Kids are frolicking in the small pool at Ein Fasail in the Jordan Valley. It’s Friday, and the happy voices of picnickers can be heard among the trees. There’s the smell of barbecue and the crackling coals, the splashing and the choked, surprised yelps when skin meets cold water.
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“Where are you from?” a group of guys looking at the kids are asked. “From Duma,” they say, and point at the hill above. Yes, that Duma, where the late Dawabsheh family lived. They work in construction in Ramallah, the guys say, in response to another question.
Suddenly an armed foreigner appears. Everyone holds their breath and falls silent. The tension beats like drums.
But there’s a sleeping 2-year-old cradled on the back of the armed foreigner. Apparently he couldn’t be too dangerous after all. All resume breathing and conversation starts up again, first in low tones, then almost in natural ones. But the picnickers can’t stop eyeing the armed man, his rifle, and the 10 teenagers with him. One of them is wearing a black T-shirt that says “My brother’s keeper” in Hebrew. Three of them take off their shirts and pants, and enter the water in their boxers.
The Duma kids get out of the water and climb on the rocks that set off the pool.
The teenagers are high school pupils. The armed man, “Avner,” carrying the 2-year-old boy, “Amiad” (not their real names), willingly supplies these details with a smile to Bassam Almohor, who arrived at the pool with a friend on their motorcycles. Earlier, en route to the pool, Bassam had passed the group of boys, who smiled at him. He assumes that with his helmet, windbreaker and gloves, they didn’t realize he was Palestinian. They said “hi” and he asked them in English where they were from. Ma’aleh Efraim, they answered.
Bassam, who’s a friend of mine, is a born hiker, the son of Bedouin refugees from the Abu Kishk tribe, who lived at the edge of Sheikh Munis. Yes, the village on whose lands Tel Aviv University was built. Bassam, in his 40s, was born and grew up in the Jenin area. He writes for Sicha Mekomit (“Local Call”), the Hebrew affiliate of the online +972 Magazine, but thankfully let me steal the hike and its description.
So Bassam was near the pool when the teens in their boxers went into the water and the kids from Duma got out of it. Bassam, armed with a camera, and Avner, armed with a rifle, wearing glasses, a hat, and tzizit hanging out of his black shirt, approached each other. Avner later took off his hat, revealing his white skullcap. He smiles broadly and looks friendly as he asks, in English, “Are you foreigners? Where are you from?”
“No, no,” Bassam answers. “We’re from here, from Ramallah.” Bassam’s friend on the other motorcycle remains silent. He’s actually from El-Bireh, but doesn’t correct Bassam.
Avner seems impressed. “I’ve heard Ramallah is a big city,” and says he’s from Ma’aleh Efraim settlement. “Do you come here often?” asks Bassam, and the journalist in him momentarily overcomes the aversion he feels to the air of armed entitlement that the settlers radiate. Avner said yes. Bassam continued, “You come here and swim with the Palestinians?” Sure, Avner said, “There’s no problem, we don’t talk to them, and they don’t talk to us.” Bassam continued, “Really? With everything that’s going on all around …” And Avner responded, “There’s no problem, it must be the weather here.” Bassam averts his gaze from the rifle, preferring to look at the smile of little Amiad, who had woken up in the meantime, and at his long, light hair.
A few years ago, Bassam accompanied an American journalist who was touring the country and writing a piece for National Geographic. At the settlement of Shiloh, the guard made Bassam stay outside the gate. But that’s just an incidental note. What’s not incidental is that Bassam can’t just get on his motorcycle and ride, say, to Nahal Dan, or take his little son and daughter to the rehabilitated Yarkon River, get into a rowboat and tell them that this is the stream where their grandfather had splashed around. And of course, the kids and construction workers from Duma can’t go to Nahal Dan or the Yarkon, either.
So the kids and young men from Duma and other nearby villages – 25 of them, all told -- are out of the water, surrounding the pool and staring at the three settler teens swimming in it. Someone in a car nearby opens the stereo and plays very loud, rhythmic Arabic national songs. Bassam asks and the young construction workers say, “Yes, the settlers come often. They don’t talk to us and we don’t talk to them. They don’t hurt us and we don’t hurt them.”
And indeed, happily Ein Fasil is not on the list of the 30 West Bank springs that had always been used by the Palestinians for irrigation and recreation but were seized by settlers over the last 10 years, blocking Palestinian access to them.