Alice Rothchild is a physician, activist and writer based in Boston. She is the author of Broken Promises, Broken Dreams (Pluto, 2007; 2010) and serves on the regional steering committee for American Jews for a Just Peace. The following blog post is the eleventh of several documenting her current work in Palestine as part of the American Jews for a Just Peace – Health and Human Rights Project.
We are staying in Beit Sahour, near Bethlehem, in a guest house which started in 1948 as a place for poor women to sew clothes, then became a childcare center, and now a renovated guest house. Everyone is talking about who will win Arab idol and will it be Mohammed Assaf, the sweet faced guy from Gaza; Rami Hamdallah, (the prime minister replacement after Salam Fayyad resigned) quit after two weeks on the job, (and what does that mean?) and Fayrouz is crooning on the van radio. Another day in Palestine and we are off for a hike in Battir, south-west of Bethlehem.
Our guides, Hassan and Hamad, are movie star handsome as far as I am concerned and that is distracting enough for me. They explain that the town of Battir has natural water springs that were developed during Roman times in a complicated and clever irrigation system including aqueducts and carved tunnels for the surrounding farms and orchards. In 1950 the source spring was rehabilitated to provide fresh water for drinking, washing vegetables, and a Turkish bath for men. Ancient and modern systems were combined, water was divided equally between the farmers using an “eight day week,” as there were eight families. In the summer the water was divided according to the percentage of water volume available for each farmer, measured by a stick dipped into the collected water pool. Hassan explains that the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is largely about water and now the Palestinians are allowed to store 5-10% of their water and the rest is collected by the Israeli companies and sold back to them at high prices.
There is lots of inspiring history here. Deir Yassin, the site of a horrific massacre in 1948, is four kilometers away and many of the villagers fled in fear after the killings. Approximately thirteen elders stayed in the village, “to live or die,” and one man decided to resist. He collected clothes and house supplies and placed them in the houses so they would appear to be inhabited. He lit candles and oil lamps at night and asked people to collect wood. He made fires and built wooden symbols that looked like people and put sticks in their hands that appeared to be guns, silhouetted in front of the flames. The village fooled the Jewish forces for eight months.
Another critical piece of information is that there is a famous rail road track that runs through the fields of Battir, dating back to the Ottoman Empire, once connecting Turkey, Syria, Palestine and Egypt. Part of the 1949 agreement with Jordan was that the village of Battir could keep ownership of the land on both sides of the railway tracks as long as the train was kept safe, as the Israelis really wanted control. But 1967 brought new rules, a buffer zone 200 yards on each side of the tracks; the only people allowed to cross are the farmers. While there were incidents in the Intifadas, no attacks have occurred since the 1990s. To complicate matters further, in 1993 after Oslo, 30% of Battir ended up in area B and 70% in area C which means that the villagers are no longer permitted to store water or repair the irrigation systems (that have worked brilliantly for centuries) which are mostly in area C.
We are traipsing up and down stone paths with the odd sound (for Palestine) of rushing water at our feet as we follow our guides who seem part gazelle in terms of grace, speed and agility. The next disaster Hassan tells us about as we look into the valley, the sweep of the tracks, the lush plots of vegetables, the crisscrossing of irrigation systems, is the threat of the separation wall. The wall is to be built on the village side of the rail road tracks, assaulting an idyllic landscape and isolating the houses, land, and schools on the other side. Palestinians unsuccessfully submitted a proposal to have this area named a World Heritage Site and in a few weeks will have a hearing at the Israeli Supreme Court. Hassan notes that the village has honored the security agreements for 65 years and there are already cameras on the hills watching every move, 24/7. We can see a white military vehicle watching our every move, perched opposite us on a nearby hill and a Jewish National Fund Forest up the hill with more guard towers. A train comes zooming by and Hassan notes that the Battir train station was demolished years ago. I stare intently at this magnificent valley with the sinking feeling that the next time I visit, there is a good chance that it will have been raped by the Israeli military machine and my heart will break, once again, for this land and its people.
Now that we are all exhausted, overwhelmed, and dripping with sweat, the hike begins! Hassan and Hamad are involved in a group developing eco-tourism. They have designed hiking trails that are respectful of the history, the farmers, and the environment; through terraced olive groves, fruit trees, cool caves, Byzantine tombs, and soaring hills. Despite my creaky moving parts and pounding heart (hot sun, dehydration, and uphill paths), the scenery is awe inspiring.
But the conflict is never far off. The Jewish National Fund Forests (which by the way are not indigenous, grow quickly, are easily flammable, and change the soil pH so that local herbs and trees cannot survive, except for the hardy Saber cactus), are doing battle; the colonization of the conifers. Apparently, the wind carries the seeds in the pine cones, so the forest is spreading through the valley. The surrounding hills are all topped by creeping Jewish settlements and the associated bulldozers, walls, and barbed wire. Hassan and Hamad have placed hiking markers (like the blazes in US national parks), but the settlers, who occasionally use these same paths, have scratched off the marks and placed blue and white blazes (which are international symbols for land and water, but really!) so now we have the battle of the blazes.
Hassan points to a huge tire perched in a bed of twigs near the path and admits, this is “from us.” With the collapse of civil infrastructure, garbage collection became (and still is) a huge problem in the West Bank and a 17,000 cubic meter dump site developed on the hill above us. This was a huge challenge, so a group of 45 farmers and younger men cleaned it up, topped it with soil, plantings and a supporting wall. This tire is an educational reminder.
We stop to catch our breath at a future rest area that has a massive stone that Hassan scales easily. There are a number of theories about this stone, but it probably fell from the surrounding cliffs and was used as a security lookout centuries ago. Nearby is a large unnatural pile of white stones. The ever environmentally thoughtful Israelis were building a bypass road above and dynamited the area and these rocks came tumbling down, crushing trees in their path. A falcon soars gracefully in the blue sky, one of the few creatures around here that can move freely. I stumble across a young olive tree staked to a dead branch from a JNF pine tree; the cones are intermixed with the olive leaves. It’s as if the trees are locked in a symbolic fatal embrace, I am relieved that at least the pine tree has already died.
I am getting closer to the end of my cardiovascular reserves, as Hassan walks briskly ahead explaining that there are 258 houses in the fields that serve as watch towers and places for farmers to stay during the harvest. As we head up the hill, Har Gilo becomes clearer, built on the lands of Al Walaja and Beit Jala. I can see a bulldozer busy at work. When we finally get to pavement, (short of breath, flushed, and vaguely alive), I see a wooden sign with a red heart, “Hosh Yasmin Organic Farm.” Soon we are seated on the covered balcony, enjoying the sweet breeze, smell of thyme, good beer, gorgeous view, and some excellent food. Not your every day hike.
Stories of Jewish and Palestinian Trauma and Resilience Alice Rothchild New edition of this unique and honest account of the conflict seen through the eyes of a doctor, with personal accounts that bring the trauma to life.