By Gideon Levy
Ha’aretz, 9 June 2005
Only rarely do columnists become the subjects of their own column. That was the case, for example, when Israel Defense Forces soldiers fired at our car in August, 2002. For a moment we became the subjects of our column, against our will. This week it happened again, under entirely different circumstances.
We drove to the village of Burka, the village whose lands became the site of the settlement of Homesh, which has been the villagers’ main problem for 27 years. We came to speak to the residents on the eve of the evacuation of their uninvited neighbors. We wanted to hear in lower Homesh – Homesh is located on the top of the mountain and Burka is sprawled on its slope – about the feelings of the residents who are about to be liberated from the burden of the isolated settlement above their heads. From every house in Burka one can see the barbed wire fence behind which hide the red-tiled roofs of Homesh, defying the ancient village at its foot. Over the years the mountain has turned into a monster, which is now supposed to be evacuated.
Over breakfast at the wayside restaurant on the way to Burka, Miki Kratsman, my photographer and friend, reminisced about his army service. In the late 1970s, Kratsman was a soldier doing his regular military service. He was in the first group of soldiers of the Nahal Brigade group that was sent to establish a new outpost in northern Samaria. (The Nahal Brigade combined military service with work on new agricultural communities.) They were supposed to fence in a plot of land that would become the outpost.
That was in the winter of 1978. Kratsman said that they fenced in an orchard of almond trees, and didn’t ask any questions. While they were doing the fencing, a Palestinian who looked elderly to the young Kratsman, appeared suddenly, riding on his donkey. “This is my land,” shouted the old man at the soldiers who were fencing in his almonds. The embarrassed Kratsman asked his commander what to do about the old man, and the commander ordered Kratsman to chase him off the land.
The next day, the old man on his donkey came back with a request: to let him enter his plot of land, at least to remove his agricultural equipment. Kratsman asked his commander, who out of the goodness of his heart agreed to allow the old man to enter. The old man entered the plot, rolled some stones from one of the terraces, and revealed the equipment in its hiding place: several rusting hoes. He took the hoes without saying a word, and disappeared. Kratsman never saw him again.
The fencing operation was completed, Kratsman and his friends settled on the land and established the Nahal outpost Maaleh Nahal. About half a year later, the Nahal group was transferred to another place. Ten years later, at the outbreak of the first intifada, Kratsman, who was already the photographer in the territories for the newspaper Hadashot, heard that his Maaleh Nahal had become the settlement of Homesh. The years passed, Kratsman became one of the important documenters of the occupation, but the picture of the old man on the donkey continued to haunt him. This week we returned to Burka together.
We began the journey at the ancient railway station in Sebastia, which is also on the land of Burka. “I think that that was the first time that I saw people literally rolling with laughter,” wrote Meir Harnoy in his book “The Settlers,” when describing how he and his friends from the settlers’ movement, Gush Emunim, went to settle the land on Hanukkah 1975. That was the swallow that heralded the beginning of the settlement enterprise. A settlement that was later transferred to the Kadum Camp by one of the architects of the accursed enterprise, Shimon Peres, and eventually became the settlement of Kedumim. The stone railway station – which still has its opening date, 1914, engraved on it – is today a ruin with traces of its former beauty still in evidence. This is the old Turkish railway station. The rail line to Istanbul passed by here, but the iron tracks disappeared long ago. In Burka they say that the Israelis took them to build the Bar Lev Line along the Suez Canal after the Six-Day War.
An abandoned dog was wandering this week among the ruin of Sebastia, some of whose walls are threatening to collapse. The area is deserted. Before the intifada, there was a Palestinian park here, and one of the wealthy residents of Nablus built a vacation center. Now it also stands abandoned.
The memorial to the dead of Burka, 14 dead in two intifadas, desecrated and sprayed with black paint – the residents say it’s the work of IDF soldiers – greets visitors at the main entrance to the village. This road was opened to traffic only four months ago. In the four previous years, cement blocks closed the entry road to the village, as in most of the villages in the area, and IDF soldiers controlled the situation from a house on the outskirts that they had expropriated.
The secretary of the village council, Iyad Abu Omar, who was among the members of Hamas expelled to Lebanon, presents the most recent expropriation map, “confiscation order 62/02, for public perusal,” signed by the previous head of the IDF Central Command, Moshe Kaplinsky, and bearing the date December 16, 2002. About 500 dunams were expropriated at first from Burka in favor of Homesh. Only the plot of almond trees was under cultivation, the rest was rocky ground. About another 100 dunams were expropriated at the order of Major General Kaplinsky. Homesh continued to expand, as did the access, security and bypass roads to it.
But the extent of the dispossession is far greater: For a long time, the residents have not dared to approach the boundary of their neighbor up the hill. They speak of herds of sheep that the settlers confiscated from any shepherd who dared to approach. Our escort, Sami, a native of the village, trembled in his car as soon as we asked him to turn to the road that ascends to Homesh. The village receives a limited amount of water, although the pipeline to the settlement passes through its fields. A tanker is attached to the narrow pipe at the entrance to the village, and transfers water to the water tower.
Burka has had four difficult years. Shaukat Sayef, a dialysis patient, died in his home about two years ago, when the ambulance that was called for him was delayed for hours. There were many days when no vehicle was allowed to enter. The trip to the district center, Nablus, took hours. The IDF limited the last olive-harvesting season to two days, for fear of the settlers. One olive picker was injured. About 40 percent of the villagers are unemployed. The students were forced to move to Nablus, because of the roadblocks. The village, for its part, did not remain idle: At least two dispatchers of suicide bombers came from there.
Now Homesh is supposed to be evacuated. In the village, there is a difference of opinion: Some want the houses of the settlement to be demolished, so that no trace of them remains, and some hope that the houses with the tiled roofs will stay in place, for the benefit of the village. There is a great fear here that the IDF will remain in the area.
We sat in the village council building, which used to be a monastery. A tall man entered the room, wearing jeans and a khaki shirt, mustachioed, and as handsome as an aging movie star. Fatahallah Haji, 55, a farmer. Two dunams under cultivation on the road to Jenin, and 21 lost dunams in Homesh. What did you have on the land that was lost? Apples, grapes, olives, carobs, cypress trees and – almonds.
Kratsman is tense. But Haji doesn’t know much about the day when the lands were taken: He was in Libya. “Only when I returned, a few years later, did Father tell me that everything was gone,” he says with a sad smile. Father? Is he still alive? Yes, he’s 91 years old, born in 1914, the year they built the railway station in Sebastia. The elderly Yussef Salah Haji lies in the iron bed in his home, a rope helps him to lift himself up a little from his bed. He is no longer able to move, the telephone number of his son, who lives next door, is written in pencil on the wall. His grandsons sleep in the house with him at night. Everything he needs is next to his bed: the radio, the bottle of tea, the chamber pot, the half-eaten pita, the mobile phone, the medicines and the bag of herbs. That’s how he lies in bed, in a house with a garden of fruit trees leading up to it, and stares into space. His eyes have dimmed somewhat, but he is completely lucid.
Have you heard that they’re about to evacuate Homesh? “Inshallah, God willing. I really hope that it’s true and that it will really happen. I planted and cultivated the trees for 20 years, and when I was supposed to pick the fruit they came and left me with nothing. I hope they leave and that I get taken there on a stretcher. So I can see it. I pray that I’ll have a chance to visit my land. Even if I have to crawl. I want to go there and I pray that they’ll let me. I have sons in Egypt, in Jordan, in Saudi Arabia and in America. I have 50 grandchildren, and all I want is to see the land once again. I wanted my grave to be there.”
For 27 years he hasn’t seen his land, which is only a few dozen meters above his house, as the crow flies. A Palestinian has no way of getting near Homesh, not even to look from afar. He bought the plot in 1957, when he returned from a stay in Saudi Arabia. What do you remember about the day when the land was taken? “As far as I remember, it happened in 1977. I had just plowed the land, and suddenly they came. I didn’t know how to speak Hebrew, and I didn’t understand what they were saying to me.
“On the first and second days, I tried to talk to them. On the third or fourth day they suddenly started to build a fence. On the fourth day I begged them to at least let me remove my hoes. I took them, and the next day they send me to Yehezkel, who was in charge here on behalf of the Military Administration, and he said they would compensate me with other land. I told them that I didn’t want anything except my land. I sent a letter to the military governor. I was already about 60 years old, and I couldn’t start again. The military governor told me that they were taking my land for five years, for the purpose of military exercises. They offered me alternative land.”
His fingers are twisted by arthritis, his sight is dimmed. In the end he took the land that the governor offered him, until it turned out, a few years later, that it belonged to one of the residents of the village who was living in Kuwait. When the owner of the land returned to the village, he demanded his land, and Haji was left almost penniless.
“I had the best almonds. Three apples weighed in at a kilo. Golden Delicious apples. Twenty-one dunams with all kinds of trees.” Which trees did you like best? “The almond trees. The almonds were like pistachio nuts. I even sold them to Tel Aviv. One dinar per kilo. I fed my children and my neighbors’ children with almonds.” For the first time, he is about to burst into tears: His son in America, who supported him financially all these years, hasn’t answered his letters for half a year.
Do you remember who came to evacuate you at the time? “They were all soldiers, and there was one civilian with them, a surveyor.” What did you think of them at the time? “That it wasn’t their fault. It was the government that brought them there.”
One could have cut the tension in the room with a knife. Kratsman’s face was ashen. He deliberated for a long time. Finally he decided to speak: “Since 1986 I’ve been working in the territories. I photograph the injustices of the occupation. In 1978 I was a soldier, and they sent me to a place called Maaleh Nahal. A few years later I discovered that they had changed the name of the place to Homesh.”
Silence reigned in the room. We sat in a circle around the bed of the old man, several villagers and the two of us, and Kratsman continued: “We were eight soldiers. They asked us to build a fence around Maaleh Nahal. I’m very ashamed of that. But I was 18 years old.”
Haji silences him: “Those who started to do all kinds of work there were the age of my grandchildren. One the age of my son’s son told me to leave.” And Kratsman continued: “On Tuesday, an Arab came on a donkey.” “Me, me,” murmured the old man. Kratsman: “It was me. We asked our commander, what should we do? He said: Chase him away from here. And then the old man told us that there were hoes under the stones.” The son interrupts: “Father always told us that he managed to get the hoes out.”
Kratsman: “I repeat that I’m ashamed of it.”
The old man: “It has nothing to do with you.”
Kratsman: “I’ve been thinking about it all these years.”
Haji: “They treated the land as though it belonged to absentee owners, but I told them, here I am, I’m alive, I’m alive, I’m here.”
Kratsman: “For us it was a surprise that suddenly someone appeared. Only then did we begin to understand where we were and what our part was in this thing. Suddenly we understood, for the first time, the meaning of the occupation. I’m happy that I met you. I didn’t believe that I’d see you again. I didn’t mean to look for you, but when your son entered the room in the village council, he looked exactly the way you looked then.” Haji took a long look at Kratsman, and was silent.
Suddenly he recalled a Jew named Gurevitch with whom he had worked in the Lod railway station years before the establishment of the state.