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Letter from Beit Jala

From Nabil Saba’s terrace there is a clear view of the Wall snaking its way around Beit Jala. Sitting underneath his family’s vineyard, enjoying the protection it offers from the afternoon sun, the peace is sometimes interrupted by the sound of construction work.

For Nabil, history has a habit of repeating itself. At the beginning of the 1970s, he was still living with his family in their ancestral home on Ras Beit Jala, the highest point in the town. But in 1972 the Israelis came to the house and offered to buy the land from Nabil’s father.

“We refused. So almost every day and night they would come to the house, to threaten us, to intimidate us. They would take me and my brothers to jail. They falsely accused us of supporting the guerrillas with 300 dinars, which was a lot of money in those days. They beat my brother in jail.”

The campaign of intimidation continued: “The Israelis would come to our home and put me and my brothers up against a wall. Then they would ask my mother which one of us she wants to see killed first. My mother would cry.”

This way of life was endured for a whole year by the family before Nabil’s mother finally broke. So we all left the house, taking most of our belongings with us. We thought we would be away just temporarily; we left out of fear.”
With the family out of the house, the Israelis were free to occupy the property. First, however, they came and demanded the keys. “They wanted to occupy one room in the house, they said, to stop the guerrillas. After that, they stopped us going back to the house. I’ve never been back since.”

Nabil’s family land was required for the Israeli settlement of Har Gilo, created in 1976 as a military outpost before being transformed into a civilian colony with a population of around 350 settlers. Even though Har Gilo is a short distance away, Nabil does not return: “If I were to go back, I would have a heart attack to see Israeli housing there. There were grapes, fig trees; they were all bulldozed, like you see them doing to the olive trees.”

Like nearly every Palestinian who has suffered dispossession and loss at the hands of the occupation, Nabil has no truck with crass anti-Semitism. “I used to, I still have, many Jewish friends”, he stressed. “A Jew is a man just like me, we don’t hate.” Yet Nabil also has something to say to those in the West who shout “terrorist” at the Palestinians.

“Come and see the truth. Who’s stealing the land? Who’s the terrorist? When a man fights against Israel, it’s not in vain. It’s because something has happened. Do you think suicide bombers kill themselves for nothing? They go out of hatred. Maybe they have seen their father killed, or their house destroyed.”

When the intifada began almost four years ago, Nabil’s house was on the front line for Israeli shelling from Gilo. Houses on his street were utterly destroyed, while his home escaped with repairable damage. Now, however, the threat is not so much Israeli bombardment as the Wall.

In the last few months, the Israeli Defence Force has issued military confiscation orders to residents of Beit Jala to take land for the Wall amounting to around 400 dunums. Once completed, the Wall will separate the town of Beit Jala from around 40% of its land — much of it among the fertile.

“The Wall has taken the land from the people of Beit Jala. They have put us all in a prison. There is no land left for Beit Jala. We are in cantons, ghettoes, now.” Along with the neighbouring towns of Bethlehem and Beit Sahur, Beit Jala will be completely hemmed in by the Wall; expansion of the town will be rendered impossible.

Nabil does not believe that his children will see peace. Sitting on the edge of his sofa, he gesticulates with a finger. “My father, before he died, said he wished he could sleep just one more night in his house. I will never forget those words.”

Published in Middle East International.

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