutes, sometimes more, but when there are women soldiers, often it’s much longer.”
Has she missed classes? “Not only classes, but exams. If I miss a mid-year exam, the university will let me do the final exam. But if I miss the final exam, then it’s a zero.” I comment, inadequately, “You have to be very strong.” She laughs softly.
How long has her family lived here? “A long time,” she says. She glances at formal photographs on the wall – her father and his parents, born in al-Nu’eman.
I want to ask about her sister, Sawsan, who is twenty. A few months ago Efrat told me she had been arrested. “Umm,” I begin, hesitant to blunder into unclear boundaries. Sharifa nods, “Go ahead, you can ask anything.”
One evening when Sawsan was trying to return home from Hebron, a soldier told her she couldn’t bring pastries into the village. Often residents are told they can’t bring in eggs, or cheese, or plants and other items; the embargo list appears to be improvised by the soldiers on duty. On this occasion Sawsan lost her patience, and either handed or tossed the pastries at the soldier. She was detained, her cell phone and her head covering taken from her. After interrogation, she was jailed in Jerusalem. When an Israeli lawyer won her release the next day, the police dumped her on the far side of Jerusalem, from where she had to find her way home. Was she intimidated? “My sister is not scared of the soldiers,” says Sharifa. Efrat adds, “Both girls have learned to be tough.”
They learned through daily experience, and through loss. In late 2005, the soldiers stopped two men outside the village, and accused them of being in Israel without a permit. One was taken to a police station, but the other refused to go. A few hours later villagers found him tied to his mule, beaten unconscious. Mahmud Shawawra died soon after in hospital. At forty-three, he left a widow and eight children, including Sharifa and Sawsan. As usual, no charges were laid against the soldiers.
The land is good
In North America we are led to believe that extreme measures are needed to defend Israel from Palestinian terrorism. But here in al-Nu’eman it takes only a moment to see what is actually being defended. On a rounded hill not far from Sharifa’s house, a rampart of white apartment towers gleams in the sun. This is the settlement of Har Homa. Construction began in 1997, during Benjamin Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister. “The battle for Jerusalem has begun,” he proclaimed grandly. “We are now in the thick of it, and I do not intend to lose.”
This ‘battle for Jerusalem’ embodies the ongoing project of Greater Israel. As well as embedding another massive ‘fact on the ground,’ Har Homa adds a vital link to the vast chain of walls, roads, settlements and military infrastructure that sever Palestinian communities from each other, rendering a viable state more and more elusive. Like all settlements built on occupied Palestinian land, this one is illegal under the Fourth Geneva Convention, confirmed in a 2004 decision by the International Court of Justice: “Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, are illegal and an obstacle to peace and to economic and social development [… and] have been established in breach of international law.”
Unfortunately, from al-Nu’eman the International Court is far away. This is the view from the village: Directly behind the white rampart of Har Homa is the might of the Israeli military state, and behind that looms its chief ally, the United States. In 1997, the US government vetoed resolutions in both the UN Security Council and General Assembly demanding an immediate halt to construction at Har Homa. Instead it continues to expand. In 2008 the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that construction had begun on more than 1000 new housing units, many of them on Palestinian land seized by Israel.
While Sharifa and Sawsan attend university, their older brother Murad is the only family member able to earn any income. In one of the more perverse ironies of the occupation, the only work he can get is in construction, helping to build Har Homa.
The Israeli plan for al-Nu’eman is clear: The Palestinians are in the way, and they have to go. But for now, facts on the ground here still include Sharifa and her tenacious garden. Given the arbitrary barriers to bringing food into the village, it becomes even more crucial to grow it here, in what’s left of al-Nu’eman. I know the challenges of growing a garden under much easier conditions in rural Canada. How on earth does she manage it here? Her response is simple: “The land is good.”
The best growing season here is winter, when the rains come. This winter Sharifa plans to grow sabaneh (spinach), lettuce, potatoes. They also have an apricot tree, a few olive trees, some young grape vines for juice, and askedinya, also known as loquat, a tree that bears fruit in the spring. Efrat says, “It’s orange, sweet and very good.”
But now we have to leave. Sharifa waves from the open door as we depart.
Returning to Jerusalem, we are stopped again at the checkpoint below al-Nu’eman. This time soldiers search the trunk. Efrat says quietly, “They don’t like that we went to the village.”
Heading the other way, a bleached-blond woman in an open red convertible sails through the checkpoint without having to stop. Clearly enroute to one of the Israeli settlements further south, she exchanges breezy waves and smiles with the soldiers.
As Efrat said, this is how it is here.