Christmas Day was unique this year. I didn’t snuggle up and watch an old movie with the family as I would have normally done at home in Chicago, nor did I check out the action in Bethlehem as I had originally planned to before leaving the states, but instead I found myself on a bus with a group of young Palestinian activists from across the West Bank, headed for a community service project in Um Salamuna, a Palestinian village located in south Bethlehem.
Owned by an elderly Palestinian man named Nadi, the land rests within the beautiful, vast hills of Beit Fajjar, the fresh smell of zaatar emanating from the earth. It is a land, like so many others around the country that has been under increasing threat of becoming yet another stolen territory for illegal settlement extension. “Surrounded by two Israeli settlements, Um Salamuna faces continuous harassment, as settlers move to steal more than 200 dunums of the village land to create a cemetery.”
Of course, these settlements are illegal under international law. According to both the Fourth Geneva Convention, to which Israel is a signatory, and the United Nations Security Council Resolution 452 in 1979: “… calls upon the Government and People of Israel to cease establishment, construction and planning of settlements in the Arab territories since 1967, including Jerusalem.” And yet, it is not these Israeli “neighborhoods” or “communities” which suffer, but rather residents of Palestinian villages who are discriminately removed from their land.
In Um Salamuna’s case, the Israeli Supreme Court have given Nadi and his family until the end of December 2009 to clean up the land. Not allowed to own or use bulldozers or other heavy machinery or equipment, they must resort to manual labor. Daily, Israeli satellite cameras take pictures from above to see how much progress has been made.
So every day since the decree was issued, busloads of volunteers make their way to Nadi’s land to lift heavy rocks and hack away at fussy brush, proving that the land is indeed being utilized by its rightful Palestinian owners, rallying around Um Salamuna’s resistance against becoming another statistic of Israel’s discriminatory land seizure policies.
I came home exhausted, not able to feel my legs, and days later, there was still an ache in my limbs. Yet, I’m simultaneously rejuvenated, knowing that it is the people, and the purpose of the experience that will ultimately make a stronger impression on my memory than the physical pain.
Thank you to all the volunteers, and village residents, who invited me to be a small part of such an admirable endeavor.
*Translated video interviews with landowner Nadi, and Beit Fajjar resident, Mohammad Aslam, coming soon…