Israelis, Palestinians work together in bid to solve local water shortage
The distorted climate of the occupation has become slightly altered by distortions of the Oslo Accords.
"Wadi Fukin is a rich valley, full of water: The springs there gush forth, the soil is fruitful and generous, every resident has a pool for collecting the spring water, and the vegetable plots are abundant with produce, and olive groves are planted in it, and vine tendrils are found all along it, shoulder to shoulder. And at the top of the mountain above the wadi - the foundations of the city of Betar and the settlement of Betar Ilit."
This heartwarming description comes from "The Yellow Wind" by David Grossman, who during his journey through the territories in 1987 was able to decipher the signs that preceded the first uprising against the occupation, the first intifada that broke out at the end of 1987.
In the early 1950s, after the "acts of retribution" that followed the harassment of Israel Defense Forces patrols, the residents of Wadi Fukin scattered in all directions and almost all the homes in the village were blown up. For all these years they continued to cultivate their plots and lived from the produce of the land. In 1972 then-defense minister Moshe Dayan ordered that the refugees of Wadi Fukin be restored to their village. It is said that the primitive agriculture that has been preserved since the 16th century touched the heart of the amateur archaeologist. "They may be the only ones who had the good fortune of returning from lives as refugees to normal lives, and can say something about the chances of reconciliation and forgiveness," wrote Grossman. "In the distorted climate of the occupation, when any act of kindness is done, it's almost by necessity crooked and twisted, and in the end it is only one of the many faces of arbitrary behavior."
The distorted climate of the occupation has become slightly altered since then with the distortions of the Oslo Accords. The homes of the village and the vegetable plots have been branded "Area B." All around them everything is "Area C," "State lands" that will soon become a construction site and will be annexed to Betar Ilit. The small ultra-Orthodox settlement has become a big city. In the morning hours the high-rise buildings cast their shadows over the Palestinian neighbors in the valley. According to the town's Web site, "the population of Betar Ilit now numbers about 35,000 residents - may their numbers increase - who live in about 6,000 housing units."
The tower cranes testify that in Betar Ilit the construction freeze in the settlements is nothing but a distant rumor. As far as the 1,200 residents of Wadi Fukin are concerned, the freeze is an oppressive reality. The village elder, Mohammed Mansara, who is called Abu Mazen around here, makes a circle with a callused hand that encompasses the vegetable plots, the water pools and the small stone houses on the hillside. The Israeli government makes sure that nobody will go beyond this line. The young people who want to build a home for themselves can only eat away at the vegetable plots, the villagers' source of livelihood for generations.
The residents of Wadi Fukin are among the approximately 70,000 Palestinians whose homes, and sometimes whose lands as well, are in Area C, under full Israeli control. From 2000 to 2007 only 91 building permits were granted to the Palestinians (in the settlements during the same period over 18,472 housing units were built, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics). Over 94 percent of Palestinian requests for construction permits were rejected, according to Defense Ministry statistics acquired by MK Haim Oron of Meretz.
And in spite of all that, according to Grossman, Wadi Fukin can once again "herald a chance for reconciliation and forgiveness." Earlier this month, 22 years after the author's visit, a group of veteran leaders, the "Elders," made their way along the narrow road that winds through the fruitful valley. The former leaders were welcomed by a group of activists from the Friends of the Earth - Middle East from Wadi Fukin and the neighboring community of Tzur Hadassah, that borders the Green Line from its Israeli side. They are working together to preserve the valley and protect it from the blights of the large settlement. "It was touching to see the harmony with which they are dealing together with the challenges and the opportunities," wrote former U.S. president Jimmy Carter in the Washington Post.
World Heritage Site
Gidon Bromberg, director of the Israeli office of Friends of the Earth - Middle East, convened the members from the village and Tzur Hadassah in the Al-Fukin local council building, in our honor. Alongside council head Mahmoud Mufriah sat Tamar Gardinger and Dr. Dudy Tzfati of Tzur Hadassah. Tzfati, a geneticist from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, remembers hikes in the wadi during his childhood. "When I came to Tzur Hadassah 40 years later, I was amazed at the sight of the piles of trash and the tremendous construction in the settlements," he says. "I realized that the wadi was in danger and decided that I couldn't stand on the sidelines."
Gardinger, a lecturer in education for democracy at the Adam Institute for Democracy and Peace, says that many of their neighbors in the community (which numbers about 5,000 residents) support the joint activity and at the same time, most of the people in Tzur Hadassah are indifferent to what is happening in the wadi.
Over four years ago, after the area commander issued injunctions to seize the lands of a number of farmers in Wadi Fukin for the purpose of building the separation fence, one third of the residents of Tzur Hadassah signed a petition initiated by Friends of the Earth - Middle East. "The Israeli community understood that instead of providing them with security, the fence would harm the springs and lands of the village, and will rob the Palestinian farmers of their livelihood and arouse hatred toward their Israeli neighbors," explains Bromberg.
A delegation of the residents appeared at the time before the Civil Administration along with the village heads. Aside from the damage to the water and landscape, they said that the village is a candidate to be listed as a World Heritage Site thanks to the traditional agricultural methods practiced there.
Raid Samara, head of the regional council, declares that he has not come to talk about politics but about the quality of the environment. "It's important for you to know that our situation is more difficult than it was before Oslo," says Samara. "The population is growing, water consumption has increased, as well as the amount of sewage. If we wait until the bigshots reach an agreement we'll be left without water and without land," he warns.
Bathwater and cucumbers
Wadi Fukin-Tzur Hadassah is one of 25 joint communities in which the Friends of the Earth - Middle East are operating in the framework of the "Good Water Neighbors" initiative (with funding from USAID, Swedish SIDA and Belgium). It is one of the only regional projects remaining from the vision of the New Middle East. The objective is to bring the water shortage that is shared by Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians onto the public agenda, and to encourage joint management of the region's water resources, explains Bromberg. He says that "the Jordan River and the Hadera stream are examples of the fact that water crosses borders and interests, and that one side can't handle it alone."
Recently the organization held a joint workshop in Ein Gedi for environmental activists from Israel, Jordan and the West Bank, about the use of "gray water" (household wastewater). The graduates receive the title of "Good Water Neighbors" and are sent to disseminate the message of environmental cooperation.
So it is that while politicians speak loftily about "normalization," in Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian schools they are studying from the same "Water Book," which was written in Hebrew and Arabic. The Peace Vegetables cooperative of Wadi Fukin and Tzur Hadassah markets the village's cucumbers to their Israeli neighbors, and last Tu Bishvat (Jewish Arbor Day) the children of the two communities planted 20 green saplings along the imaginary Green Line that separates their houses. In the winter they will come back and together prepare the devices for gathering rainwater on the roofs of the houses and pray for rain - perhaps even for peace.