Today was our first day without Zleika as our guide and companion. We have grown very fond of her and happy that she is now treating us as family and not as honored guests. We left her (our) home by the front door to walk down Shahada Street, a Jewish-only street and a short-cut, which is something neither she nor her mother are permitted, as Palestinians, to do.† We easily went through the checkpoint at the end of the street to leave the Old City to meet Yaesr J., who was going to drive us to the Bakaa Valley to meet his brother, Attta J.† Zleika had told us that this experience was going to put into perspective the ethnic cleansing aspect of the occupation.
We drove about 5 miles, turned off onto a steep and rutted uphill dirt road, made it about half way up and then walked the rest of the way. Yaesr introduced us to Atta, who was working in the family garden with his wife & middle daughter. Atta appeared to be a man in his late70s/early 80s, and his wife substantially younger. We sat down, with the obligatory tea and then coffee, served by his very shy daughter, and started to talk.
Atta started by talking about the history of the three religions in Palestine and how he considered all people as brothers, all people entitled to practice their own religion, all people to peacefully co-exist.† Some quotes to give a sense of the man: ìWhen you open your eyes and recognize peopleís humanity, you must stop the suppression of people. Everyone, everywhere.î ìHow much does a bullet cost? How many billions have we wasted on weapons of suppression and oppression? We must take it and spend it on peopleís needs. We need schools and hospitals and doctorsî ìYou canít talk to settlers, theyíll kill you. I wish I could talk to them.î îAre we stones? Do we not have blood. Give me my humanity.î
Attaís extended family, now numbering between 1500 and 2000 people, he wasnít sure, has lived in the Bakaa Valley for 1000 years. They were quite wealthy and by the 1940ís owned the entire valley, which is very fertile. During winters they lived in the old city of Hebron and in the planting-harvesting seasons lived in the valley, first in caves and then houses. During the late 1960ís and early 1970ís, Israeli settlers started to move into the valley with numbers of outposts and by 1971 Keriyat Arba, a full-fledged Settlement, was established on lands owned by Attaís family. Many of Attaís familyís homes were bulldozed and their lands confiscated. And then in 1998 Attaís home was bulldozed and Atta himself was thrown into prison and beaten badly. I believe itís documented in The Washington Report in Sept 1998.† Although he still bears the physical scars on his body, his spirit is not broken. He is a man of great hope for the future. Attaís home has been bulldozed and rebuilt three times with help from the Israeli left (ICAHD) and international organizations. By now all of the Palestinian homes in the valley have been bulldozed at least once. When we first drove into the valley, all we could see were new homes, and we assumed these were all settlersí homes. But now we understand that the Israelis have attempted to remove any and all remnants of Palestinian existence from the valley. Walls are one thing, ethnic cleansing is another.
At some point we moved into the house for the viewing of videos that had been taken on cameras donated by Bítselem for the express purpose of recording settler violence and protecting Palestinians from false claims made by settlers and the IDF. We saw a number of different videos: settlers destroying the plants in Attaís gardens; settlers destroying the pipes that bring water to the fields; armed, young settlers from the USA coming onto the property, right up to Attaís windows and threatening violence. The most disturbing moment was to see his youngest daughter, aged 11, screaming at the settlers out of her window. As we ate lunch, that same daughter got up continuously and went to the window to look out. Now maybe she was looking for friends etc, but we assumed it was the scars of the violence of two months ago that haunt her still today.
And then we all shared a lunch of stuffed grape leaves and salad that his wife had cooked. It was truly a communal meal; forks supplied to all and all ate out of the same bowls and tore off pieces of bread from larger loaves. He continued talking throughout, and we listened, often in horror. His brother played solitaire on the computer and his wife laughed with the kids. We also were shown a video of the younger kids dancing the Debka to the great amusement of all. We always apologize for the actions of our government for which we take responsibility for. Attaís response: ìYou see how much the policy of the US kills us. Itís the government, not the people.î Thatís Atta. By the way, he turns out to be in his mid ñfifties. What a physical toll his life has taken.
We get back into the car, head down the hill and are stopped by a goat herder with his goats, who turns out to be Attaís uncle, Ali. He has just gotten a 10 day confiscation order for his land on which he herds his goats. He asks for our help and, of course, we are helpless. The only thing we can think of is to call Israeli peace activists to ask for a lawyer. It turns out this has already been done and weíre truly helpless. I suppose this is what Palestinians feel on a daily basis, only on a much deeper level. After all, we are going back to the states in 10 days.
We start again to go across the main road to visit Attaís and Yaesrís mother and brother. Their home is at the base of a 40 ft. stone wall that was built on their property by the Israelis to separate Kiryat Arba from any possible Palestinian presence. This was a very different experience. Jawed, the brother, is in his early fifties, and looks it physically. His experiences were similar to Attaís, but he describes his heart as black. He says that he canít find enough love to give to his children. He is very bitter and demoralized. He says that his kids ask him ìwhy did he ever bring them into this world.î H is in tears and Iím close behind. On his site are the original caves that his grandparents and ancestors lived in. He shows us where the Israelis brought in bulldozers to destroy the caves, which he has refortified and now uses as part of his house. . He says ìhow can they destroy caves.î We are unable to respond. There is no response. Who can understand what is in the minds of people who do this? I canít. He asks for us to take a picture of him next to his one remaining olive tree. We are happy to do anything. We would do more if only we could. We promise to let everyone know the horrors he has endured and how this has marked him. It never feels like enough.
We go back to Hebron exhausted, emotionally drained and furious. I canít find a place to be. We pass through the check point and I glare at the soldiers, barely keeping myself in check. We retrace our steps up Shahada Street, passing settlers and soldiers. We shouldnít have listened to Zleika and should have walked the long way through the old city, in solidarity with the Palestinians who could not use that short cut. We will never do that again. She opens the door and we scoot in, happy to be off the Jewish-only street.
At five oíclock we get into a service (shared taxi) and head for Beit Ummar, about 15 miles away. All seats are taken and yet the taxi stops for yet one more passenger. I squish over, the man next to me, who doesnít speak English, in an attempt to gain some room, puts his arm around me on the back of the seat. I put my head on his shoulder and say ìshukrun ((thank you) papa and everyone in the taxi breaks up, even the women who are usually so reserved in public. I canít tell you what a relief it was to laugh after our day. What a release.