Bedouin community uses Christmas celebration to challenge Israeli land grab

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A dozen Palestinian Bedouin children gather on top of Pope Mountain and prepare for the first ever Christmas tree lighting in the area. The mountain echoes with the beats of the famous song “Mawtinee” (Homeland) as the children, the community head council, the Archbishop Hanna Atallah, Fr. Jamal Khader and other Palestinian officials like Walid Assaf and Dr. Mustafa Barghouti pose under the tree.

While Damascus Gate has been the central point of protest in light of US president Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Palestinians have also been confronting the declaration through other means. With Jerusalem once more sparking protests, the residents of Jabal al-Baba used the Christmas holiday to reaffirm the need to defy Israeli policy of forced displacement, and the plans to take over the areas of E-1 northeast of the city.

Perched on top of a mountain overlooking the settlement of Maale Adumim on one end, and East Jerusalem on the other, the Bedouin community has been in a decades-long struggle to remain on their lands.

(Map: UN OCHA)

The latest Trump declaration will not only affect the 330,000 Palestinian Jerusalemites, but Palestinians surrounding Jerusalem as well. The E-1 area extends further than the quarters of the old city and East Jerusalem, to include the surrounding settlements and, more relevantly, the Palestinian communities in between.

Although Bethlehem turned off its Christmas tree for a few days following Trump’s decision, the holiday celebrations are still ongoing in the region. Archbishop Atallah Hanna stood on a wooden panel and declared to the guests that “our message this Christmas is that we are rooted in the soil of this land, and the tree that we light is hundreds of years old with its roots deep in the land. This is who we are as Palestinians, deeply rooted in the earth of the land.”

Archbishop Atallah Hanna (Photo: Mariam Barghouti)

Community leader Atallah Jahalin reiterates the celebration as a form of defiance to Israeli aggression against Palestinians, and the fact that the latest Trump decision does not only attack Palestinian Muslims, but the population as a whole and that includes Christians. It’s a fact that “has been ignored by the international community” he tells Mondoweiss. “The story is not just that of Jabal al-Baba or Jerusalem or Muslims, but all Palestinians.”

Having been a part of the community’s struggle for years, Dr. Mustafa Barghouti links the community’s plight against forced displacement to the current crisis surrounding Jerusalem, “by being here we are not only protecting Jabal al-Baba” he says “we are protecting Jerusalem.”

In October of this year, Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu shelved the Israeli “Greater Jerusalem Bill” following US pressure. The bill would have brought internationally illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank into the Jerusalem municipality. However, despite the bill being momentarily shelved, Israeli efforts to take over more lands such as Jabal al-Baba continue.

“The American decision has given the green light for the occupation to displace all the Bedouin communities that are on the edges of Jerusalem” says Jahalin as he walks through his lands. “The Zionist project and Israeli effort includes ‘greater Jerusalem’ which extends to lands near the Dead Sea.”

The shelving of the bill did not take away from the daily consequences endured by Palestinians, including the community of Jabal al- Baba. “We don’t even want to be political, we just want to live” says resident Um Ramey, 44. Holding her child in her arms inside one of the buildings she wearily says, “when we build a new building and Israeli forces come to demolish it. In the end we just want to live in security.” Taking a breath, she quizzically asks “how is that wrong?”

Atallah Jahalin (right) and Abu Nuwwar (left) on top of Pope Mountain. (Photo: Grant Flanagan)

With Palestinians demonstrating in the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem, the Palestinian Authority has chimed in by calling for a unified front against the Trump decision and Israeli occupation. Although Jahalin thanked the Palestinian Authority and Mahmoud Abbas for their efforts in support of the community’s steadfastness, he says “even though they are calling for confrontations, this is a decision that we needed a long time ago, not today.” Pointing towards the settlements in the horizon he says “the colonization never stopped and Trump’s decision didn’t reflect anything different than what is already happening.”

Since the signing of the Oslo accords of 1993, the Palestinian leadership has been in an ongoing negotiations process to build a Palestinian state. What the situation on the ground highlights however is an opposing reality of increased land annexation whereby Israel has killed any peace process. “There is no peace process, it’s dead” says Barghouti. Looking at the Trump recognition in new light, he hopes that it will at least bring Palestinians out of “this tunnel which paralyzed Palestinian energy for a long time.”

With hopes faltering within the Palestinian population toward any possible diplomatic solution, the call for an alternative which revolves around resistance is once more on the rise. Having been organizing against Israeli settlement expansion for years, Jahalin confidently proclaims that, “if there is a serious stand from the Palestinian people firstly and the the international community, then we can change the biggest decisions in the world.”

Still, residents of the community say that they can’t fight alone and neither can Palestinians. With the PA calling for confrontations on the one end, but continuing security collaboration with Israeli intel on the other, it has been difficult to place faith in their efforts. “The PA needs to cut security coordination with Israel,” says Jahalin “this is what will force Israel to take a step back.”

As the Christmas lights faintly colors the surrounding field, and the guests begin to leave Jahalin says, “we have been fighting Israeli land annexation and forced displacement, is it not time to say enough?”

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Merry Christmas.

RE: “In October of this year, Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu shelved the Israeli ‘Greater Jerusalem Bill’ following US pressure.” ~ Mariam Barghouti MY COMMENT: I wonder if this was used to force Trump’s hand on the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and the relocation of the embassy. Did Trump have to agree to that in order to get the ‘Greater Jerusalem Bill’ shelved for the time being? A ‘good Israeli, bad (settler)… Read more »