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A walk in the hills

Once Raja Shehadeh would lose himself in long walks across the open countryside around his home in Ramallah on the West Bank. Israeli settlement in the Palestinian occupied territories has put a stop to that, with paths closed and the relaxing rambles turned into a challenge often marred by shootings, unpleasant encounters and threats of arrest for daring to walk in a land that has been claimed by strangers

December 1, 2008
9 min read

The colonisation by Jewish settlers of the hills north of Ramallah where I live began in 1979 with the single settlement of Dolev. This was a decade after it had started in other parts of the occupied West Bank. When work began on that hill atop the ancient Palestinian village of Ayn Qenya, I took a final walk up the slope to bid farewell to the panoramic view. Other hills spread below me like a crumpled sheet of blue velvet with the hamlets huddled in its folds. There was Janiya, Deir Ammar and, on the highest hill, the attractive village of Ras Karkar.

Fewer than a thousand people moved to Dolev. They were said to be religious Jews with a strong attachment to the biblical land, who wanted to live on it without walls or fences, open to the nature around them, part of it, not instruments of its destruction. Had it stopped at this we could have found a way to coexist. But it didn’t. It was folly to think it could.

For a number of years they lived as an isolated settlement amidst the terraced hills north of Ramallah. Many of them worked for the military government and had to enter Ramallah to get to their offices. To guide them through the city, the Israeli army drew a yellow line on the road marking the route they should follow.

Part of the route I took from my office to my house passed along the road with the yellow line. No one was allowed to tamper with it or try to lead the settlers astray by drawing other lines. The yellow line was so indelibly marked as to prove that we had no control over our roads, just as the increasing numbers of settlements that Israel was establishing were intended to sear into our consciousness that the land on which we lived did not belong to us. In 1990, when the Israeli army massacred 17 Palestinians in the compound of the Aqsa mosque, settlers passing through our street shot at our house and almost hit my wife in the head. We kept the shrapnel as a memento of good neighbourly relations.

Phantom of doom

After the establishment of Dolev, which made that hill above Ayn Qenya inaccessible to non-Jews, I began to walk in the valley east of Ramallah, taking a route that led to the village of Janiya. One late afternoon, after a long and satisfying walk, I was resting before turning back. The sun was setting, the shadows cast by boulders were growing longer and denser. The colours were changing, transforming the hills I knew so well into a more muted world that I felt I had all to myself.

Crossing my field of vision, like a phantom of the approaching doom, came a short man who was walking with long deliberate strides as though he was taking measurements. In the clarity of the moment I suspected the worst, tidings of a terrible future for our beautiful hills. A short time after this, work began on the settler road connecting Dolev to Beit Eil, which passed along the exact path this man had traversed. He must have been working for the Arab contractor who executed the work on behalf of the settlers. The hills were never the same after that.

I later learned that the settlers from the two settlements of Beit Eil and Dolev, east and north of Ramallah, were concerned that their government might abandon them. They knew that once the Oslo Accords were signed and Ramallah was placed under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority they would not be able to prohibit the Palestinians from re-paving the road and obliterating the yellow line. They took matters into their own hands, raising money in the United States to build a private road through cultivated lands belonging to Palestinians, in the process destroying hundreds of olive trees and demolishing scores of the beautiful ancient terraces.

For a long time I thought that the fact that the hilly land north of Ramallah was privately owned and fully registered would save the hills from being taken over for more settlements. But as it turned out, this was naïve. In time I came to learn that there was no limit to the extent to which the Israeli government would go in its use of doublespeak and fact-twisting. In 1989, 4,000 acres of the land of the village of Janiya were taken over to establish the settlement of Talmon. The fact that they were privately owned made no difference.

The hawkish Yitzhak Shamir was heading the Israeli government then. His Likud party supported settlement everywhere in the West Bank, which they called by the biblical names of Judea and Samaria. Despite only 2 per cent of Israelis living in the occupied territories, Shamir’s housing minister, Ariel Sharon, was spending 20 per cent of the ministry’s money on projects there.

New settlements

Two years later, just hours before the US secretary of state, James Baker, was to arrive in Israel to try to broker the first-ever peace conference between Israel and the Arab countries, eight Israeli families parked mobile homes on a newly-prepared clearing, marking the establishment of a new Jewish settlement, in an effort to obstruct these peace efforts.

The settlers claimed that the trailers moved to the new site were not a new settlement at all. They called it Talmon B and even though it lay out of sight, across an empty rocky gorge, more than two miles away, they insisted that it was merely a ‘new neighbourhood’ of Talmon.

As the years passed, the illegal mother settlement was to have more offspring. In the wake of the Oslo Accords and under pressure from the US administration not to establish new settlements, Israel encouraged existing settlements to beget more new ‘neighbourhoods’. In addition to Talmon B, the illegal settlement in the Ramallah hills established in 1989 produced another such development, Talmon C. Now, when I look at night at the horizon north of Ramallah, I can see the lights of Dolev and Talmon with its ‘neighbourhoods’, along with ten other so-called ‘outposts’, forming a noose around the city. Like quicksand, the map around Ramallah was shifting all the time and the once-familiar hills were beginning to look strange and out of reach, just like that hill above Ayn Qenya on which that first settlement of Dolev had begun three decades earlier.

With the settler road between Dolev and Beit Eil restricting the possibility of walking on the track that goes east of Ramallah, I now had to find a new path on which to walk. To start on it, I now had to travel by car northwards towards the campus of Birzeit University. From nearby I would begin along the path that passed precariously between the various settlements spreading over the once cultivated hills. The relaxing rambles over the hills around my house have become a challenge often marred by shootings, unpleasant encounters and threats of arrest for daring to walk in a land that has been claimed by strangers.

Always above

One of the features of the new map that has been created is that the settlements must always be above the Palestinian villages. When this could not be managed, the army had to take precautions, as I discovered one night when my neighbour, a woman who lives alone, woke me up at two in the morning to announce that the Israeli army had forced its way into her house.

They first did a thorough search and then had a long list of questions to ask her, even to the point of enquiring about the pictures of her niece and nephew, which rested on the mantelpiece. When they finished, they began to draw a plan of the house in great detail.

I could see the light of their jeep parked nearby and waited during these small hours of the morning for my turn to come. But they went only to the other houses next to hers. By the early morning light they had finished without searching my house. I went back to sleep wondering why this was.

That morning, when I looked with Israeli eyes at the houses the army had visited, I could see that, because they had the advantage of a good view, they constituted a threat to Israel’s security; they overlooked, albeit many miles away across the horizon, the extension of Israel’s borders, its illegal settlements. Thus they must be mapped and studied in preparation for their seizure if the security situation should warrant it. When this happened I too would have to abandon my house because of its proximity to positions where the army was stationed.

It might have taken me a long time to grasp it but finally I have done so. For the sake of Israel’s security everything is justified. This is so whether it is constructing 530 road barriers or building the 400-mile-long ‘separation wall’ in the West Bank, confiscating tens of thousands of acres of land for settlement or starving a million and a half civilians in the Gaza Strip.

I have also come to understand that the insecurity of those charged with securing the colonisers knows no bounds and is not alleviated by possessing a nuclear arsenal, or being one of the world’s top five weapons’ exporters, or even having the supposed blessing of the Almighty for the crimes it commits in His name. When the rest of the world, so blinded by its commitment to Israel’s security, will also understand, is an open question.

Raja Shehadeh is author of Palestinian Walks: notes on a vanishing landscape (Profile Books, £7.99), which won the 2008 Orwell Prize for political writing

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