As it fights for its land, one Palestinian village struggles to preserve its cultural heritage

Wedged between settlement expansion and plagued by water shortages, land confiscation, and settler violence, Wadi Fuqin’s agricultural heritage is increasingly coming under threat.

By Arianna Skibell

A Palestinian farmer tending to his organic farm in Wadi Fuqin, West Bank, December 10, 2008. (Oren Ziv/
A Palestinian farmer tending to his organic farm in Wadi Fuqin, West Bank, December 10, 2008. (Oren Ziv/

Maher Manasra stood on the edge of a concrete basin and looked down at the empty agricultural pool. Green moss covered the muddy floor where small pockets of water remained.

“It’s not good,” he said, shaking his head.

A smattering of clouds tempered the brutal midday sun, but it was still hot, so Manasra returned to his chair beneath the shade of a large tree. The 49-year-old farmer wore a brown hat and work boots. Dirt lined the underside of his fingernails and filled the creases of his palms. He had been awake since dawn to tend to his crops. It was Ramadan and he was fasting.

“I wasn’t born here in Wadi Fuqin,” he told me. “I was born in Dheisheh Refugee Camp, but returned here in 1972.”

Wadi Fuqin, which means the valley of thorns, is a small agricultural village in the occupied West Bank, known for its organic farming tradition and production of grapes, fruits, almonds and olive oil. This village in a valley is wedged between the towering and expanding settlement of Beitar Illit to the east and to the west, the Israeli town of Tzur Hadassah inside the Green Line.

The expansion of Beitar Illit and Tzur Hadassah coupled with water shortages, Israeli confiscation of land, and settler violence, is threatening to destroy the agricultural practices that have long been Wadi Fuqin’s main source of income.

Maher Manasra seen sitting in his home village of Wadi Fuqin in the West Bank.
Maher Manasra seen sitting in his home village of Wadi Fuqin in the West Bank. (Arianna Skibell)

Just two weeks ago, soldiers came and slashed the side of Manasra’s greenhouse to enter, as opposed to opening the door, he said.

When Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967, residents of Wadi Fuqin were forced to flee to Dheisheh, where they initially lived in tents.

Still, Manasra said, every day the men would walk two hours back to Wadi Fuqin to work the land and tend to their crops, sometimes sleeping in nearby caves if they couldn’t make the trek back to the refugee camp.

“They never left the land,” Manasra said. “And in 1972 all the people [came] back.”

In 1972, the villagers of Wadi Fuqin somehow managed to strike a deal with the Israeli military. If they could build a certain number of houses in a certain number of days, they could return. The number of houses and days vary from teller to teller of this story. But one thing is certain: Palestinians from a number of neighboring villages came together to help the residents of Wadi Fuqin rebuild their homes.

Mohammed Manasrah, 27, who now lives in New York, recalled hearing the story from his family.

“People started building houses, everyone started helping and a lot of people came from different villages and from the city and they worked day and night,” he said. “Back then it wasn’t easy to build a house. And so, as of now, Wadi Fuqin is the only one who got the right of return.”

‘You go to your backyard and see a settler’

Farmers would graze their livestock on the hills surrounding the village until the buildup of Israeli houses and other infrastructure took over the land. The natural landscape of trees and plants also served as the catch area for rainfall that would gather in underground aquifers. The water would bubble up into natural springs, and farmers built canals to carry it from those springs into Wadi Fuqin’s numerous agricultural pools, used to irrigate crops.

“The expansion of Beitar Illit and Tzur Hadassah affected the springs and the water in the village directly, because when they put concrete [for roads and houses], the direction of the water changed,” said Mohammad Alhroub, 26, a Wadi Fuqin native who is getting his master’s degree in sustainability studies at Trent University in Canada.

The settlement of Beitar Illit, just east of Wadi Fuqin. (Arianna Skibell)
The settlement of Beitar Illit, just east of Wadi Fuqin. (Arianna Skibell)

The decline in available water has led some springs to dry out and forced farmers to either downscale and lose money or find alternative work. Meanwhile, sewage leaks from Beitar Illit have contaminated large swaths of farmland, causing NIS 80,000 ($22,500) worth of damage, according to some estimates.

When Mohammed Manasrah returned to Wadi Fuqin for a recent visit, he said the first thing he noticed was how much closer Beitar Illit was to his house.

“This was a shock,” he said. “We’re living with them right now. You go to your backyard and see a settler on their balcony.”

Alhroub said the area into which Beitar Illit is expanding was used by Palestinian farmers for planting food for their livestock in the winter; by the following spring it was ready to feed the sheep. He isn’t the least bit surprised the land was confiscated and turned into housing for settlers.

Under an Ottomon-era law still in use by the Israeli government, if land remains “insufficiently cultivated” for at least three years in the West Bank, Israel considers it “state land” and can confiscate it. Areas designated state land are often then used for the purpose of building and expanding settlements. Yet the Israeli government does not consider grazing the same as cultivation, which means land that is still in use is often confiscated regardless.

At the same time, residents of Wadi Fuqin are not allowed to build new homes or expand their village in any way. Ninety-seven percent of the village is in Area C of the West Bank, which falls under the full control of the Israeli military. Residents of the village, like in the rest of Area C, cannot build without permits from Israel, which are near impossible for Palestinians to obtain.

Palestinians run from tear gas shot by the Israeli army during a protest against the confiscation of 1,500 dunam of land in Wadi Fuqin, West Bank, September 26, 2014. (Oren Ziv/
Palestinians run from tear gas shot by the Israeli army during a protest against the confiscation of 1,500 dunams of land in Wadi Fuqin, West Bank, September 26, 2014. (Oren Ziv/

In 2014, the Civil Administration, the Israeli military body that governs the West Bank, carried out an unusually large land confiscation of 4,000 dunams (43,000 sq. ft.) that impacted not only Wadi Fuqin but five other Palestinian villages in the area. Part of that land belonged to Mohammed Manasrah’s uncle.

Mohammad Alhroub said farmers who can no longer take their sheep to graze often cannot buy sheep feed because it simply costs too much.

“It’s expensive and not organic to buy sheep food. It’s not part of the tradition and culture,” he said. “The village grew up on having the fields and land around us as a source of food for the people and the livestock. It’s forcing us to change our tradition and culture that we’re trying to preserve.”

Stuck in the middle

After the village experienced the effects of Beitar Illit’s expansion from the east, construction began in Tzur Hadassah, encroaching on Wadi Fuqin from the west. About five years ago, Tzur Hadassah began building a new neighborhood that bled over the Green Line and into the West Bank. The area once included a small forest that captured rainwater and allowed it to seep into the ground, filling the aquifers.

But to build the new neighborhood, the construction company cut down trees, paved roads and erected houses with concrete that diverted rainwater down the mountain and right into the homes of Wadi Fuqin.

“In the winter of 2014, we started getting phone calls of houses being flooded,” said Tsvia Horesh, a resident of Tzur Hadassah who has fostered relationships with residents in Wadi Fuqin. The flooding, Horesh recalled, damaged furniture, mattresses, and clothing. “People were evacuating their houses in the middle of the night,” she said.

Horesh and a few others began meeting with the Israeli contractors to understand what was happening.

“It turned out that on the maps of this neighborhood [that they used in the planning process] there was no village, it was white. There was nothing there,” she said. “We said, ‘you know there are people who live down there?’”

After five years of repeated requests from the Israeli authorities in charge, the contractors finally built a flood protection mechanism. This last winter was the first time in four years that Wadi Fuqin has not suffered flooding from run-off rainwater.

The rain water that does still manage to collect in the village’s agricultural pools is often compromised when settlers come to swim in the pools, which are not designed to support human weight and sometimes crack, according to Manasra. When too many people swim in the pools, water can also spill over the edge and flood the crops, destroying them.

Additionally, the settlers walk through agricultural land, sometimes with strollers, and unintentionally — and sometimes intentionally — disconnect drip irrigation lines or destroy budding plants that are small and hard to see.

Mohammed Manasrah, whose father is a farmer, remembers sneaking into the pools as a kid. “The farmers would get really mad at us. But the next day settlers would come and the farmers couldn’t do anything because they had guns,” he said.

“One time, I was with my friends and one of those friends, his dad owned a pool and we were going to swim in that pool and then we saw settlers swimming in the pool, and we tried to get them out, but one put his finger on the trigger of his gun and said, ‘If you don’t leave, I’ll shoot you.’ So we just left and went home.”

Guarding the pools

Sitting in the shade in his white plastic chair, Maher Manasra was joined by Haim Weiss, a Jewish Israeli who lives in Tzur Hadassah. It was Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israeli Independence Day.

Weiss, a professor of Hebrew literature at Ben Gurion University, is one of a handful of Tzur Hadassah residents who comes to Wadi Fuqin on Israeli holidays to urge the settlers to stay away from the pools.

Weiss opened his phone, showing me photo after photo of dozens of people swimming in the pools or picnicking in a nearby field. “This is how it looked during Passover,” he told me, “there were thousands of settlers here that week.” Weiss swiped to a photo of a group of men with long side locks sitting on the edge of a pool with their feet dangling above the water.

“These people were well armed,” Weiss said. “They are from [the settlement of] Bat Ayin. They went into one of the greenhouses and when I asked them to get out they pointed a gun at me. But I’m not afraid of them.”

He flipped to another photo. “Now you see the water came out of the pool and flooded the land. It destroyed all the crops.”

Haim Weiss, a Jewish Israeli who lives in nearby Tzur Hadassah, helps guard Wadi Fuqin's pools against settlers. (Arianna Skibell)
Haim Weiss, a Jewish Israeli who lives in nearby Tzur Hadassah, helps guard Wadi Fuqin’s pools against settlers. (Arianna Skibell)

Though the day was slightly overcast and Weiss didn’t expect any settlers to come through, he decided to walk the dirt road that runs along the village, just in case. Scattered between olive trees and medium-sized farming plots, concrete basins filled with water dotted the brown and green landscape. In some pools, the surface of the water was doused in oil.

“They put machine oil in the pools so people won’t get in,” Weiss said.

As we walked, Weiss pointed to particularly large pool. He told me that the son of the farmer who owns that pool was recently shot and killed by an Israeli soldier.

The incident occurred earlier this year when, a woman, her husband and two children were driving home when their car broke down. When the man got out to try to fix the car, he was shot in the stomach. Twenty-three-year-old Ahmad Manasra from Wadi Fuqin and his friends were returning home from a wedding when they stopped to try to help the family. Three rounds of bullets hit Ahmad in the back and chest. He died on the spot.

According to Weiss, Ahmad Manasra was shot by a soldier from a nearby guard tower for no reason. “The Israeli army itself said it was a huge mistake. Nothing will happen, of course, no one will go to jail. In the best-case scenario, they will get some kind of compensation. But that’s it,” Weiss said. “Even the army doesn’t understand what happened here.”

Weiss said he started to question some of the Israeli military’s choices when he was doing reserve duty at the start of the Second Intifada in 2001. He signed a letter along with 50 other soldiers and officers saying they would refuse to serve again, earning some of them time in military prison.

We walk along the dirt road and as we round a bend, a Jewish family approaches.

Weiss approached the family and asked them not to swim in the pools. They looked surprised. “Of course,” the mother said. Her son, who had an automatic weapon strapped to his back, asked if there were many pools around.

“Yes,” Weiss said, “but they are agricultural pools and not meant for swimming.”

The father asked Weiss who he is. “I’m Haim, a friend of the people living here,” he said.

“Wonderful, wonderful,” the mother and father said. Before they left, Haim asked the son not to point his gun at the people living here. “It scares them,” he said.

Feeding the occupation

Settlement expansion and the resulting water scarcity has weakened the ability of Palestinian farmers to make a decent living from agriculture alone, said Mohammad Alhroub. “The Palestinian market for produce has been filled with products from Israel and the settlements because they are cheaper,” he added.

The lack of opportunity for the younger generation has left Alhroub thinking about options for his village to create sustainable farming practices. He doesn’t want more people to move away.

For his research project at Trent University, Alhroub said he will ask the farmers in Wadi Fuqin about their needs in order to present ideas for alternative markets where they can sell their organic products, including inside Israel.

He conceded that some Palestinian farmers might be wary of working with Israelis for fear of normalizing the occupation, yet he hopes some might see it as an economic and political opportunity.

A Palestinian farmer seen by a spring in an organic farm in Wadi Fuqin, West Bank, December 10, 2008. (Oren Ziv/
A Palestinian farmer seen by a spring in an organic farm in Wadi Fuqin, West Bank, December 10, 2008. (Oren Ziv/

“Some would take a step back and say, ‘I don’t want to do this because technically I’m feeding the occupation,’ which is a perfect phrase for why I don’t want to sell my products to the Jewish communities,” he said. “Some of them would say it’s a tool for me to build bridges for these Jewish communities that they can see us and value the products as a neighbor’s product and not an enemy product, products will be a tool to bring these communities together.”

There have been attempts to sell produce from Wadi Fuqin to markets in Tzur Hadassah and Jerusalem, with varying degrees of success. While people in Tzur Hadassah do buy from farmers in Wadi Fuqin, it can be risky. There was a Jewish woman in Jerusalem who would travel to Wadi Fuqin, buy produce in bulk, sell it in Israel, and return to share the profits.

“It stopped because she was caught at the checkpoint with the products and they were confiscated because she does not have permission to deliver products without a permit,” Alhroub said.

“This is how the occupation is maintaining this division. They are eager to not bring people together.”

Arianna Skibell is a freelance journalist reporting from Jerusalem and Washington, D.C. She covers the intersection of land, religion, and narrative with a focus on Palestinian and Jewish resistance to the Israeli occupation, environmental justice, Congress, and climate change.