West Bank: ‘One day on my land is worth a lifetime’

A Palestinian landowner shares her story of loss and hope, as Israel legalises theft of private land by settlers.

Mariam Hammad points to her plot of land in the distance, where the illegal Israeli outpost of Amona was built. She has not been able to set foot on her land in decades [Shatha Hammad/Al Jazeera]
Mariam Hammad points to her plot of land in the distance, where the illegal Israeli outpost of Amona was built. She has not been able to set foot on her land in decades [Shatha Hammad/Al Jazeera]

Silwad, Occupied West Bank – From a distance, Mariam Hammad, 83, stood with one of her grandchildren, observing the Amona outpost evacuation. As trucks shuttled between Amona and the nearby Israeli settlement of Ofra, Mariam remained skeptical, questioning whether the evacuation operations were serious.

“My heart will not rest until they remove the water tank,” she said, pointing to the large water reservoir that was placed on the plot of land she inherited from her father in the Thahir al-Mazari’ region, atop a rugged hill, northeast of Ramallah in the occupied West Bank.

Eight other families from nearby villages own plots in the same tract of land. 

When Mariam arrived closer to the scene of evacuation, Israeli soldiers, who stood behind the concrete blocks, were on full alert. Fearless, Mariam stepped across the street to watch what was happening on the land she had been forbidden from accessing for decades.

There are about 600,000 Israeli citizens living in illegal Jewish-only settlements and outposts in the occupied West Bank [Shatha Hammad/Al Jazeera]

With tearful eyes, Mariam recollected her memories of growing up on the land.

“I remember when I was a child, how I used to collect the stones and thorns from the ground and put them aside. My father would plough the field, while my mother planted the seeds,” says Mariam. The land which her parents bought, she recalls, was non-arable at the time. “They worked the land day and night until it became ‘one of the gardens of Silwad'”.

If they offered me as much money as the number of grains of soil on my land, I will not accept. I want my land back - I don't care about money.

Mariam Hammad, Palestinian landowner

As she grew up, Mariam grew more attached to the land. “I cannot forget the taste of the water from the well in the field. It was as sweet as honey. I remember it very well and I wish I could return to taste it again.”

She recalls that her family used to follow one particular farming rule known as crop rotation – prohibiting the cultivation of the same crops for two consecutive seasons. “One year we would plant wheat, vetch, barley and lentils. The next year we would grow tomatoes, cucumbers, watermelon, okra, and sunflowers.”

While her family owns a considerable amount of land in Silwad, the plot where Amona was built remained one of the most fertile, flourishing all year round, before it was taken over by settlers.

On a summer day in the mid-1990s, Mariam and her husband, Mohammad, left their eight children at home to embark on their daily mission to collect the wheat they harvested on their land.

“A group of settlers came while we were working on the field. They began stepping on the crops and spoiling them. My husband tried to expel the settlers from the area,” recalls Mariam, explaining that the confrontation had intensified and the settlers had tried to assault them, chanting, “This land is ours – get out of here.”

Mariam recalls that, as they feared for their lives, her husband collected his harvesting tools, loaded them onto his horse, and they walked away from the land.

“As soon as we turned our backs and walked a little, the settlers set fire to the land. I ran back and gathered as many wheat stems as I could. I had a feeling that they would not let me enter my land after that day.”

That day marked Mariam’s last visit to the land.

‘I want to pass on my land to my 30 children and grandchildren, who have a right to it,’ said Mariam, with the Amona outpost, built on her land, in the distance behind her [Shatha Hammad/ Al Jazeera]

The next day, Mariam and her husband attempted to access the land, but they were stopped by settlers and Israeli soldiers at gunpoint, she recalled.

Soon after, Mariam headed to the municipal council, armed with title deeds and documents, to prove her ownership of the plot and demand justice, but to no avail.

In the following days when Mariam and her husband attempted to approach the area, a woman from Ein Yabrud, a nearby village, identified as Rutayba Abdul Kareem Jabra, was shot and killed as she walked towards Thahir al-Mazari’, according to Mariam.

“She was carrying food on her head and was heading to the fields. As soon as she approached the area, the soldiers shot and killed her, before our eyes.”

The head of the Ein Yabrud municipal council confirmed the incident to Al Jazeera.  

Under protection from the army, Israeli settlers remained on the land and built the outpost of Amona in 1997. They expanded and built 40 homes, infrastructure, and public facilities, while Mariam and the other landowners were forbidden from accessing their lands for decades.

Today, after a long and hard battle in the courts with the help of Israeli human rights organisations, Mariam watches the evacuation and demolition of the outpost, which was once the largest in the West Bank, housing approximately 250 settlers. 

Amona is one of about 100 Israeli “outposts” scattered across the occupied West Bank. Israel differentiates between outposts and settlements in that outposts were built without government authorisation. Both outposts and settlements, however, often involve seizing private Palestinian land and are illegal under international law.

In 2008, Israeli human rights organisation Yesh Din petitioned on behalf of Mariam and other landowners, demanding the removal of Amona. Three years ago, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that Amona in its entirety had been illegally built on stolen Palestinian land, and ordered it to be demolished.

But as the evacuation enters its final stages, the Israeli government has passed a law that legalises theft of private Palestinian land by Israeli settlers in outposts, which could prevent future evacuations from taking place.

Israeli settlements and outposts, which number about 225, are located in Area C, making up 60 percent of occupied West Bank. About 70 percent of Area C is off limits to Palestinian development and construction [Shatha Hammad/Al Jazeera]

The law will see Israel recognise 4,000 homes built by Jewish Israelis in the occupied West Bank as legal, provided the settlers could prove ignorance that they had built on privately owned land or under state orders.

According to the law, the Palestinian landowners would be offered either money or an alternative plot of land, even if they refuse to give away their own property.

Until today, Israeli settlers who lived in Amona maintained that the land was empty when they got there. “Arabs never lived there, it was a bare rocky mountain,” one resident said in January. 

Back in Silwad, the eldest of Mariam’s grandchildren, 20-year-old Abdulhamid Hammad, hugs his grandmother and kisses her forehead. “My grandmother remembers every corner of the land,” he said.  

“She talks to us about it and she has instructed us to retrieve it, protect it, and farm it as she and my grandfather used to.”

Awaiting to return to her field, Mariam stands with confidence, looking out at her plot of land. “If they offered me as much money as the number of grains of soil on my land, I will not accept. I want my land back – I don’t care about money,” she said. 

“I feel the soil of our land running through my veins. One day on my land is worth a lifetime.”

Mariam and her family have managed to collect 100 olive, grape, orange, and lemon saplings, hoping to plant them in the land one day [Shatha Hammad/ Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera


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