Abed Abed-Rabbeh is standing on the dirt road looking anxiously at the bulldozers further up the hill. The Israeli bulldozers are digging a sewer system for the nearby illegal settlement of Har Gilo. Everyday, the bulldozers get closer and closer to the land that has belonged to his family for generations. The Abed-Rabbeh family has been farming the land of Wallajah village since before anyone can remember. Abed grew up in a large farming family and was taught early in life the importance of the farmland.
“My grandfather use to tell me that if you take good care of the land, it will take good care of you. And it was true, we grew everything back then, zucchinis, olives, almonds and tomatoes bigger than you have ever seen.”
Situated in a lush valley with access to numerous fresh water springs, it is easy to see why this was a prosperous place. Back then, the village consisted of more than one and a half thousand people, mostly farmers, on an area of almost 2000 dunums. Since then, everything has changed.
After the Nakhba in 1948, the Green Line separating Israeli and Palestinian territory was drawn, cutting off about 70% of the old village. Even though a majority of Wallajah’s inhabitants, including the Rabbeh family, fled to live in nearby refugee camps, they kept returning by day to cultivate their land.
“The soldiers used the hilltops as watchtowers back then, shooting at my grandparents harvesting, but they kept coming back,” Abed says laughing proudly.
After the six-day-war in 1967, Israel seized the remains of the village and later started the construction of the illegal settlements Gilo and Har Gilo. Today, the Gilo Settlement houses more than 40,000 Israelis, while the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS) estimates the remaining population of the Wallajah village to be no more than around 2000. In 1993, when the Oslo accord was signed, the village became Area C, and therefore under full Israeli control.
“I was raised with the resistance. I am one of the last of my brothers who kept coming back here. After the Oslo accords I started to realise that [the Israelis] were taking my land away from me bit by bit,” he explains in a more grim tone.
In 1999 Abed therefore made the decision to permanently move in to a cave-like shelter to protect his land and his crops.
“If I would move elsewhere I could be a wealthy man, now I can’t even afford a package of cigarettes, but I still have my land,” he says as he reaches out for the package we brought with us as a gift.
“They tried everything to get rid of me. First they took away the irrigation-system by transforming the springs into swimming locations for the settlers and forcing me to buy 200 NIS water tanks for my crops every month, and then they do this to the road” Abed says as he points in the direction of the dirt road now rutted by the bulldozers.
Abed has been arrested by the Israeli police several times. Last time he was arrested it was because of the door he put on his cave-residence to shelter it from the cold winter wind. This was an illegal act according to Israeli law since he did not have the permit to build anything on “Israeli land.” The postponed trial will be held in Jerusalem in September later this year.
“When I was a boy, me and my grandfather built a shelter here beneath the big almond tree. When no one saw us we used to hide away from the hot summer days there. He told me stories as the sun wandered the sky…” Abed’s storytelling fades away as he loses himself to nostalgia.
We end the interview and Abed starts showing us his crops and the richness of nature. As we get lost among leaves and berries he is smiling like a boy. I begin to realise that Abed’s love for his land stretches beyond political activism; it is a part of him.
Before we leave, Abed gives us a handful of sun-warmed plums and says: “I’m a peaceful man with nothing against the Israelis, we are all humans. All I want is my land.”
Abed’s story is a story of resistance, but also a story of a simple man, just waiting for his tomatoes to ripen as the bulldozers move closer.