Thursday, February 17, 2005

My family land Newsday Essay, 2-13-05

Seduced by the soil
Newsday Feb. 13, 2005

Ray Hanania, a columnist and managing editor of TheArab, is an American of Christian Palestinian descent.

A neatly folded piece of paper browned from age and so delicate it can easily crumble like dirt is the only legal link that my family has to a majestic piece of land between Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

A relative of my mother purchased the 10 acres of land in the late 19th century for 30 pieces of gold. In recent years my cousin, who is now in his mid-90s, asked me to take a more active part in protecting its very uncertain future.

As the Middle East conflict has moved from each new hopeful high to each new violent low, Palestinian land such as this has been handed down from generation to generation, along with a sense of fear and apprehension.

My family's land is in a valley framed by small mountains and a breathtaking northern view of West Jerusalem. It has more than 100 ancient olive trees shading an underbrush of small bushes that produce a yellow, sweet-tasting berry-sized fruit called zarour. Lizards dart among the rocks, which are covered with large snails.

A dirt road created several years ago by Israeli soldiers has replaced the narrow footpath along the mountainside that was once the only entrance to the plot from a small nearby Arab village that shares the land's name, "Sharafat."I visited the land 10 years ago, mostly out of curiosity. Now entrusted with its safekeeping, I returned in October. This visit was much more emotional. As I picked ripe brown olives from the trees or the little zarour fruits from the bushes, I felt the weight and passion of the Arab-Israeli conflict more acutely.

Land is at the heart of the political strife that engulfs Palestinians and Israelis. Sharafat is in the West Bank, which was occupied by Israel in 1967. Four years later, the Israelis confiscated the mountaintops around Sharafat to build Gilo, a settlement Israel said it needed to provide security. My relatives fear Israel will also confiscate our land, for security.

Earlier this year, Israel approved a secret directive confiscating all land in the West Bank near East Jerusalem, including ours. Any land whose owners are Arab but not living there are designated by Israel as absentee owners. Under mounting international pressure last month, Israel backed down from the order. But the confiscation and the loss to Israeli control of land like Sharafat has fueled the most violent resistance and has stood in the way of a permanent peace.

I didn't learn of the Israeli action until after my most recent visit. During that trip, I met with some of the villagers my family has allowed to harvest the olives each year, so they can survive. I could see the changes that have been imposed on the land by the Israeli settlers of Gilo, who can look down upon the valley from their Western-style homes. In addition to the new dirt road, the Israelis have installed underground sewers and water pipes through our land to service the settlements.

The Israelis don't ask permission. Yet, despite the way the land has changed, nothing can dim the gleam that shines in the eyes of my aunt who accompanied me on a difficult four-hour journey through three Israeli military checkpoints. Because I was born in the United States and I hold a U.S. passport, I can pass through them with a heightened sense of assurance. As a resident of Ramallah, my aunt has to sneak through. Everyone in my family believes that because I am American, that might keep the Israelis from taking the land.

Israel believes it can do whatever it wants to us. For me, the burden of defending the land is almost religious. It's spiritual. But it is also difficult. How do you fight a government bureaucracy, especially one locked in military conflict?

I have to scrape around to find the money not only to visit the land, but to find a capable lawyer to free it from possible Israeli control. The lawyer has to be fearless enough to challenge the Israeli military occupation, which technically controls the land. My worst fear is that I will one day reach an age when I will have to turn over responsibility for the land to a younger relative. Will that relative have the spirit and the courage to fight for the land, if a fight is all that we have left to defend it?

My aunt can't predict the future; her memories of happier but long gone days of family picnics on the land remain as crisp and as clear as if they happened yesterday. Hearing her remember the land only makes the burden of the future harder to bear.

And as we ended the afternoon and began the return trip to Ramallah, we both paused to pick up a few stones as souvenirs, little reminders that what we have is real. At the crest of the village of Sharafat, we both looked back with different concerns.

This may be the last time my aunt will ever see this land. She is in her late 60s. She has to take long pauses as we walk to catch her breath, panting from the heat of the sun. And I leave worrying that this conflict that exhausted the lives of so many relatives and ancestors might also outlive me.

Copyright © 2005, Newsday, Inc.

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