March 29, 2012
On 04.08.2011, Haj Ibrahim Atallah closed his eyes for the last time. He was over a 100 years old, and from what I’ve heard, he closed his eyes unwillingly, for he had yet so much to fight for, so much to give to the land that has given him and his family so much. Haj Atallah was from a small village in the Bethlehem area called Khirbet Ish-Sheikh Zakariya, locally known as Beit Iskarya, probably to differentiate it from the not-far-away Zakariya that was ethnically cleansed in 1948. Beit Iskarya lies in the middle of the illegal Gush Etzion Zionist colony bloc which consists of 22 illegal Zionist colonies and outposts built on 70,000 dunums of stolen Palestinian land. The Palestinian village itself is totally besieged by at least 5 of the Gush Etzion colonies: Bat Ayin from the west, Rosh Tzurim from the north, Neve Daniel from the north east, Elazar from the east and Alon Shvut from the south east. These colonies are strangling the village, stealing its land and that of other Palestinian villages and slowly devouring them. They divide Beit Iskarya’s land into two and the only road connecting the village to the outside world passes through this Zionist colony bloc, where often, Beit Iskarya residents, especially students on the way to school, get attacked and beaten by the Zionist colonists. But despite all settler attacks and the continuous threats, Haj Atallah remained steadfast in his land: he planted the land, cared for it and kept it green against all odds. He taught his children that nothing is more valuable than the land itself, and he refused all the enticements offered by the Zionist entity to sell his land or give up even one iota of its earth. He refused to allow them to create another Palestinian-free zone in the heart of Palestine.
A Palestinian legend, a symbol of steadfastness and resistance, an example that Zionism can and will be defeated; Haj Attallah was born in 1910, lived all his life in his land, swore never to leave it and to make his final resting place within its ribs and close to its heart. 5 Palestinian communities, including Beit Iskarya, were living and thriving in this area, which is one of the most fertile areas of Palestine and is famous for its grapevines, figs, apricots, apple and almond trees. The land belonged to the villagers, and they depended on the land for their livelihood, and the land had always been generous to them. Beit Iskarya, with its 9000 dunums, was famous for its agricultural products which were marketed in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Hebron. In one interview, Haj Atallah recalled how the land was always green and how all sorts of fruits and vegetables grew there. Growing up, he watched how the Zionist settlements changed the landscape of the land, how they destroyed it.
In the 1940s, when, with the help of the British Mandate, the Zionists started their colonization plans for Palestine, the basis for the Gush Etzion was laid in the area. First, the Kfar Etzion Zionist colony was built in 1943, to be followed by Mishu’at Yitzhaq in 1945, Ein Tzurim in 1946, Revadim in 1947, and the whole illegal colonial project built on Palestinian land was called Gush Etzion, the Etzion bloc. In 1948, the terrorist Zionist gangs Haganah and Stern occupied the whole area, killed many and expelled the indigenous Palestinians. Palestinians revolutionaries, together with the Arab fighters who refused to obey their generals’ order to withdraw, fought the Zionist usurpers and forced them out of the area. After 6 months of forced expulsion, the indigenous Palestinians returned to their villages.
In 1967, after Israel occupied the rest of Palestine, wide-spread demolition took place in the area surrounding Beit Iskarya, where houses, schools and mosques were destroyed. The residents of the Palestinian localities were forced out of their homes, and of the over 1000 people who inhabited Beit Iskarya before 1967, only 50 remained: Haj Atallah and his family. The Zionist entity confiscated the lands of Beit Iskarya and the surrounding villages. Slowly, settlements and outposts of all sizes started appearing and spreading, and later grew to form Gush Etzion. The plan was to Judaize the whole area and turn it into a Palestinian-free zone. And out of the 800 dunums Haj Atallah owned, the Zionists left him and his family with only 75 dunums and stole the rest. Fields were uprooted and entire grapevines were destroyed while ripe with grapes.
But despite the terror and harassment of the Zionist colonists and the Zionist occupation army, Haj Atallah insisted he and his children remain steadfast in their village and protect their land. Over the years, he was offered large sums of money, villas, land in other areas of the occupied West Bank, even Israeli citizenship, just to force him to leave his land, but he refused. In an interview, Haj Atallah recalled how after the 1967 occupation: "despite the atmosphere of terror that accompanied the war, the displacement of the population, the demolition of houses and schools, I decided to stay at whatever cost. After two weeks following the occupation, Israeli soldiers came and surveyed the area, and told me to leave or they will demolish the houses on my head and the heads of my family, and emphasized that my existence constitutes a security threat in this area which they consider of vital importance to the Israeli army. I fought them with all means possible." In the 1970s, he was summoned to Moshe Dayan’s office in Tel Aviv. Dayan, who was the Zionist entity’s minister of "Defense" at the time, offered Haj Atallah large sums of money (at one time, he was offered over 2 million US Dollars), new houses and land wherever he wanted in return for his land in Beit Iskarya because "the Israeli army needs his land". Haj Ibrahim refused and his answer was the same every time: "We won’t exchange one centimeter of our land for the money of the whole world". After that meeting, settler terror and harassment increased and hasn’t stopped since: Often the villagers are attacked while working in the fields, their crops burned and their trees uprooted, sometimes even dogs would be unleashed at the villagers. "The settlers who surround us from all sides would come to where we live and start throwing stones at us and at our homes. They also use other methods such as stealing our property, our chicken, goats and destroy our crops." Haj Atallah and his family have not only to endure the terror and harassment of the Zionist colonists, but also that of the Israeli occupation army. He and his children were detained several times by Israeli occupation soldiers, and when told to choose between imprisonment and selling their land, they always chose imprisonment.
To force Haj Atallah’s family out of their ancestral home, the Israeli occupation forces prohibit building in Beit Iskarya. For the last 40 years, and while illegal Zionist colonies thrive and expand on stolen Palestinian land, the over 600 residents of Beit Iskarya have not been allowed to build new houses and facilities on their own land. Of the around 65 houses and facilities in Beit Iskarya 5 stone houses were built before 1967, and 85 houses were built after 1967 using mud and bricks and have tin roofs to avoid demolition. These houses, although more like sheds than houses, are nonetheless threatened with demolition. In addition, there is a 2-room school, a small clinic and a small mosque. In 2005, 29 houses and other facilities built after 1967 received demolition orders, 6 of which were demolished in 2008, despite their owners’ possession of documents proving their ownership of the land since over 400 years. Another 4 demolition orders were issued in 2010. A house of 10 was demolished in 2011 while the Zionist colonists watched and celebrated. More recently, 10 houses and the small school received demotion orders. And while the homes of Beit Iskarya are being demolished, a mobile tower was erected in the midst of the village, and despite the villager’s complaints and objection, the Zionists refused to remove it. The Israeli occupation forces also demolished the mosque’s minaret, not once but 3 times, and prohibited the Athan (call for prayer) because it annoys the racist European Zionist colonizers. But Haj Atallah used to defy the Zionists colonizing his land and would call for prayer using a loudspeaker. His voice would defy the colonizers and echo in the hills and the valleys of his ancestors. And every time, the IOF would come searching for the loudspeaker but fail to find it. Haj Atallah continued to raise the Athan until his death. In an interview, Haj Atallah said: "We are living in a continuous fight with them. They besiege us from all directions and stole our land, and left us with only 50 dunums out of the 800 dunums. They cut off our electricity and water, and after a long battle in the courts, we were able to restore these services to the village. When we built a mosque for the village, they demolished the minaret and prevented the call for prayer on the grounds that it bothered them. They burned our crops and destroyed our land and set wild pigs and dogs at our homes, yet we are steadfast until we die in our land." Today, the over 600 Palestinian residents of Beit Iskarya continue to defy the never-ending terror and harassment of the Zionist colonists and their occupation army. They face land theft, house demolition, settler attacks, but refuse to be intimidated or forced out of their land. Cameras positioned by the Israeli occupation army around the village monitor the villagers 24 hours, besieging them, imprisoning them in their own homes. Nonetheless, the villages still live on the land, still live from the land, still work the land and give it their love.
For the Zionist entity, Gush Etzion is considered a main settlement bloc and part of the so-called Greater Jerusalem: a Judaized Jerusalem where there is no place for the indigenous Palestinians. Entering the Gush Etzion, one would see settlement houses with their typical structure spread everywhere like a disease that is eating the land from the inside, destroying it slowly. These cancerous cells spread on both sides of the road and occupied every hill top, distorting the beauty of the Palestinian landscape. Here, the indigenous Palestinians have no place, they don’t exist to the alien colonizers, they are deleted from the invented histories and dictionaries of the Zionist mind; the Zionists have renamed the area, gave it Jewish names and forged its history, forged the names of the hills, the water springs, the fields, the valleys, the rocks and even the trees. Here, in this invented world, the language of the indigenous people does not exist, they don’t exist: road signs are only in Hebrew and English, and only cars with the Israeli yellow plate are visible. And with the exception of a few old Palestinian stone houses, the area is colonized. But if you continue driving, you will see in the distance a collection of houses, a small village that does not fit into the fake and invented picture the Zionists wanted to create here. It is because the view of this village, so natural in this landscape, that I recognized Beit Iskarya. No signs referred to it, but its steadfastness and defiance is all the sign anyone needs. And it is when you reach Beit Iskarya that you understand the meaning of steadfastness, of resistance.
To expand the illegal Gush Etzion, the Zionist colonists had over the years stolen the land which Haj Atallah inherited from his ancestors, and he and his family were left with only 30 dunums of their land. Even these 30 dunums had been a thorn in the eyes of the colonizers, because Haj Atallah and his family remained steadfast in the middle of this Zionist project, refusing to leave, and preventing a complete Judaization of the whole area. Haj Attalah refused to accept the theft of his land and fought for it. He went to Zionist courts and fought the usurpers there. And finally, after over 40 years of struggle, Haj Ibrahim Atallah defeated the Zionist entity. Early 2010, the Israeli high court, ordered the Israeli government to return the 730 dunums to Haj Atallah. It hurt him to see the settlements destroy the land. He wanted to replant the trees that were uprooted, give the land back its natural colour, give it life and freedom after so many years of captivity and slow death: "I feel very happy and great joy at the decision, hoping not to die before I cultivate the land again."
On 04.08.2011, Haj Ibrahim Atallah closed his eyes for the last time, he closed them unwillingly for he still had so much to do. He once said to one IOF officer who tried to convince him to sell his land: "I swear, even if you bring your bulldozers and bury us alive, we won’t leave our land." Today, he continues to live in his land, as part of it, and he continues to protect the land. Today, Haj Atallah defies the occupation and defies death and remains steadfast in his land. Before he died, Haj Atallah dug his own grave in his land, in its heart, facing the hills where he ran as a child, overlooking the valleys where he worked all his life. With his body he wanted to prevent the Zionist colonists from stealing what is left of his village, so he dug his grave with his own hands and asked to be buried in his land, never to leave it. He didn’t want ever to leave it, nor allow the Zionists to take it after his death. He wanted to protect the land in his death like he did during his life. And there, in that grave, in his land, among his hills and valleys, Haj Atallah rests today. He still watches over his land and protects it. He still stands as a thorn in the eyes of the colonizers who wanted to expel him from his land. Today, Haj Atallah and the land he so much loved are united, they are forever one.
Haj Attallah is a symbol of Palestinian resistance and steadfastness against the Zionist colonization, against land theft, against the ethnic cleansing of Palestine. Together with his children and grandchildren, he fought to protect the land. He stood up to Zionist terror and refused Zionist enticements. He refused over and over to sign away the deeds of the land, to sell it to the occupiers, he refused to betray Palestine. He remained steadfast, he was threatened, his children beaten, but he remained steadfast. Every day, he went to his fields, worked them, defied the terror, the threats, the harassment, and worked the land, every day. They destroyed and he rebuilt. They uprooted and burned and he replanted. They stole and he resisted them. In Camp David 2000, Israeli negotiators said they wanted to keep Gush Etzion in a "land swap deal". One PA negotiator declared the PA’s consent and willingness to give up the land on which Gush Etzion stands. This PA official backed away from his statement, at least only publicly, because Haj Atallah’s struggle and steadfastness embarrassed the PA and exposed its empty "liberation" slogans. Before his death, Haj Atallah spoke of how these officials come with camera teams to Beit Iskarya, talk about resistance and steadfastness in front of cameras, talk about liberating Palestine in front of cameras, but behind cameras they sell the land to the occupier. When he died, unwillingly closing his eyes for the last time, many attended his funeral. "People came from everywhere, but not one single PA official was present" his son told me. "Even some colonists, his enemies, the colonists he fought against all his life, came and paid their respects. They said that despite their "conflict" with Haj Atallah, they had great respect for the man who was so protective of his land, who was so steadfast." Haj Atallah’s presence, his life and his struggle annoyed those who wanted to steal the land, to ethnically cleanse Palestine. His presence, his life and his struggle annoyed those who sell and betray the land, and every breath he took, every day he lived annoyed them, because it exposed them. And even in his death, he exposed them, exposed their betrayal. To him the land was his life, and to resist the colonizer was to exist, unlike those to whom the land is a business, a bargaining chip, a ticket to Swiss bank accounts and to occupation-issued VIP permits. He didn’t wait for the PA, nor did he wait for the international community or for human rights organizations or for conditional activists to help him protect his land. He protected his land with his family and waited for no one. Haj Atallah didn’t wait for PA officials who came to his humble house and declared the land as liberated, the land he fought so long for while they signed one concession after the other. He didn’t wait for wanna-be-leaders and new-age revolutionaries who come and take pictures of themselves in front of his house and his land and use his struggle as a stepping stone for their activism businesses. He didn’t wait for the cameras or for social media to make a hero out of him, nor did he call himself or see himself as a hero. He saw himself as one of the tens of thousands of Palestinians, those who love the land, those who daily care for the land, those who daily defy the Zionist colonizers and plant their land, those who are steadfast in their land, steadfast in Palestine. His struggle was genuine, his struggle was for Palestine, not for a short-lived fame nor for an award and a title. He didn’t wait for anyone. He remained steadfast, refused to be expelled, refused to legitimize the Zionist colonization of his homeland, refused to betray the land, refused to betray Palestine.