While Israel’s right-wing Economy Minister was telling American audiences that the occupation doesn’t exist, a Palestinian coordinator for the district of Bethlehem was preparing to utter statements of a much different sort.
On November 19th, the coordinator, Raed Samarra, joined three others–two Palestinians from the village of Wadi Foquin and one Israeli–at a briefing in Washington, D.C. to talk about the village near Bethlehem that is beset by settlement expansion and the separation barrier. The talk was held in cooperation with Congresswoman Barbara Lee’s office, and was sponsored by the Arab-American Institute, Americans for Peace Now, Churches for Middle East Peace and the United Methodist Church’s General Board of Church and Society.
In addition to Samarra, the talk featured Fahmi Manasra, director of outreach for for the Wadi Foquin Community Development Project; Ahmad Sukor, President of the Village Council; and Dudy Tzfati, a resident of the neighboring Israeli town just over the Green Line. Congressional staffers and others attended to hear testimony largely missing from the American discourse on the conflict.
The peace process between Israel and the Palestinian Authority has not produced results, Samarra somberly noted in an interview a few days after he testified. “20 years of waiting with no results on the ground. On the contrary, things are getting worse,” he said in a phone call from Washington, D.C. “Life is not normal.”
The November 19th briefing (you can listen to it here) was a tour de force on how exactly negotiations have failed. The speakers detailed how the settlement of Beitar Illit was gobbling up Wadi Foquin’s land; how the separation barrier was affecting their lives; and how sewage from the settlement was killing their agricultural fields. All of this has continued to happen as peace talks grind on between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
The village’s plight has been taken up by United Methodists in California, who have formed the Friends of Wadi Foquin. Through their efforts, Wadi Foquin has come to the attention of at least some legislators.
Mondoweiss obtained a letter about the village that was sent to a constituent from Congressman Joe Courtney, who represents a district in Connecticut. The Congressman acknowledged that the “Israeli government has issued land confiscation orders” to expand the settlement and that the village’s situation has been brought to the attention of the State Department, who “issued a statement acknowledging the importance of ensuring access to clean water for the villagers of Wadi Foquin.”
That news would be music to Manasra’s ears, who told the audience at the briefing that “we are trying to bring the reality to you to be aware of this situation..If we lose this land, ladies and gentlemen, we lose our existence.” To untrained ears, Manasra’s dire predictions would sound hyperbolic. But Wadi Foquin has been losing its land and livelihood for decades. In fact, Wadi Foquin, which sits right over the Green Line separating Israel from the Palestinian territories, already lost the vast majority of its land at the end of the 1948 war. The village was blown up by the Israeli army in 1954. In 1973, in a rare feat, the villagers were allowed to go back to Wadi Foquin. 1,200 people live there today.
Today, Wadi Foquin’s troubles stem from the settlement of Beitar Illit. Founded in the early 1980s, it has one of the fastest population growth rates, and about 35,000 settlers live there on land confiscated from Wadi Foquin.
Many villagers of Wadi Foquin rely on farming to make a living–or at least they used to. The settlement has put a large dent in that lifestyle, causing high unemployment and forcing residents to work by constructing the very same settlement gobbling up their land. Sewage from Beitar Illit has damaged fertile soil and water supplies. At the Capitol Hill briefing, Manasra said that this was killing their land and economy. Dudy Tzfati, an Israeli from Tsur Haddassa–an Israeli town where residents have supported Wadi Foquin in its struggle to hold on to their land–noted that rubble from the construction of settlements was also damaging the land. “The village is under existential threat,” said Tzfati.
The separation barrier that has de facto annexed Beitar Illit makes access to Bethlehem onerous. When it was first being built, the route of the separation barrier would have encircled the village and damaged the flow of spring water in the village. But villagers from Wadi Foquin, with help from residents of Tsur Hadassa, stopped the plan–for now. Still, the Israeli army could always decide to build that section of the separation wall, and meanwhile Beitar Illit continues to chew up Wadi Foquin’s land. For all these reasons, the speakers said the U.S. should step in and take action.
“The U.S. has always told the world that the building of settlements on Palestinian land forms a real obstacle to making peace between Israelis and Palestinians,” said Samarra at the briefing. “It feels strange that the U.S. vetoes anything that asks Israel to respect international law, human rights or realizing Palestinian freedom.”