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JOURNEY BACK INTO HISTORY

Contributed by Toine Van Teeffelen on 19.01.2016:

Toine van Teeffelen

Bethlehem

19 January 2016

During this Sunday we go for a journey to the Soreq caves near a wadi not far from (West-)Jerusalem. No permit problems. Tamer has a Christmas permit and Mary is over 50 years, and thus throughout the year not considered to be anymore dangerous. Though you never know how the rules work out at the checkpoint itself.

The taxi driver instructs me when approaching the checkpoint to play with the phone and pretend indifference. Never hold your passport in your hand, as then the soldiers check for sure. It’s also helpful, like the Israelis, not to fully stop at the checkpoint. He later instructs us not to talk Arabic and also not to talk politics, even not in English. We are in another world.

Meanwhile we get explanations about present-day and pre-1948 life in the area. After the cave, with colorful stalactites and stalagmites galore, the driver guides us toward an area in which we are in fact much interested, Beit Guvrin and Tell Maresha, to the south of Beit Shemesh. It’s from there that the refugees of ‘Azza camp, our neighbors in Bethlehem, come. We have never been there.

The driver points to the remainders of the old houses of Arab Beit Jibrin (‘Azza camp is sometimes called Beit Jibrin). The archaeological findings turn out to be interesting, sometimes spectacular. There are hundreds of deep caves in the area, due to the nature of the soil and much stone quarrying. From the old times on they were used for habitation and for various other purposes, such as storage and burying the dead, and even pigeon breeding.

The area has recently been recognized as a World Heritage Site. In the site’s explanatory materials, the Arab village is barely mentioned. About what happened exactly in 1948 or about the present-day refugees of course no word. We hear a loud explosion in the far distance. ‘Gaza’, says the driver.

The driver, formerly a history and geography teacher, takes us around. “Here is the house of the mukhtar [village head], who collaborated with the Israelis. For that reason his house was spared after 1948, as happened in many other villages.”

We see that Beit Jibrin used to stretch out over many, many kilometers. A slightly hilly and most fertile area. In clear weather you can see the sea from the low hilltops. Nature abounds, we see gazelles, eagles, even a wolf. Before 1948 these fields used to be cultivated with wheat and barley. You could everywhere find and pick herbs like za’ater’ [thyme], and miramiyyeh [mint]. “Don’t do it now, at least not along the road, you get a heavy fine.”

Palestinian refugees often speak about a paradise lost when referring to their pre-1948 villages. “Paradise?”, says the driver, “See here the khubeze [a mallow native to the Eastern Mediterranean]. With this you can feed the whole Middle East.”

The farmers used to be wealthy. Compare that to their descendants’ present situation in ‘Azza and Aida camps in Bethlehem. Last week a boy whose family is from one of the former villages near Beit Guvrin, was killed by the Israeli army in a demonstration not far from our home.

The driver-teacher has accommodated himself to reality and has in fact friends among the Israeli agricultural farmers. These used to hire Palestinian laborers from the West Bank, with or without permit. One of his Israeli friends has a flower company. We visit him. The laborers, now from Thailand, approach us but seem not to speak any language except Thai. I am asked to bring special flower scissors from Holland, a country to which he also exports.

We are allowed to pick mandarins and lemons from the garden trees and receive a five-color bouquet of flowers, for free. Along with the khubeze and other herbs we go homeward. Food for a week. ‘Sad’, says Mary, ‘stolen land, stolen products.’

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