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> Under, through, over the Wall
> Onder, door, over de Muur
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> Buses and freedom of movement
> The permit issue revisited: toward the Easter...
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> Impressions of Gaza
> The Mad Permit Game
> Verdwijntruc: landeigenaars in Betlehem
> Vanishing Act: Land owners in Bethlehem
> The Crow Cries - Bethlehem 2006
> Sylvana Giacaman
> Odette El-Sleiby
> Sandra Nasser
The present absentees
By Toine van Teeffelen
12 December 2011
A few days ago, Mary’s uncle Jamal tells me that together with another 181 citizens from the Bethlehem area he now seems to have completely lost access to his lands in the northern regions of Bethlehem. Incorporated into the Jerusalem municipality boundaries, these lands have been taken over by the Israeli army for building the Wall, for military and settler roads, and for settlement expansion. The lands form a huge area stretching across the settlements of Gilo and Har Homa; in total some 7000 dunam (1 dunam = 1000 square meters).
I still remember that during initial protests of the land owners back at the end of the 1990s, Mary’s uncle was unceremoniously lifted and removed by a bulldozer from his land. While discussing a flyer about the present situation, Jamal hesitates how to call the lands. Are they expropriated? No, they are not (yet) formally expropriated. Are they inaccessible? Yes, they are, but there is more. Israeli authorities have brought the lands under the guardianship of an authority that holds the properties of “absentees.” What happens is that first the land owners have been for years prevented to access their lands, except for short periods. Now the observant Israeli administrator says: “Look, those lands are left uncultivated and have been abandoned. What a pity. Let’s give them a more useful destination.” The landowners are conveniently defined as absentees. It’s the Great Vanishing Act.
This rings a bell. Last week US Republican contender Newt Gingrich defined Palestinians as an “invented people” echoing Golda Meir who once famously said that “there is no such thing as a Palestinian people.”
To the west of Bethlehem, there are also lands threatened to become inaccessible, such as near the Salesian monastery Cremisan and the village of al-Wallajeh. This Friday I join visitors to the Kairos Palestine conference to show a presence on the land there. (Kairos Palestine is a document formulated two years ago by Christian Palestinians making a call to nonviolently resist occupation, considered a “sin”). Fr Ibrahim Shomali leads a mass that takes place under the olive trees. I am thinking that to pray here is to be present, to exist, and that existence is resistance. The attendants share the power of being, connecting to the land, standing on its rocks, watching the little flowers finding their way out, even in winter.
A speaker says that inhabitants of Beit Jala still remember how they as children could see from this area as far as the outskirts of Amman on the east and the Mediterranean on the west. I remember that my Arabic teacher once spoke in bright colours about the people of Bethlehem and Beit Jala who in the summer used to leave their homes often for weeks to stay on their lands and harvest the fruits in the western areas of Beit Jala; to tell stories in the evening, and sleep under or in the trees with the stars above.
We share a sacramental presence. The bread is broken, and afterwards the Palestinian peasant breakfast of thyme, bread and olive oil is offered. A Palestinian lady from the Galilee mentions how Israel silently has confiscated Palestinian food like falaffel and then has labeled it Israeli. Another vanishing act. Though deeply rooted, the Palestinian presence is a vulnerable and exposed one, nothing like the stonewalled settlement presence.
We pray Our Father in the many languages of the attendants. We laugh and shake hands, with just a little comfort. As we flee the rain, a colleague tells me in the car that the people around watch the actions of activists and NGOs, but don’t see results. There is this basic feeling of unease that no end to the land robbery is in sight.
This morning the Israeli newspaper Haaretz mentions that the Efrat settlement will be expanded further to the north so that it will reach Bethlehem’s southermost neighborhoods. The Bethlehem area is now hemmed in by settlements from the north, west and south. The east is close to the desert, and also not accessible for development.
Concluding the Kairos Palestine conference, former Jerusalem patriarch Michel Sabbah shared what he called a “strange” prayer of the Franciscans, saying (as I remember the words) that we have to pray in order to feel discomfort at what is around us; we have to pray for anger, as anger is what we need.