At the end of a winding road in the characteristically arid valleys of the West Bank, we finally locate a red sign next to a detour, announcing the entry into Zone A. There, you do not fail to lose yourself once or twice, as only Israeli towns, settlements, and Jericho are marked. Between two blocks and an abandoned watchtower, a sign indicates a squeezed area that is exclusively Palestinian; theoretically closed to Israel, according to the division of the West Bank signed at Oslo in 1993. It includes the villages of Nabi Saleh, Qarawa Bani Zayd, and Salfit, among others, lying 20 km north of Ramallah.
No more than an ink stain on the map, the zone sits isolated between small Israeli colonies which houses line up in neat rows. It is not uncommon to come across settlers on the roads right before entering this area. They look as if coming from a different world, though theirs is only moments away. Here, there are no clashes. The villagers consider themselves pacifists, but they have not abandoned their passion for life, nor their feeling of belonging to this land.
Qarawa Bani Zaid is typical of the West Bank’s Palestinian villages: with 3,000 inhabitants, it is made up of modest houses built on a hillside. From the top of the hill, you can see the Mediterranean and Tel Aviv. Despite being a mere 35 km from there as the crow flies, the Israeli city is totally inaccessible.
We were welcomed like family, stuffed full of delectable dishes so numerous that they threatened to slide off the sides of the table. The wife of our host had been cooking all afternoon. The doors of Qarawa’s houses remained open late into the evening as neighbours, aunts, uncles, and cousins paraded into the courtyard to greet family, nibble on fruit and pastries, and chat over coffee. They also came to meet the “guests from France.”
The morning of our second day in Qarawa, we were asked if we had heard Israeli tanks during the night. They had made a noisy tour of the village. Under to the Oslo Accords, Israel is committed not to set foot in Zone A, which comprises only 16% of the Occupied Territories. It is a commitment that has never been honoured.
Conversation, especially with men, quickly turns political: we are told of the realities of occupation, relations with other Palestinians, or with the Palestinian Authority, headed by Mahmoud Abbas. We soon discover that most of the village men have at a point been imprisoned by Israel, for periods ranging between ten days and one year. Most were teenagers at the time, who had taken part in the first Intifada. They were arrested for throwing stones, or misidentified by the Israeli army. Those men spoke of the experience of internment with detachment, without hatred or remorse, and sometimes with sarcasm, often expressing serene resignation. Regrettably, internment comprises an integral part, for them, of being Palestinian.
Many of these men have learned Hebrew in prison, which has since been of benefit to them. For Palestinian workers, knowing Hebrew enables them to find a job more easily in Israel, where wages, though lower for Palestinians than for the Israeli workforce, remain higher than in the Occupied Territories.
In the nineties, many of these men were employed for the construction of colonies: electrical work, carpentry, masonry. Sadly, they participated in the nibbling away of their land by Israel. But here again, a combination of resignation and pragmatism wins out over bitterness: “One has to work to feed his family.”
There, we are informed bluntly of the local political color: it is historically communist, and proudly so. The PPP (People’s Palestinian Party) has always held the majority in the village. For the inhabitants of Qarawa, conflict is seen through the prism of class struggle as well as national struggle, making their dialectic relatively unique within the Palestinian political landscape. During our stay, political activists and leaders of village associations lose no occasion to point out the Qarawa’s most beautiful houses. With three floors built of Jerusalem stone, they have balconies and decorative columns. They belong, we are told, to officials of the Palestinian Authority (PA).
The PA has been a great source of disappointment. Its bitter theatre of divisions and power struggles between political factions has deeply alienated the Palestinian population from its executives, based in Ramallah. Thus, Palestinian civil society has relied exclusively on itself and its own ingenuity to create mechanisms of solidarity, develop institutions and source funding. Apparently, without personal connections or affiliations to the ruling party, “you get nothing.” According to the villagers, that’s how a system built on wasta — personal contacts to powerful people — works.
The village has taken things in hand to organize community life. Qarawa Bani Zaid has eleven associations, including five for women and six Islamic ones. There is as well a farmers’ cooperative for the production of olive oil, which locals call “the best in Palestine.” Walking through their beautiful olive groves, we are told that the French Development Agency has funded an updating of the cadastre, streamlining the division of land and olive trees, and thus helping to settle neighbourhood disputes. Moreover, everything produced or grown in the village — from chickens to onions — is “organic,” a concept that people here have long applied, though only recently discovering its potential marketing value.
The major problem for residents of Qarawa is the lack of water, and the restrictions on it imposed by colonisation. Colonies easily visible on the adjacent hill have running water. The average rate of consumption in Israeli settlements is 242 liters per capita, compared to 45 liters in Palestinian villages. Here, people provision themselves through the swift replenishing of rooftop cisterns, sold by private dealers at twice the cost per cubic meter — about 5 euros — than the price sold to Israelis. Village solidarity thus plays an important role; the head of a better-off family tells us that he purchases enough water to meet the needs of his own household and those of his cousins, who live in the same neighbourhood, when they do not have the means.
What truly sets Qarawa apart is the Al Diwan Centre for Culture and Heritage, created by Abu Derar, the intellectual father of the village. He is a history professor at Al Quds University, and holds of a doctorate from the Sorbonne. Abu Derar has always been very attached to his village, where he lives modestly with his wife and children. In the nineties, he decided to obtain a ruined house that had belonged to a village notable. He succeeded in renovating it, and this magnificent building now impresses its visitors with polished stone and hardwood beams. Guests are welcomed into a large room with high ceilings, a large television, and books of all types, primarily in French and Arabic. The library has been enriched over the years by generous donations. The centre’s director, who recently wrote his Master’s thesis on Mahmoud Darwish, named that room after the great Palestinian poet. The centre has quickly become the heart of community life for children and adolescents in Qarawa. It offers them academic support, sports, games, film screenings, poetry classes, and calligraphy lessons.
Abu Derar reminds us that he has also organised political debates and invited well-known political and cultural figures to speak at the centre. For him, it is a duty to provide and nourish culture, which is an essential aspect of a people’s identity. He also adds, in the gravest of tones, that he refuses to suffer superficial gossip under his roof — even from guests — concerning neighbours, family, or the lives of so-and-so. Instead, he always seeks to steer the conversation towards culture, politics, and society.
Qarawa, its community, its leaders, and even its Facebook page, are a reflection of a Palestinian society which thirsts for recognition and freedom. It possesses a vibrant civil society, despite its resignation to the current political stalemate.
Translated by Erin O’Hallaran, edited by Ibrahim Diab and Angela Häkkilä.