A Palestinian Village Reaches the End of the Road

Kafr Qaddum residents are marking two years since they first launched their weekly protest against closure of the main route leading past their village to neighboring locales.

I have never seen such a road in my life − except in war zones. You drive between the houses of Kafr Qaddum eastward, and suddenly the landscape changes dramatically.

A rural road becomes a no-man’s land; a teeming village becomes at once a godforsaken wilderness. A few abandoned homes, scorched olive trees, piles of stones, rock barriers and the remains of burned tires on the road.

A smell of fire is in the air and a terrible silence encompasses all. A thick layer of black ash covers the deserted road, which no one dares approach. A trail of dust and ash rises up behind our slowly moving car, and the whole spectacle seems like something out of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel “The Road.” All that is missing are the father and son survivors, and their shopping cart.

This road ends in a closed yellow, iron gate − of the sort that has become familiar in the territories. No one dares approach the road anymore, for fear of the army, which placed cameras and a watchtower alongside it. This week we had to drive along it alone, since our hosts were afraid to join us.

Kafr Qaddum is overlooked by the mega-settlement Kedumim at the end of this ghost-road, which begins in the village and ends at the iron gate and the settlement. The road, dating back to the days of the Turks, was once the village’s main route to Jit, the adjacent village, and from there to the larger city of Nablus. A kilometer and a half to Jit, 13 kilometers to Nablus. Now it’s 15 kilometers to Jit and 26 to Nablus on winding roads. Ten times and twice as far from the village, respectively.

Why? Because Israel closed the road. Why? Because the neighboring settlement of Kedumim spread out to it and blocked it with its homes. That was in 2003. The road has been impassable ever since. On top of its closure came land theft − of the village’s 24,000 dunams ‏(6,000 acres‏). Of them, 4,000 dunams were taken to build the surrounding settlements, and another 11,000 became off-limits to Kafr Qaddum residents without permission from the Israel Defense Forces. The village, a large share of whose population made a living working in Israel, fell on hard times.

Exactly two years ago, in early July 2011, the village’s so-called popular committee decided to launch a campaign aimed at reopening the road. The weekly protest over the thoroughfare has lent it its new war-torn appearance. As in other Palestinian villages waging struggles, here too the residents come out every

Friday to demonstrate, together with Israeli and foreign activists; here too protesters have yet to score any real victories, aside from turning Kafr Qaddum into yet another Palestinian national symbol.

This week, two years into the struggle, the road still has not been opened, but in their club house, members of the popular committee shattered a Styrofoam model of the yellow barrier that blocks the road, with a kaffiyeh mounted on a stick. Once the plastic-foam barrier had been broken by the Palestinian health minister, who graced the event with his presence, a photography exhibition was opened to mark the anniversary of the protest campaign − 100 photos of IDF dogs biting human beings, clouds of tear gas, screaming women, injured residents, journalists under arrest and barrages of rocks. A brief history of the local uprising.

Legend has it that the patriarch Abraham underwent circumcision here with an ax.

Last month, IDF soldiers posted on Kafr Qaddum streets pictures of several children suspected of rock throwing, and warned them that they are wanted and will be apprehended. Last August IDF soldiers attacked Palestinian journalists who had come to cover the demonstrations, and beat them with clubs. Quite a few residents have been hurt over the last two years, including Wasim Barham, now 18, who was wounded in April 2012 when shards from a tear gas canister penetrated his brain and made him lose his ability to speak. His father attended the exhibition opening this week.

“The paving was done by the Turks and the road belonged to Kafr Qaddum many years before Kedumim was built. Qaddum’s residents have a right to use it,” the leader of the campaign, Murad Shtewi, tells us, sitting in his home.

It was he who organized the first demonstration, where the IDF employed stun and tear-gas grenades. Several residents had to be hospitalized in Qalqilyah after that; the locals then vowed, Shtewi says, to carry on the struggle. He adds that since the campaign was first declared, the residents have been punished, not only with arrests and raids, but also by being held up at the random checkpoints erected frequently at the entrance to their village, when they leave for work or when they return.

Shtewi, 40, works at the Palestinian Education Ministry in Qalqilyah, and is the eloquent spokesman for the village campaign. This week two volunteers from a

European church organization came to his home, a young woman from Finland and a young man from Poland.

In his living room, he gave them certificates of appreciation in the name of his village. Surprisingly, Shtewi himself has been arrested only once so far, for seven days.

What have you accomplished, we ask. “We haven’t accomplished anything on the ground,” Shtewi admits. “We have had several meetings with representatives of the Civil Administration, who offered us an alternative road, but we will not accept any alternative road. This is the historic road of the village, and we will not accept any other, neither a centimeter to the right nor to the left. We have not fought to get an alternative route. On the ground we have achieved nothing, but we have had several ‘emotional’ victories. The IDF dog that bit my nephew and didn’t let go of his hand for 15 minutes, while the soldiers did not lift a finger, is our moral victory: They showed that photo all over the world and it was our great triumph. Not a real victory, but a moral victory. When the soldiers beat journalists − that is a moral victory [for us]. When the gas seeped into the homes and hurt babies − that is a moral victory.”

We bend down and pass underneath the Styrofoam barrier, before it’s shattered, and enter the exhibition space. From the ceiling hang paperboard signs listing the names of Palestinian communities, and on the floor stands a wooden crate draped in black, like a casket, on which are displayed photos of villagers held in Israeli prisons, and notes attesting to the length of their sentences: 120 protesters have been arrested here in the course of the past two years, nine are still locked up, and in addition to them there are 15 locals convicted of other offenses who are still serving their sentences.

Most of the photos displayed on the club-house walls were taken by Palestinian press photographers, and a small number by Israeli photographers and activists. One picture, depicting an elderly Palestinian woman, rock in hand, surrounded by six armed soldiers, won an award at a photography contest in Qatar.

“WE WILL DO IT,” it says at the entrance to the exhibition, but Shtewi himself says he knows the decision to reopen the road is not in the hands of the army any longer, rather in those of the settlers, whose homes have been erected there in recent years.

We go out to the road on our own, walking until we get to a stone barrier. Silence and the smell of burning are in the air. Then we drive into

Kedumim, climbing upward until we reach the other end of the road, but from the settlement side.

Alex Levac