By returned EA Judith, Bethlehem
What do you say to a man whose life has been blighted by international events far outside his control? Mitri Michel Ghounam is a Palestinian Christian from Beit Jala. I am sitting in his beautiful garden drinking hot sweet tea and listening to his life story.
Mitri was born in Yafo in 1946, two years before the ‘Nakba’ – the exodus of 750,000 Palestinians during the 1948 war. Mitri’s parents fled with him to Beit Jala, just outside Bethlehem in the West Bank, where he grew up under Jordanian rule.
He got married on 4 June 1967 – the day before the outbreak of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War – and left to go on honeymoon to his bride’s family in Jordan. He and his wife became trapped there when the West Bank was occupied by the Israelis.
For more than ten years Mitri was refused permission to return to his parents’ home, and so worked to raise his children – two boys and two girls – in Jordan.
In 1979 he finally received permission to reunite his family, and returned with enough money to buy three dunams (3,000 square metres) of land. He planted olive and almond trees and built the beautiful house in whose garden we sit.
But this story has no happy ending. “How could I have imagined what was to follow?”, he asks.
In 1990 the Israeli Civil Administration (a department within the Israeli military) arrived on his property and confiscated one dunam of his land to build Route 60. This highway forms part of a 170-kilometre network that B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights group, calls “forbidden roads”. These routes link Israeli settlements across the West Bank and are increasingly restricted from Palestinian use.
In 2004 the Israeli Civil Administration returned to confiscate a further dunam of land, to build the separation barrier. This was constructed right beside Mitri’s house. That year the International Court of Justice issued an advisory note stating that the route of the barrier was illegal, since 85 per cent of it was built on Palestinian land.
Mitri’s beautiful garden is full of colour from the plants and flowers of a Palestinian spring. The colour is enhanced by the swings, bikes and toys that he keeps for his grandchildren, and by the murals painted on his own wall. (He had to build this wall to protect the house from water drainage from the separation barrier.) The mural depicts things lost from his land behind the barrier, including the water cistern and his own road. In stark contrast, the dull grey of the separation barrier rises above.
Mitri was offered compensation for the loss of his land in both 1990 and 2004, but refused it: “Under Occupation you can take my land by force but I won’t sell you my land; it’s my land and here we stay in ‘sumod’, in our house, on our land.” ‘Sumod’ is the Arabic word used to describe the steadfastness and perseverance that characterises Palestinians in the West Bank.
Many international and Palestinian delegations have visited Mitri over the years. Mitri Raheb – a Lutheran Pastor and international author and speaker – made a film about him. But, says Mitri, “All the time promises but nothing is done”.
“We live in dark times,” says Mitri. “Israel doesn’t respect anyone here – we live under Israeli punishment. We want peace more than the Israelis but where is the peace when your neighbour refuses to recognise your rights? This wall is no protection for anyone. It kills the people and kills the hope for the people. Occupation destroyed our lives. This is occupation – it destroys everyone and everything here.”
Mitri has little hope of any change. But he asks us to tell his story on our return to our countries. He wants us to tell our elected representatives to put pressure on Israel to change direction. He wants Israel to recognise the rights of the Palestinians, to give back their land and demolish the separation barrier in order, as Mitri says quietly, to build the peace. “Insh’allah.”