from The Guardian, Monday 30th October. by Rory McCarthy in Wadi Fukin
Land confiscation and pollution threaten future of ancient farming community
From his rooftop, Mohammad Ibrahim can see from one end to the other of the narrow valley that contains the village of Wadi Fukin. Beyond houses bunched around the tall minaret of the mosque is terraced farmland, most of it covered with olive trees or planted deep in cabbage, cucumber, radish, lettuce and squash, irrigated by dozens of small reservoir pools linked to the valley’s 11 ancient springs.
It is this view of Wadi Fukin, a village of 1,200 Palestinians just inside the occupied West Bank, that has long attracted Israeli tourists, who hike and swim in the reservoirs. The ancient farming practices have created a “unique cultural landscape” deserving of world heritage status, says Gidon Bromberg, Israeli director of Friends of the Earth Middle East.
But this is no longer all Mr Ibrahim sees. On the hills to the south and east of the village is a rapidly expanding ultra-orthodox Jewish settlement built on Palestinian land seized by the Israeli government and declared “state land”.
On the opposite hills, to the north and west, is the proposed route for the latest stretch of the vast concrete and steel West Bank barrier. The 437-mile barrier is halfway complete and work continues despite a July 2004 advisory opinion from the international court of justice in The Hague, which said it was a violation of international law and should be taken down where it crosses into the West Bank. Israel argues that the barrier is a necessary security measure that has reduced the number of suicide bombings.
Within months, the village will be sandwiched between the growing settlement of Beitar Illit and the barrier, with a large chunk of its farmland gone. Confiscation orders have been issued for land that villagers have cultivated for generations. Mr Ibrahim was told that 12 hectares (30 acres) of his father’s land is to be taken.
“I think the worst is yet to come,” said Mr Ibrahim, 50, a teacher at the village primary school. “We are totally dependent on that farmland.” He believes the settlement and the barrier together are designed to squeeze out the villagers. “I think what they want is that after they have done this there will come a time when we call a taxi to take us out of here for good,” he said.
Mr Ibrahim’s neighbour Abu Mazen works with him on a village committee against the barrier and is equally concerned. “At the beginning I was full of hope that the wall wouldn’t be put into place because of the crowds that visit. But the reality tells me they are going to build this wall,” he said. “They are the ones dividing two communities from each other.”
Israel’s prime minister, Ehud Olmert, was elected in the spring on a policy of withdrawing from some of the smaller West Bank settlements and annexing larger blocs behind a new, unilaterally drawn final border. Since the Lebanon war, that policy has been shelved. But the reality on the ground is that the military occupation continues and the settlements and the barrier grow apace.
Since construction started in Beitar Illit in 1985 its population has increased to 28,000 and it is now one of the fastest growing settlements in the West Bank. In May, the Israeli defence minister and Labour leader, Amir Peretz, issued an expansion order for Beitar Illit and three other West Bank settlements – the first such order for some years. In September, tenders were issued for 342 new houses in the settlement and now homes are being built, with truck-loads of rubble dumped down the hillsides every few minutes. Overflow pipes regularly eject raw sewage on to some of the village fields, forcing farmers to stop growing crops.
“Beitar Illit is the biggest construction site in the West Bank. It has enormous growth every year,” said Dror Etkes, who runs Settlement Watch at the Israeli organisation Peace Now. Houses are on sale at much cheaper prices than in Jerusalem, 10 miles away, and cheap, regular transport is laid on for settlers heading into the capital.
The settlement’s expansion is in defiance of the 2003 “road map” for peace negotiations put forward by the US, Europe, Russia and the UN, which calls for a freeze in settlement activity.
Like other Palestinian villages threatened by settlements or the arrival of the barrier, Wadi Fukin is hoping to fight its case in court. But the village has also found support from within Israel. Friends of the Earth has campaigned hard to protect the valley, warning that the recharge of the village springs is threatened by the expansion of the settlement and the arrival of the barrier, which here will be a 50-metre-wide strip of land including a steel fence with barbed wire barriers, a ditch, two patrol roads, two “intrusion-tracking dirt roads” and observation cameras.
Israelis in the town of Tzur Hadassah, which is over the hill from Wadi Fukin, have also taken up the campaign. Some are motivated by ecological concerns, others by political opposition to the settlements and the barrier.
Dudy Tzfati, 45, a lecturer in biology and genetics at Hebrew University and one of the campaigners from Tzur Hadassah, admits that not everyone in the town supports their work. “Most of the mainstream like the concept of separation and the idea of the fence, to not have to see the Palestinians and the suffering, to have them behind a wall and then we won’t have to deal with what is going on there,” he said.
Partly as a result of lobbying from the Israeli side, a senior defence ministry official visited Wadi Fukin and Tzur Hadassah last week to listen to the concerns, although there is no indication of any change in the plans for the settlement or barrier.
Among villagers, there was deep scepticism at first about the support from their Israeli neighbours. Some are still doubtful about their motivation. “They are helping us because they want it to be a reservation, like a national park. They are Israeli citizens and will ultimately think for their own benefit,” said Jamal Hamid, 46, a farmer living at the north end of the village.
However, many appear to have accepted the support gratefully. “These people are very fair,” said Atef Manasra, an Arabic teacher at the village school. “The difference between the people of Tzur Hadassah and the settlers in Beitar Illit is like the difference between the sky and the earth.”
Yet few believe the campaign by either side will be enough to change Wadi Fukin’s future and villagers worry about a future isolated from the markets in Jerusalem and Bethlehem and from access to the rest of the West Bank. “This wall is nothing to do with security,” said Mr Ibrahim. “On the contrary it is to besiege the Palestinian people economically, to prevent workers from working inside Israel and, most importantly, to consume more land.”