“You are an ambassador”–Dispatch from Palestine

We drive along the barbed electric fence that surrounds the Israeli settlement of Har Gilo.  We are headed to the Walajah valley of the Palestinian territory. The valleys are deep and lush with pine trees and olive groves, steppes cut into the hillsides with round white stones. The land here has been largely confiscated by Israel to build a park in the nearby settlement, meant for enjoying nature, going mountain hiking, and having picnics.

Palestinians are not allowed into the park and they never agreed to its construction. There aren’t many Palestinians left in this area, anyway. Walajah was a big city before 1948 but it fell to ruin.

We pull up to the only house on the hill opposite the settlement, built between 1948 and 1967. The fact that the house was built before 1967 is its salvation: as its existence precedes the Green Line border, it is virtually impossible for Israel to legally obtain it without consent from the land owner. Nevertheless the family’s property around the house has been shrinking slowly, truncated by electric fences that strangle the property. The family who built it is under constant pressure to leave from the Israeli Ministry of the Interior and the municipality of Jerusalem.

The family has been given some options in exchange for their property: 1) They can accept a blank check and leave. 2) They can give Israel their 30 acres and Israel will find them 100 acres in Palestine to reoccupy. 3) They can rent the house to Israel for 99 years.

They have refused all of the options. This genuinely surprises the people trying to obtain it. Why would they want to hold on to such a contested scrap of land in a now barren, insecure location?

The homeowner Halled explains his position. “If I sell my land I sell my honor, my respect. It is like selling my children or my family. The worst thing to do in Palestine is to sell your land and property to the occupation.” Besides, if he were to his trade his 30 Walajah acres for 100 Palestinian acres elsewhere, the 100 acres would likely be confiscated from another family. Halled would become part of the occupation. As Halled says, the first thing old people explain to children about occupation is that land is the most important thing. It is all they have.

According to Halled Israel does its best to intimidate his family off the land. There was a plan to put a gate and an Israeli soldier at the gate of the house, to impose a curfew, to refuse visitors. The electric fence was built, 4 meters from the house walls. According to occupation law the house cannot be seized—but intimidation is within the law’s purview. Many describe the Israeli occupation as chiefly psychological.

Halled’s family doesn’t ever completely vacate the structure, so as not to abandon it and leave it vulnerable. This means they are always available to receive the demolition orders that arrive, and to organize proxy lawyers to defend their property. They have reaped decisions from the Jerusalem municipality as well as the Israel supreme court. “They play with me but it doesn’t work,” says Halled. “They don’t have the power to do what they say they are going to do to me…they are teasing me, pressuring me.”

Last year Halled was mysteriously sick, bedridden. Before he was sick, he was always nervous and sick and had high blood pressure. But since his illness, nothing irks him. “If I see someone walking upside down I don’t look twice,” Halled says, explaining how unshakeable he has become. “Because I was so sick I almost died. I went from always being angry and nervous to being very calm. Now I never look back. I feel I went to the cemetery and came back. I already died and nothing can hurt me now. So I am not afraid.”

Halled doesn’t have to explain the situation to his young children. “The situation explains itself.” Sometimes the house is bombed or flooded, and the kids see the electric fence outside every window. The 7-year-old son was once hit so hard on the back of his skull by the butt of an Israeli solder’s gun that he needed 13 stitches.

His faith helps him bear the situation. “If I have no faith, why stay here? If I have no faith, I take one of the 3 options. I could be a millionaire. I needed that kind of money when I was sick.” But he stays. “The Ministry of the Interior visits me for negotiations. They ask, why do you refuse your options for this little house? Why catch this tiny land in your hand? You have nothing here. Who is with you—against Israel, and America, and Europe?”

Halled draws himself tall and fixes me in his gaze. “The power I have is more than all of that. I have God with me. Their god is money and power, and I can close that god in my desk drawer. My God will send his angels and kick them directly to Hell!”

Halled can say his grandfather built his house in ’67. A settler can claim that the land was Jewish 3,000 years ago and trump his historical claim with a Biblical claim. He dismisses this reasoning. “This land is not Jewish or Christian or Muslim. Before 1948, Muslim, Christian, and Jew lived here together. Everyone living here was Palestinian. All the land was for all of the people. They lived together in peace and with dignity. We don’t live that way now, Palestinians with settlers and Zionists. But we also don’t talk about religion in Palestine. Religion is private. This land is for Muslim, Jew, and Christian. There are Jewish Samaritans living in Nablus—they have respect and nobody kicks them away. The problem is not with Judaism as a religion. The problem is with settlers and Zionists who build an electronic fence around my grandfather’s house and hit my child.”

Halled peers at me, suspicious from my questions about religious conflict. “Do you think I hate Jews? You think I want apartheid here?”

My Arabic translator steps in and says, no, she is just asking questions from her heart. She seeks understanding.

Halled nods at me and looks in my eyes. “It is a big mistake if I ever say, this is a Muslim and that is a Jew. If we do this we are not Palestinians. If I am a Palestinian I am on the same level as every other human, on the same level with Christians and Jews.” Halled laughs, adding, “Christians and Jews visit me here more than Muslims do!” Halled has Israeli Jewish friends who visit him. Recently, seven Israeli Jews came to help him organize his garden and house. 

I see that is important for Halled to have visitors who can witness his situation in person and listen to his story. “It is the most important thing. People in the world trust and believe the media. But if you talk with a sister or a friend and you tell them about me here in Walajah, they will see your eyes and know what you have seen. That has stronger power than any media. You are an ambassador. You are a messenger. You must write about us, put this story in your mind and tell people about it. Through you, the truth is growing.”

Halled shakes all of our hands and thanks us. “Anyone who comes here makes me happy and gives me hope. They make me into a host, and a host has a home and a land to welcome people into. You come to this place and you give me a home. And when you help me tell the truth, you join my family.”

My traveling companion responds, “It is our mission.”

English: Walaja Barrier 2011. Author Wickey-nl. Creative Commons license. 31 March 2014. Source: Own work, based on this map, published by United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHAoPt).

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