By EA Zara, Southern West Bank
One very hot morning in September, we make the steep and dusty climb up to the humble dwelling of Muhanned Salah and his family, in a beautiful rural village in the Northern West Bank. Muhanned is well known in the community for inspiring a number of Palestinian families, once displaced from their village, to return to their land. After giving us a warm Arabic welcome, with sweet sage tea and freshly picked grapes, Muhanned, joined by his wife and young daughter, sits down to tell us his story.
The Salah family were one of around 200,000 Palestinian families to flee their homes following the 1967 Six Day War. Leaving behind approximately 1200 acres of agricultural land in their village, they fled to al-Khader, the nearest urban area, to find shelter.
In 1992, Muhanned Salah made the decision to start working the land they left behind once again. He arrived back in the village with his grandfather and a set of tools, and they began to nurture the abandoned fields of figs, grapes and olives. The following year, the first Oslo Accord was signed and it was not long before settlements began expanding rapidly across the surrounding area. In 1995, determined to maintain his presence on the land, Muhanned left al- Khader and moved back to the run-down remains of their old home, his wife later joining. The property was without doors, without windows and cut off from any electricity and water supply. “Settlers came regularly to throw stones and try and scare us away” says Muhanned. “They tried to force us to leave here, but we decided to continue. If we didn’t, we would lose the land forever.”
Al-Khader is very overcrowded. The part of town which contains most of the natural resources and space for new homes is in Area C (under full Israeli military control) which makes obtaining permission for Palestinians to build, expand and utilise resources very challenging. The mayor told us that around 80 per cent of the population is out of work and wages are low. Muhanned felt that returning to his family’s land was his best hope of a “making a good life for the next generation.” Many other former inhabitants of the village “called me crazy at first” he says, “but many years on I am still here and now they are beginning to follow me and renovate their abandoned homes too.”
The fact that Muhanned is inspiring a movement of other former villagers should not give the false impression that life here is easy. He tells me that his house has been subject to violent military raids on multiple occasions, most recently in August 2017, when a soldier held up his young daughter at gunpoint. Despite living only feet away from a water plant and electricity pylons, which supply the nearby settlements of Neve Daniel, Efrat, and El’azar 24 hours a day, Muhanned tell us that Israeli authorities have refused his many applications for water and electricity, directly contravening their responsibilities under the Fourth Geneva Convention (1949). After many years, Muhanned and his family still rely on candlelight and fires, and collect water from a natural spring, 1500 metres away.
Muhanned’s land is surrounded by settlements (see the factsheet, below), with the closest just metres from his house. In March 2016, a group of settlers came in the night and set fire to his home. Fortunately he escaped and his house was later rebuilt with the support of the Palestinian human rights organisation, Al-Haq. He reported the incident to the Israeli Civil Administration immediately. “They said I was lying and imprisoned me for 18 days” he says. “They asked me many questions about the house and why I stay here”. As well as personal attacks, settlers also attack Muhanned’s land. He takes us into his fields to show us where they have poured chemicals on the roots of his olive trees and planted a weed that strangles his crops.
Unlike many Palestinians, Muhanned is fortunate to still have all the historical paperwork proving his ownership of the land. Although he has received demolition orders in the past (one of which, in 2000, resulted in bulldozers arriving at his property), he has managed so far to halt any demolition. Despite the many challenges, Muhanned appears steadfast and determined as he tells his story. “When I came back to my village, I did not come here to destroy the Israeli settlers” he says. “This house was ours before 1967. We just wanted to come back home.”
You can read more about how settlements came about, why they contravene international law, and what you can do about it here: http://50yearstoomany.uk.