Jerusalem Blog: A first post
On Friday morning I went with Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR) to help with tree planting in a West Bank village called Husan. Seven of us met in Liberty Bell Park in West Jerusalem.
We were driven by Rabbi Arik Ascherman for fifteen minutes to an area of land opposite Husan. A wide and fast road, with no pedestrian crossing points separated the village from the land; this area had been designated for the separation wall to be built upon.
There was a group of Palestinians, men, women and children standing around and being stopped from walking to their field. An army jeep with five soldiers were blocking the way and arguing with the people. My fellow tree planter, Diane, said they were paratroopers, she could tell because of the colour of their boots. They were stating that no-one could enter the land because it was next to an army base. The base was a surrounded by wire and concrete blocks inside the wire, protecting about two or three prefabricated rooms erected to be an army station.
A television crew from Ramatan, a news agency based in Ramallah were filming and interviewing Palestinians. Arik went to the centre of the crowd, shook hands with everyone and tried to get the story to try to sort out how we could get to the land to plant the sapling peach trees that RHR had donated.
The land belonged to an old woman who had the high court papers proving that the land is hers. She has been able to work on her land before, but there was a new commander on duty and so procedures had to be checked and run by him in case he didn’t agree with the Palestinians being there. After about an hour, of arguing and phoning and the arrival of the Minhal Ezrachi (Civil Administration), we were finally let through. Arik said the onus is always on the Palestinians to prove what they say, even if it means they have to prove the same thing every week.
Nasa, a village social worker and director of a charitable medical centre came to speak to us to explain some of the history of Husan. He described how up to 1986 Israel confiscated 9,370 dunams of their land (one dunam is 900 square metres). After 1986 they took a further 5,340 dunams. In the last two years Israel took 24 and then a further 14 dunams saying it was for security reasons. ‘It’s not for security, it’s just to take more land.’
Nasa explained that the proposed wall will cut off the villagers, most of whom are farmers, from their land which is their main source of income. Furthermore the wall will enclose six villages and make the only route to Bethlehem, which is the nearest town, a tunnel which will be controlled by Israelis through electronic gates.
The land was made up of two terraces with some small newly planted olive trees. As soon as we got there the Palestinians got to work, a horse-drawn plough walking to and fro. Others started pruning the olive trees and carrying the saplings to the areas where they were to be planted. It was an extended family affair. There were lots of small children running around looking at the proceedings.
Two toddlers were sitting on one of the two donkeys used for carrying tools, they had a large cuddly toy and their sister (or cousin) was leading them around. The whole scene would have been idyllic, with children playing and picking bunches of small pink wild cyclamen while their elder brothers toiled on the land, were it not for the fact that several soldiers were a few metres away, on alert.
I was shocked at the sight of the single horse-drawn plough, the donkeys carrying the tools, the children and the old people. Could this warrant all the soldiers?
A boy found a tortoise at one point. A helper took a photo and the soldiers got agitated and told him not to take any more photos of the tortoise, presumably in case he was taking pictures of the army structure behind the child.
As the day went on, an old woman from the village came and walked to a small field next to the one we were planting trees on. She was gathering chives. She was followed by an old man, but this was beyond the pale for the soldiers, who started shouting at the old man to leave the area immediately or he would be arrested. The soldiers started walking up to the old man, everyone gathered round: Palestinians, internationals and Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann who told the soldiers not to treat the man with such disrespect.
The old man spoke very good Hebrew and instead of obeying the orders of the soldiers, asked them to speak to him more politely, not just shout. He explained to them that he had high court papers proving that the land was his, he got them out to show them (any Palestinian who wants to do anything always carries their high court papers with them).
A row between the old man and the soldiers ensued. Both sides got out their mobile phones to take advice from their lawyers and commanders. exactly as it had been at the beginning of the day.
Eventually the soldiers walked away, Diane shouted at the soldier who was in charge, that she hoped he now felt like a big hero. She said it wasn’t the soldiers fault for being in that situation, they were trained for combat and weren’t prepared for dealing with civilians carrying on their daily lives, but they still had to take responsibility for how they behaved towards people.
Everyone got back to busily doing their planting, digging, and pruning. The ploughman and his horse had never stopped once throughout the entire time we were there.
Turning in one direction looking across the scene I saw the small terraces. At the top were remains of olive trees that the army had burned down. Looking in the other direction was the looming presence of the third largest settlement on the West Bank: Betar Illit, its regular rows of houses and blocks of flats sprawling across the entire hillside overlooking over this tiny piece of land.