Abdalah Sharqawi's father once told him that his family's land was more important than his own children. "He told me I could lose a son or daughter and I'd survive, but if I lost my land, I would perish," Sharqawi remembers as he gently harvests the last crop of olives from gnarled, centuries-old trees about to be bulldozed by the Israeli military.
The ancient trees and the land they grow from are being taken from Sharqawi and other residents of Aboud in order to build the israeli separation barrier, a string offences and walls that Israeli officials claim are motivated by security concerns, but which the Christian and Muslim residents of this peaceful village argue are designed to steal their land and water, and ultimately to drive all Palestinians away.
Catholic leaders, from Aboud's parish priest to the archbishop of Washington, from Congressman Henry Hyde to columnist Robert Novak, have taken sides with the villagers and taken the case to the U.S. Congress, President George W. Bush and the U.S. public. Yet Israel remains unperturbed, and bulldozers and trucks work all day to uproot trees and move hillsides, some claim changing the facts on the ground in such a way that ongoing efforts at peace negotiations seem like empty gestures.
Aboud is a classically quaint village that sits on a ridge looking west into Israel and on to the Mediterranean. Its Christian heritage dates to Jesus himself; the Holy Family reportedly passed through Aboud on its way from Galilee to Jerusalem, and legend has it that Jesus preached here. The oldest church in Aboud dates to Constantine's reign.
Over the centuries Muslims began moving into Aboud, but Christians remained the majority until recently. Economic hardship resulting from Israeli-imposed restrictions on movement motivated better-off Christians to leave. One extended Christian family of 437 people moved to nearby Jordan, and during the second intifada 34 Christian families moved from Aboud to Ramallah in order to work in the larger Palestinian city without having to pass through the onerous and often arbitrary Israeli military checkpoints that form the backbone of the occupation of the West Bank.
The Christian exodus from the Holy Land has led many to wring their hands about whether Christianity can maintain a foothold in the land of its birth. Israel blames Muslims for the Christians' departure. Christian and Muslim leaders blame the Israeli occupation, and some Christian leaders, including Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, warn that Christians should put their own house inm order--specifically, denounce Christian Zionists--before complaining about any mistreatment by Muslims.
Sabbah and others are quick to point out that when problems arise, as they did in September when several Palestinian churches were attacked in apparent response to Pope Benedict XVI's comments about Islam, leaders of radical Islamist groups, including Hamas, were quick to condemn the violence, protect churches from further attacks, and in some cases lend a hand in rebuilding. Many here speculate that Israel was ultimately behind the attacks, sowing religious discord just as it nurtured political tension by assisting the birth of fundamentalist Hamas as an alternative to Yasser Arafat's secular Fatah movement.
In Aboud, the controversy over the pope's remarks went largely unnoticed. In the village's Catholic school, where 94 of the 215 students are Christian, nothing happened. The only church to be attacked recently in Aboud was a shrine to St. Barbara from the sixth century; Israeli soldiers blew it up in 2002.
According to Fr. Firas Aridah, pastor of the town's Our Lady Mother of Sorrows Catholic Parish, the outside world's interreligious conflicts have never penetrated into this sleepy town of 2,200 people, where Christians make up almost half the population today. Muslims celebrate Christmas and Easter with their Christian neighbors, and Christians gather with Muslims to celebrate the end of Ramadan. Both go to the rebuilt St. Barbara Shrine to light candles.
"The village of Aboud is a positive model of peaceful coexistence," Aridah told a U.S. Congress subcommittee hearing on religious persecution last June.
Aridah went to Washington at the invitation of Hyde, a strongly pro-Israel Republican representative from Illinois who is nonetheless concerned that the Israeli separation barrier has made life unbearable for many Palestinian Christians.
Aridah came back from his trip to Washington impressed with the interest in Palestinian Christians expressed by Hyde and Chris Smith, the Republican representative from New Jersey who was then vice chair of the subcommittee on Africa, Global Human Rights and International Operations, where Aridah testified. But the priest was discouraged by the level of ignorance he said he found among most others in the U.S. capital.
"Many people there don't understand anything about the situation here. Some Congressional representatives I talked with think the Palestinians are occupying Israel. Some were busy writing a letter condemning the Palestinian Authority for persecuting Christians, but they don't know the real situation. Israeli propaganda claims that Christians are leaving the Holy Land because of Muslims. That's simply not true. It's because of the occupation. That's the main problem in Palestine. It's not the Muslims. It's Israel. It's the occupation," the 31-year-old Jordanian priest told NCR.
"Muslims and Christians have lived together here for centuries, through the best and worst times. Why fight with each other when they have the same problems, the same checkpoints, the same occupation, the same siege? Why look for differences to fight over when they already suffer together?" Aridah asked.
"Israel is working to create problems between us, problems that will help get rid of the Christians. If all the Christians move away, then Israel can do whatever it wants with the Muslims who remain, and there won't be much of a protest," he said.
The priest said he agreed to go to Washington because it's ultimately the U.S. government that calls the shots in the Palestinian territories.
"Israel will do whatever Washington says. The U.S. government has the power to do anything it wants here. It can stop the construction of the wall if it wants," he said.
Aridah's testimony had no apparent effect, and in coming weeks Abdalah Sharqawi says he will lose some 500 olive trees, 200 grape plants, 100 fig and 200 almond trees, all either destroyed by the wall's construction or separated from the village on the west side of the fence. Other Aboud farmers, many of them Christians, will similarly lose land and trees.
It's not the first time, when the nearby Israeli settlements of Bet Aryeh and Ofarim were constructed in the early '80s, it was on land confiscated from Aboud. Sharqawi lost land then as well, an experience that leads him not to believe Israeli promises now that he'll be able to access his land on the other side of the wall.
"When they took our land to build the settlements, they built a gate and told us we could use it. But after a year, they refused to open it any more," he said. Once a Palestinian farmer quits caring for his fields, even if he's prevented from getting there, Israeli authorities can then claim he's abandoned the land and confiscate it. Bit by bit, Sharqawi has had taken from him what his father warned him not to lose.
"They're not taking the land for security reasons, but simply because they want to steal our land and our water, and enlarge the settlements. Yet once they've taken our land away, how are we supposed to live?" Sharqawi asked as his wife Sara picked up ripe olives that had fallen onto a hillside carefully terraced by his ancestors centuries ago.
When finished, Israel's separation barrier, at times an 8-meter high wall, at other times a series of ditches, roads, razor wire, electronic sensors and buffer zones, will wind in and out of the West bank for more than 700 kilometers, more than twice the length of the 1949 armistice line--the Green Line. While at places the wall adheres to the Green Line, most is being built well inside the West Bank, carving out 10 percent of the West Bank. If Jewish settlements and other Israeli infrastructure are included, Palestinians are losing about 46 percent of the West Bank to the Jewish state, leaving a series of disconnected and unviable enclaves for any future Palestinian state.
In 2005, the wall was completed along the Green Line a few kilometers west of Aboud, but Israel wanted more. What's taking Sharqawi's olives and almonds away is an extension of the wall, apparently designed to include Bet Aryeh and Ofarim in the larger Ariel settlement: block being sliced out of the West Bank.
A November 2005 protest against the wall in Aboud brought together Italian Catholics, Israeli peace activists and village residents, yet their songs and banners had little effect. Israeli border police fired teargas and stun grenades into the protestors until they dispersed.
The work was stopped in March as a result of the village's appeal to Israeli courts. The construction halt coincided with a visit by Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, who told Aridah he had personally taken the villagers' plea to President Bush. Aboud also got help from Robert Novak, who twice this year addressed the village's plight in his syndicated column, only to earn the wrath of pro-Israeli media watchdogs in the United States who claimed Novak offered "an egregious example of revisionism," in the words of one such group, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America.
Yet all the lobbying was in vain. In May the Israeli High Court ruled that "security" overrode whatever negative effects the wall's construction had in Aboud, and the bulldozers started up once again.
Given how the village's economy revolves around the olive trees and grazing land for sheep, Aridah says the latest confiscation of land for the wall will do irrevocable harm and continue to force those who can to leave. "If you want to kill someone indirectly, dig up his olive trees. You don't have to pull the trigger of a gun,just take away his olive trees and he'll die of a heart attack," Aridah said.
Or simply move away. The town's mayor, a Greek Orthodox Christian, is moving to California when he finishes harvesting this year's olive crop. It's yet another sign of a village's death foretold.
"The young people tell me that at the first occasion they can, they're going to leave," Aridah said. "They told me to quit working so hard to change things. I told them I had to keep working til the end, that I have to say no to protect our dignity as human beings, whether we're Muslim or Christian. It's my job, and even when they put a gun to my head or shove the rifle into my chest at the checkpoints, it's my mission to be with my people."
By PAUL JEFFREY
Aboud, West Bank
[Paul Jeffrey is a freelance writer and photographer who lives in Eugene, Ore.]…