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nakba day:

A Visit to Beit Laqia

As the governmet was working on creating a new wave of (2nd and 3rd time) refugees in Gaza, some activists visited a West Bank site of earlier, as well as ongoing destruction of indigenous life

David Shulman

15 May 2004

We are standing on the hill above Beit Laqia--another landscape that lashes out at you with its beauty. These are the last hills before the coastal plain, its green and yellow fields unrolling just beyond the ridge. Here, in the village lands, there are olive groves and vineyards and some cultivated fields and many dusty and ravishing grey-white stones; sheep and goats graze on the slopes. The hills sweep down in a swirling rush to meet in the wadi, where the olive trees, some of them hundreds of years old, stand stolidly bearing witness.

A cruel white swathe cuts through this Mediterranean vignette where the wall will stand. It sways and curves over the hills, an open, ominous wound. Some of the old olive trees that were in its path have been torn up by the roots and hastily set down in the earth of the wadi; but they are dried out now, and dying, because the soldiers couldn’t be bothered to transplant them. Can’t you see, our hosts ask us over and over, trying to convey to us, with our impoverished city vision, what any farmer can see at a glance: these trees are no longer living, growing beings. We have lost them, too.

And on the other side of the wall-to-be, neatly climbing the hillside, is ‘Abed’s vineyard. It isn’t very big, but it seems to matter enormously to the villagers; maybe in Beit Laqia a year’s crop of grapes is enough partly to sustain a family. Or maybe it’s that ‘Abed’s 13-year-old son was killed right there three years ago, when he opened the door of an army vehicle that had been left standing beside the vineyard; it’s not clear what it was that exploded in the car, or if it had been left deliberately booby-trapped or not, and perhaps it hardly matters—the subtle distinction between death through malice and death through indifference or negligence is not much comfort in Beit Laqia. The place the boy died is marked with a Palestinian flag. Like the vineyard, it too will very soon be lost to the village, cut off by the wall.

“You see those olive trees?” says Ali, our main host today, pointing to the other side of the slope. “I am losing them, and my fields over there, and more olive trees, and a vineyard. I am totally ruined.” He is, like the rest of the villagers, remarkably innocent in this land of implicit and complicit criminals of one kind or another. Beit Laqia has been completely quiet for all the three and a half years of the present Intifada. No incidents, no suspects, no arrests, no violence, nothing. Now it is being systematically stripped of easily half its lands. But this is not the first time: in 1973 many thousands of dunams were stolen by the state; the Keren Kayemet has planted some of them with trees. More significant still, the cancerous settlement of Mevo Horon was planted on top of an existing village, Beit Nuba, where Ali was born. What happened to the villagers? Who in Israel cares? They were driven away; most went as refugees to Jordan. You can still see some of the old houses from where we are standing, with the settlers’ villas astride them.

Ali’s family was a big one, some 6000 souls. Most went to Jordan, but his father had large flocks of sheep and goats and couldn’t leave them; so they moved to Beit Laqia, on the next hill. Recently Ali went back in search of his grandfather’s grave on the hill above Mevo Horon; he was chased away by the security officer, who went to some lengths to make sure he would never try to visit the grave again. Even worse, the settlers’ sewage now flows through the old cemetery of Beit Nuba, an offense so outrageous that Ali can hardly bring himself to speak of it.

He should, one might think, be bitter, but he is not--though he clearly aches with endless insults. He shows us where the wall will run and what it will mean. “If you ask yourselves what is good and what is bad about the wall, you will conclude that there is nothing good about it; and the list of what is bad is so long I don’t know where to start. It is destroying our village and robbing us of our lands. Shepherds who will graze their herds too close to it will be shot. The olive groves and vineyards will be lost. We have done nothing to deserve this. But I still think this is the best time for making peace. Right now. There is room enough for both peoples in this land, and today is the right day for peace. Let us start here.” Shai, the remarkable photographer who has brought us here, echoes this tone. “Governments will never make peace. It has to come from the roots.” He is here each week with small groups like ours; today his father has come with him; he should, I think, be very proud of such a son.

“What are they thinking?” says H., the young villager who drove us up the crazy, rocky footpath, at breakneck speed, to this outlook. “Everything has always been quiet here. Now they are stealing whatever we have—and they don’ t realize that there will be trouble?” So far, Beit Laqia, like Budrus, Biddu, Beit Surik, Qatana, and other villages--some 30 in this area--has kept to the path of non-violent resistance. The army has used its usual methods to disperse the demonstrations--tear-gas, stun grenades, rubber bullets. An empty tear-gas canister lies at our feet; they are everywhere on the hill. Lately, however, the demonstrations have died down; perhaps the army has successfully crushed them, for now; there are many wounded.

On the way down we chat with A., who spent 12 years in Israeli jails. He has, he says, always believed in peace. He was a member of the Popular Front; he knows the politicians of the Israeli left, has hosted them overnight in his house. Yesterday his son was shot with 3 rubber bullets in the head; he had been throwing rocks at the soldiers. The boy is in hospital and will, it seems, be OK.

Back in the village, we take our leave of the elders. Last to speak with us is ‘Abed, of the vineyard, ‘Abed of the murdered child. “It isn’t enough for you to come here and see it,” he says--gently, but with an inner urgency. “You must do something to stop it. Demonstrate, write to the Prime Minister, write to the Knesset, find a way.” I wonder if we have time, if we can be effective, this motley assortment of traumatized activists who have spent the morning in Beit Laqia, who have watched the video and drunk the tea and wandered among the stones. I think of another vineyard, Naboth’s, and of the prophet’s voice that came too late to save it, and its owner, from the greed of another malevolent king. Maybe there is always a vineyard on a hillside waiting to be stolen; and we know from experience that there is always some ugly and self-destructive Ahab or Sharon. But here, in village after village, dunam by dunam, the rape of land and tree and vine and hope and dignity and simple decency is on a scale not even the prophet could have imagined.

Lawrence Cohen, the Berkeley anthropologist, has joined us today--a soft-spoken, gentle man. Tours like this have, it seems, become standard parts of the visiting anthropologist’s itinerary; a year ago we took Val Daniel to south Hebron. Maybe somehow the news will get around. Lawrence grew up in Jewish Montreal, learned Hebrew, knows Israel. He tells me, just before we part, that there was a decisive moment when he was a young student, teaching Hebrew school to pay for his education. He was telling his pupils the Midrashic story of Abraham’s smashing of the idols, when suddenly he realized that he couldn’t accept it. He stopped the story in the middle (and went on to become a South Asianist). Monotheists have no monopoly on greed, on ruthlessness, on indifference: after all, there were the Elijahs and the Jeremiahs (they are said to have been Jewish). Still, like Lawrence, I’m on the side of the idols.


David Shulman is an activist in Ta'ayush, and in Hacampus-lo-shotek. He's a professor of Indian Studies and History of Religion at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.