On October 27, 2012, in collaboration with the Jenin Freedom Theatre’s Freedom Bus, students, activists and journalists took a field trip to al-Walaja, near Bethlehem. The trip to Walaja was followed by the “Ride for Water Justice,” a four-part series of weekly field trips organized by the Palestinian advocacy NGO, eWash, the Freedom Bus, and al-Juzoor for Health and Social Development. The water rights tour kicked off on November 2, 2012 in Faqoua, a northern West Bank village. The next scheduled field trips will take place later this month in the Hebron Hills and the Jordan Valley, concluding with a video conference with partners in Gaza.
A few meters east of the 1949 Armistice Line with Israel, the world’s oldest tree grows in the Palestinian village of al-Walaja near Bethlehem. Al-Badawi, an olive tree and the largest one in the orchard, is tucked away behind lock and key on a flat grove that hangs above a Jewish bypass road. Some scientists say the tree is 3,000 years old, others 5,000, but no one knows more about the tree than Saleh, an al-Walaja resident who was appointed by the rest of the town at a young age to guard the tree.
“How many years, 20 years, 10 years?” I asked Saleh in Arabic last week. He smiled and lowered his hand that was stretched flat to below his waste, which indicted he has been the tree’s watchman since childhood. “Do you love the tree?” I continued, “Yes, I love the tree,” he responded.
Saleh’s care is a protective one. He has developed a set of regulations for al-Badawi that keeps villagers away. Prayers are allowed, but playing cards are not, and no sleeping under the tree like past generations that used to hinge a mattress between its many trunks. Still despite Saleh’s rules the tree has visitors who try to sneak in an overnight stay. Just two weeks ago a young American women strayed from her tour group and must have jumped Saleh’s barricade because she set up a resting spot under the tree. Not wanting any accidental damage to the branches, Saleh kicked her out.
Yet despite al-Badawi’s fame and appeal to sleepy foreigners, every person I met in al-Walaja aside from Saleh had never actually seen the tree. Al-Badawi is a tourist attraction, and a symbol of reliance against Israel’s occupation. Visitors come to see it for its historical value as well as its proximity to the Jewish-only roads that connect the nearby settlements of Gilo and Har Gilo to the road networks leading into Jerusalem.
Because al-Walajah is a microcosm of the conflict, students from Bir Zeit University went to the village on an overnight field trip during the last weekend of October organized by the Jenin Freedom Theatre’s Freedom Bus and the Ansar Centre, an al-Walaja-based grassroots organization. Each milestone in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict redrew the lines of al-Walaja. Land confiscation took place in 1948, 1967, 1995 and again throughout the 2000s with the expansion of the wall, each date of strife biting into the borders of the village. Settlements, the Green Line and the Israeli separation barrier now nearly enclose the village. The latest threat to al-Walajah is from the wall, which was even poised to confiscate land from a nearby settlement, causing in 2010 a joint settler-Palestinian demonstration against the route of the wall.
The following Friday the tour went to Faqoua in Jenin District, a small village that is suffering from lack of water access and more recently, land confiscation. Differing from the concrete separation wall that threads through the densely populated Jerusalem region, the wall in the northern West Bank is made with meters of barbwire fence. In Faqoua, the wall is actually a rectangular plot of around 70 meters of land confiscated from the village, enclosed in barbwire and a metal chain-link fence.
The field trip began with a tour of the village by Abu Abed Salah who explained to the students that Faqoua imports expensive tanks of water and is unable to connect to either the piped Palestinian water system, or the piped Israeli national water carrier, Mekorot. While Abu Abed Salah talked in front of the wall, in the background Israelis milled through the expropriated land. Although they were far away and only looked like blurry figures the wind carried their Hebrew voices, which sounded distinctly adult and male. Nearby were four white vans and one military tank. Indeed this was the scene of the frontlines of Israeli’s military occupation: farm land, students, tanks and a tour guide.
Although both the students and the villagers of Faqoua are Palestinian, Faquoa is under the Israeli system of building permits and strict Oslo-era limitations to water. In the 1990s when the Oslo Accords were passed, the amount of water designated for Palestinian-use was capped and despite population growth over the past twenty-years, this amount has not increased. Alex Abu Ata, an advocacy officer with eWash and one of the coordinators of the field trip said that today there is less water per person in Faqoua then in 1967, noting, “Since 1967 there hasn’t been a single Palestinian well drilled” anywhere in the West Bank. And since the beginning of this year, five wells in the Jenin District were destroyed by the Israeli military, which monitors the West Bank via satellite.
Faqoua’s lack of access to clean water came as a surprise to some of the Palestinians who were unfamiliar with life outside of the territory’s urban centers. One student even asked why the villagers could not rely on bottled water. Her question underscores the separateness felt between the different Oslo-delineated regions of the West Bank. Even the traffic regulations are not in sync–seatbelts are required in Area C, but not in Area A. Sometimes service (shared taxi) drivers will even pull over to check all of the passenger’s belts. On a map these divisions are color-codes for ethnocratic borders where, crudely, the Palestinians control Area A and the Israelis control Areas B and C. But on the ground Area A is an unconvincing shelter from Israel’s occupation.
In Ramallah where many of the students on the trip and I live, it is possible to look out of a window in a tall building such as my fourth floor apartment and not see any sign of the occupation. Salam Fayyad’s state-building program has ushered in an era of bourgeois cafes, foreign investments and NGOs. I see a Jawal (Palestinian mobile company) store, women’s clothing boutiques and the renowned al-Qasaba cinema, where later this month the celebrated Palestinian actress Hiam Abass will appear in person.
Yet despite this glitz and glamour, in the pipes and wires underneath and inside of the city’s buildings flows services purchased by Palestinian carriers from Israeli companies. For Ramallah, only 25% of the water consumed comes from local wells, the rest is purchased from either a Palestinian carrier or Israel’s Mekorot, which pumps from the Northern Aquifer underneath the West Bank and then sells it back to Palestinians. There are even nine Israeli controlled wells in Ramallah District alone, making the de facto capital of the West Bank just as porous to resource diversion as rural villages on the agricultural front lines of Israel’s occupation.
All photographs are by the author. More reports from the “Ride for Water Justice” coming soon.