After Ulpana Ordeal, Are the Palestinian Landowners Closer to Justice?

'Imagine I would come to Tel Aviv, take a plot of land, build on it and forge documents,' says Hasan, who has not been able to access his land for 20 years.

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We stood on a rocky hill at the edge of the village of Dura-al-Qara, with Harbi Hasan and Abdel Rahman Qasem. For nearly 20 years now, they have not been allowed access to their lands. The row of red-roofed stone buildings on the ridge opposite is built on Hasan's land, while the row of gray, skeletal buildings is on Qasem's property. Their construction has been stopped, for now, by court order.

Qasem is a farmer. He is elderly, wears a keffiyeh and says little. Hasan was a lecturer on business management at a university in the United States and speaks fluent English and Spanish. He is an incurable optimist. The five buildings in Beit El's Ulpana neighborhood are supposed to be evacuated by the end of this month, and Hasan is convinced this will happen.

Hasan holds U.S. citizenship because of the many years he has spent there, and is a resident of Israel, by virtue of his home in East Jerusalem and the fact that his second wife is from East Jerusalem. Here he was born, here he grew up and here he still keeps his family's home. In recent years Hasan has also devoted himself to keeping control over his land.

It was early in the afternoon and a pleasant breeze ruffled the treetops in the valley separating us from the Jewish settlement. Hasan owns 30.5 dunams (1 dunam = .25 acre ) in Beit El, he says, although can't say exactly which of the buildings are on his land. He has never set foot in Beit El: An armed sentry at the settlement entry gates checks everyone who goes in. Qasem owns eight dunams there; the prefab homes next to the houses in Ulpana are on his land, as are the antennas at the top of the hill.

Hasan and Qasem were classmates at school; both of them are now about 70 years old. In total, their extended families have lost nearly 800 dunams to the establishment of Beit El, including the "expansions" - i.e., the illegal outposts and invasion of land, as seen at Ulpana.

Hasan last visited his property in the summer of 1993. The vineyard his father had planted there was dying then, but Beit El had not yet expanded. The security fence had not yet surrounded the settlement, and Hasan was still at least able to set foot on the property where the vineyard was. By the end of the 1960s, the land had already been declared a "live fire" zone and its owners could only go there on Saturdays and Israeli holidays. It is impossible to cultivate grapes under such circumstances, explains Hasan, and thus the vineyard was doomed.

Hasan has childhood memories of the vineyard, but his children - some of whom are living in the United States now - have never visited that site; some were born after it was taken over. It is dangerous for residents of the neighboring village to go near there. Over the years, two of them who went too close to Beit El were shot dead.

The inhabitants of the village arrived here at the end of the 19th century from the town of Dura near Hebron and added the word Qara - meaning "pumpkin" in Arabic, which was apparently grown here. Many of Dura-al-Qara's inhabitants are living in the diaspora today, and the most splendid stone houses belong to them. Next month these houses will fill up with expatriates, who will come to spend their summer vacations here, as they do every year.

Later we went to the yard of Qasem's house. "You see how they are spreading," said Hasan, pointing to another skeleton of an unfinished building on the Beit El hill.

Hasan's father and grandfather were farmers. Hasan completed high school in Cairo and then went to study in the United States; he completed a master's in business management and commerce at the University of Puerto Rico. He lived on that island, on and off, for 10 years, lecturing at the local university. There he married his first wife, a Puerto Rican. Part of the time he lived and worked in Tampa, Florida, where some members of his family still reside.

Hasan left America in 1993 and returned here. He was a lecturer at Birzeit University, north of Ramallah, but is now retired. He began the fight for his lands about five years ago. Staff at the nonprofit organization Yesh Din - Volunteers for Human Rights informed him about the building on his property, and the organization's legal adviser, Michael Sfard, conducted a legal battle on Hasan's behalf. Sfard expected victory in court and failure in the implementation of the ruling.

In 2007, Hasan went to the police station in the Geva Binyamin settlement and filed a complaint against the trespassers on his land. His complaint was the start of an investigation which led to revelation of the false claims made by the contracting company that constructed the Ulpana buildings - including documents that were apparently forged, and the assertion that the land had been purchased from Hasan's father, Ibrahim Musa Hasan (who had passed away decades earlier, in 1976 ). The person whom the settlers claim sold them the land, whose name is similar to Hasan's father's name, was a 7-year-old boy when the property was supposedly sold to them.

Soon it will be July 1, the date when the buildings are supposed to be evacuated, whether they are sawed off their foundations or demolished. Hasan attended a number of the recent sessions on his case at the High Court of Justice.

"Those people, the justices, believe in democracy," he says. "The Israelis say they are the only democracy in the Middle East and I say, 'Prove it.' Your High Court of Justice has ruled that this is private land, and all we are asking is that you return this land to its owners. In every democracy, property rights and the freedom of movement are maintained.

"I say to the Israelis: Now you are violating the Palestinians' rights and the next step will be violation of your own rights, the Jews' rights. Then you will be able to say good-bye to your democracy and there will no longer be any difference between you and the Arab dictatorships. I hope the court's decision will be implemented in full and the land will be returned to us. In the first stage I expect the land will be given back to us. Then afterward when the buildings are removed, we will get help from Yesh Din and sue for the removal of the fence so we will be able to get to the land and cultivate it. I hope my children will be able to go there. I am certain I will not recognize my land when I get there. The topography has changed beyond recognition."

Did you believe you would succeed?

"The truth is that I didn't. The lawyers told me we had a good case but the test would be in the enforcement of the ruling. At the moment it looks like the government has no alternative but to return our land to us - otherwise there will be a huge conflict between it and the judicial authority. The right is trying to legislate new laws, to make laws retroactive, but in all honesty I do believe the land will be evacuated."

Have you heard about the idea of sawing the buildings down and moving them nearby?

"As a human being I would like to see that, because in that way I will get my land back. But I will feel sorry for other people. After all, they will move the buildings to other land, which will most probably belong to a cousin of mine. For the government this is a fantastic solution. This way they will be able to claim they are not demolishing Jews' houses. In the case of Palestinians' houses, they demand that the inhabitants themselves demolish their homes. Imagine: A person builds himself a house and he has to demolish it with his own hands. Is that not sad? I am sure the decision will be difficult, but I still believe in Israel's Supreme Court. At the court they asked me if I agreed to exchange lands. I wanted to challenge them, so I replied that I would consider it if they offered me 30 dunams in Jerusalem. But that was only to challenge them."

How do you feel toward the settlers, who have to evacuate their homes?

"I don't know them. They offered Abdalrahman money, but not me. My feelings? It's hard to say. Someone stole your land - tell me, is it possible to call it by any other name? And what would you feel? Imagine I would come to Tel Aviv, take a plot of land, build a house on it and afterward bring forged documents and continue to claim it was mine. This land belongs to all of us. So let's live in it together, with mutual respect, or else there will be chaos here."

Perhaps you would be content with compensation?

"Absolutely not. This land is not for sale. We inherited it from our ancestors and in Arabic we say it is shameful to sell your father's land. Not necessarily to Jews. You have inherited it and you have to keep it for your children."

At twilight we told Hasan we were driving to the Ulpana neighborhood. He wanted to come with us, but didn't dare. In the uppermost row of buildings in Ulpana, the ones that are supposed to be demolished, there were no signs of drama evident, apart from bulletins about the struggle in the entries to the stairwells: a hunger strike, a demonstration, a protest tent.

The sound of a baby's cry, lots of rusting bicycles in the entryways, a few well-tended yards and a few very neglected ones. The buildings are large. Moriah, a resident of the neighborhood and the mother of five children, asked for a ride to the center of Beit El and we willingly obliged. On the way she told us she was born "in Israel, in Rehovot."

Harbi Hasan.

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