An Israeli outpost has been established in the middle of a World Heritage site, igniting mutual suspicions among the local people. Small wonder a recent protest did so poorly
Ramzy Qassiyeh holds a large wooden cross with the Virgin Mary’s picture at the top in a protest against the demolition by Israeli forces of his family’s restaurant and house,
Amira Hass reports in Haaretz, Sep 16, 2019:
By “Muslims” one may assume he meant the PA and senior Fatah officials, especially some born in the area’s refugee camps. The video went viral and the anger spread accordingly. Old tensions between the refugees and native Beit Jalans flared up again.
Then came an apology. But a few days later a pickup truck containing masked, probably armed, people came to the Qassiyeh’s plot, where they insist on staying, despite the demolition. They say the masked men wanted to kill Ramzy and maybe his son. Whether the men really wanted to kill him, they sprayed the family with pepper spray and disappeared after an Israeli army unit showed up. Who called the unit remains unclear.
At the same time, up the path, Israeli earth-moving equipment was preparing the undisturbed ground in a second plot for the new outpost. Palestinian news sites reported the appearance of the new outpost, but not the attack by the people in the pickup truck. The news of the attack spread gradually.
“People are angry at the video and the talk against Muslims,” a resident of the Deheisheh refugee camp said. “Whatever the reason, it’s not done,” a Muslim resident of Beit Jala said.
People in Beit Jala say that some parts of Al-Makhrour are owned by people from out of town; that is, Muslims, mainly from refugee camps. But who said refugees may not buy land and cultivate it? So many Beit Jala residents have left the country, why shouldn’t others look after the land and trees? The problem is that some sales weren’t kosher, apparently. Local residents of Beit Jala indeed say that a “mafia” of people – both Muslim and Christian – with social and political power is involved in the transactions.
The PA has an orderly land registry to expose forgeries. At least in one case, I was told, a forgery was found, but it did no good – the people holding the land didn’t leave. This may partially explain the Qassiyeh’s complaints.
In the plot near the Qassiyeh and the new outpost a small stone structure was set on fire at the beginning of last week. The plot’s owner is a resident of a refugee camp. Who wanted to set it on fire? Who was capable of it? The mutual suspicions inflamed the tensions.
All this happened just when the Palestinian government announced that the local councils would start to expand their master plans without taking into consideration whether the land in question was in area A, B or C. But the events in Al-Makhrour show that Beit Jala, like any other Palestinian village or town, have no control over the land that Israel classifies as in Area C; Israel does whatever it likes there.
The PA has so little control that the Qassiyehs hired their own attorneys and are replacing them one after the other as if the land problem were the family’s private business rather than a national Palestinian issue that should be handled by PA lawyers.
In 2001, at the beginning of the second intifada, when Palestinian gunmen shot at Gilo in Jerusalem, the army shelled and destroyed the Qassiyehs’ house in Beit Jala. The PA partially compensated the family for the damage and the Qassiyeh brothers built a new home there.
Ramzy Qassiyeh has West Bank residency status. His wife Michelle and their children are Israeli citizens with voting rights. Michelle was born in Jerusalem to a refugee mother from the village of Ein Karem who as a child lived in a Jerusalem monastery, and to a French father from Lebanon. A few years ago, her mother moved to live near her daughter in Beit Jala and has Alzheimer’s disease, Michelle Qassiyeh says.
“When we bring her here, to Al-Makhrour, she thinks she’s in Ein Karem and asks to go to her home there,” Michelle says.
Ancient terraces and much more
Al-Makhrour is a farming area of some 3,000 dunams (740 acres), characterized by ancient terraces, olive groves, vineyards, fruit trees, archaeological sites and a traditional irrigation system. It boasts ancient agricultural stone structures, clear air and “the best olive oil in Palestine.”
In 2014 the region was declared a World Heritage site. “Palestine, land of Olives and Vines – Cultural Landscape of Southern Jerusalem, Battir,” the UNESCO document says. The declaration was seen as a Palestinian achievement in the efforts to prevent the construction of the separation barrier, which threatened to destroy the terraces and landscape.
The Al-Makhrour area connects al-Khader, Beit Jala, Husan, Battir and al-Walajeh, most of whose farming lands were torn from it for the settlement of Har Gilo, the separation barrier and the road along it, and a park for Israelis only. The new Route 60 that bypasses Bethlehem, and the tunnels built in the ‘90s obstruct the landscape’s agricultural and historical continuity.
Recently Israel expropriated more land from Al-Makhrour and Beit Jala in order to widen the road bypassing Bethlehem and the tunnels, which Palestinians are forbidden to travel on. These are meant to shorten the travel time between the Gush Etzion settlement bloc and Jerusalem.
This is why an agricultural outpost on top of one of Al-Makhrour’s hills is so threatening. On September 5, two Israeli youths with long side curls asked a French journalist and myself to leave the plot. An adult who joined them also asked us to leave, but was ready to talk outside the gate.
“Three people are here permanently, with a few volunteers,” he said, while his silent wife looked at us from a distance. He said he was from the settlement of Elon Moreh and had leased the land from Himenuta. “I went to the JNF and looked for land,” he said. “They showed me a few places and this is the one I chose.” ( Yotam Berger has reported that the settlement of Neveh Daniel is behind the lease.)
He said the demolition below had nothing to do with it. “My relations with the neighbors are good. Others, not from here, uprooted the olive trees we planted three months ago.”
But he added, “We’ll be here for the next 50 years.” Why 50 and not 100? I asked, and he replied: “Because the lease is for 50 years.”