Amal, one of the Palestinian-American members of the American Jews for a Just Peace – health and human rights project, has invited us to visit the village of Deir Istiya where she was born in 1948. We drive through an unusually lush valley, olive and carob trees densely growing everywhere, and there is a joy in her voice, eyes glowing with a mix of pride and excitement. She explains that she is the sixth generation to be born in the village and two more have followed. She went to Cairo for university and now lives in St Louis. Her father finished high school in the town and ultimately became the mayor of the town.
We are greeted by the current mayor of the town, Auob, who is Amal’s cousin. She seems to be related to everyone we meet, either by blood or by marriage. Auob is a warm and dignified man with laughing eyes, bushy eyebrows, and muscular arms. He explains that 4,000 people live here and 10,000 are out of the country. The village had a school in 1918 and prides itself in a very educated population (that obviously tends to leave). Deir Istiya has a very unusual old city dating back to Roman, Byzantine and Mameluke times with multiple streets, rooms and apartments all clustered together, clearly a wealthy and well constructed town. In the 1990s, with the support of the UNDP, USAID, and a Palestinian Ministry, a project to renovate the city was begun, in the hopes of bringing in commerce and tourism.
There is a peachy golden shimmer to the old stones in the blazing Mediterranean sun, glorious views, winding streets, ancient doorways, something close to a lush, magical paradise. Amal is beaming as she points out where various relatives lived, where she played as a child, where she is renovating her house in the newer district of town; everyone is warm and happy to see her. Her uncle gives us a detailed tour, explaining the holes in the walls for guarding the city, Roman style archways, stone insets for oil lamps, geometric tiles, water wells, and the massive renovation projects for private homes as well as guest houses and larger facilities. One building was owned by the ruling Qasim family and they had very low doors constructed, so that visitors would have to enter bowing down to them. I can feel his big dreams coming to life. His dreams are looking for funding.
But this is Palestine and there has to be a catch. The village owns 36,000 dunams of land and is the second largest village in Palestine in terms of land. They are known for their extra virgin fair trade olive oil. 87% of the village land is in Area C, (Israeli control) while the village itself is in Area B, (joint control). We climb up uneven steps to a high roof, the thin graceful minaret in view, white stone houses of all shapes and sizes surround us, tall dark blue cedars point to the sky. By standing in one spot and rotating around, in the distance I can see five Jewish settlements on the surrounding hilltops: Ariel, Emmanuel, Nofim, Revana, and Yaqir.
Auob reports excitedly that they are attacked by settlers daily, farmers on donkeys have been hit by cars, there are repeated attacks during the olive harvest, orchards have been confiscated or uprooted, farmers have been hit by cars, run over and shot, harvested olives wrapped in large bags have been stolen. Once again I am taken aback by the behavior of settlers, their aggressive lawless arrogance and immoral racist actions towards the people who have lived here for generations.
We drive out of the village and turn into a valley, a bumpy road surrounded by terraced olive groves. This is Wadi Qana, part of the food basket for the Salfit District. This is also where the Jewish settlements on the surrounding hills have dumped their raw sewage, contaminating the water and driving out the 40 families who used to live here. A delicate hudhud bird with a bright orange body and zebra-like stripes on its back flits between the lemon and orange trees. Goats cluster on the rocky walls. Aoub says there are thirteen natural springs in the area that have provided water for centuries, but the Israelis have dug deep into the reservoirs, lowering the water levels so that only three springs are functional. In 1987, houses in the orchards were demolished and trees uprooted. In 1993, the area was officially declared a Nature Preserve by the Israeli government. This means that the Palestinians cannot fix the road which is deteriorating as the valley floods with water during the winter. Many families have small houses tucked around the trees where they live during harvest time. Since 1967, no renovations have been permitted, trees are planted secretly, often on Jewish holidays, and court cases are threatening the farmers. Because of the decrease in available water, the farmers have been changing from orange and lemon trees to olive trees that require less water. We pass a cave where some people live while working on their fields; others stay here by day and leave by night. We see the stream running down the valley, green with sewage. To add insult to injury, the Israelis have released pigs, probably wild boars, in the area and they are eating the small olive trees and vegetables.
We get to one of the springs contained by stone walls. Families sit in the shade, barbequing, and small children are laughing and playing in a clear stream that leaves the green, pooling water. I worry about the bacterial count in the water, but for a moment, life almost feels normal. On Jewish holidays, volunteers come to maintain the area as best they can and last Land Day, March 29th, for the first time they held an event with 500 people who came to do clean up and enjoy cultural events. Auob smiles and says this is a free open space available to the local villagers and he clearly appreciates its natural beauty, an incredible treasure under threat from the settlements and the egregious behavior of the settlers.