Families separated from livelihood, heritage

A traffic bridge connecting Jerusalem to West Bank Jewish settlements has loomed for many years over the place where the Al Shatleh family used to sit under their olive trees during olive picking season and drink their tea and eat their lunch. But in the past year, the Israeli separation wall has been constructed on their land and will eventually separate it from the Palestinian city of Beit Jalla, where the family lives and which is known for its high quality olive oil.

In the end, all their legal and physical protests against the wall have proven to be fruitless. Most of their trees have been uprooted to make room for the wall and the security road adjacent to it. Only one of their trees remains here, barely clinging to life. There are no olives to pick from it this year.

They are one of the almost 60 families from Beit Jalla, most of them Christian, whose land has been expropriated by the Israelis to make room for the separation wall. They appealed to the Israeli Supreme Court against the construction of the wall with help of lawyers from the Society of St. Yves Catholic Center for Human Rights. A Catholic Salesian convent and its school and a monastery were also threatened to be separated from each other and their land by the wall.

Though in April 2015 the Supreme Court ordered that a different route for the wall be considered, the victory was short lived. Not long after in August 2015, another court issued a different interpretation of the ruling and construction began.

Heritage upended

Nimeh Al Shatleh, 76, was a new bride of 20 when she first came here with her husband’s family over 50 years ago to take part in the traditional olive harvest. She recalls the first and subsequent harvests as a “beautiful feeling.” Her husband died nine years ago. The family can still walk through an unfinished underpass gate to reach their lone tree, but soon an “agricultural gate” will be put in place, and kept locked, preventing them from moving freely to their land.

The family also has five trees left on another plot, in the valley closer to the Cremisan monastery. They used to be able to drive or even walk down a pleasant path to get to those, but now they must take a treacherous hike and climb over barbed wire to reach them. In all, only six of their 40 olive trees remain.

Israel says that the land-owners will be permitted to reach their trees through the gate, but the Palestinian owners say they are doubtful as they have seen what has happened to other farmers in the past.

At first the gates are opened for those with permits, but over time they are opened less and less. Permits are largely given only to the older generation who are registered as landowners, making it impossible for families to work and harvest, said Judeh Abu Sa’ad, 41, whose family also has a parcel of land with fruit trees and beehives, which will all soon be behind the wall. Large parcels of land registered to one family member during the Ottoman period have been divided among newer generations, though the registration has remained in the name of the original owner, making proving property ownership difficult.

The Abu Sa’ad parcel is just a few hundred yards away from their multi-family home, and they used to be able to see their apricot, pomegranate, fig and olive trees from their second floor landing. Now they climb to the rooftop balcony to see above the cement slabs of the wall and even then can barely see the tops of the trees.

“All the men and women and children of the village would come to pick olives,” said Suhaila. “Even the schools would let the children out so they could go picking.”

A foot path only a few yards from their house used to lead directly to their neatly tended orchard. Now Rami, the eldest brother who tends the honey bee hives, must take the car to where the gate will be and traipse on foot along what will become the security road to reach the bees. They worry what will happen when the gate is in place since the bees must be tended regularly, sometimes several times a week. The fruit and honey are sources of income for the family.

Questions of access

Ironically this area of Beit Jalla, in a valley known as Beir Onah, has been incorporated into the Greater Jerusalem municipality. Therefore, those living here are technically now considered Jerusalem residents and have Israeli identity cards which permit them to go to Jerusalem. Theoretically then, the Abu Sa’ads believe they will be able to reach their land by driving 30 minutes around the wall and reaching it via a checkpoint on the Jerusalem side.

Judeh Abu Sa’ad stands before the wall separating his family’s house from their olive trees and bees. Photo by Debbie Hill

But the Abu Sa’ad parents, Suhaila, 65, and Naim, 70, will no longer be able to take a short afternoon stroll to pick a few figs from their trees as they like to do. For Rami, tending the bee hives will entail an hour round-trip drive, if he is actually permitted to reach the land. And though they might be able to reach their land, they are also concerned about the families who will not, said Judeh.

“I feel as if a part of my body has been cut off from me,” said Suhaila. “I used to go there once, twice, three times a day.”

The wall will separate Beit Jalla from the Jerusalem settlement of Har Gilo and what Israelis consider as the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo, but which for Palestinians is a settlement. An arrangement was provided for the Salesian property, though the Palestinian children attending the convent school will need to go through a military checkpoint to reach their school. Israel says they need the wall for security reasons to prevent Palestinian terrorists from crossing into Israeli territory, while opponents maintain it is purely to allow for settlement expansion.

Deeper loss

“We loved to sit and eat under the trees, drink our coffee and tea, eat our lunch. It felt joyful. We used to wait impatiently for the olive harvest season. It was like a holiday. Now I can’t even stand this sight,” the Al Shatleh matriarch said, standing amidst construction dirt and debris just outside where the gate will be erected, looking at her dying tree amidst other dead and dying trees belonging to other families.

Her son Issa, 44, and her older grandchildren like Issa’s sons Nicolas, 13, and Matthew, 11, also have happy memories of the olive harvest time, traditionally a time of extended families gathering to harvest olives which are then pressed into olive oil, a main staple of Palestinian cooking, or preserved to be eaten with almost every meal.

Issa’s youngest daughter, Oriana, 4, has none of these memories, but they have pictures of her in the orchard, and they will tell her the stories.

“We invested a lot in our land, we installed water and chose the trees carefully,” said Judeh. He asked St. Yves to go to court to ask for a legal ruling that the farmers must be able to reach their land. “I want something legal but our attempts have been dismissed. They say the Israeli promise should be enough. This has had a big impact on us. My father has lost his desire to even go to the land. Our memories are all interlocked with that land. We are in denial that this very dear part of us is about to be taken away from us. Part of our denial is that we are denying that we have lost the land. We are still saying it is ours because it is ours. But in reality we have already lost it.”

Judith Sudilovsky writes from Jerusalem.