The first encounter with Abed occurs one evening in a spontaneous fashion with a small group of people keen on meeting this farmer, based in al-Walajah, whose story of long persistent fight on his land is known to many ones.
One evening, we pay a visit of friendship and solidarity to Abed, and are invited to spend the night there or come back another time. The few sights I retain clearly from that first visit are the settlements appearing from every side of the hill, a check-point in the proximity of the house, an old stone-made construction where Abed has set himself up, and a tent-roofed large area where we sit and stay for a chat. At a distance, the glimmering lights of Jerusalem fill a gap between two settlement blocs in the night background. What was initially an un-planned evening visit turned into a revealing micro-story of resistance, embodied in the life of a simple man in his late forties, considered to be one of the last holdouts of al-Walajah’s indigenous Palestinian population.
One week later, I decide to go back to Abed’s; this time during the day and in a smaller group format. While we are approaching the house, the environment still looks familiar with its visible landmarks highlighting the very present state of the Occupation. The check-point borders one end of Abed’s lands, the encircling ring of settlements dominates the field of vision, and the increasingly expanding city of Jerusalem stretches beyond the horizon. We are warmly welcomed by Abed who gives us a small tour around his house and cultivated land, with its wide range of crops, and points us to a chicken barrel built at the top of his land, and show us a little area where he raises a few hens and rabbits too.
The communal area, where Abed receives friends and guests socialize, is a large cozy tile-floored patio roofed by a huge tent and modestly furnished with wooden table, chairs, and cushions. There can be found farming tools and supplies, scattered at corners of the patio. Also, a flute, an oud and a tabla (commonly used in Middle Eastern music) and some stringed instrument looking like a harp, carpet a small area around the table bringing a touch of festive atmosphere. Outside, at one side of the patio, there is a camping-style kitchen while at the other side, a wood-burning stove sits in a corner where Abed is making delicious Arab coffee for everyone. At the central end of the tent, across from the patio, is a Canaanite-era cave that is used as dwelling since Israel forbids building a modern house there. Permissions are typically restricted in the ‘seam zone’ (Palestinian enclaves between the Israel’s annexation wall inside of the West Bank and the internationally-recognized Green Line boundary) making any house constructed in that area illegal. The cave is covered is lined with shelves and covered up with photographs, newspaper clippings of articles reporting his story, and also other clippings illustrating similar stories of Palestinian struggle in general.
After sharing lunch and few moments of conviviality altogether, it is Abed’s un-interrupted time and our chance to hear about his own struggle. Originally from Dheisheh refugee camp, in Bethlehem, Abed Rabbeh is a 48 year-old olive farmer, owning land in al-Walajah (initially inside both the 1948 and 67 borders) through his father, grandfather and generations before him, who were all born in the village. Holding deeds of ownership that prove the land belongs to his family, he claims, shows that he has the right to stay there and that he should fight for it.
For the past 15 years, Abed has lived by himself in a small cave in al-Walajah farming and preventing the Israeli state from taking the rest of his ancestral lands which now sit on the outside of the Green Line. Given the strategic location between the expanding colonies of Gilo and the Gush Etzion bloc, plans are underway to build a new settlement, to be called Giv’at Yael, that would confiscate Abed’s land as well as what remains of al-Walajah. Contractors have been working closely with the municipality and the Israeli army to use every means to force Abed off his land. Nevertheless, his presence there has stood strong against all their attempts.
Despite recognizing that land is his family’s, based on the ownership documents shown, the Court objects to Abed living there and constantly stops him from constructing on his land. He believes that Israel’s ultimate plan is to have the land without people on it. According to an Israeli law, if a farmer has not been on his field and cultivated over a certain period, he can lose his land. Since the state does not grant permission to build a house in that area, Abed needs to travel to his field back and forth all the time so to prove that he is maintaining his land.
Living away from his wife and eight children, who are based in Dheisheh, he wishes he could have them with him but, every time he stays with his family, he dreams about al-Walajah and says: ‘why should I live in a refugee camp when I can be on my land?’ He usually goes to visit in Dheisheh once every two weeks, and receives his family in al-Walajah on an occasional basis. He has loved his land since he was a child, and recollects times spent with his grandmother walking all the way from Dheisheh camp to pick olives, work the land, and plant trees. Abed finds courage and determination to stay on his land by having his family visiting regularly, friends and activists coming from Israel/Palestine and many other countries to show solidarity. ‘The people who come here are my strength. They are the ones who give me power’ he says.
Abed would like to spend more time with his wife and children but he is afraid whenever he leaves al-Walajah, and feels he has to guard against land robbery as well as frequent attacks from settlers from the nearby colonies. Once, on his way back from Dheisheh, he found the tent-covered shelter that he had built destroyed. On three or four occasions, he was robbed of food, gas, and basic necessities. The incidents left traces of evidence suggesting that Israeli military had been at his house while he was away. About 3 years ago, his dog was poisoned and an electricity generator was stolen in his absence. In the past, there used to be four water springs accessible in the area however they have been all seized by Israel. Abed has now one well that he wants to repair as it is not working, but he is not allowed to.
Abed also recalls regular episodes of abuse suffered by the hands of both settlers and the army since he started to live in the area. One month ago, one bus carrying Jewish settlers stopped by on the main road where the check-point is situated, and the settlers approached the far end of the land yelling in Abed’s direction. Although a group of soldiers appeared acting as if they were there to intervene, Abed could see from his house that they were not stopping them. In addition, 8 years ago, settlers destroyed a number of trees on his fields, and after that attack Israeli forces prohibited Abed from accessing his land.
Numerous offers have been made so far with the intention to push Abed out of his land. Rami Levi, owner of the supermarket chain with several stores located in settlements in the West Bank, approached him offering 20,000 NIS per month in exchange of 10 dunums of land for the construction of a wedding hall. Also, another man proposed buying the land in order to build an Israeli-only road connecting Hebron with Jerusalem and construct a gas station on it. An American Jew was likewise interested in purchasing the land for other purposes. Abed has systematically rejected each offer replying that he would not give up his land.
Coming to the pending court case on the stone-construction where Abed lives, the Court claimed that he built the house illegally but he clarified that the so-called ‘house’ is just a cave. Because as a Palestinian there is no authorization to build on that land, Abed has repeatedly been asked to tear everything down in his living space, being all deemed ‘illegal’ (including the spartan open air toilet facility and the chicken barrel!) Taking an opposed stance against the charge of building a house illegally, Abed consulted his lawyer who requested to the Court’s committee to send someone to check what type of housing the construction looks like.
The judge agreed to have a committee member verifying on site and review the case within a six-month period. A ministry of Interior official later went, made a drawing of the Canaanite-era cave which instead showed a standard house plan, and took it to Court so to prove that Abed built illegally. Ten court rulings have taken place to date, the last one was last September 15th. Lawyers are postponing the case in Abed’s favour. One year ago, Abed was granted the right to stay on his land but to not build on it. The next ruling will be in March 2011. At the moment, Israel only gives Abed a permit to go to Court and come back, and whenever he seeks permission to go to Jerusalem this is denied to him being seen as ‘security threat’.
Abed later comments that if he was a Jew, Israeli authorities would provide to him house, streets, water supply and all basic necessities, but it is not the case since he is Palestinian. ‘Oslo destroyed us. There’s no peace’ he states. Abed remembers inviting U.S. President Obama to his cave, during his visit to Israel, nevertheless the invitation was declined. Next, Abed brings a big book full of messages of solidarity written in a number of languages by international activists as well as by Palestinian/Israeli friends who have stopped by his house. He explains that an Israeli activist initially suggested to him to have a book for visitors to write comments inside. The idea was welcomed and for the last 6 years, Abed has been gathering hundreds of messages and he now has his 5th book nearly completed!
Abed adds that he respects his wife and her choice to stay in Dheisheh with the children while hoping they all come to live with him one day. Abed addresses a final note to all those who support his ongoing fight for justice: ‘Million thanks to people helping me around the world. All internationals come here which gives me strength. I just appeal for peace in the world. At the end of the day, all I want is peace’.
The story of Abed is micro-reality of the current Palestinian struggle for basic human rights under Israel’s apartheid regime. Essentially all major issues affecting the Palestinian people are condensed in this small corner of al-Walajah: the land grab, the Annexation Wall, the illegal settlements, the refugee question and the right of return, the human rights violations and the denied freedom of movement. One can find stories of Palestinian resistance like this one all over the West Bank.
Around half of what was left of the old village of al-Walajah was illegally annexed by Israel in 1967, as part of the Jerusalem municipality and for the construction of the Har Gilo and Gilo settlements. The remaining part of al-Walajah is located between the Wall and the Green Line, where its villagers were not given residency status. Since they were not legally allowed to enter their lands, the people of al-Walajah were uprooted and made refugees, and mostly live in Dheisheh camp today. One of the few who decided to stay is Abed Rabbeh, living alone in a corner of the village which has not been fully taken over by the surrounding settlements. Due to the location, Abed is under constant intimidation and attack by Jewish settlers and Israeli police forces.