The storm clouds receding, the snow thawed and the colourful flowers blooming; these signs herald the arrival of spring in Palestine. I walked through the hills outside of Ramallah, around the villages of Ein Qinya and Deir Ibzi’, enjoying a breath of fresh air among the new vegetation blanketing the hills. Walking through the fields, I stopped to appreciate the colours. I was surrounded by blooming red poppies, purple lotuses and orchids, yellow daises and marigold, wild cyclamens, the occasional wild daffodil. The confirmation of Palestinian spring came with the almond bloom, tall trees wearing their white, pink and purple coat.
I wasn’t the only one eager to go for a walk in nature on the first warm and sunny Friday of February. I noticed a large number of parked cars by roadsides. Wherever I looked, I saw families picnicking, accompanied by an overbearing smell of barbecued meat. People of all ages outside, happy and enjoying the warmth on the outskirts of Ramallah.
This green hilly space, classified as an area under full Israeli control (Area C), was perhaps the only natural green space available to us on the outskirts of Ramallah City, the de facto capital of the Palestinian Authority.
During the recurring Covid-19 lockdowns, Palestinian families were encouraged to gather outside. The pandemic pushed us to go for long walks, picnics, to embrace the countryside.
One thought troubled me continually during the walk. This green area, north-west of Ramallah, is one of the few spaces where picnics by Palestinian residents of the city are a common sight, despite the vastness of the countryside in the Ramallah & Al-bireh Governorate (county), the second largest in the West Bank at 822 square kilometres.
Restrictions were imposed on huge swathes of land in the West Bank by the Israeli occupation authorities and by its settlement enterprise. These are the authorities who ‘grant permission’ to Palestinian farmers to access their own olive groves at harvest-time, for example. Often that access is restricted to a few days per year. This does not extend to Palestinians hiking, picnicking, or simply enjoying free movement in the occupied West Bank.
Ramallah’s residents have a lingering sense of claustrophobia: it’s not hard to see why. Yes, the rolling hills, soaking in the sunshine might offer a glimpse of the Mediterranean coast on a clear day. But in every direction is an Israeli settlement lying on a hilltop, with its electric fences, watchtower and gates swallowing half the hill. Just outside Ramallah, close to the village of Ein Qinya, one can clearly spot at least four illegal Israeli settlements sitting on hilltops; Dolev, Talmon, Neria, and Horesh Yaron.
Behind are the edges of bustling Ramallah. The city’s expansion has a limit, one set by the Israeli authorities who do not permit any Palestinian structural expansion into lands classified as Area C, nearly 70% of the West Bank. In Ramallah City, green space is almost non-existent due to growing demand to accommodate population growth in the city. Palestinians are only allowed to accommodate their population growth within Area A, less than 20% of the West Bank’s entire territory.
In the last five years, the Israeli Military’s ‘Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories’ granted just 33 construction permits to Palestinians in Area C of the West Bank, while in the same period granting settlers more than 16,500 building permits. Israeli settlement communities are sparsely spread all over the West Bank, each settlement community, no matter how small, taking over a significant portion of the surrounding landscape. That land, privately owned by Palestinians or belonging to nearby Palestinian towns and villages, becomes inaccessible to us.
What we end up with is an equation where one Israeli settler has two or three times more space per square kilometre than a resident of a densely populated Palestinian metropolitan area like Ramallah.
The Israeli presence encircling the city of Ramallah is suffocating. At the city’s north entrance lies the settlement of Beit El, along with a military base and a checkpoint. Eastwards lies the settlement of Psagot, rendering the highest hill of the entire city (900m) inaccessible to the city’s Palestinian residents.
To the south is the major Israeli checkpoint of Qalandia, reinforced by large stretches of the concrete separation wall. Looking west from Ramallah is Ofer Military base and prison, along with stretches of the same concrete wall. Road 443, a major highway also known as ‘apartheid road’ cuts along Ramallah’s entire western edges. Road 443 is accessible only to Israeli traffic, is entirely fenced in, and separates the villages to the west of Ramallah from the city itself.
The sense of suffocation at the receding green space available to Palestinians is real. Jibiya, another forested area north-West of Ramallah, used to be a popular picnic spot; an escape from the hustle of our cities. But in recent years, picnicking Palestinian families were harassed by armed Israeli settlers in Jibya’s forest. The harassment was followed by expulsion of the Palestinian families from the area by Israeli soldiers. ‘You are not Israelis, you are Arabs’ shouted the settlers as the Palestinian families were forced to leave.
The settlers had set up illegal outposts in that area, claiming a biblical connection. Despite being in an outpost unrecognized by the Israeli government and set up on privately owned Palestinian land, the settlers have the full backing of Israel’s military apparatus. Green space, however limited, is being taken away from us at an incredibly fast rate in the occupied West Bank. Any outing outside Ramallah carries the risk of being confronted by armed settlers, Israeli soldiers, or both. A couple of years ago, cyclist friends of mine were attacked by settlers on a trail near the settlement of Shiloh, north of Ramallah. No settler was held accountable by Israeli military or police. And so we withdraw from the outside: the risk to our lives and well-being is too great.
The year 2021 saw the largest and most disturbing increase in settler violence against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank. Hundreds of attacks were recorded by monitoring organisations such as the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
It prompted the Israeli Human Rights organization B’tselem to release a report on Israeli settler violence, connecting it to official policy of the Israeli State. B’tselem’s report claims that West Bank settlements dominate hundreds of thousands of dunams (one dunam equals 1000 square meters) to which Palestinians have limited access or none at all. The takeover is done officially by Israel issuing military orders declaring the area ‘state land,’ a ‘firing zone’ or even a ‘nature reserve’, and expropriating land. Other areas were effectively taken over by settlers through daily acts of violence, including attacks on Palestinians and their property.
As Spring comes, I cannot shake the feeling that as our space has shrunk so much, we have so little air left to breathe. My walk beyond Ramallah is increasingly crowded, everyone knows that the four settlements on the hilltops mean we can walk no further than a kilometre in a straight line before we meet a fence or are denied access by a military order.
Unable to stroll amongst the flowers of our spring or to walk the hillsides, our shrinking green space and fenced off land is a symbol of how we have become degraded, denied a basic human need by a deliberate policy of containment. We’re expected to continue our lives in smaller and smaller patches, without resistance, but still, I look to the hills, and imagine a different spring.
Jalal Abukhater is a writer based in Jerusalem.
Photograph by the author.