Friday, 12 December 2008

Despite all odds, Palestinians carry on with living in the Heart of Hebron

Hebron, or Al-Khalil, lies 30 km south of Jerusalem and is the second largest Palestinian city with a population of 163,000 Palestinians. Hebron is one of the commercial centres of the Occupied Palestinian Territories and several industries emerged in Hebron and continue to find their home there. Like the rest of Palestine, the cancer of illegal settlements has set its lethal teeth in Hebron. This city is not only surrounded by settlements like other Palestinian cities and towns, but has settlement points in its heart. In 1968 a group of Israelis rented a hotel room in Hebron for 48 hours, after which they refused to leave, and 6 months later the establishment of a Jewish neighbourhood in Hebron was approved by the Zionist state, to be followed in 19070 by another approval to establish the illegal settlement Kiryat Arba. In 1980 the Israeli government decided to add a floor to the Beit Hadassah point, to be used as a school, the corner stone for a settlement in the heart of the old city of Hebron. 4 years later, a Jewish settlement point was established in Tel Rumeida. In 1994 a fanatic Jewish settler entered the Ibrahimi mosque and opened fire on the worshippers there killing 29 Palestinians. According to the Protocol concerning the Redeployment in Hebron, signed 1997 between the PLO and Israel, Hebron was divided into 2 sections: H1 and H2. H1, forming 80% of the city (18 square km), is home to some 120,000 Palestinians, and is under Palestinian control. H2 covering the old city with the commercial centre and the Jewish settlements (4.3 square km), where around 40,000 Palestinians are forced to live with some 600 fanatic Jewish settlers, fell under Isreali control. The presence of these illegal settlers in the heart of Hebron, mainly in the Casaba, had led to the closure of many commercial shops, and many residents were either forced out of their houses or left due to lack of security and livelihood. Severe restrictions are placed upon the Palestinians, including restrictions on movement in H2. Many streets are completely or partially closed, and Palestinians are not allowed to drive cars in large areas in H2. Also, the movement of ambulances has to be coordinated in advance with the IOF, even in cases of emergency, and in Tel Rumeida even the ownership of kitchen knives for house use is not allowed. None of these restrictions apply on the illegal Jewish settlers. Today, Hebron is surrounded from the east by the illegal settlement Kiryat Arba and to the south by Bet Haggai. Settlement points inside the old city include the Avraham Avinu neighbourhood, Beit Hadassah, Beit Romano and Tel Rumeida.

A couple of weeks ago, some friends and I were invited by a Hebronite friend to visit him in Tel Rumeida. I, personally, was only a couple of times in Hebron as a little kid, and only to visit my uncles in Israeli prisons. So, I was anxious to see this city, especially Tel Rumeida. On the way to Hebron we were accompanied by the views of the illegal settlements on both sides of the road, and junctions leading to more illegal settlements. The land spreading between these settlements was often surrounded by wire fences, indicating it was confiscated. Every now and then one would come across an olive field or a vineyard and would wonder how long before this piece of land would also be confiscated in the name of "peace“. The same scenario repeated in all Palestinian areas: settlements spreading on the hilltops, land surrounded by wire fences and construction sites for building more settler roads or expanding existing settlements. The sight of these settlements causes not only heartache, a headache, but an eye ache as well. With their European-styled red brick roofs, they were out of place, and trying to be part of the Palestinian landscape but failing drastically. Palestinian villages and towns were on the other hand a much-welcomed change of view, a delight to see, mingling with the whole landscape and forming an integral part of it. They are so natural there, as if the landscape was created with these Palestinian houses as part of it. There was something attractive about the way the houses scattered here and there, surrounded by the beautiful olive fields or vineyards. You could feel life shining out of them, not like the artificial red bricks trying to force themselves on a landscape that is refusing them. The various shades of green, red and brown of the Palestinian landscape was only interrupted by the grey colourless sites and barren areas where Palestinian land was being torn to pieces and Palestinian landscape desecrated by the illegal roads and settlements. These barren areas were fertile only a decade ago. At junctions, we passed settlers standing at bus stops, feeling at home in our home, the home they were kicking us out of. Many settlers waiting at the bus stops were armed with machine guns and rifles, parading them. I suppose they think this is the way to put fear into the hearts of the Palestinians. Yes, one does feel fear seeing these fanatics with their rifles because they have been known to kill innocent Palestinians for no reason at all except their thirst for blood. But what they fail to see is that parading like that, on our roads, only strengthens our will to kick them out of our lands.

At one junction we saw a sign with the warning that one was about to enter a Palestinian area and that Israelis were not allowed in, and I couldn’t help thinking whether the Nazis had such signs on the entrances to Jewish Ghettos: you are about to enter a Jewish Ghetto, good citizens of Germany are not allowed in. After a few minutes drive throw the city of Hebron, we were welcomed by our Hebronite friend in the H1 area, who was to show us his hometown. This part of the city was very lively, with shops on both sides of the road, streets buzzing with life, people coming and going, students hurrying to their university, taxi drives hooping, men arguing and women doing the weekly shopping. For some, this chaos may seem annoying and painful to the ear. To me, it was bliss, and I walked through these streets taking everything in, with a large smile on my face the whole time. I was extremely happy to see such a lively city, because it shows that despite all Israeli terror and all restrictions they cannot take this city out of us, we live and Palestine will continue to live with us. People were showing their pride at being Palestinian, for I haven’t seen a Palestinian town before, where so many Palestinian flags were hanging from buildings, shops and cars. Traditional carts driven by horses were waiting for tourists and fruit and vegetable carts were displaying their commodity with various colours that attract the eye. Here one wouldn’t have to worry about the source of the fruits and vegetables one was purchasing or what kind of poisons one was eating. It is all the product of Palestine, planted and cared for by Palestinian hands and hearts. As we walked further in the direction of the old city, the lively atmosphere began to fade.

An IOF observation tower on the one side and an IOF observation post on the roof of an old building on the opposite side, signalled that we were about to enter the H2 area of Hebron. Being in the centre of a Palestinian urban area and because it is under Israeli control, H2 attracts the most fanatic and violent of the illegal Jewish settlers. Our local friend told us that one huge building behind the tower used to be a Palestinian school, later confiscated and turned into a Jewish one for the use of the settlers. If I’m not mistaken, I believe this is the Osama Bin Munqaz school, which is now known as Beit Romano. The other IOF observation post with camouflage netting stood on an old building that seemed abandoned. We were told that there are several such posts, occupying the roofs of about 20 Palestinian buildings, and in some cases, like this one, the IOF taking over the whole building. There was also a huge gate that stood open, and I wondered if at night, the residents of that area were locked in like sheep. According to B’Tselem “at least 35 Palestinian residential dwellings and shops in Hebron are currently held by security forces permanently for their continuous or sporadic use.”[1]

The old city of Hebron has always been not only the commercial heart of the city, but that of the whole southern West Bank. This centre collapsed economically and stopped functioning with the arrival of the illegal settlers and the various Israeli restrictions on Palestinian livelihood. Many Palestinian families were thus forced directly or indirectly out of their neighborhoods. The old city with its traditional market or "souq“ was lined up with narrow alleyways and covered up with wire mesh, some sort of wire-fencing, sheets and rags that covered all exposed areas to protect the pedestrians and the shop owners from the stones, the dirt, the garbage and urine-filled bottles thrown at them from the settlers occupying the apartments above, after their original inhabitants had been kicked out. The Casaba extends till the Ibrahimi mosque, and is know for its old houses and narrow alleys, many of which were closed by the IOF, the sideway steps, passageways and the old-styled windows with the outward windowsills. We were met by endless alleys and arches leading to more arches, so beautiful were the views, and yet so sad. We’d pass under the old arches above which stood houses with beautiful old-styled windows. These arches, together with the old houses with the windowsill and traditional windows are common in the old centres of Palestinian cities, such as in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. This was in my opinion the most beautiful part of Hebron, and I felt an outrage, such a beautiful city treated with such disrespect by these land thieves. A once powerful Palestinian centre turned into a weak, almost ghost city, by the IOF restrictions on Palestinians and the terror acts of the fanatic invaders. In that moment, I so much wished I could turn time back and see these streets in their full glance, to the time when the real owners of their houses ruled over the whole city, when this city talked to the people.

We walked through the narrow streets, the high building on both side together with the wire mash and sheets, limiting the amount of sunlight pouring in. Many shops were closed here by Israeli military orders, others because of lack of security and long curfews. A number of shops were open and displaying their multi-coloured products. Some were selling traditional items and representations of the Palestinian folklore. They were all tiny shops with barley a place to stand, one would have to admire the items exhibited from outside. We took a rest at the entrance of one of these shops. The owner, a Palestinian woman, told us that she and a group of women, mostly housewives, sell their products here. They had a variety of things on display such as handbags, T-Shirt, shawls, purses, pillow covers, etc… all decorated with traditional Palestinian stitches, in addition to traditional Palestinian dresses and the Palestinian Kafeyyeh. The shop owner told us that they sell their products directly here, and don’t advertise nor distribute to other shops, and that is why they sell these items for very reasonable prices. I inquired about the price of a few items I planned on buying as presents for friends in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, and was surprised that the prices were one third of those offered for the same items in Ramallah or Bethlehem. We went on, and were delighted to see that despite all, the heart of the city was slowly, but steady regaining its strength and pumping life into the whole area. I stand corrected, this isn’t a dying city, this is a city that refuses submission and refuses to die. On the stands one is able to find almost everything, from meat and fish, oil and olives, spices, fruits and vegetables to all sorts of house utensils. Freshly slaughtered meat hung in butcheries while traditional sweets, such as Knafeh, were being prepared in pastry shops.

As we walked deeper into the old city, we encountered rows over rows of closed shops with their typical green colour. The settler garbage above our head also increased and one could only wonder at the culture from which these fanatics have emerged, if they have a culture of any sort, i.e. other than that of murder and land theft. As we came closer to the Ibrahimi mosque, we passed a few shops selling items for tourists. I could hear the shop owners telling the foreign passers by: if you want to help Hebron, please buy our local products. At the entrance to the mosque we were welcomed by revolving doors and a wire fence dividing the entrance into 2 paths. The metal detectors went buzzing the minute we went through, and after a struggle with our cameras and our handbags and after having our IDs and passports controlled by the IOF, we were allowed into the courtyard of the mosque. This was a “welcome” fit for a prison or a military base, not a place of worship. The Ibrahimi mosque is spilt into two parts, one small part is reserved for the Palestinian Muslims and the other for the Jewish settlers. On Jewish holidays, Palestinians have no access to the mosque as the whole complex is turned into one big synagogue. The first thing I saw was the huge building, then the red cabins in front of the Mosque. People would have to go through these cabins and be searched before being allowed inside the mosque. Israeli policemen were everywhere and I was told that snipers are also present on the roof. There were a few Palestinian worshippers coming and leaving and a few kids trying to sell postcards and other small items to the tourists. We were in a hurry and thus didn’t have time to go inside the mosque, which annoyed me a little bit because you never know if you’ll have a second chance to see the place. Ethnic cleansing and changing the realities in Palestine happen at such a speed that every time I come to Palestine, I search in vain for the old familiar landscapes, and instead I’m confronted with new ones, those of settlements, settler roads, checkpoints, apartheid walls and barbed wires.

We made our way onward to the solidarity tent, where a week of solidarity with the old city of Hebron had been organized by the “National Campaign against the Israeli Closures in Hebron Old City”. The old city is under continuous Israeli siege and the people are daily threatened by the Israeli measures aiming at emptying the city of its original inhabitants and causing a “quiet transfer”. While Palestinians suffer under the various restrictions, including the use of a number of their streets and neighbourhoods, the Jewish settlers roam freely. Heavily armed, these fanatics often harass and attack Palestinians with stones or bottles. The settler violence and Isreali policies and restrictions on Palestinians in the old city have forced thousands to leave their homes and the closure of “1829 Palestinian businesses in the areas of the settlements in the city”[2], according to the B’Tselem report titled “Ghost Town”. The report adds that 1014 Palestinian housing units stand vacant.

Isreali soldiers positioned everywhere in the old city are only there for “protecting” the Jewish settlers and seldom intervene to prevent settler violence. On the contrary, they often participate in harassing the Palestinians. Jewish assailants are rarely brought to justice, while Palestinians are often punished for the violent acts of the settlers, such as curfews which are imposed for weeks. We could see some people hurrying on their way back home, groups of boys playing here and there, little girls sitting in a corner whispering and giggling. These people are steadfast here, and as long as the children fill its streets and its alleys, the old city will never be abandoned, and will always be lively and waiting for those who were forced out to come back and reclaim their homes, shops, streets and neighbourhoods.

There were many people there and the lots of TV crews. The next day we heard that Luisa Morgantini, deputy president of the European Union parliament had visited Hebron, and during an argument with the Jewish settlers had shouted “You are thieves who steel buildings!” and “You assault Palestinians day and night to force them out of their homes”.[3] Behind the tent one had a superb view of the Hebron, and below us we could see the streets we had just passed. We were actually standing above the closed shops. Old styled houses spread all around us in a panorama fit of the city of the Patriarchs, the city of Abraham. Children were everywhere around us, waving Palestinian flags and chanting with the national songs coming from the loud speakers surrounding the tent. How can anyone think of this city as dead, seeing all this life?

We turned back and walked on in the direction of the Tel Rumeida neighbourhood. I have so often heard stories and seen disturbing videos of the settler brutality against the locals there, their violence, the seizure of houses and the harassment, and the humiliating treatment the Palestinians get on the hands of the settlers and the IOF. At one corner we encountered an entrance closed with heavy blocks of stone and wire, so no entry was possible. Behind the wire fence, there stood an additional number of stone blocks, similar to those used by the IOF in blocking roads or closing entrances, and similar to those placed in areas where the apartheid wall is yet to be built. The only thing visible, were the tops of building, old Hebronite houses and the tops of closed shops with the Arabic nameplate still there. The building closest to the entrance had several windows and they all had shutters that were down. Our friend told us that the settlers live there now and it is them who throw the garbage and the rocks at Palestinian pedestrians on the other side of the building. As I took some photographs, I noticed the observation camera placed in one corner and with full view of the whole street. And then, at another corner, we saw a couple of old houses that were sadly left to decay, but as we passed the corner into the next street, we could see some workers renovating part of the road. Some shops were open and people were coming and going, despite the settler houses above their heads, and the danger coming from these houses. At that moment, when asked about my thoughts, I replied that walking these streets, despite the closed houses and shops, and settler garbage above and settler racist writings on the walls accompanying us the whole way, one has a strong feeling that this city can only be Palestinian. These fanatic settlers are trying to impose realities that are not possible. Their presence is so artificial and out of place, it is bound to end one day, simply because it doesn’t fit in the picture, they have no place in Hebron. It’s like a painting of a beautiful landscape, with trees, birds and flowers, all mixing in to give the painting its uniqueness and its beauty. And then by mistake a drop of paint falls on the painting and forms a blot that destroys the whole view. It will be a long, tedious and annoying task to remove this blot from the painting without harming its other elements, but after that one is rewarded with a perfect landscape, where everything is where it belongs. The Jewish settlers are the blot on the Hebron landscape, but a blot can always be removed and life and beauty will be restored to our precious painting.

Finally, we reached the end of the street and in front of us we could see again the bustling part of Hebron. To the left, there was an upward going street, with some kind of container at its top that was blocking the view of what lay behind it. This was the entrance to Tel Rumeida. A red sign told us that we were entering an Israeli area. We were to go through the IOF check and as our friend said, we’re to say we were his personal guests. Since some time Internationals were not allowed into that neighbourhood, because much of what is going on there was coming out, in the form of film and photos. He said that they used to have regular visits from Internationals coming to show their solidarity. Also, members of the “Breaking the Silence (BTS)” used to come here and bring Israelis and Internationals and show them the reality there. Co-founded in 2004 by an Isreali soldier who served in Hebron, BTS aims at breaking the silence about the behaviour of the IOF in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and expose what they were doing there. They used to organize tours, where participants would have the chance to see the realities of life in H2 for themselves. The tours were interrupted a number of times by the Jewish settlers who attacked the participants. During one tour, the “Israeli settlers blocked the path of the bus and poured scalding water over several tour participants while the police stood by. None of the settlers were charged.”[4] After which the BTS were banned from entering Hebron by the IOF. After going through the container, with its electric devices and metal detectors, we were ordered by the army to return back. It was after our friend assured the IOF that we were friends and invited to his home for dinner that they let us in. And there we were: in Tel Rumeida.

Tel Rumeida is a neighbourhood is in the H2 area of Hebron. Here, some 600 of the most violent and fanatic of all Jewish settlers occupying Palestinian land live in the midst of the Palestinian Hebronite population, and are “protected” by around two thousand Israeli soldiers, who assist them in abusing the Palestinians. They are responsible for a reign of terror, assaulting and attacking the unarmed Palestinian population on a regular basis. While the settler men walk the Hebronite streets boasting with their machine guns and clubs, which they often put to use, settler women and children abuse Palestinians by kicking them, spitting on them and throwing stones and garbage at Palestinian women and school children. Settlers are also known to have tried to run Palestinians over with their cars, and have not only kicked Palestinian families out of their houses and occupied them, but have also destroyed Palestinian property, like doors and windows of houses and shops, cut down trees, and are known to have broken into Palestinian homes and shops and committed theft.

The first thing that came to my mind was: this is scary. In front of us we saw a typical Hebronite street with row after row of houses and shops, and Israeli flags hanging here and there. The street was completely empty and at the end of it stood the Jewish school that used to be Palestinian, the one we saw when we first entered H2. We just walked a little bit in the direction of the school but decided to turn back on the advice of our friend. We took instead a street that was going upwards, and as we walked we saw a wall with graffiti and murals, all in Hebrew, most probably painted by the settlers. On seeing some International flags drawn on the wall, I couldn’t help thinking how pathetic! They are stealing our land, our culture, our history and even our food, and now they want to imitate the international solidarity movement that draws these murals on the apartheid wall in support of the Palestinian people. As with all walls, behind it there was an Israeli tower serving as observation point. Our friend told us that Palestinian movement in this street ends with another checkpoint maybe a 100 m away from where we stood, marked by a visible stone block. Here, only Jewish settlers are allowed to drive cars, while Palestinians have to go through the checkpoints in order to enter Tel Rumeida and then carry their shopping and walk all the way to their homes.

We then went up some rocks and through a garden of some sort, walked through trees and climbed a rock here and jumped down there, until finally we reached the house of our friend. Before anything else, he showed us the marks on his house door where settlers had tried to break in, and said that he was unable to repair the iron door because the equipment needed was not allowed in Tel Rumeida, this restriction applying only to Palestinians, as with all restrictions in Hebron. Gunshot marks were also visible above the door. We then went around the house and right there, a bit elevated on a hill, were the unholy neighbours. Their position there gave them full view of the few Palestinian houses below them. Our friend pointed to one house and told us that it’s the house of the infamous Baruch Marzel, a leading right-wing politician and leader of the religious Zionist party the “Jewish National Front”, who was also head of the secretariat of the terrorist group Kach. Around us we saw the signs of living near fanatic settlers: their garbage was everywhere, one big stone block lie in the way, and nearby an old washing machine. I shivered at the thought of that stone block falling on one of the kids who were running around us as we viewed the area. Vine stems were cut in the middle and left hanging in the air to rot. From where we stood, the settler houses were high above us, with garden the trees covering the view, so we went to a narrow path where the houses stood in full view. As we started taking photos, our friend hurried us to come back, because these settlers won’t hesitate in shooting at us. There was a small piece of land there planted with olive trees, and our friend told us that he was not allowed to pluck his olives because of the settlers. One time, when he wanted to pluck the olives with a number of internationals, the settlers tried stopping them and some even stole his olives. He showed us where some stone wall stood separating his garden from the settler’s compound, which previously had been the entrance to his home, but since the settlers moved in these homes, the IOF closed the way, so he was forced to walk the way we came. On the backdoor we saw a David star and were told that it was drawn by the settlers who often come at night, walk around, make noise, turn things over, throw stones and cut off trees. Going back to the house, we passed the vine stems again and I thought: who would cut a tree like this? What did the tree do to these people? But then I remembered that these people wouldn’t hesitate to kill innocent people, so why wouldn’t they cut off a tree? Nearby was a huge olive tree, maybe a thousand years old. Many branches were cut off and it was easy to see that someone had tried cutting down the whole tree. As I commented on that, our friend pointed to a few branches that lay nearby and said that these were cut off by the settlers one night, and that the settlers had left messages telling them to leave the house.

Inside, we met the family and had dinner with them. The house was very simple and we were told about their daily life and suffering, living near such fanatics. The family as a whole can’t go out shopping or visiting relatives or friends, someone has always to stay at home, otherwise the house would be taken over by the settlers. They told us that the settlers observe them the whole time, to the extent that it happened that sometimes when they were having friends visiting, one of the settlers living nearest to them would come and threaten them in front of their guests. They showed us a number of videos filmed of settler attacks and told us that they got a video camera from B’Tselem to record all that happens to them. Their sweet little daughter told us how the settlers would attack them on their way to school, and how she herself was often hit by stones and once had her arm broken. She attends the Cordoba school, and because they are not allowed to use a section of Al-Shuhada street, closed by the IOF, the pupils and teachers had every day to take a steep dirt road and pass the settlement synagogue on their way to school and later to get home. There settler youths would be waiting for them for the ritual stoning. To help these pupils, members of the “Christian Peacemaking Team (CPT)” established a daily escort for the pupils, but this didn’t stop the settler attacks. After a couple of hours there, and as it was getting dark, we bid the family good bye and went down the road in the direction of the container checkpoint. On the way, we passed a house with green doors and some broken windows, and our friend told us that the settlers had occupied the house during a curfew, assisted by the IOF, who were secretly filmed opening the doors for the settlers with the help of the equipment used for opening locked doors. The owners and the neighbours protested taking over the house and in this case the settlers were forced to evacuate it. We walked further and at the checkpoint we bid our friend good bye, since he had to go back home before night falls and the settlers start their nightly terror.

We left Hebron, still shocked at the blatant display of hate, racism and violence by the illegal Jewish settlers, and wondered why there are still people defending the Zionist state. In recent weeks, settler violence had been on the rise, particularly in Hebron and its surroundings. Palestinian farmers have often been attacked by the settlers while farming their lands or during the olive-picking season. The presence of internationals, including aid workers and diplomats, or international observers, had not succeeded in preventing attacks, physical or verbal, from Jewish settlers. In a report titled “Justice for All”, the Isreali human rights organization Yesh Din “examined 205 cases of alleged assault by the Israeli settlers that were reported over the years. Only in 13 cases were indictments filed, while 163 cases were closed.”[5] On the way home, as we passed the stream of Palestinian towns and villages interrupted by the illegal Jewish settlements and IOF posts. The isolated settlements on top of hills, their bare houses with not a single view of tree, were a great contrast to the Palestinian towns and villages, where colours and sounds mixed. I thought of the children running the streets of Hebron, holding Palestinian flags and singing for Palestine. I thought of those shop-owners who insisted on opening their shops despite their horrific “neighbours”, and I thought of our friend and his family and all the families in the old city of Hebron, who continue to endure the suffering and harassment, but won’t leave their homes to the settlers. By the time I reached Bethlehem, a city bustling with life, I was full of hope that Hebron will one day rise and brush off these illegal settlers of its hills, plains and of its heart. One day, this city will once again be the pearl of the south.

[1] B’Tselem: Ghost Town: Israel’s Separation Policy and Forced Eviction of Palestinians from the Center of Hebron. 07
[2] B’Tselem: Ghost Town: Israel’s Separation Policy and Forced Eviction of Palestinians from the Center of Hebron. 07


Sunday, 7 December 2008

What about the Children of Palestine?

While the children of Palestine face the atrocities of the Israeli military occupation, the children of Israel celebrate the on-going ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people.

Two days ago I was visiting a friend of mine and as we walked down the old city, we more than once came across Hebrew-speaking tourists, a language I would recognize immediately. I thought they are most probably Israeli tourists since it was holiday time there. There were two elderly women who were posing in front of the nearby river and taking photos of each other. They were laughing and speaking in a loud voice. I couldn’t help thinking about the elderly women in Palestine who have seen so much suffering on the hands of the Israeli occupiers, mothers who didn’t have the chance to say goodbye to their children before being carried to their final resting place or before being dragged and locked in a dirty prison cell. As my friend and I sat on a bench under the trees chatting and watching people coming and going, another of these tourist groups passed by and again I recognized their nationality from their language. This time it was a young family. The mother was trying to convince her teenager son to keep still and listen to the tour guide, but it was obvious the boy wasn’t interested and started protesting. I suppose a typical reaction for boys who just want to run loose. Again I couldn’t help thinking of Palestinian children. Sitting here on a bench in a European town, I wonder why is it that European and Israeli children have the right to live freely but Palestinian children aren’t allowed to enjoy that right? We had no part in the holocaust or any of the atrocities committed during WWII, and beside the fact that children are not to be punished for the crimes of their parents, why is it that Palestinian children have to pay for the crimes committed by others?

Do the Israelis know that while their children are allowed to travel all over the world, Palestinian children have sometimes to wait for hours at a checkpoint before they are allowed to reach their schools? Do they know that sick Palestinian children need permits from the Israeli military so they can reach hospitals and get the urgently needed and in many cases life-saving treatment? Did they ever hear of the many children who died because the Israeli occupation forces refused to give them the needed permits and thus weren’t allowed to leave Gaza to get treatment?

In the course of decades of Israeli military occupation, Palestinian children have been subjected to all forms of physical and mental violence caused by the occupation. They have often been on the receiving end since they are the weakest of the occupied population and thus the easiest to intimidate. Schools have often been closed, besieged, shot at and even bombarded. One of the earliest memories I have of the Israeli occupation is when I was a little child staying at my grandparents house in Dheisheh refugee camp. It was land day (Yawm il Ard) and pupils went to the streets to commemorate the day and to demonstrate against land grab and confiscation. No one was at home except my younger sister and my grandmother. When we heard the sound of gunshots, my grandmother told us to close all windows and hide under the bed and wait for her to come back. She wanted to go and see what was going on and if people needed help, which is a typical reaction I witnessed often as I grew up. People stand together and when something happens they all rush to assist in any way possible. My sister and I swept under the bed and tried to close our ears to the sound of bullets that was filling the place. We could hear people shouting, chanting, and cars driving fast and jeep sirens. Then we heard a sound of something crash. It was inside the house. I remember going to check and found that a teargas bomb had broken the bathroom window and entered the house. The house was filled with suffocating gas within seconds. We had already been taught that the most effective way against tear gas is onions. We ran to the kitchen and grabbed some onions and ran back under the bed. I remember how unique the smell was, how I felt my throat was being cut by several knives, how I found it difficult to breath, not to mention the burning in the eyes and the tears. I don’t know how long we stayed there but sometime later my father came to take us back home. As we went down the main street heading to the car, I remember a sight I often saw later in TV reports on war zones.
The main Jerusalem-Hebron street running in front of the refugee camp was foggy, either from the burning tires or the many teargas bombs thrown, and the only thing visible in this foggy scene was the many Israeli soldiers and Israeli military jeeps blocking the road. Bullets were flying everywhere around us and I remember my father holding my hand in one of his and my sister’s hand in the other and urging us to run quicker. I remember looking at his face and seeing the worry and how every time a bullet was shot, he would lower his head, and as the car drove away, I looked from the back window and watched as the war zone, with the fully armed soldiers running like crazy chickens, slowly faded till it wasn’t in sight anymore. On that day a little schoolboy was shot in the back while fleeing the area, a cowardly act by an Israeli soldier. That "war" was between little school kids demonstrating against the atrocities of the occupation armed only with stones and their belief in freedom and Israeli soldiers armed with sophisticated killing machinery.

During the first Intifada, it happened that a Palestinian schoolboy from Dheisheh was killed by a sniper, the next day another school boy was killed and on the third day a schoolgirl. I don’t remember the exact details, but I do remember hearing people saying it was the same sniper who was located with his patrol on the roof of one of the camp houses. People said that he wore a helmet on which was written: born to kill! I don’t know if the sniper was ever questioned about his crimes or ever brought before court, most probably not, but some time later, I was going to my aunt’s house as an Israeli patrol came by and I remember looking at the soldiers as I passed by them and noticing that one of them wore a helmet with born to kill written on it. If it was the same soldier or not, I don’t know, but I know that in that moment I felt cold and thought: this is how Nazi soldiers must have looked like. At home we had a collection of Soviet literature which depicted the Red Army and its fight to liberate Europe from Nazi Germany and often Nazi soldiers were described as being tall, with blond hair and blue eyes, and that Israeli soldier with the "born to kill" on his helmet was living image of these Nazi soldiers.

The culture of killing the most innocent, i.e., children, isn’t new to the Israeli state. On the contrary, they either claim it was a mistake - one that is so often repeated - or that it is the fault of the others, never theirs. It is either the Palestinian factions who, according to the Israeli military, tell children to go to the streets and get killed, as if Palestinian children live in an invisible bubble and aren’t aware or affected by the situation they live in and need to be forced to go and express their anger. Or it is the fault of the parents who send their kids to the streets, as if Palestinian parents anxiously await the birth of their children, take care of them, try to offer them the best possible life in an impossible situation so in the end they can just send them to the street to get killed! Or better still, it is the fault of the children themselves, throwing stones at Israeli soldiers and endangering their lives. The Israelis often talk about incitement and how Palestine children are taught to hate. One of their regular statements used as an excuse for killing children, but as usual it is an empty statement, since a child can never pose a threat to an Israeli soldier equipped with weapons from head to toe. As for the alleged incitement, no one needs to tell children about the brutality of the Israeli occupier, because they witness that first hand in their daily lives on a daily basis. It begins with each morning, if one is lucky enough to wake up and still find the roof in its place and not hit by an Israeli missile. You say your goodbyes to your parents before going to school, looking at their faces and trying to keep these images engraved in your memory because you don’t know if you will see them again. At school, you sit at your desk and wonder if a shell will hit the roof any minute or if a bullet will come flying through the window. At checkpoints you see how people are being humiliated, maybe your father, your uncle, your teacher and try to look away so not to see the humiliation in their eyes and hope that the man or woman arguing with the soldiers would stop soon before the situation escalates and ends up in one of the soldiers shooting someone and later claiming he shot the person in self defense. And again, you are lucky if you make it safe back home without being arrested or killed at one of the checkpoints and hope that you will survive the night.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child states:

Article 2 (2): States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to ensure that the child is protected against all forms of discrimination or punishment on the basis of the status, activities, expressed opinions, or beliefs of the child's parents, legal guardians, or family members.

Article 24: States Parties recognize the right of the child to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health and to facilities for the treatment of illness and rehabilitation of health.

Article 28: States Parties recognize the right of the child to education, and with a view to achieving this right progressively and on the basis of equal opportunity.

Article 37 (a): No child shall be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Neither capital punishment nor life imprisonment without possibility of release shall be imposed for offences committed by persons below eighteen years of age.

According to the Defence for children international / Palestine section: between September 28, 2000 and May 3, 2008 962 Palestinian children were killed and 327 are detained in Israeli jails. (

Between September 28 2000 and July 2006 more than 68 pregnant Palestinian women had to give birth at Israeli checkpoints, leading to 34 miscarriages and the deaths of four women. (

According to Passia: "During the ongoing Intifada Palestinian education has suffered from Israeli practices. Israeli soldiers have occupied, broken into and temporarily closed down hundreds of Palestinian schools. Since Sept. 2000, at least 185 schools have been targeted by Israeli shelling, which left 11 schools completely destroyed. (Palestine Monitor, Intifada Fact Sheet, as of Nov. 2002)


Saturday, 6 December 2008

Our Cultural Heritage

As Palestinians all over the world commemorate the Nakba and 60 years of on-going zionist ethnic cleansing, murder and apartheid, there is one aspect of our Palestinian identity that survived despite all zionist attempts of elimination: our cultural heritage. The Palestinian cultural heritage is full of popular songs, poetry, sayings, stories handicrafts and other forms of folklore. They are the bridges that connect generations and unite Palestinians all over the world, binding us together and forming our cultural identity.

Looking back, I think of both of my grandmothers (God rest their souls). They both survived the Nakba and were witnesses to it in their own way. My grandmother from my father’s side came from a Bedouin family and lived in the outskirts of Jerusalem. When they heard about the zionist attacks in other parts of Palestine, the men went to defend their homes while the women gathered the children and sought refuge in the nearby caves. Years later, my father, who was a kid himself at the time of the Nakba, took us kids to see these caves and told us about their daily life at that time. I remember how I looked around investigating these holes, and thinking that if we had our own state, this place would have been made into a museum. The traces of the people who lived there and traces of their daily lives were still visible at the time of our visit. I ought to mention that the caves were located in an area designated for olive fields. No houses were nearby and we had to walk a long distance to reach them. Years later, and before leaving Palestine, one of the things I wanted to do before leaving was to see this place again. We went there but only for a short visit. We stayed in the olive groves and didn’t go any further in the direction of the caves. Illegal zionist settlements were nearby and we knew that we were being watched and would be shot at if we got closer. A couple of years ago, when I went home for a visit, I wanted so much to see these fields again. The fields aren’t there anymore. The land and the olive fields had been confiscated. I wonder if the caves are still there…

Many years ago, my grandmother used to tell us stories she herself heard as a kid. Stories of a witch or a monster (ghuleh in Arabic) who used to torment good people. These were simple people, going on with their daily lives, working hard to earn their daily bread. Their kids would be playing outside in the fields under the sun. This ghuleh would come and kidnap their kids and they would never be seen again. I don’t remember the exact details, but one fact I still do remember which is: if one ever meets that ghuleh, the best thing to do is to climb a tree and one is safe. As I write this I have a visual photo of that tree before me. It is a tree in the fields near my home, one close to a cave. We used to play there as kids and the cave was so well hidden, it had to be the ghuleh’s house. And the tree was just near by, so it must be it! The thing is, the ghuleh accompanied us all those 60 years, haunting us, making us suffer and killing our children. But my grandmother was a clever old lady, she always ended her story by telling us that one day, the remaining kids stood up as one, looked their fear in the eye and decided it was time to act. They went to the cave and kept throwing stones at the ghuleh till she fell dead! So in the end it was the kids who held the key to the salvation of their families and homes.

My other grandmother came from a family of simple but proud farmers. They had lots of land in a small village called Jrash. I have never been to Jrash and most of what I know I heard from my grandmother. Jrash was completely defaced by the Israeli Sixth Battalion of the Har'el Brigade in Operation ha-Har and its inhabitants were completely ethnically cleansed. They were forced to leave and wandered for some time on the hills. Then they moved on to an area close to Bethlehem where the UN established the basis for a refugee camp: Dheisheh refugee camp. My grandmother used to describe Jrash as a village with green meadows and hills that extended as far as the eye can see, with fruit trees, mostly almonds, figs, olive trees and carob, and cactuses growing everywhere. Together with the stone walls these cactuses formed a sort of border that indicated the lands belonging to each family. She often talked about the harvest months, “Our family had vast areas of land,” she would say sadly, as she would describe the meadows reaching to the sun, men and women working side by side, talking and laughing, how hard they worked and how happy they were. “We were very happy”. She often repeated that sentence and was so sincere but at the same time calm. She kept the key to her house till she died and she often took the time to talk to us about Jrash. Today this paradise is depopulated, and stands as ruins on empty hills, but the “Jrashis” never forgot Jrash and they carry its name in their minds and hearts.

I remember how my grandmother used to sing every now and then, I suppose in an effort to forget that her sons are each sitting in a rotten cell in one of the israeli prisons. Visit times were the most terrible. It often happened that the visit fell on the same day for more than one uncle, so the whole family had to distribute itself so each of my uncles got a visit. I believe my grandmother would have wished she could visit them all on the same day, but it was impossible, since they were never put in the same prisons. As I said, on rare occasions she used to sing some songs about a newly married couple, the wife had to sell her jewelry so her husband can buy a gun and fight the zionists. Later on in life I realized what songs these were and on some occasions, when my grandmother was resting in the sitting room and seemed sad or far away in thought, I used to play the Ashiqeen cassette: a Palestinian band that sang folklore songs. Whenever we used to play other cassettes, she would tell us to turn off that nonsense. But whenever the Ashiqeen or other folklore group was playing, she would just sit and listen. I used to watch her and then take a seat myself and listen and try to imagine the beautiful sad woman sitting in front of her little house and waiting for her brave husband to come back home bringing victory with him. Then, I would watch my grandmother and try to imagine her as a young woman, working in the fields, or sitting at the water spring with her friends laughing and gossiping or sitting with grandfather in the evening under the fig tree in the backyard and sharing bread, zaatar, olive oil and olives. I would wonder if she’d gone through the same situation during the Nakba. I know from her that the men of Jrash fought courageously defending the village against the zionist troops and that close members of her family died while defending the village. Did she sit with the other women and kids and wait for the good news of victory to come? Did she keep hoping, even after they were forced out of their homes? Did she ever stop hoping decades after the Nakba? I never asked her, but one thing I know for sure: she never lost hope of returning one day to her home in Jrash because she kept the house key right till the end.

Our daily life and our daily struggle is engraved in our folklore, it gives us the strength to go on and to never lose hope. Our cultural heritage is part of every one of us, something they can’t take away, no matter how hard they try. And despite their continuous theft and attempts to imitate our cultural heritage, the original remains sovereign, it remains Palestinian!


East Sawahreh and the Apartheid Wall

Last week I got my new “Palestinian Passport”. Palestinians need to renew their passports every three years, and it was time for me to renew mine. Living in Germany the next step for me would be to get my “residency permit” transferred from my old to my new passport. As I prepared the documents I need, I checked my registry confirmation document and my eyes immediately went to the “Staatenlos” - stateless stated in the field designated for nationality. This is how we Palestinians are defined here. Actually, as far as I know it comes in various forms; stateless to undefined to unknown. It seems to me every human being is defined in Europe, except the Palestinians; they are undefined. Most probably Martians would have been more welcome here than us Palestinians.

It is somewhat funny and sad how a piece of paper can define who you are or to what you are entitled or not. As a holder of a German “residency permit” I am able to enter Jerusalem, the city I was born in and where I attended school and spent most of my growing years, but as a Palestinian I am not allowed there any more. The last time I was in Palestine, I was allowed into Jerusalem only because of this “residency permit”. So, a Palestinian who was born and grew up in Jerusalem is only able to enter the city through the residency stamp of a country that lies on another continent. Foreigners from the four corners of the world are allowed into Jerusalem, provided they are not Palestinian nationals and residents of Palestine.

This reminds me of the destiny of my community: the Sawahreh community. The town of East Sawahreh lies about 4 km to the south east of Jerusalem. Before 1967 the Sawahreh community lived in areas that extended from the Mukabber Mountain in Jerusalem to the Dead Sea, an area of 72,000 dunums, of which less than 10% have remained today due to continuous land confiscation for settlements, for the so-called security purposes and finally for the apartheid wall. For centuries, the residents of Sawahreh have centered their life around the holy city and have identified themselves with it. After 1967 the Israeli occupation divided this one community into three: East Sawahreh, Sheikh Sa'd and West Sawahreh (Al Mukabber). While West Sawahreh remained under the administration of the Israeli Jerusalem municipality and its population of 8,000 was granted Jerusalem ID cards, East Sawahreh with its 8,500 residents and Sheikh Sa’d with its 3,000 residents were made part of the West Bank and the majority of the population there holds West Bank ID cards. In addition to that there are a number of natural basins east of the Container barrier.

The residents of Sawahreh have a special connection to the land on which they live and from which they live. They didn’t leave their lands and defended them during the Nakba of 1948. For two years they lived in caves and endured a life of hardship and remained steadfast on their lands. But ironically, the lands they protected generation after generation were taken away from them after the signing of the peace agreement between the PLO and Israel. The residents of Sawahreh lost their lands to the “promises of peace” of the Israeli state. With this “peace” came further land confiscation, various temporary and permanent check points, more settlements and illegal settlers and the apartheid wall.

The three small towns East Sawahreh, Abu Dees and Ezariyyeh lie on the outskirts of Jerusalem and have together a population of around 70,000 people. Pupils attended school in Jerusalem, men and women worked in the city, women did their shopping there while others sold their vegetables and herbs in the old city. These three towns lost most of their lands for the nearby illegal settlements and in 2004 nearly 1,000 dunums were confiscated so as to start with the construction of a 60 m wide and 6 to 8 metre high wall around Jerusalem. This wall aims at confining the Palestinians to small islands, isolated and cut off from the rest of the Palestinian landscape and preventing the natural growth of Palestinian communities and causing their slow suffocation. It is an excuse to confiscate more Palestinian land and to include the main Israeli settlement blocks and other scattered settlements within the wall surrounding Jerusalem. Running all the way from Ezariyyeh through Abu Dees, East Sawahreh to reach Shkeikh Sa’d, the apartheid wall is destroying the livelihood of the people there and distorting their daily life. Today the holy city is under strict closure since the construction of the apartheid wall and is separated from its Palestinian surrounding. The only way in and out is a number of gates, the so-called “Ma’aber” or terminals, which are huge, border-crossing-like check points, where only Jerusalem ID-holders or West Bankers with permits are allowed to cross, aiming at humiliating the Palestinian population and robbing it of its land and freedom. In addition, Palestinians holders of Jerusalem ID who live outside the wall have either had their Jerusalem ID revoked or are threatened by it and losing their right to the city.

Further division of the Sawahreh community came with the wall, leaving East Sawhreh and Sheikh Sa’d outside and West Sawahreh inside the wall. This caused the separation of a one and single community and the consequent fragmentation and division of whole families. Father cut off from son, brother from brother, and sister from brother. Whole families are being disconnected and scattered on either side of the wall causing the collapse of the natural social net by this unnatural physical barrier. Many examples exist of families divided into two, where part of the children are staying with the mother on one side of the wall while the other part is staying with the father on the other side of the wall. Isolated they live and are held prisoners in their own homes and towns, for the road to Jerusalem has been blocked by the 8 meter high wall and the meadows that used to spread to the dead sea and were always the pride of the Sawahreh community are now being eaten by settlements at a rapid pace. To reach Ramallah and the northern West Bank one would have to take long bypasses and to reach Bethlehem and southern West Bank one has to take the dangerous and curvy bypass of Wadi Il-Nar, a home to many traffic accidents.

The wall has violated the basic human rights of this community and affects their everyday life. Pupils and students face hardships in reaching their educational institutions and have to pass several check points before reaching their destination. They have to witness the daily humiliation of their parents, relatives or neighbors by armed soldiers who decide whether one is allowed in or not. They often try avoiding this humiliation by choosing the dangerous way of searching for unguarded passages or openings in the fences or between houses. Many were forced to change schools because they weren’t allowed in Jerusalem anymore, with some being forced to enroll in school in cities as far away as Bethlehem. Mothers and elderly face hardships reaching health centers, since the closest hospitals Al Maqasid and Al Mutala’ “Augusta Victoria” are out of reach now. These two hospitals served the Palestinian population of Jerusalem and the whole region around it for decades, and now the majority of these people have lost their access to a nearby hospital and are forced to either go all the way to Bethlehem, Ramallah or Jericho to get medical treatment. In certain cases, such as heart attacks, an immediate treatment can be life saving.

Historically, the Sawahreh community has always been a rural community whose lifestyle has revolved around agriculture and farming. “45% of them make their living from agriculture, especially in lands full of wells (they are called “earth flowers”), and caves in which livestock live. 35% of Sawahreh community is self-sufficient with meat and milk of their cattle, vegetables, and wheat.”[1]

Throughout the years, the Israeli occupation confiscated most of the lands that belonged to this community. This has led to a sharp decrease in work in the agriculture field and the consequent shift into cheap labour. The isolation caused by the wall, the continuous closure of the Palestinian Territories combined with the restrictions on free movement of people and goods have contributed to the deteriorating economical situation with an estimated unemployment rate of 65% within the East Sawahreh community.

But under this apartheid occupation not only the living suffer but the dead do as well. The only cemetery serving the community in East Sawahreh and Skeikh Sa’d lies on the other side of the wall. For decades now, the residents have had their cemetery in West Sawahreh, which is out of reach now. To be able to reach the cemetery behind the wall, the mourners need to organize their entry with the Israeli military and sometimes only the relatives and sometimes only people above 40 or 45 are allowed in as well. Often those accompanying the funeral head to Jerusalem and the old city after that and spend the day there. The apartheid wall not only separated the living from each other but the living from their dead as well. Once a deceased is buried, it would be difficult for family members to visit the grave whenever they wish. Most probably they would have to wait for the next funeral to be able to visit the graves of their forefathers and beloved ones.

2007 an Israeli military order was issued allowing the confiscation of further 1,128 dunums of Sawahreh and Abu Dees land for the construction of the road No. 80, a 13 km long and 7 metres wide road, as part of the E1 plan (eastern belt plan). This plan aims in the first place at destroying any possibility of realizing a viable and sovereign Palestinian state, through the isolation of Jerusalem from its Palestinian surrounding and cutting its ties with the West Bank thus dividing it into two parts. Land confiscated for the realization of this plan will hinder the natural growth of Palestinian communities and enclose the various illegal settlements in that area within the Jerusalem Metropolitan plan. With an estimated seized land of 25,000 dunums, this road is to run all the way from the Khan Alahmar hills to end in East Sawahreh and will link Jerusalem's eastern settlements of Ma’ale Adumim and Kedar with Kfar Atzion.

Its either they confiscate your land or they confiscate your birthright in Jerusalem. The residents of Sawahreh face both problems. Holders of Jerusalem IDs are confronted with the “Absentee law” if they live outside the wall, and are thus forced to leave the lands inherited from their fathers and settle in over-crowded rooms in Jerusalem so as not to lose their right to live in the holy city. Holders of West Bank IDs face another type of problem. They aren’t allowed in Jerusalem anymore, leading to the loss of their jobs and their livelihood. Many had shops and businesses in what lies on the other side of the wall now and were forced to give up these shops and businesses. The various Israeli policies of ethnic cleansing and racial discrimination against Palestinians in Jerusalem and the surrounding area violate the basic rights of Palestinians including the right of free movement, the right to work, to study, to have access to health facilities, and aim at emptying the region of its original population. Closure, siege, check points, crossing gates, land confiscation and the apartheid wall constitute a violation of Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 53 of the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, Article 12 of the International Convent on Civil and Political Rights and Article 52 of the Hague Regulations of 1907.

Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each State. Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.

“The International Court of Justice asked Israel to stop work on the Separation Wall in the Palestinian occupied territories including East Jerusalem and the area around it, to destroy all the bits that are already built and to delete all the laws and decisions which the Israeli government had made increating it” (Hague decisions paragraph 133, 152 and 153 - Advisory Opinion of the ICJ, 9th July 2004)[2].


[1] /monthlyreport/2007/october.html
[2] Monthly report on Israeli violations in Abu Dis, October 2007.


And then they came and turned our paradise into a desert

I love taking photos, it is a hobby of mine and my camera is my constant companion wherever I go. I love taking photos of the green meadows, the blue sea, the clear sky, etc…. but most of all I am fascinated by trees, especially the olive tree, standing strong and green as ever, its roots extending into the depths of the earth, clutching to it and refusing to leave. Recently a friend of mine asked why I take so many photos with trees and greenery. I automatically replied: it reminds me of Palestine. In that moment it occurred to me that the Palestine I know, the green Palestine of my childhood to an extent no longer exists. The last couple of times I was there I searched in vain for my favorite childhood spots; the green hilltops with their colorful carpet of red, yellow, and pink flowers, the olive fields and wheat and barley meadows that extended to the horizon, and where by sunrise and sunset the fields would change into a single sea of gold and green. I searched for the fig trees, which grew on sloppy hills, making it difficult but at the same time exciting for us to pick up their fruits. That was a dear spot to me. It was far away from any houses or street noise.

We used to sit under the fig trees and watch the shepherds with their sheep and goats on the opposite hills. After enjoying a few ripe figs, we used to race to the other hills, feeling so free as if we owned the whole world. We used to look for egg nests in trees and snake nests in caves. We used to collect snails, as father used to tell us how as little boy he used to collect snails and sell them to restaurants in Jerusalem and so earn a few pennies. In spring we used to collect flowers and dry them, and mostly we loved collecting the red Poppies, which we call Hannoun. As children we were told that this flower is red because it absorbs the red blood of the martyrs who fall for Palestine, and as long as there are martyrs dying to free Palestine, Hannoun or red poppies will always grow and decorate the hills and meadows of Palestine. We used to spend our free time running in the nearby meadows. Depending on the time of year, these meadows would be either a sea of green, yellow or a beautiful mixture of spring colors. The crops would grow so high, that we literally swam in these meadows. We used to play hide and seek there, and in summer, just before the harvest began, we would sit there among the long stems and pick and eat the edible crops. During the harvest, you could smell the burning of the crops almost everywhere. People would gather around a fire in the evening and enjoy the roosted crops.

In summer we used to sit under the huge olive and almond trees, their shadow protecting us from the sun, talking, telling stories, playing school and other games. In autumn we used to help with the harvest, whether picking the olives or harvesting the crops. And when the first rain came, we used to run outside and take in the smell of the freshly wet earth, and help with opening pipelines leading from the house roof to the well in the backyard. In winter we used to wait till it started raining and then we would run all across the fields, and then wait for the rainbow to appear.

But now, the olive, almond and fig trees and the Hannoun are dying in Palestine.
The land in Palestine has always been fertile and generous to its people; those who appreciate this land and work it with love. My parents, being garden lovers, would spend their free time planting all sorts of plants, whether vegetables, or fruits or cereals, even we have all sorts of flowers growing in our garden. This is not a special case, but something shared among all Palestinians; the love of the land and caring for it. Even in the overcrowded refugee camp, my grandmother tried to create a tiny part of her original town in the little space she had, and grew some apple and fig trees.

This paradise is being destroyed by those who till today claim they have made “the desert bloom with roses”. This outrageous lie was one of the first things I heard after my arrival to Europe. That the memories of my childhood and my youth are witnesses to the lie of that claim made no difference and received no listening ear. Although it is not a new thing, it nevertheless every time amazes me how Zionists just get away with their lies. And when Palestinians state facts and present evidence to the contrary of the Zionists lies, they are accused of spreading propaganda and of being themselves the liars. Although all it needs is a bit of common sense to realize who is lying here.

The Palestinian territories lie within the Mediterranean climate zone, and are thus part of the Mediterranean region with its rich ecosystem, including a rich base of flora and fauna. Within the borders of the Palestinian Territories there exist around 2483 plant species, 27.5% of these being rare and 25.6% being very rare.[1]

Not only were the Palestinians residents of this land since thousands of years, but also they had developed communities with schools, markets, clinics, industries, etc. Throughout history Palestine was known for its fertile land and its agricultural products. Witness to the advancement of Palestinian agriculture is the advice the British Consul gave his government in 1893 about the value of importing "young trees procured from Jaffa" to improve production in Australia and South Africa. In 1856 the American consul in Jerusalem, Henry Gillman, "outlined reasons why orange growers in Florida would find it advantageous to adopt Palestinian techniques of grafting directly onto lemon trees." The British Consul in Jerusalem, James Finn, reported that "the fields would do credit to British farming." Earlier witness to the advancement of Palestinian agriculture is provided by the English traveler George Sandys who described Palestine in 1615 as "a land that flows with milk and honey; in the midst as it were of the habitable world, and under a temperate clime; adorned with beautiful mountains and luxurious valleys; the rocks producing excellent waters; and no part empty of delight or profit." While a British missionary described the southern coastal area of Palestine in 1859 as "a very ocean of wheat".[2]

Agricultural products of Palestine were of such high quality that they were exported to neighboring and far away countries. Between 1856 and 1882 and before Zionists started coming to Palestine, "Palestine produced a relatively large agricultural surplus which was marketed in neighboring countries, such as Egypt and Lebanon, and increasingly exported to Europe. These exports included wheat, barley, dura, corn, sesame, olive oil, soap, oranges, vegetables and cotton. Among the European importers of Palestinian produce were France, England, Turkey, Greece, Italy and Malta."[3] According to the French economic historian Paul Masson "wheat shipments from the Palestinian port of Acre had helped to save southern France from famine on numerous occasions in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries."[4]

Well-known were the olive oil and the citrus fruits industries, and the two principal crops were wheat and barley. In 1945 the Palestinians owned 99% of the olive fields in Palestine. "80 % of the olive oil pressed in the 1940/41, the 1942/43 and the 1943/44 seasons came from five Sub-districts, namely, Nablus, Acre, Ramallah, Jenin and Tulkann. Nablus stood first. Acre second, Ramallah third, Jenin fourth and Tulkarm fifth in the last two seasons." Palestinians were responsible for 73% of the fruits produced in Palestine (1943), for 90% of the grains and legumes produced in Palestine (1942), and they were responsible for 77% of the vegetables produced in Palestine (1944/45). In addition, Palestine had a prosperous fishing, milk and poultry industries.[5]

The unique Biodiversity of Palestine is threatened by various factors, mainly the Israeli policies regarding land and water use. Mainly fertile land would be confiscated or declared closed areas for settlement activity. In addition, land pollution caused by Israeli settlements disposing their wastewater and solid waste on Palestinian fields and close to Palestinian towns.

The Zionist way of “Making the desert bloom” is achieved mainly through stealing Palestinian land and natural resources, the settlement policy and the various Israeli restrictions imposed on Palestinians in their own land. In 1948 the Zionists not only wiped off hundreds of Palestinian towns and villages, destroyed others and kicked their real residents out, they confiscated their homes, their farms, their fields and their properties. Fruit orchards, vegetable fields, vineyards, grain and legume fields were usurped, destroyed or harvested, and livestock were stolen by the Zionists, later to claim they are theirs and that they have created a miracle by changing the desert into a paradise. This was not only repeated in 1967, but it also became a trademark of the Zionist state. Control over Palestinian land and confiscating it is done through several ways such as declaring it a green zone, military zone, “state land” or as “abandoned assets”, through using empty excuses such as “security” and the use of ancient laws such as the Ottoman Land Code of 1858 (article 103). Other laws such as the “absentee” law[6], is mainly used to rid Jerusalem of its original residents: the Palestinians. Today, and according to the various accords signed between the PNA and Israel, about 60% of the West Bank (Area C) is under full Israeli control. This land, mostly fertile land with olive and fruit fields and grain meadows, is being misused for illegal settlement activities for illegal settlers brought in from all over the world to live on land that never belonged to them.

The various Israeli measures have led to Palestinian land degradation. One reason being the illegal settlements and their infrastructure, including the bypass roads, which are often built on confiscated Palestinian fields. These areas often declared green zones or natural areas in an excuse for confiscating them, only later to be used for building purposes. “It is estimated that Israel is responsible for the destruction of 82% of the forested areas in the West Bank and Gaza Strip”[7]. An example of such destruction is the Har Homa settlement built on Abu Ghnaim mountain. According to Arij it is estimated that from 1971 to 1999 23% of the official forest has been destroyed, with 82% of the destruction being due to Israeli construction of settlements and military camps. Another reason for land degradation is the Israeli restrictions on Palestinian use of their own land. An approximate 52% of the West Bank is designated by the Israeli military as closed military areas, settlements, military bases and nature reserves [8], to which Palestinians have limited access. This fertile land is misused for building new or expanding existing illegal settlements, and leaving Palestinian farmers to overuse the small areas left to them, thus causing erosion and desertification of these areas, as in the eastern slopes.

The ex-deputy mayor of Jerusalem, Benvenisti, stated "that the combination of land acquisition, closure of areas for military purposes and land use planning, roads, and infrastructure developments has already insured complete Israeli control over space in the West Bank."[9] Almost half of the East Jerusalem area is declared “Green area” where building by Palestinians is not allowed. These areas usually serve as reserves for further settlement expansion, as is the case of the Ramot settlement built on Shu’fat land. Over one-third of the Jerusalem territory is West Bank land that was illegally annexed to Jerusalem, and was used for building the 12 settlements there.[10]

To continue with its illegal expansion and settlement policy, Israel often justifies its activities as “natural growth”. Existing settlements have been expanded and new ones added as “new neighborhoods” in a shameless disregard of the international community. According to Israel, this “natural growth” includes the growth of existing population through birth and through migration. This growth cannot be considered “natural” when “outsiders” are offered incentives by the Israeli government to go and live in the Palestinian Territories. While only 25% of construction in Israel is state funded, 60% of Israeli illegal construction in the Palestinian Territories is state funded. And despite the fact that an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 illegal settlement housing units in the Palestinian Territories are empty and available, Israel continues to build settlements and calls it “natural growth”. The illegal settlements and settlers are a clear violation of international law. The fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 states that ““The occupying power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into territories it occupies.” (Article 49, Paragraph 6)”. UN Security Council Resolution 452 of 1979 “calls upon the Government and people of Israel to cease, on an urgent basis, the establishment, construction and planning of settlements in the Arab territories occupied since 1967, including Jerusalem.”[11]

The main Palestinian type of cultivation is fruit trees, followed by field crops and vegetables. Among fruit trees, olives cover the largest area (with 45% of the cultivated land in Palestine being planted with 10 million olive trees and contributing 15-19% of agricultural output), followed by grapes, almonds and citrus. Wheat takes up the largest area of field crops, followed by barley, clover and chickpeas. For vegetables the largest area is covered by squash, tomatoes and cucumbers.[12] The Palestinian economy is chiefly agricultural, and in 2007 15.1% of the employed persons in the Palestinian Territories were working in the agriculture, fishing and forestry. Agriculture accounts for 4% of the workforce in Israel. This sector generates around 25% of all Palestinians exports, with fruits, olives and olive oil, vegetables and cut flowers being main exports. [13] Agriculture makes up for only 3% of Israeli GDP with more than 50% of Israeli and Jewish settlement land irrigated, while it makes up 10-14% of Palestinian GDP with only 10% of the land in the West Bank irrigated[14]. Palestinian farmers are faced with Israeli laws, regulations and various restrictions and constraints such as the Israeli control over the movement of Palestinian goods, the Israeli control over Palestine’s natural resources, and the Israeli closure policy. These restrictions and constraints make access to international markets and competition with Israeli or Arab products difficult. These measures and restrictions have also weakened the Palestinian agricultural sector and hindered its development. “Since the signing of the Declaration of Principles in 1993, up till August 2001: more than 70,000 acres of land have been confiscated, over 674 houses demolished and 282,000 trees have been uprooted in the West Bank alone”.[15] Alone between June 2006 and May 2007 the IOF destroyed some 12,900 dunums of agricultural land and 322 green houses and uprooted 2,775 trees in the West Bank.[16]

Another form of making the “desert bloom with roses” is the policy of demolishing Palestinian homes in order to build Israeli houses in their place, and to erect the so-called security zones or corridors and bypass roads for settlers. Not only is the land being destroyed for the sake of illegal settlements, but the livelihood of Palestinians is being destroyed. Bypass roads entail a 50-75 m buffer zone on each side in which no construction is allowed, thus isolating Palestinian towns and hindering their development. These roads are under Israeli control and are primarily for Israeli use. The policy of home demolition, aiming in the first place to empty the land of its original people, has left tens of thousands homeless. While in illegal Jewish settlements hundreds of houses stand empty, over 18,000 Palestinian houses have been destroyed since 1967 [17]. The official reasons given for this policy are collective punishment or for administrative reasons. The administrative reason, being the lack of a building permit, is another widespread method used by the Israelis. Palestinians living in area C and in Jerusalem rarely get a building permit from the Israeli authorities so that families are often forced to build illegally. Such permits are withheld as a method of pressuring the Palestinian residents and forcing them to leave, thus creating Palestinian-empty areas so as to prevent the Palestinians from demanding this land back during negotiations. “Israeli army Legal Advisor Colonel Shlomo Politus told the Israeli Parliament in July 2003 that: "…there are no more construction permits for Palestinians"[18]

This Israeli policy of house demolition is a violation of Article 53 of the fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 which states that “Any destruction by the Occupying Power of real or personal property belonging individually or collectively to private persons…is prohibited." Article 33 of the Convention prohibits collective punishment “No protected person may be punished for an offence he or she has not personally committed. Collective penalties and likewise all measures of intimidation or of terrorism are prohibited.” Despite international criticism, this policy goes on till today. Between 1987 and 2008 over 4361 Palestinian houses were completely demolished and 64 partially demolished, in addition to 362 houses demolished in 2006 and 44 in 2007[19]. Further homes are being destroyed by Israeli shelling of Palestinian areas. Since the beginning of the second intifada Israeli shelling of Palestinian areas has left 5575 houses partially demolished and 480 completely demolished. According to the PCBS, between September 2000 and April 2007 8103 buildings were completely damaged in the Palestinian territories and 69,330 were partially damaged.

Before the Nakba of 1948 87.5% of the total area of Palestine was owned by Palestinians, only 6.6% by the Jews, and the remaining 5.9% being classified “state land” by the British mandate. Since 1967 Israel expropriated 79% of the Palestinian Territory, 44% of which for “military purposes”, 20% for “security reasons” 12% for “public use” and 12% because owners were “absent”. Today, the illegal settlers occupying the West Bank comprise less than 9% of the total Israeli Jewish population and comprise around 10% of the total West Bank population (according to PCBS in 2006 illegal Jewish settlers made up 16.1% of the total West Bank population). While Palestinian villages and towns are prevented from expansion due to the land confiscation, this same land being taken away from Palestinians is being used to expand illegal settlements. According to OCHA in 2007 there were 161 Jewish settlements and 98 outposts. Peace now reports that the illegal settlements in the West Bank use only 12% of the huge amounts of land allocated to them, and that despite the huge unused land reserves, 90% of settlements exceed their boundaries. About one-third of the territory they use is adjacent to Palestinian lands outside their jurisdiction.[20]

The settlement activity is also destroying the Palestinian agriculture. Palestinian farmers get attacked by Jewish settlers who don’t hesitate in using live ammunition against unarmed farmers and their families. Also livestock has been butchered by settlers of IDF soldiers and fields destroyed, trees uprooted or burned to make place for settlements. These fields represent the livelihood for many families, thus with their loss they are forced to cheap labor in Israel. According to the PCBS from September 200 until March 2005 over 2 million trees have been destroyed, 403 wells destroyed and 77,000 [21] dunums confiscated. In 2005 the IOF destroyed 22,300 dunums of land and some 100,000 trees, in addition to 165,000 dunums being confiscated in the West Bank for various illegal Israeli building activities such as settlements and bypass roads. Also, during the period from September 2000 until November 2007 over 13% of the agricultural land of the Gaza Strip had been leveled. [22] There are cases where fruit-bearing olive trees have been uprooted from their original Palestinian fields and replanted in Israeli settlements. This is not strange for a people who stole the land of others and pretend it is theirs, who stole the properties of others and pretend they are theirs and who stole the culture of others and pretend it is theirs, so why not steal the trees as well. The hard work and care of tens of years of a Palestinian farmer would thus be destroyed in a minute.

The apartheid wall built on Palestinian land is yet another form of destroying Palestinian land. An additional 15% of the most fertile of the West Bank agricultural land was confiscated to build the Israeli apartheid wall. The area lying between the wall and the green line (the so-called seam zone which accounts for 8.5% of the West Bank territory) was declared a closed area. People living in this area have to apply for “permanent resident ID” from the Israeli military so as to seek permission to remain in their homes. To the east of the apartheid wall, another 3.4% of Palestinian land is partially or completely surrounded by the wall, thus creating enclaves whose residents need permits to live there, and a “buffer zone” of 150-200 m was created there by the Israeli military adjacent to wall where no Palestinian construction is allowed. 497,820 Palestinians are directly affected by the wall, and upon its completion, the 2007 updated route of the wall will annex 12% of the West Bank land. “The Barrier (12% of the West Bank), the settlements “east” of it (8%) and the de facto annexation of the Jordan Valley (26%) will together reinforce Israeli control over 46% of the occupied West Bank.”[23]

This wall not only separates Palestinian villages from each other, it separates villages from their fields and their water resources. Since the path of the wall lies on the same line of the western aquifer, it thus strengthens Israel’s control over the water resources and makes it inaccessible to the Palestinians. Over 50 wells located near this aquifer were destroyed, in addition to the wells now located behind the wall thus making them inaccessible for Palestinians. “Palestinians are expected to lose 18% of their share in this basin.”[24]

The Zionists also control the natural resources of Palestine, including water. 89% of the total water resources are controlled and utilized by Israel. Water resources in the Palestinians territories include two main sources: the surface water (the Jordan river) and underground water (is the main source of fresh water supply in the Palestinians Territories and consists of a system of three aquifers: the eastern, western and northeastern aquifers the aquifer system). Since 1967 all water resources in Palestinian Territories were confiscated by Israel and declared state property and since then the Palestinians have no access to the Jordan and its water. “Approximately 40% of the groundwater upon which the state of Israel is dependent and more than one-quarter of its sustainable annual water yield originates in the West Bank.” [25] The only water source in the Gaza Strip is the Gaza aquifer, which is already over-abstracted, and according to UN estimates, the Gaza Strip will have no drinking water in the next 15 years. [26] The Palestinians are entitled to these two sources according to international law and should have “full sovereignty over all the eastern aquifer resources that lie beneath the West Bank, and at least equitable water rights regarding the western and northeastern aquifers, as these are recharged almost entirely from the West Bank. Under the law of international watercourses …, the state of Palestine is entitled to an equitable and reasonable allocation of shared freshwater resources, including those in the four main aquifers and the Jordan river. Under international law, Israel must pay compensations for the past and ongoing illegal use of Palestinian water resources.”[27]

In the West Bank, Palestinian water use is limited to 17% of the total water of the eastern aquifers which lies mostly in area C [28]. The remaining 83% are used by Israel, in addition to all its other surface and groundwater sources. The total amount of groundwater available for the Israelis and Palestinians is 1209 mcm/year. Israel uses 1,046 of this amount, leaving the Palestinians only 259. The Israelis (including the illegal settlers) are allocated 280 to 300 Lt/capita/day for domestic water usage, while the Palestinians are allocated 35 to 80 Lt/capita/day, keeping in mind that the minimum amount of water recommended by the WHO is 100 Lt/capita/day. [29]

In summer, the Israeli water authority Mekoroth frequently cuts off the water supply for Palestinian towns for weeks, forcing Palestinians to buy their needed drinking water, while Israelis fill their swimming pools and water their lawns. “According to B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization, “the water consumption of the population of the Jewish settlements in the Jordan Valley - a population of less than 5,000 - is equivalent to seventy-five percent of the water consumption of the entire Palestinian population of the West Bank (approximately two million people) for domestic and urban uses.” [30] Another example is the situation in Hebron, where the 250,000 Palestinian residents of the city get 30% of the water and the remaining 70% goes to the 8500 illegal settlers occupying the city. The overuse of the scare water resources by the Israelis has on one hand caused a drop of nearly 90% in the flow of the Jordan waters over the last 50%. Hydrologists predict that the Jordan would cease to exist in 50 years [31]. On the other hand, the overuse of the Gaza aquifer has lead the water table to sink below sea level, thus causing its contamination and making it unfit for human consumption.

Israel’s control over water resources is destroying the Palestinian agriculture. Palestinian farmers are faced with the Israeli restrictions on the use of water. They have to apply for the military authority in order to dig a well, and in most cases such permits are not given. Thus they are forced to buy their own water from Israeli companies or settlers for very high prices. 25.2% of the total land area in the Palestinian territories is agricultural land, of which 10.7% is irrigated.[32] Palestinian aquifers and wells are being polluted by the untreated sewage of Israeli settlements whose sewage networks open into surrounding Palestinian lands. In addition to that, Israeli soldiers have often destroyed water tanks or infrastructure. This constitutes a violation of articles 27, 53 and 55 of the fourth Geneva Convention.

Other natural resources of Palestine include the minerals of the Dead Sea. This area is of economic importance due to its industrial and touristic potentials. The northeastern section of the Dead Sea lies inside the West Bank, but Israel prohibits Palestinians from traveling there. The natural resources found there are also under Israeli control, prohibiting Palestinians of utilizing yet another of their natural rights, whereby Israeli companies sell minerals of the Dead Sea all over the world as Israeli products. In addition to that, in February 2006 Israel de facto annexed the Jordan Valley.

And the destruction of Palestinian land and “making the desert bloom” goes on. On 19.06.2008 Israeli settlers from the Yizhar settlement burnt dozens of dunums of agricultural lands owned by the Palestinian villages of Bureen and Huwwara near Nablus, thus destroying thousand of trees. On 28.06.2008 a group of Israeli settlers from the Halamish settlement set fire to a large number of olive trees belonging to the villagers of Deir Nitham near Ramallah.

Encyclopedia of the Palestine Problem:

[1] ARIJ: Flora and Fauna database.
[2] Issa Nakhleh: Encyclopedia of the Palestine Problem.
[3] German geographer Alexander Scholch in: Issa Nakhleh: Encyclopedia of the Palestine Problem.
[4] Issa Nakhleh: Encyclopedia of the Palestine Problem.
[5] ebd.
[6] The Absentee Law states that land not in use for three continuous years is subject to Israeli confiscation.
[7] Arij.
[8] ebd.
[9] Issa Nakhleh: Encyclopedia of the Palestine Problem.
[10] Miftah: Israeli settlements.
[11] ebd.
[12] Passia: Economy.
[13] ebd.
[14] Passia: Land and settlements.
[15] Miftah: Israeli Settlements in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

[16] Passia: Economy.
[17] Miftah: House demolition.
[18] ebd.
[19] Passia: Israeli occupation policies.
[20] Passia: Land and settlements.
[21] For the period from September 2000 until February 2006.
[22] Passia: Israeli occupation policies.
[23] Passia: Land and settlements.
[24] Miftah: Water - A Dehydrating Predicament.
[25] Miftah: Water Resources in Palestine.
[26] Passia: Land and settlements.
[27] Passia: Water and environment.
[28] Passia: Land and settlements.
[29] Several sources.
[30] Miftah: Israeli Settlements.
[31] Miftah: Water - A Dehydrating Predicament.
[32] Passia: Economy.