Al-Ahram Weekly – 1 April 2004
Away from the protests marking the 28th anniversary of Land Day this week, the plight of two villages — one a former Muslim community, now destroyed, inside the state of Israel; the other an inhabited, largely Christian community located in occupied East Jerusalem — illustrates the continuing and unifying struggle of Palestinians to prevent their ever greater dispossession by Israel.
Land Day commemorates the killing by the Israeli police of six Palestinian citizens in the Galilean town of Sakhnin in 1976 during protests against a wave of land confiscations by the state from the town’s inhabitants. The land was later transferred to a Jewish local authority, which built a ring of settlements around Sakhnin.
On 30 March every year since 1976, Palestinians have marked the six deaths — and the ongoing battle to stop an avaricious Israel from taking even more of their land — with demonstrations across Israel and the West Bank and Gaza, including a large march in Sakhnin itself.
The stories of Hittin and Beit Fagi are unlikely to capture the headlines this year, but their combined fates suggest that Israel is no nearer recognising Palestinian rights, either within the borders of the Jewish state or in the occupied territories, than it was more than 50 years ago.
Once the history books were rich with references to Hittin, a site a few kilometres west of Lake Tiberias. Many Christians claim that the eastern of two volcanic peaks — known as Hittin’s Horns — is in fact the Mount of Beatitudes, where Jesus delivered his teachings. Nearby he is believed to have performed the miracles of the fishes and the loaves. The area is also the site of the Battle of Hittin, in which Saladin defeated the Crusaders in 1187.
But today the Palestinian village of Hittin is a neglected, deserted spot. It is one of more than 400 villages destroyed by the Israeli army during and after the war of 1948 that founded Israel. The only clue that Hittin was ever inhabited is a pointed stone minaret pushing up through the lush overgrowth of trees at the end of a dirt track, off a side-road leading to a kibbutz. The mosque was built at the orders of Saladin in 1192, ensuring Hittin remained a powerful Arab village for the next 800 years.
Before 1948 there were some 200 houses in Hittin and its 1,400 wealthy residents owned the deeds to some 6,000 acres of fertile land. Now all the homes are gone, as are most of the villagers, who were mainly driven into exile in Lebanon.
The family of Abu Jamal, who was 17 when the Israeli forces arrived at the village, managed to remain inside Israel. Today the 73-year-old lives some 15 kilometres away, in the Israeli-Arab town of Deir Hanna. Although Abu Jamal and the other villagers long ago abandoned any hope of being allowed to return to Hittin, he and a handful of other former inhabitants have been struggling to stop the village’s ancient mosque from falling into ruin. For years Jewish farmers have grazed their cattle on the village’s lands, including at the mosque.
In the mid-1990s, says Abu Jamal, the villagers won a concession from the then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who awarded them 200,000 shekels ($50,000 today) to renovate the mosque. Fifteen days later Rabin was assassinated and the money, like so many other Rabin initiatives, died with him.
Abu Jamal carried on the battle, organising an annual summer camp of schoolchildren to try and clean up the site of the mosque. Four years ago, with another Labour government in power — this time under Ehud Barak — he again approached the authorities. On this occasion the Youth and Sport Ministry listened sympathetically and told him they would reassign the money to him. But he never saw any of it. Instead ministry officials escorted him to the destroyed village, where they told him he had an hour to clean up the mosque from the mess left by the cows.
Then a construction crew arrived to fence the area off. Today, heavy steel fencing surrounds the mosque. Its strength and height and the lack of a gate suggest that it is designed to keep out the former inhabitants rather than to ward off the cows. All the mosque’s rooms have been barred shut and are off-limits. “The workmen broke the ancient water pipes,” Abu Jamal says, pointing to the floor where clay pipes dating back to Saladin’s day lie smashed. “They also took away the historic inauguration stone that had the date of the mosque written on it.”
As Abu Jamal talks, a police car pulls up close to the mosque, its occupants remaining inside but noting down the number plates of the cars parked there. Abu Jamal says the inhabitants of the local kibbutz co-operate with the police to stop activities at the site. “I don’t know why they are so scared of us. I don’t want the village back. All I want is for us to be allowed to tend to the mosque and pray here on Fridays,” he says.
At Beit Fagi in Jerusalem praying should be a far easier matter. There are two neighbouring chapels — one Roman Catholic, the other Greek Orthodox — each of which is built over a rock on the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives. It is said that this marks the spot where Jesus mounted a donkey and rode in glory into Jerusalem on a carpet of palm leaves.
This Sunday the faithful will converge on the area to commemorate that day, Palm Sunday, with pilgrims following in Jesus’ footsteps from Biblical Bethany — today the modern Palestinian village of Eizariya — via Beit Fagi to the Mount of Olives and then on to Stephen’s Gate in the ancient walled city of Jerusalem.
This year’s event, however, will be different from previous ones. The pilgrims arriving at Beit Fagi will be greeted by a dozen or so eight- metre-high concrete blocks, partially obstructing their path. In another few months the historic route will be impassable, blockaded by Israel’s separation wall.
Officials from the two churches, wary of risking a confrontation with Israel, will only say that they are not sure whether the procession will be possible next year. In fact, unless the Israeli army agrees to build a gate — an unlikely scenario — this year’s procession will be the last in the foreseeable future.
The separation wall Israel has been building for the past 18 months has finally reached the most sensitive part of its route: the stretch where it cuts deep into the city’s holiest sites. Bulldozers and cranes are already scarring the eastern slopes of the Mount of Olives to prepare the ground for the wall.
The Catholic and Orthodox churches have been saying little since construction crews arrived at Beit Fagi a few weeks ago. It is reported that at least 300 ancient olive trees were uprooted from the grounds of the Catholic convent. The Orthodox church, on the other hand, has volunteered to part with some of its grounds: the alternative was that demolition orders served on 40 families’ homes that stood in the path of the wall would have been carried out.
Although shielded from the view of most tourists by the Mount itself, the wall will be only a few hundred metres from the Old City and some of the sites holiest to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Wailing Wall and Al-Aqsa Mosque.
For those local inhabitants on the wrong side of the wall, including the 40 families whose homes were saved from demolition, the Old City will soon be as difficult to reach as Tel Aviv. Many of them like Afghani Naseera, aged 49, have Israeli ID cards and all pay their taxes to the Jerusalem municipality. In a few more weeks, however, Naseera will be unable to walk the few hundred metres to the Old City, or to take advantage of the city’s services. “Instead I’ll have to travel deep into the West Bank and negotiate a series of army checkpoints to get to Jerusalem — if they are open, of course. A journey that takes me a few minutes on foot will take hours by car,” she says.
Naseera suffers from heart disease and her husband, Abid, aged 58, has diabetes. Both are fearful of how they will cope once the wall is finished. “We won’t be able to get to Jerusalem hospitals and we are not insured for West Bank healthcare. We are in a black hole. No one is responsible for us now,” she adds.
Hossam Katishi, aged 30, also lives in one of the homes threatened with demolition. The reprieve means that he, his wife and three young children will now live with the wall just two metres away from their backyard. They will be overlooked by armed guntowers and security lights.
Katishi has joined the other families in petitioning for the construction of a gate in the wall, but the experience of other families in Jerusalem cut off from services or other family members suggests it will be a long time, if ever, before such a request is heeded. “We have repeatedly rung the army representatives but they refuse to say what will happen in the future,” he says.
He adds that some 200 local children cross the line of the wall each day, past the Beit Fagi chapels to reach their schools. “Some days a soldier turns them back and other days he is not there. Soon it won’t matter. None of them will be able to reach their schools anyway. Where we will be able to send them, I can’t tell you.”
Fahdi Hamad, aged 28, has travelled each day from Eizariya to Beit Fagi for the past four years to work as caretaker at the Catholic chapel. He says his days there are numbered. “When the wall is finished, there will be no way to get here. I will have to find other work.”
Enham Shama, who tends to the grounds of the neighbouring Greek Orthodox convent, says she can hardly believe that the wall is being erected here with so little protest. “I look at the wall going up and think that next year travelling from Bethany to here will be impossible. I can’t help but ask myself, what would Jesus have done faced with a wall like this?”
Al-Ahram Weekly – 1 April 2004