Every so often, the usually even-tempered Ahmad bursts forth with an exclamation of deep anger, almost startling in its intensity. He is talking about the confiscation of vast tracts of land belonging to West Bank Palestinian villages for construction of Israel’s separation wall and to provide lebensraum for the network of Israeli settlements throughout Palestinian land. “Why you want to put your shit in my salon?” he exclaims. Then he catches himself. “Sorry for the language, but sometimes it gets on my nerves.”
“Gets on my nerves” is quite an understatement. Although Ahmad is talking figuratively, of Israeli settlements and Israeli walls and — something you don’t usually hear about — Israeli trash dumps throughout the West Bank, scarring the landscape and invading Palestinian space, the reference to what is being dumped in the Palestinian salon applies literally as well as figuratively in the small village of Wadi Fuqin southwest of Bethlehem. A large settlement, Betar Illit, looms over this village and has on two occasions quite literally dumped its sewage down into the fertile valley where the village’s life-sustaining agricultural land lies. That’s sewage from a settlement of 25,000 poured onto a village of 1,200.
Located exactly on the Green Line marking Israel’s pre-1967 border, Wadi Fuqin is a long narrow oasis between high ridge lines, about to be squeezed from both sides by Israeli encroachment. The Green Line is on the western side, atop one ridge. The hillside here is covered by olive groves, but the Israelis will soon start construction of the separation wall here, meaning the destruction of hundreds of olive trees. This is despite the fact that Wadi Fuqin has had good relations with the nearby Isratown throughout the 38 years of the occupation. On the eastern side, the burgeoning Israeli settlement of Betar Illit looks down on the village, pushing in from the other side.
Wadi Fuqin could once claim 12,000 dunams (some of the old-timers say it was 17,000) but lost everything except 3,000 dunams (about 750 acres) to Israel in 1948. Now it has lost another 1,000 dunams to Betar Illit, and it will lose still more land to the wall. We approach from the north, gradually descending the surrounding hills, past Betar Illit, and come to a high point where we can look down to the valley, lying bright green below. The place is like a garden. Stretched out over two miles, the valley is a neat patchwork of small orchards, right now producing pomegranates and figs; vegetable plots of cucumbers, cabbages, herbs, squashes; and well tended olive groves. Brilliant bougainevillea drape the walls around many houses. Fields are fed by five natural springs, dating back to Roman times. Collection pools for irrigation water, constantly replenished from the springs, lie alongside the road throughout the village. Those who have been spreading the myth for decades that only the Israelis have made the desert bloom would be a bit chagrined.
We pick figs and a farmer gives us cucumbers right off the vine as we walk through town. Farther along, school is just letting out, the children dressed neatly in school uniforms even in this tiny place. At one spot, several kids, probably eight or nine years old, are using one of the pools as a swimming hole. Only the boys dive in, but several girls stand around the pool laughing with the boys. They are all delighted to have their pictures taken and show off for our benefit.
The nearly idyllic scene is marred halfway up the hillside toward Betar Illit, where the Israelis have dumped all the construction debris from the settlement. Although it began as a small settlement twenty years ago, Betar Illit has grown rapidly, its population expanding by 50 percent, in the last five years. So much debris has been cleared to make room for the settlement’s large apartment blocks that the contours of the ridge line have changed over the years, encroaching dramatically on Wadi Fuqin and its fields. In one long stretch, the Israelis have built a makeshift retaining wall of huge boulders, rather precariously settled at the bottom of the hillside, all on top of Wadi Fuqin’s agricultural fields, to hold the dirt, rocks, and other debris from settlement construction.
Near the top of the new ridge line at one spot is a very evident large-diameter sewage pipe. The village leader who shows us around says that twice in the last few years, the settlement has experienced some kind of overflow problem and has poured sewage onto the field below. Now the only part of the village not blooming, the field below has obviously been polluted. The pipe is still there, ready for other Israeli “emergencies.”
Much of the spectacular landscape of Palestine is so beautiful it takes your breath away. Wadi Fuqin is one of the breathtaking places in the southern West Bank, where the hills of the central range open up to a rich landscape of vineyards and fruit trees and fields of vegetables in the wide valleys between hillsides. Farther north, the mountains and steep valleys and endless terraced olive groves form a serene landscape, dotted with small villages of white stone houses and tall minarets. In the east, the desert hills unfold in gentle, pastel-colored undulations. Israeli debris is increasingly scarring this landscape everywhere.
Israeli construction on a massive scale is changing the pastoral landscape of Palestine in striking ways, intruding on the Palestinian salon. Large settlements spill down hillsides, looking like crusader castles. (They are not particularly unattractive, if their identical concrete-block style happens to please you — the red-tile roofs give them a Mediterranean flair — but their massiveness and the regimentation of the large apartment blocs very noticeably change the character of the pastoral terrain.) Wide highways, meant to connect the settlements and avoid the need for Israelis to pass through or near Palestinian towns, and accessible only to those with Israeli license plates, make sweeping cuts in the land. Outside Jerusalem, where Israel is planning to link the huge settlement of Maale Adumim to the city, vast expanses of the steep hillsides and wadis that once made this a place of spectacular unspoiled beauty have been cleared of trees and rocks in preparation for building roads and housing — a grim urbanization of a peaceful landscape.
The separation wall is the most oppressive. Over 400 miles long when all its twists and loops are completed, the wall appears seemingly everywhere, on that hillside, around this corner. It is ugly, it is destructive. Where it is a concrete wall, it is dull gray, lacking any design, and lumpish, a bit of urban blight slashing through city neighborhoods. Where it is a fence, its combination of electronically monitored chain link, razor wire, and trenches and patrol roads bulldozed through destroyed agricultural land make it look exactly like the hostile border marker that it is. Hardly the “good fence” that Israel and its American supporters are trying to portray, it is altogether an ugly gash in the landscape, visible at great distances. (Where the wall is on or near the Green Line and Israelis might actually have to see it from their side, it has been hidden more or less completely with neatly landscaped mounds of earth that reach almost to the top.) Although Israel’s friends defend the barrier by noting that a major portion is a fence rather than a concrete wall, it is — and is intended to be — totally impenetrable, and one part is no more or less destructive than any other. Although they claim it is temporary and easily removable if only the Palestinians will behave, the wall, whether concrete or fence, has destroyed homes, land, and the very essence of the landscape that cannot ever be restored.
Destruction accompanies all of this building of walls and settlements. In addition to vast landscapes excavated, urbanized, and polluted, there is a helter-skelter of debris. Mounds of construction junk like the one hovering over Wadi Fuqin are everywhere, creating new hillsides in some places, evident in small piles on roadsides elsewhere. In one place near a settlement under construction, you see the remnants of spilled cement and torn cement sacks, obviously with Hebrew lettering. Elsewhere, you come across olive groves and agricultural fields strewn with boulders that local Palestinians say have been excavated from settlement construction sites and simply dumped there throughout the fields. In other places, the roads are littered with rusted cars, many with Hebrew lettering that gives away their origins.
Trash disposal is a major problem throughout the West Bank. In the town of Anata, for instance, which lies almost entirely in a section of the West Bank totally controlled by Israel, just outside Jerusalem, there is little or no trash pick-up for the town’s 9,000 residents. Anata bought one garbage truck a few years ago with donations from the EU, but the nearest dump is in another town, through several checkpoints and on the other side of the wall from Anata, so trash and garbage are burned or simply piled up. The large city of Ramallah and its suburb of al-Bireh are facing a near-term crisis. Israelis authorities have informed the two municipalities, which together have a population of approximately 85,000, that the solid waste landfill they have been using for the last several years, which was originally built to serve a population of 100,000, will be closed to the Palestinians at the beginning of 2006, although it will remain open for Israelis from the nearby settlement of Psagot. Israeli authorities closed the landfill to Palestinians for a couple of years at the start of the intifada in 2000, forcing Ramallah and al-Bireh first to reopen an old landfill that had been abandoned because it was overloaded and, when that became so totally overburdened that it posed environmental risks to the municipalities, to halt trash pick-up altogether until the usable landfill was finally reopened. The towns will have no alternative if this landfill is again closed to them.
These are only a few examples of a critical environmental situation throughout the West Bank. A recent devastating analysis of widespread ecological destruction, written by dissident Israeli environmentalist Ethan Ganor and published in Earth First! Journal, reports that waste from unregulated settlement factories that produce aluminum, plastics, fiberglass, batteries, and pesticides pollutes the land and the water. Wastewater from a large complex of 80 Israeli factories in the northern West Bank is discharged into a wadi, polluting Palestinian farmland in several nearby villages. Garbage from Israel has for years been dumped in a Palestinian quarry near Nablus, causing great demonstrable damage to groundwater and plant life. Early this year, Israeli settlers near Hebron poisoned fields used by Palestinians to graze flocks of sheep; an extremely toxic rodenticide manufactured only in Israel was found strewn across a wide area, causing the death of dozens of sheep and goats and affecting an array of birds and wildlife. Ganor concludes that “From the Jordan River Valley and Dead Sea Basin, through the central highlands comprising the West Bank’s populated core, to the fertile western hills bordering Israel . . . a labyrinth of settlements, industrial zones, dumps, military camps, fortified roads, electrified fences and a massive concrete wall . . . is draining the life from this ancient land . . . causing the West Bank’s once-lush ecology to deteriorate. The cumulative impact on the land’s hydrology, topsoil, biodiversity, food security and natural beauty is severe.”
The injustice is overpowering. There is no acceptable answer to Ahmad’s question about why this is happening in the Palestinians’ salon.
by Kathleen and Bill Christison
Kathleen Christison is a former CIA political analyst and has worked on Middle East issues for 30 years. She is the author of Perceptions of Palestine and The Wound of Dispossession. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Bill Christison was a senior official of the CIA. He served as a National Intelligence Officer and as Director of the CIA’s Office of Regional and Political Analysis. He is a contributor to Imperial Crusades, CounterPunch’s history of the wars on Iraq and Afghanistan. They can be reached at email@example.com. CounterPunch, Kathleen and Bill Christison