Al Khadar community, right in the centre of the Bethlehem district, stands to lose the vast majority of its farmland if construction of the separation wall continues unheeded. Here the proposed route of the wall’s construction serves as a perfect example of Israeli policy in commandeering as much West Bank land and resources as possible. In brief, the wall, as a whole, does not stick to the pre-1967 borders but fully violates this UN recognised ‘green line’ between Israel and the West Bank. Snaking into the West Bank up to 11Km in places and all but severing the West Bank between Bethlehem and the Dead Sea, the wall is now outwardly a tool to segregate Palestinian communities and surround established, as well as new, internationally illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
In the not too distant past Al Khadar would have been home to a predominantly self-sufficient community of small holders and pastoralists, even an important centre for produce saleable to the rest of Bethlehem, but the present day situation has put many farmers off even tending to their lands, jeopardising not only the quality of the land but claims to inherited ownership as regards Israeli bureaucracy. The traditional unwritten way of handing land down from father to son is sadly working in Israel’s favour. Without paperwork to prove ownership, Israeli bureaucracy will absorb these lands with little struggle.
Arable land is effectively cut off from Al Khadar by a busy Israeli highway. While a single tunnel beneath the road does exist and will continue to remain open for farmers after completion of the wall, access to land will be severely hindered in comparison to past freedom of movement. This raises justified anxieties about increased costs of farming hence loss of already low profits. Not only, it seems, is the infrastructure intent on impairing Palestinians from farming their land but, as we learnt, farmers have, allegedly, been party to severe harassment from Israeli settlers. We spoke to one farmer who told us he had been shot at from the relatively new static caravan settlement at the top of the valley, the bullet narrowly missing him, ricocheting off the tractor he was driving at the time. The ‘outpost’ settlement in question “Sde Baz”, a crude encampment of static caravans sits mockingly atop the hills of Al Khadar. The settler inhabitants claim to own an area of land equivalent to 7,000 square metres, bought from a local Arab for close to US$ 1million. The local Palestinians dispute this citing that it is in fact illegal for such a transaction without the consent of the community at large. However, as I was told by another local, this story is probably true, the former owner likely escaping treatment as a collaborator by fleeing the country. Whatever the truth, the outcome will be the same if the situation remains unchallenged. A settler from the encampment, pickaxe in hand, that we unwittingly bumped into as we walked across disputed farmland, told us there were ten families living at “Ste Baz” and expected there to be perhaps 50 within the next ten years. When a Palestinian friend remarked on how he could understand why settlers would want to come a live amidst such beautiful lands the settler replied “Yes, but you are not welcome”. Without even an attempt to hide intentions for this settler community to expand, he laid bare the fact that they will inevitably outgrow the originally purchased 7000 square metres, and with construction of the wall just months away these people cannot fail to see the chance for further land acquisition; land which they know full well, in all likelihood, will end up theirs or at least their communities. With the already fully established colony of Neve Daniyyel – part of the Gush Etzion block – expanding northwards towards Sde Baz, it seems that this caravanned ‘outpost’ settlement is acting as nothing more than, on the one hand an institutional land grab, on the other a private land reclamation enterprise. In addition, as the settler community itself does not seem a wealthy one, questions are raised as to where $1 million, to purchase such a relatively small piece of land, came from. Considering that this settlement is supposedly illegal yet served by a well maintained, drivable track, electricity poles to one side adorned with CCTV cameras, it begs the question, does this money come from the state?; and if not, at least from the vested interests of developers, endorsed by the authorities?
Israel, in its virtuosity (sic), supposedly offers compensation to affected Palestinian farmers but the culture divide is so massive, and suspicion so justifiably rife that even if Israeli officials were to approach these farmers with the necessary dubious paperwork Palestinians would not, rightly, sign a thing. I met one such farmer, at his family smallholding, who had such a visit after notification that 6000 square metres of his land was to be confiscated and levelled to make way for the separation wall. Days later a bulldozer turned up and ripped through his land uprooting every last single olive tree. He watched to entire ‘operation’, two hundred years of love and sweat destroyed in less than an hour and he was powerless to do anything.
These fields, he told us, had been in his family for at least two hundred years. His grandfather was buried on this land. On taking us out to the fields to show us the destruction it was hard to know what to say. Attempts at consolation would be pointless and I could not help but feel ashamed of being part of a country, an economy that is endorsing this behaviour. A savage, twenty metre wide scar, bulldozer tracks still clearly visible parted his land. He felt, he told us, like his heart had been ripped out, that he was up against a machine and powerless to do anything. As we drove away and left him on his family land, he took to his knees, and in full Muslim prostration put his forehead to the earth that would soon be lost behind the wall, accessible only through a military checkpoint.