The Pope’s Mountain

By EA Kate, Jerusalem.

Jabal Al Baba has an interesting history. In 1964, when Pope Paul VI visited the West Bank, then under temporary Jordanian rule, the late King Hussein gave him 170 dunums of land (around 42 acres) on the periphery of Jerusalem to build a church. Subsequently, the area was renamed Jabal Al Baba: the Pope’s Mountain. There is no letter ‘p’ in Arabic so Papa becomes Baba. The church building was begun but never continued.

The Bedouin village of Jabal Al Baba sits on this and adjacent land. Its inhabitants are all refugees, evicted from Ber Sheva in the Negev in what is now Israel when the State of Israel was established. It is home to 54 families comprising about 300 people. Bedouin are no longer migrating herding tribes. The villagers of Jabal Al Baba do still herd sheep but they have been settled here since 1948.  They graze their sheep, their main source of income, in the hills around where they live.

Pope's Mountain 12.10.15 Jabal Al Baba Photo EAPPI K (1)

The Bedouin village of Jabal Al Baba [Photo: EAPPI/K.Cargin]

Attallah, the village leader, is small and wiry with a quiet confidence. He welcomed us and showed us around the village. Under the laws of occupation, Israel has a duty of care towards the occupied population who are classified as ‘protected persons’. However, Jabal Al Baba is not connected up to either the water or electricity network. They receive both from the nearby Palestinian town of Al-Eizariya via a cable strung between poles across the valley and some fragile water pipes. The planned route of the Israeli separation barrier will cut off Jabal Al Baba from this town. A Palestinian mobile clinic visits them once a week. The Israeli government’s view is that this village shouldn’t be here.

Pope's Mountain 12.10.15 Jabal Al Baba Attallah with his son Photo EAPPI K.Cargin

Attallah with his son [Photo: EAPPI/K.Cargin]

In the 1980s, the Israeli government began to build the settlement of Ma’ale Adumim, reserved exclusively for Jewish Israelis.  As with all Israeli settlements in occupied Palestine, Ma’ale Adumim is illegal under the Fourth Geneva Convention which prohibits an occupying power from transferring parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.

First, like most settlements, it started with caravans, but unlike in Jabal Al Baba, roads and infrastructure were quickly added by the developers. Gradually over the following 30 years a huge town has grown up.  Ma’ale Adumim now looks like a Mediterranean town anywhere. Driving through you can see wide boulevards and green verges with palm trees. At the entrance there is an artificial lake. They have swimming pools, schools and clinics. There has plainly been massive investment.

The establishment and expansion of Ma’ale Adumim has had a catastrophic effect on nearby Jabal Al Baba.  It has cut back their available grazing. Before the year 2000 they had about 3,000 animals. They now have 700 because that is all their reduced land will sustain.

But there is a further development threatening Jabal Al Baba. The village sits in the contentious E1 district, zoned for development of further illegal settlements to join Ma’ale Adumim to East Jerusalem. The E1 plans are highly strategic and politically sensitive. If the E1 settlement building is allowed to continue it will effectively cut the West Bank in two and cut off Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank. Both of these things will make a two-state solution impossible.

Pope's Mountain 1 Maale Adumim

The Israeli settlement of Ma’ale Adumim overlooking Jabal Al Baba [Photo: EAPPI/S.Magnusson]

To make way for this expansion, the Israeli government plans to demolish the whole of Jabal Al Baba and move its people to the Palestinian town of Abu Dis. Israel claims that this will improve their lives and connect them to public services. They will be given 50 dunums (around 12 acres) for the entire village, entirely unsuitable for a community which derives its income from keeping sheep. The area chosen for relocation is beside the city dump.

Under international law destruction of property and forcible transfer of protected persons is prohibited.  The Israeli government’s justification is that most of the buildings were built without planning permission. However, planning permission is almost impossible for Palestinians to obtain. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), reports that 97% of submitted applications by Palestinians for building between 2010 and 2013 were refused.

Attallah is highly articulate and has travelled widely to try to get justice for his people and fight against the Israeli government’s plans to demolish and forcibly transfer the village. On a recent visit to Europe, he visited the Vatican to remind them that they still own this piece of land and to request their help. The community’s own plans for developing Jabal Al Baba, where it is, include a school and community centre. He proudly showed us the beginnings of a guest house funded by the Vatican which he and his brother built and hope to run as a small business to support the community. He expects it to be demolished but says if it is, he will build it again.

Jabal Al Baba is a beautiful peaceful hillside. Most of the community were born here and lived here all their lives. They fervently hope that their children will be able to grow up here also.

Pope's Mountain 12.10.15. EAs visiting the bedouin community Jabal al Baba. Photo EAPPI. S. Magnusson

EAs visiting the Bedouin community of Jabal al Baba [Photo: EAPPI/S.Magnusson]