It's a Struggle to Stay Optimistic in Baka Al Garbiyeh

Joseph Algazy
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Joseph Algazy

"You can't block the sun with a sieve, goes the old Arab saying and it's true, if you're going to describe the situation in Baka al Garbiyeh, you can't hide the fact that there's tension, unease, and insecurity in the city," says the head of the local pedagogical center, Nimr Ka'adan.

"Since last October," he explains, "many Jews who used to visit the city on business or to see friends, who used to eat in our restaurants, have stayed away. Teachers who are supposed to lecture in our schools and cultural centers say openly: `We're afraid to come'. By the same token, people from Baka who need services in Hadera, from the government offices or medical treatment at Hillel Yaffe, or to see their lawyer, are afraid to go to Hadera.

"Baka al Garbiyeh residents who for years would go to Hadera, to the mall or the cafes in the city, aren't going any more. Obviously this has hurt the livelihood of many people and our mood, as well. The situation hurts relationships between Arabs and Jews in our region and throughout Israel. We don't see when it will end, when the relationships will return to where they were 10 months ago."

Like many of the residents of Baka, Ka'adan is upset about the reports in the media that followed the murder in the open market on the other side of the Green Line last Monday, when Aharon Obidiyan was killed. "The media said `Murdered in Baka al Garbiyeh,' and "Murder in the Baka al Garbiyeh market," or "Only 50 meters away from the IDF checkpoint Baka al Garbiyeh,'" said Ka'adan, adding, "And it's not true."

To prove his point, he takes us to the spot where Obidiyan was killed. The market is at the eastern end of Baka al Garbiyeh. Half of it is in Baka, meaning Israel, the other half is in the village of Nazlat Isa (Jesus's hill), in Palestinian Authority territory. Dividing the two places is an imaginary line well-known to the people of Baka al Garbiyeh and Nazlat Isa. The merchants on the Israeli side pay taxes to Baka al Garbiyeh. It's clear that Baka al Garbiyeh is not directly connected to Baka al Sharkiyah, since Nazlat Isa, including its houses and fields, separate the two. The murder took place in Nazlat Isa, say Baka residents, who wonder who is interested in libeling them for no reason.

500 years of history

The IDF checkpoint, a few blocks of cement manned by some soldiers with their fingers at the ready on the trigger, is on Highway 585 east of the market, over the Green Line. The only people who use the road nowadays are soldiers and settlers from Harmesh and Mavo Dotan, who only use it when accompanied by an army convoy. Despite the checkpoint, there's no hermetic seal. Palestinians who know the footpaths in the area know how to get around the checkpoint.

Until the outbreak of the Intifada, 585 was the main road from the area to Jenin, an easy unclogged route to the West Bank and Jerusalem. The joint market in Baka al Garbiyeh and Nazlat Isa drew a lot of customers from Israel, both Jewish and Arab, since the prices were lower than in the rest of Israel. Signs in Hebrew and Arabic still line the market's street on both sides of the imaginary Green Line. The market didn't close after the Intifada began. Organized groups of foreign workers and Jews from the former Soviet Union still come through to shop. The same was true on the road between the village of Habla to Qalqilyah, but that road has been closed by an IDF-dug ditch and high sand ramparts that now block the road. New immigrants say that they don't want to give up the services of "dentists who studied in Russia, speak out language and don't charge as much as in Israel."

Baka al Garbiyeh has an interesting history. The elderly Haj, Muhammed Rachid Aref Safa, is helpful in supplying information. Born in 1916, he's the father of 13, and proud of his youngest, two-year-old Vassim, whom Safa refers to as "the last grape of my cluster, as the Arabs say." Since 1934, when he finished school at 18, he's been keeping a daily journal in which he reports his personal experiences and events of interest in Baka al Garbiyeh, Israel, the region and the world. From the Great Rebellion of 1936 through Anwar Sadat's visit, from the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan to the latest Intifada, it's all in his journal, which he takes everywhere he goes. Many researchers, from Israel and abroad, have visited him to hear the history of Baka al Garbiyeh and its environs.

When he welcomed us in his house, Haj Safa said he had just come back from his fields. "I sprayed the weeds in the chickpea field after the harvest. I may be old, but I'm still strong," he said proudly.

When the skies are clear, from the water tower on Jabel Hamdan, northeast of the city, one can see all the towns and settlements around Baka. The city's first residents arrived 500 years ago, from the Ilar area in the West Bank. They gave the place the name Baka, which means bouquet in Arabic, because when they looked around from the hilltop, they saw fields of wild flowers. Later, as the village grew westward, that part became known as Baka al Garbiyeh, meaning west, and as it grew eastward, that part became known as Baka al Sharkiyah, meaning east.

Wayward horses

The Israel Defense Forces conquered Baka al Garbiyeh on May 22, 1949, after the signing of the armistice agreement with Jordan a month earlier. For 17 years, the town lived under military rule, like all the other Arab towns and villages in the country. That was a life under a military commander who used carrots and sticks to keep the populace under control.

The armistice line ran through Baka al Garbiyeh to Nazlat Isa, and the fence along the border cut families in half. Ka'adan, for example, says: "My mother's parents and uncles were in Nazlat Isa. My family couldn't meet without a risk. As a child, I would slip through the rocks and trees to visit them. In March 1963, when my brother Atiye got married, the wedding party marched together on both sides of the fence."

On the Israeli side, near the fence, the late Haj Muhammed Abdullah had a a house that served as a sort of local Mandelbaum Gate crossing between Jordan and Israel. Haj Abdullah often mediated between the residents on both sides of the border, for example, when a family on one side wanted to pay for a nephew on the other to go to school, or getting back a horse that had wandered over the border where there was no fence to stop it. The Israeli and Jordanian authorities relied on the Haj when they hd a common interest, like halting an outbreak of hoof and mouth disease.

The day after the 1967 Six-Day War, many of Baka al Garbiyeh's residents hurried to meet the relatives they hadn't seen since 1948. They brought food to the West Bankers, who due to the circumstances had gone hungry. At various times in its history, Baka al Garbiyeh served as a temporary refuge for families who were thrown out of destroyed villages, like the residents of Arab al-Mafjir, whose village on Nahal Hadera was evacuated by the authorities for the construction of the Hadera power plant.

Baka al Garbiyeh, with its 20,000 inhabitants, is officially a city in Israel, indeed, a regional center. Some 30,000 people fill its streets daily, many coming from neighboring villages and towns to shop or conduct business. But business has been badly hurt since the Jews stopped coming last October.

Baka townspeople and civic leaders are involved in a dispute with the Trans-Israel Highway Company, which is supposed to expropriate 1,000 dunams from the city.

The townspeople say that the expropriation will "suffocate" the town, limit its development and harm the livelihood of many.

But lately, the top topic of conversation is how their city had nothing to do with the murder of Obidiyan. They heard about the murder just like all the other citizens of Israel - on the radio and from TV.

Those who knew Obidiyan in town used to call him "the sheikh," because he was religious and had a long beard. He worked as the kashrut supervisor at the Shimurei Hamerkaz canning factory in Baka, owned by the Zabad brothers and at Masud Zemer's canning factory in Bir a-Sika, near Kibbutz Bahan. Baka residents say that people who knew Obidiyan and heard of his murder hurried to the Zabad brothers to pay their condolences.

As punishment for the murder, the IDF destroyed market stalls on the right side of the road, where Obidiyan was slain. This week the Zabad's factory is still closed. One of the owners, Aouni Zabad refused to talk. "Whatever I say, there will always be someone who gives it a different meaning that will hurt me. This family provides livelihoods for at least 50 families."

Since kashrut supervisors have stopped going to work in the area's factories, the factories are closed, meaning hundreds are out of work on the factory floors and in the fields, cucumbers, cauliflower and peas are rotting, because there's no factory to take them to.

But even today, the old Haj Safa believes that "the day will come when Arabs and Jews will get along. "And when that happens, they'll take over the Middle East instead of the superpowers who just make trouble between the Jews and Arabs. Many times in the past I've told my people and Jews I've known, like in Karkur, that the Koran predicts the Jews would one day return to Palestine. I knew that one day the State of Israel would be established. The British may have helped the Jews in Palestine and promised them a national home but as someone who worked for six years in the British Mandate of Palestine, I can tell you from my experience that the British gave the Jews the state on a platter of blood. Arabs and Jews have no choice but to live together in peace, each in their own state.

"The `67 borders are a good compromise - and there's no other."

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