Around 50 people came out to demonstrate a week ago Sunday against the new Israeli outpost on the lands of Beit Jala, a Palestinian Christian town in the Bethlehem Governorate of the West Bank. The outpost is being built a few meters above the site where Israel’s High Court of Justice recently approved the razing of the Qassiyeh family’s restaurant and house.
The low number of protesters, one of them said, may indicate that the town’s people deem the protest a lost cause: They assume they can’t prevent the destruction of their gem of a landscape in the Al-Makhrour valley, virtually their only refuge from the claustrophobic urban enclave of the Bethlehem area.
Another possible reason for the low attendance is that more efforts have been invested lately in the attempts to solve the unreported crisis that followed the demolition. This has brought to the surface suspicion and hostility between Muslims and Christians, between original residents and refugees and between residents and the Palestinian Authority. It includes masked men, pepper spray, arson and talk about a “land-buyers’ mafia.” The crisis has revealed an exhausted community keeling under Israel’s looming construction plans.
In June, when settlers first came to level a plot at the top of a green hill and fence it in, Beit Jalans were astonished to find that one of their own may have sold a Jew seven plots of land in the region about 50 years ago. The seller has long since left the country. His family – undoubtedly patriotic – is shocked by the discovery or the suspicion. After all, when a Jew buys land in the heart of the West Bank, Israel makes sure to make it, sooner or later, a de facto sovereign extension, a springboard to broaden Israeli control in the ever dwindling Palestinian space.
At some stage, the Jew who apparently bought the plots sold them to the Jewish National Fund and they were registered as belonging to Himenuta, the JNF subsidiary running the fund’s land. The cautious words “may” and “apparently” are needed here, because land purchases by Jews in the West Bank are not an innocent act, and quite a few forgeries have been discovered over the years. By the time matters are sorted out in Israeli courts, the outpost can turn into a prosperous Jewish neighborhood.
One could legitimately wonder why the JNF remembered only now to claim the land. When did it buy the land? Was it bought by a front pretending to be a private citizen? All this remains unclear.
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The religious demon
Some say it was discovered in 2017, or at least suspected, that land had been sold to a Jew. The Qassiyeh family, which has been cultivating one of the seven plots for decades, was waging a legal battle against the Civil Administration’s demolition orders for the restaurant and house. Suddenly, in 2017, Himenuta entered the picture, claiming that the land belongs to it. It’s hard to obtain accurate, full details from everyone involved. But apparently the scope of Himenuta’s claims in the Al-Makhrour valley wasn’t yet clear three years ago.
On August 26, the Civil Administration razed the restaurant for the third time, as well as the house built by the Qassiyeh family. In his grief, Ramzy Qassiyeh, the head of the family, held a large wooden cross with the Virgin Mary’s picture at the top while the bulldozers demolished the structures. He said in a video that neither the Muslims nor the Jews would drive them away.
By “Muslims” one may assume he meant the PA and senior Fatah officials, especially some born in the area’s refugee camps. The video went viral and the anger spread accordingly. Old tensions between the refugees and native Beit Jalans flared up again.
Then came an apology. But a few days later a pickup truck containing masked, probably armed, people came to the Qassiyeh’s plot, where they insist on staying, despite the demolition. They say the masked men wanted to kill Ramzy and maybe his son. Whether the men really wanted to kill him, they sprayed the family with pepper spray and disappeared after an Israeli army unit showed up. Who called the unit remains unclear.
At the same time, up the path, Israeli earth-moving equipment was preparing the undisturbed ground in a second plot for the new outpost. Palestinian news sites reported the appearance of the new outpost, but not the attack by the people in the pickup truck. The news of the attack spread gradually.
“People are angry at the video and the talk against Muslims,” a resident of the Deheisheh refugee camp said. “Whatever the reason, it’s not done,” a Muslim resident of Beit Jala said.
People in Beit Jala say that some parts of Al-Makhrour are owned by people from out of town; that is, Muslims, mainly from refugee camps. But who said refugees may not buy land and cultivate it? So many Beit Jala residents have left the country, why shouldn’t others look after the land and trees? The problem is that some sales weren’t kosher, apparently. Local residents of Beit Jala indeed say that a “mafia” of people – both Muslim and Christian – with social and political power is involved in the transactions.
The PA has an orderly land registry to expose forgeries. At least in one case, I was told, a forgery was found, but it did no good – the people holding the land didn’t leave. This may partially explain the Qassiyeh’s complaints.
In the plot near the Qassiyeh and the new outpost a small stone structure was set on fire at the beginning of last week. The plot’s owner is a resident of a refugee camp. Who wanted to set it on fire? Who was capable of it? The mutual suspicions inflamed the tensions.
All this happened just when the Palestinian government announced that the local councils would start to expand their master plans without taking into consideration whether the land in question was in area A, B or C. But the events in Al-Makhrour show that Beit Jala, like any other Palestinian village or town, have no control over the land that Israel classifies as in Area C; Israel does whatever it likes there.
The PA has so little control that the Qassiyehs hired their own attorneys and are replacing them one after the other as if the land problem were the family’s private business rather than a national Palestinian issue that should be handled by PA lawyers.
In 2001, at the beginning of the second intifada, when Palestinian gunmen shot at Gilo in Jerusalem, the army shelled and destroyed the Qassiyehs’ house in Beit Jala. The PA partially compensated the family for the damage and the Qassiyeh brothers built a new home there.
Ramzy Qassiyeh has West Bank residency status. His wife Michelle and their children are Israeli citizens with voting rights. Michelle was born in Jerusalem to a refugee mother from the village of Ein Karem who as a child lived in a Jerusalem monastery, and to a French father from Lebanon. A few years ago, her mother moved to live near her daughter in Beit Jala and has Alzheimer’s disease, Michelle Qassiyeh says.
“When we bring her here, to Al-Makhrour, she thinks she’s in Ein Karem and asks to go to her home there,” Michelle says.
Ancient terraces and much more
Al-Makhrour is a farming area of some 3,000 dunams (740 acres), characterized by ancient terraces, olive groves, vineyards, fruit trees, archaeological sites and a traditional irrigation system. It boasts ancient agricultural stone structures, clear air and “the best olive oil in Palestine.”
In 2014 the region was declared a World Heritage site. “Palestine, land of Olives and Vines – Cultural Landscape of Southern Jerusalem, Battir,” the UNESCO document says. The declaration was seen as a Palestinian achievement in the efforts to prevent the construction of the separation barrier, which threatened to destroy the terraces and landscape.
The Al-Makhrour area connects al-Khader, Beit Jala, Husan, Battir and al-Walajeh, most of whose farming lands were torn from it for the settlement of Har Gilo, the separation barrier and the road along it, and a park for Israelis only. The new Route 60 that bypasses Bethlehem, and the tunnels built in the ‘90s obstruct the landscape’s agricultural and historical continuity.
Recently Israel expropriated more land from Al-Makhrour and Beit Jala in order to widen the road bypassing Bethlehem and the tunnels, which Palestinians are forbidden to travel on. These are meant to shorten the travel time between the Gush Etzion settlement bloc and Jerusalem.
This is why an agricultural outpost on top of one of Al-Makhrour’s hills is so threatening. On September 5, two Israeli youths with long side curls asked a French journalist and myself to leave the plot. An adult who joined them also asked us to leave, but was ready to talk outside the gate.
“Three people are here permanently, with a few volunteers,” he said, while his silent wife looked at us from a distance. He said he was from the settlement of Elon Moreh and had leased the land from Himenuta. “I went to the JNF and looked for land,” he said. “They showed me a few places and this is the one I chose.” (Haaretz’s Yotam Berger has reported that the settlement of Neveh Daniel is behind the lease.)
He said the demolition below had nothing to do with it. “My relations with the neighbors are good. Others, not from here, uprooted the olive trees we planted three months ago.”
But he added, “We’ll be here for the next 50 years.” Why 50 and not 100? I asked, and he replied: “Because the lease is for 50 years.”