By Stephen Williams
We climbed the hill at Al Khader, overlooking Bethlehem, and marvelled at the view of the city and, to our right, the extensive Israeli settlement of Gilo.
Reaching the summit, Mohammed and I paused. Ahead was the building-site that marked the progress of the Annexation Wall; the scarred landscape, the bulldozers, the watchtower, the fences. A hundred metres away was a Palestinian house hemmed in on three sides by the worksite; for its inhabitants, life would never be the same. Mohammed was staring at the ugliness with infinite sadness.
“This is our land,” he said. “Part of me is lost.”
Each stolen duram, each burnt olive grove , every racially-segregated road, each fence, barrier, wall cutting through the landscape denying access to crops, dividing families, each scar on the landscape is mirrored by the scar on the soul of a Palestinian.
An hour later we were driving through the long tunnel to Beit Hanina, its only entrance. We noted the barrier that could be placed across the road to block access to and from the town. Beyond it, the residents lived in their own little Palestinian ghetto.
The Mayor and his associates showed us what was left of this once vibrant community. Two settlements, settler-only roads and the wall which divides Palestine from its capital Jerusalem had split the town in two and devastated its cultural and economic life, as well the landscape.
The beloved country was despoiled; and it wept.
Opposite the under-funded Palestinian school we observed the nearer of the two settlements with its huge swathes of “sterile” ground. Sterile now, certainly; settler youths had rolled burning tyres down the hillside and destroyed olive groves that had been lovingly tended for generations. The owners could only watch as their land and history was destroyed.
In the distance was the “other” Beit Hanina, separated by Israeli decree from the West Bank and its citizens by a wall. On our side, families could see the homes of relatives and friends with whom they once gossiped and drank coffee, a kilometre away, but not sit with them, not touch them. It now required a ten kilometre journey, an Israeli pass and passage through checkpoints to meet loved ones.
“The land belongs to us,” said the Mayor. “They have taken it from us.”
The children of Beit Hanina were playing in the dusty, crumbling roads as we left. No playgrounds for them. Outside the walls of settlements all over Palestine, the children of the rightful owners of the land can sometimes just make out the spic- and- span, well-equipped playgrounds given to the settler children. Sometimes, the sound of laughter is carried on the wind to the dispossessed.
We were travelling to Nablus when Mohammed suddenly turned off the main road along a rural, narrow road guarded by two gun-wielding Israeli soldiers who took a surprising interest in a Palestinian family and their British friend. After he was allowed to continue driving along a road in his own country, we came to the outskirts of the small village of Saffarin. It is a humble place and the villagers, as everywhere in Palestine, greeted strangers with warm smiles.
Mohammed stopped the car and climbed out carrying a small plastic bag. I was mystified as he went to the side of the road and shovelled some of the soil into a small plastic bag. He was smiling as he returned, enjoying my puzzlement.
“This is our soil,” he said, “The soil of Saffarin, the soil of Palestine.”
He had collected it for a friend condemned to exile in a foreign country, a friend who dreamt of his homeland and the village of Saffarin where he was born. Mohammed had been asked to send him some of the soil so he could smell it and touch it, a small part of Palestine that he could run through his fingers.
Our land, our soil. Despoiled, scarred, wounded, occupied and annexed. The Palestinian dream of liberation is rooted too deep to be thwarted by watchtowers, settler roads, fences and walls or Israeli soldiers. A day that had begun with Mohammed’s pain in Al Khader ended with the realisation that the invisible, spiritual connection between Palestinians and the land of Palestine cannot be broken.
– Stephen Williams is a retired headmaster of a multi-ethnic secondary school in London and a member of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.