IIbrahim Attallah is sitting in the nearly destroyed village of Khallet Sakariya. His family is alone now, surrounded by barbed wire and the observation posts that double as sniper towers.
The elderly man is the resident of what is referred as “the house of Khirbat Sakariya,” because it now surrounded by the Israeli Gush Etzion Settlement bloc which was built illegally on southern Bethlehem lands.
The walls of Attallah’s house are cracked and may collapse at any time. Renovation is banned. The Israeli bulldozers and settlers are waiting for destruction to finish what they started: to erase another Palestinian village.
After prohibiting any development, construction or renovation, Israeli forces expected that the Attallah family would depart, leaving the land to the settlers. It has worked in many Palestinian towns were life has become too difficult to live there anymore, due to restrictions, the settlements or the Wall.
The road from Bethlehem City to the village is not an easy one, with about 15 kilometers driven on the settlement roads of Gush Etzion, the settlement that was built on thousands upon thousands of dunams of southwestern Bethlehem lands. The Israeli government built the settlement bloc as part of its policy to overtake Jerusalem through settlement and Wall construction, and land confiscation. Gush Etzion is positioned to be included within the limits of “Greater Jerusalem.”
While traveling to the village Israeli settlers were seen photographing any cars with Palestinian license plates on the grounds that all were suspicious, those marked with “press” in particular. In “Beit Khirbat Sakariya” amid the ring of the settlement, Attallah stood in his doorway dressed in a kafiya and the clothes of a traditional Palestinian man.
He was born in 1910 and has a long history of struggle against the settlements and military rule. The village is atop a mountain from which one can see the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. But in 1967 when the Israeli practices against the population were too difficult to bear, most left. The exception was the extended Attallah family of 50, which with several additions has become 510. They had lived on the family’s land of 800 dunams, but after confiscation by Israeli settlers and soldiers there are just 50 dunams left.
Attallah said, “We have stood as strongly as possible in the face of soldiers and settlers or else we would not have been able to keep any of our land with us. What we were able to keep are our homes in semi-demolished states and a path as a way of preserving our presence here.”
Years ago, says Attallah, he approached a well regarded figure in the region, Mohammad Ali Jabari and asked for assistance in repelling the Israeli attack. “He suggested that we go to Moshe Danvan, the Israeli Security Minister at the time. We were on our way immediately. But what he proposed was a piece of land on which to build a villa, a large place compared to this, in order to get us to leave our land.”
He said he would not leave his land under any circumstance, a position that has won him the admiration of not only Jabari, but of Palestinians throughout the West Bank who know of Attallah as a sort of folk hero of the resistance. Numerous Israelis were assigned to mediate a deal in order to coerce the Attallah’s into giving up their land. In 1980 the Israeli commander of the military force occupying Bethlehem offered 300,000 Jordanian dinars if the owners would leave. Attallah said that many Palestinians “who had followed the wishes of the Israeli occupiers have accepted similar offers in other areas.”
Israeli settlers and soldiers engage in violently harassing the family. “The settlers surround us from every side. They go where we are and start throwing stones at us and at our houses. They steal our chickens and sheep, and destroy crops. The soldiers demolish our homes and buildings. They play a game of ‘cat and mouse’ with us. They demolish something and we rebuild it.”
Attallah says that the spirits of generations of his family are here. Two of his sons are buried in the village, to which his 48 year old son Mohammed is the legitimate heir.
Mohammed began walking through the village to point out what life has come to. There are the cameras that the Israelis have installed, recording the movements of residents from all directions 24 hours a day. “This does not deter us,” Mohammed said. He kicks at the dry earth which cannot be replenished easily as the Israelis will not allow renovations to the water supply system, and walks to the mosque which is falling apart. Half of it was demolished by the Israeli authorities who will not allow it repairs or updates to be made. The entrance is small for the Prophet Zakariya. Mohammed said that Israeli settlers have come to the village and tried to enter the mosque, claiming it is sacred to them.
As far as education in the village is concerned, Mohammed said that he was able to convert several rooms to create a school in which he taught 26 students up to sixth grade. Although the Education Ministry has sent a few women, it is difficult to get teachers to stay when there are not even any bathroom facilities. He points out that the settlement surrounding them has large schools with “toilets, laboratories and swimming pools.” For this he blames the Palestinian Authority for ignoring Khallet Sakariya Village.
The Chairperson of the People’s Committee for the Defense of Land in the southern West Bank, Khalid Al Azzeh, expressed pride in the Attallah family for its resolve and says that he tries to provide assistance by using Bethlehem District government channels. Howerer 50,000 shekels that were promised last year are still unpaid.
The local economy depends on dairy farm production. Milk and cheese is sold in Bethlehem, and even to some settlers who the children say, ‘prefer what is the least expensive.’ Mohammad ran a small store for a time, but the trip to the city to replenish the supplies proved too costly and time consuming. Ibrahim Attallah’s wife and Mohammad’s mother says that everyone was doing fine, “as long as these settlers remain far away from us.”
She said, “We live on our land, despite the difficulties. We live here and we will die here.”