Planting trees and Shabbat in a Jewish settlement

I’m feeling pretty snuffly and under-the-weather today, I was a guest for Shabbat at Ruth and Chris’s house in Har-Homa settlement near Jerusalem last night, but unfortunately had an allergic reaction to their cat. And the snuffles I started there have continued on this afternoon back in Jerusalem, so I’m taking the opportunity to rest and catch up on my blogging. So here are my experiences over the past two days.

Friday was my last day at Wiam, and I’d mentioned to Zoughbi that I’d love to plant a tree at the garden. So we drove to a Palestinian garden centre in Bethlehem to buy a Pomegranate tree, and also a miniature orange tree complete with a harvest of two dozen oranges. We also bought a lovely terracotta pot and some flowers and herbs to plant out.

The gardening action was quite a grand affair, with about 6 of us digging and taking photos, plus a random Italian guy who happened to look into the centre and join in with the digging. I chose to plant the orange tree near to the playground, so the children who visit can pick the oranges. We put the pomegranate into the field under development near to an irrigation pipe, right under the Wall! “This is our resistance to the occupation!” Zoughbi told the Italian guy, and it feels great to do this: there is so much hope for the future in planting a tree. After filling in the soil and trampling it down (Adnan’s favourite job!) we surrounded the trees with white stone circles and gave them their first drink of water in their new position, blessing the water and the community as we poured it on.IMAG0195[1]

Then we planted the flowers into their beds and the pot, and added compost to everything else, and went back and forth with bottles (no watering can?) to water all the pots and flower beds. All this took more than an hour, and then we all sat down for a tea break, with chocolate as a treat to share around. My lift arrived shortly afterwards to take me back to the Zoughbi compound for lunch, so I shook hands and said bye bye to everyone, which was sad. I’ve enjoyed my time here.

Marcelle had cooked her uncle’s duck for lunch back at the house: she has Fridays and Sundays off her work as an English teacher in Jerusalem. Her uncle raises ducks in the backyard for their eggs, but this was a male, so not useful. Rafiq (age 16, Marcelle’s younger brother) said he had never eaten duck before, so it was a rare treat. Marcelle boiled the duck and added tomatoes and onions, cooking it as a casserole on the hob for at least 4 hours. We ate it with the large balls type of couscous, in bowls, and it was fantastic. I had a headache from lack of sleep, but the duck totally revived me.

Then Jamal, Rafiq and Marcelle’s cousin, drove Grace, Marcelle and me to visit the Tent of Nations. This is a large Palestinian farm owned by the Nasser family that is located on the top of a hill near the village of Nahalin, ten kilometres from Bethlehem. The family bought the land in 1916 and have grown vines and olive trees there for three generations.

We found the road to the farm blocked by large boulders and mounds of earth, so we had to leave the car at the road block and walk the last ten minutes to the farm. Marcelle explained that the settlers block the road to make it difficult for the farmer to access his farm and market. Jamal was nervous about leaving his car, and we wondered whether he should stay in the car to protect it from attack, but then he decided to join us. I quietly prayed it would be ok.IMAG0210[1]

As we walked along we could see how the settlement in the valley below had grown enormously since Marcelle had last visited, dwarfing the Palestinian village at the bottom of the valley. Israeli settlements tend to be on the top of the hills and Palestinian villages at the bottom where water is accessed more easily. So the farm on this hill is a des-res for Israelis, hence the attacks on it. We saw uprooted and burnt olive trees as we walked along, and destroyed Palestinian houses. Perhaps these people couldn’t prove their ownership.

But the Nasser family has stood up to the Israeli government, bolstered by the fact that they have all their land ownership documentation, and that the family has been honest in the past about how much land they own. A problem has been that during the Ottoman occupation, Palestinian farmers underestimated their land area to lower the amount they had to pay in taxes. So the Israelis claim that the land isn’t theirs, because the documentation says fewer hectares than they really own, and take over the rest. Another problem is lack of documentation, because Arab deals are often decided by a handshake. And if any land isn’t tilled or worked on for three years, the Israelis will take it over, regardless of the documentation proving ownership.

In the face of costly court cases spanning the last twenty years – because Israel wants the Nasser’s land but they refuse to sell – the Nassers have welcomed international volunteers to help undo the destruction and cultivate it regularly so none is confiscated. Marcelle had helped build a water cistern last time she came, digging it out over five days with a pneumatic drill. The day after it was finished the settlers destroyed it, filling it in. This is because the Israeli government has outlawed all building and development for Palestinians living in ‘Area C’ – Israeli-controlled Palestine. The farm has no running water, everything they use is collected from rainwater. They also have no electricity supply, relying on solar panels. The toilets are compost toilets. The poly-tunnel was destroyed in the recent snows. It’s hard to believe that the farm got two feet of snow only a month ago, as we walk about inspecting everything in the blazing sun! Daood showed us the foundations he has made for large tents to house teams of summer volunteers: but he has been told even these are illegal and the army will destroy them.

IMAG0218[1]He shows us a greenhouse made of cut-out plastic water bottles strung onto rows of wires. The roof is not yet completed, and I so hope the army doesn’t destroy it. I really warm to Daood, he shows no animosity to the settlers despite all he goes through: he gives us a story of one Russian lady who had recently moved into the settlement on a nearby hill. He said she couldn’t believe he was living without a water or electricity supply. The story we get is just a simple story of what has happened. No politics or recriminations, just ‘I want to live in peace on this land’.  Of course the Russian lady wouldn’t have been able to invite Daood back to her house for tea: Palestinians aren’t allowed through the checkpoints unless they have a pass.

Daood leads us back to the road, taking us down a shortcut through a padlocked fence. As we round a bend we see the car by the road block and suddenly panic to see it surrounded by figures. I think of my rucksack on the backseat, which has Lee and Viv’s video camera stashed under my clothes, and feel a bit worried. “Should we run?” I ask. “No running” says Jamal, but you can tell he is really worried about it. I envisage the windows broken and the rucksack gone, but soon afterwards the figures move away from the car and go up the hill behind, and we realise they are just Palestinian kids. We find the car untouched and everything fine, and we all thank God! It really brought home the threat though.

Next we drive to Beit Jala for a protest mass. This is held in the valley of Kremisin, where 58 families and their olive groves and a children’s nursery are threatened with eviction, the court verdict is due on the 29th January. This is really the front line of the occupation. The army says it wants to take over the valley ‘for security reasons’ but the valley poses no threat to the settlement at the top of the opposite hill, surrounded by a high wall. It’s a beautiful, unspoilt valley, the last place left in the Bethlehem region that has a reasonable amount of green and no buildings for Palestinian people to enjoy (the settlement on the hill has already reduced the reserve’s size, built on a forest the Israelis chopped IMAG0225[1]down). 

The gathering of about 60 people is held amongst the ancient olive trees, and includes a dozen or so video cameras and different internationals. The presiding priest gives a short protest speech in English, before going into the liturgy in Arabic. We all file up for the communion wafer and say the Lord’s prayer in our multitude of languages. It’s really moving but I sense it is incredibly fragile, and my friends are pessimistic about the court case. It’s so tragic, it’s like the land is being ruined by all these houses everywhere, with so little regard for the history, and needs of the Palestinians for freedom and green space. They are being boxed into urban islands.

After the mass Zoughbi introduces me to ‘the ambassador for the Holy See’ – Palestine’s Vatican representative. He is surprisingly approachable, and seems optimistic. He tells me that the Vatican is working to try to keep kremisin as a natural area. Hurray for church pomposity (I never thought I’d say that!).

We all pile into Jamal’s car again and head off back to Bethlehem to drop the others home, then Jamal takes me through the Bet-Jala checkpoint. We aren’t stopped because Jamal has Israeli number plates, a perk from living in Jerusalem. It’s his first time driving inside this neighbourhood and he is nervous because it is Shabbat, and if you drive in an Orthodox Jewish area after sunset some people throw stones at the cars. But Ruth assures me it’s ok in her neighbourhood. We are very dependent on Ruth’s directions and reading the street signs, which are in Hebrew and phonetic English. But we go awry at the last point of the journey and can’t find Ruth’s road, so she comes out to meet us at the nearby school. The problem was in the phonetic interpretation of the Hebrew from her spelling on the instructions.

Ruth’s flat is in a building that looks very much like all the other buildings we have passed: immaculate cream-coloured stone, glass security doors, lifts. There are no trees because it’s only just been built, and there are cranes nearby erecting more buildings like this one. The roads are nice and wide and smooth, so different to the roads in Bethlehem. Ruth is embarrassed by a few bits of litter on the pavement but this is nothing to me after Bethlehem, where there are mounds of rubbish bags and some people have begun burning the rubbish because the collectors are on strike until they get paid.

Inside Ruth’s house it is very homely, and feels much like any London flat. I am introduced to Chris*, her English-Jewish husband, Jan, a Christian guest from Gloucestershire, UK, and her children Amber* (14) and Michael* (on a weekend visit to his family from his military service), who speak like English people but have grown up in Israel.

ZOE_0010[1]Shabbat is a special Jewish family meal that in the Reece* household is a blend of Christian and Jewish, to reflect their faith. We sit around eating dried cranberries and almonds and drinking tea until everyone has arrived home, then we sit around the table. Ruth lights the Shabbat candles, which are in bronze holders with some symbols on, and says a prayer as she does so. Then we break the special bread, remembering Christ’s death as we do so, and share it around everyone to chew on. The bread is plaited, and two loaves to represent plenty. Then we pass around a cup of wine to remember Christ’s blood.

Ruth cooked us chicken and roasted potatoes, served with a cucumber, feta and red pepper salad. Then I was surprised with a birthday lemon cake, complete with candles! We ate that with some yoghurt and icecream. Before, during and after the meal we had much discussion of all our lives. I had the opportunity to ask Michael why the IDF fire their guns near the Wall in Bethlehem. Although he isn’t stationed there, he could say that it’s a well-known flash-point among the conscripts, and the soldiers would probably be trying to prevent any crowds forming close to Rachel’s tomb (I said there weren’t any crowds that I could see). He said a molotov cocktail bomb had been lobbed over the wall into the tomb area two weeks prior, that had injured someone. So I said someone had been injured by a rubber bullet from inside their house in the Aida refugee camp two days prior. The conversation kind of moved on at that point, as there wasn’t an explanation Michael could help with, and I had no proof of it.

Later, I asked Ruth how long she had lived in Har-Homa, and what did she think of settlements? She has lived there for three years and doesn’t have a problem with them, but is aware that the word ‘settlement’ has become a dirty word in the West. She doesn’t agree that Har-Homa is a settlement (I don’t really understand all the lines that designate what is what here), but even if it was, she wouldn’t have a problem with it. This is because she says Arabs are compensated for the land, and the stories aren’t as clear cut as some would have us believe: if a Muslim sold his land to a Jew it would be shameful and he would be killed**, so perhaps there is fair exchange and we just aren’t hearing about it. Besides, she adds, there’s a lot of land that isn’t being used. I think of Bethlehem and all the rubble and buildings as far as the eye can see – it doesn’t seem like that.

I later notice above her sink, while I manage to do some washing up despite the hospitable protestations, a list of biblical quotes relating to the Promised Land, including one from Ezekiel 36v12 saying, ‘I will cause people, My people Israel to walk upon you. They will possess you and you will be their inheritance. You will never again deprive them of their children.’

On Saturday morning Jan gives me a birthday card and a gift of a book about the Ebenezer Ministry and Operation Exodus which she has supported in prayer and financially over many years. Since 1991 this organisation has helped over 100, 000 Jewish people move to Israel from Russia. She explains that these Jews have been terribly persecuted, some have been in the Gulag for years for insignificant crimes, and many are widows. Coming to Israel, for them, is an escape into freedom and fulfillment of prophecy. She is sincerely convinced this is a good thing, and both Jan and Ruth get on with their knitting while we chat: they are making baby blankets relating to this organisation.

I ask about minorities leaving a country, and doesn’t that make it even more difficult for the ones left? Jan agrees but says many don’t want to leave Russia. I am invited to join them for a school visit in Bethlehem today but my head and nose are feeling so poorly that I decide it is better to retreat to Jerusalem, away from the cat. Tiger is probably glad to see the back of me, she has been loudly mewing on the balcony the whole morning!

I take a minibus back to Damascus gate here in Jerusalem and find my way back to St George’s, where Jane and John look after me with sinus tables and Ibuprofen, and now I must sign off and join them for dinner at their flat. Shalom!

*names have been changed as the family often visit Palestinian friends in Bethlehem and are concerned it may put them or their friends at risk.

**Addition from Ruth: the PA has a law saying that it is high treason to sell land to Jews ie. punishment is the death penalty.


About sophiehebden

Science writer and editor, I mostly write about space and fundamental questions in physics.
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3 Responses to Planting trees and Shabbat in a Jewish settlement

  1. Karin says:

    Interesting hearing how people from different backgrounds see the situation. I’m pretty sure it’s not all Palestinians who are compensated when their land or homes are taken or destroyed.

  2. Keith Hebden says:

    Sending lots of love your way Sophie. I’m glad you’re back with Jane and John. x

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