Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The magic of being back in Palestine

And losing my heart to Beit Jala

Beit Jala, in the Occupied West Bank, Palestine
It is something I have dreamed of for decades! It’s that long since I had been back. Being invited to spend three weeks in Palestine this August is the stuff dreams are made of.

Who in their right mind would pass on the opportunity to spend three weeks in the Occupied West Bank town of Beit Jala, a stone’s throw from Bethlehem, where we used to spend our summer vacations until my father passed away in 1973.

There were many apprehensions, mainly about actually seeing the enemy, the crossings, the possibility of getting my passport stamped… but these soon evaporated as we set off for Amman, Jordan, to start what would be three weeks of magic.

On our way to Jerusalem
We crossed into Palestine from the Allenby Bridge, first through the Jordanian checkpoint and then the Israeli one. From my first glimpse of Palestinian soil I was blown away. Seeing that first road sign saying “Jerusalem,” was just unbelievable! That is until the “Wall” appears and the enormity of the Occupation hits you in the face. And the “Wall” is everywhere! The second most shocking thing is the extent of the illegal Israeli settlements that are eating away at Palestinian land.

Jerusalem's glorious walls, but then you hit another kind of "Wall"
The beginning of the segregation "Wall" south of Jerusalem
The "Wall" in Bethlehem

With foreign passports, we were able to travel freely across the country. For Palestinians, who need a permit or tasreeh, it is very restricted and full of hardships.

We went to Bethlehem often, but I wasn’t able to identify my grandparents’ home where we used to spend our summers. We also went to Jerusalem, Yaffa, Tel Aviv, Hebron, Haifa, Acca, Nazareth, Caesaria and Ramallah.

It was a kind of pilgrimage into the past, but also one into a future that does not look bright, at least in my lifetime. The trip was filled with a mixture of tears of joy and sadness. There is a sense of history that is always present. Everyone recognized my family name and made me proud of who I am. There is also a deep renewal of faith at the centuries-old religious sites, be they Christian or Muslim.

But it is Beit Jala, which in Aramaic means “Grass Carpet,” I fell in love with -- both the city and its people. Situated on a hill adjacent to Bethlehem, it has existed for thousands of years and its Christian community is one of the oldest in the world.

We were in Beit Jala for the three weeks in a beautiful house and enchanting garden. I couldn’t get enough of the crystal clear blue sky and air, picking grapes and figs, watching the lemons grow and the flowers bloom, listening to the crickets chirp as the Israeli jets flew overhead.

Beit Jala is a Palestinian Christian town in the Occupied West Bank, one of three including Bethlehem and Beit Sahour. Opposite Bethlehem, it is just 10 km south of Jerusalem.

St. Nicholas Church
It is dominated by the Church of St. Nicolas with its golden dome and spire. Wherever you look, there are olive groves, vineyards and pine tree groves as in most of Palestine.

It is in the 3rd-4th century AD when monks such as St. Nicolas began to come to the area to be close to the site of Jesus’ birth. The large hill on which Beit Jala is located was a good place to build a monastery, being close to the Nativity site but outside the town of Bethlehem itself. With the help of the few locals who were already living in Beit Jala they built St. Nicolas Monastery, the ruins of which can still be seen beneath the Church, as well the very cave in which Nicolas is thought to have lived. With the building of the monastery, the growth of the town accelerated around it and Beit Jala has been continually inhabited by Christians ever since.

As a result of the social upheavals during the Ottoman rule, large numbers of Palestinians, particularly from Beit Jala, Bethlehem, Beit Sahour and Beit Safafa, left the country for South America during the 19th and early 20th century. Chili and Argentina are home to at least 400,000 Palestinians living in Diaspora, almost all of them from the Bethlehem area.

The road from Beit Jala to Bethlehem
The biblical heritage of the Bethlehem area attracted particular attention from the missionaries, and they began to found some of the region’s first modern schools and churches in Beit Jala. Between 1848 and 1900, it witnessed the building of two Orthodox churches (St. Nicolas’ and St Mary’s), two Catholic churches (The Church if the Annunciation and Bishara Church of the Latin Convent), one Lutheran church (Church of the Reformation), Palestine’s premier Seminary and at the time its most modern school (The Latin Patriarchate), and the Cremisan Monastery. This gave Beit Jala access to the most advanced educational institutions in the country and contributed towards making it one of the first cities to become incorporated as a municipality in all of Palestine in 1912.

Breakfast at Afteem in Bethlehem with Habib Shehadeh

The most delicious falafel
 Cremisan Cellars, located in the Cremisan Monastery, is an important local winemaker that has operated since the establishment of the monastery in the 19th century. The West Bank Barrier, or “Wall,” is being extended to encircle the area, splitting the monastery, which would end up on the Israeli side, from the sister Salesian convent, and making access to this recreational area for Beit Jala residents very difficult. Some 57 Christian families are slated to lose their agricultural property.

The “Wall,” being continuously built and extended by the Israeli occupation forces separates families from their land and livelihood. The Israeli bypass road or Tunnel Highway passes directly underneath Beit Jala.

Israeli forces uprooting olive trees on August 17 in Bir Onah, Beit Jala,
in preparation for building the separation "Wall" encircling Cremisan
While I was there, the Israeli Defense Ministry resumed construction on August 17 of the separation barrier near Beit Jala, even though the High Court of Justice had invalidated the building of the barrier in that region and ordered the state to reconsider it.

Video posted by Muhanad Qaisy on Facebook of Israeli Force
uprooting olive trees on August 17 in Bir Onah, Beit Jala

Since the Israeli occupation, many illegal settlement schemes were implemented in Beit Jala which tore up the town's agricultural infrastructure into segments. So far, three settlements, Gilo, Har Gilo, and Giv'at Hamatos have been created on Beit Jala's cultivated confiscated land, in addition to two tunnels and two bypass roads.

The 1995 Oslo II Interim Agreement resulted in a division of the West Bank into three types of areas which are distinguished by a different level of control -- Areas A, B, and C. Several Palestinian built-up areas were assigned as Areas A or B, yet portions of their community lie in Area C (under complete Israeli control). In the case of Beit Jala, Area A comprising about 25% of the town's land is under Palestinian control. The remaining 75% (Area C) is under Israeli jurisdiction and 7% of the total Area C is located inside the Municipality border. Thus, many neighborhoods in a town or village are physically separated from the core part of their communities.

The Israeli settlement of Gilo was constructed in 1971 on lands belonging to the towns of Beit Jala and Beit Safafa. The present population of Gilo exceeds 40,000. Gilo settlement was greatly expanded in the southern and western direction, creeping on more Beit Jala lands. Gilo settlement is considered one of the largest Israeli settlements that have been built in the West Bank, with a total area of 2,738 dunums (1 dunum is around 1000 square meters).

Har Gilo Israeli settlement as seen from Beit Jala
Har Gilo settlement was established by Israel in 1972 on the Palestinian citizens’ lands in Beit Jala city and Al Walaja village which are located west of Bethlehem.

The settlement of Giv'at Hamatos was created in 1992 on 255 dunums of land belonging to the Orthodox Church in Beit Jala. It presently includes 280 mobile houses which were built to absorb Jews brought from Ethiopia. The Israeli government plans to expand this settlement and build an additional 3,600 housing units on an area of approximately 1,010 dunums belonging to the Palestinian village of Beit Safafa. The expansion of Giv'at Hamatos will also complete the wall of settlements which surrounds Jerusalem from the south.

Although I lost my heart to Beit Jala, the other Palestinian towns and cities we visited each has its own magic and beauty. I treasure every single second of the trip thanks to my hosts, Ayda, Maya, Nasma, Eric and Habib, as well as the many friends I made and who each contributed to making the three weeks unforgettable. Thank you all.