|Israeli army buldozing the land to build the Wall. Photo courtesy of Arij.|
|The Wall around Al Walajeh. Photo courtesy of Arij.|
|Non-violent demostration by the people of Walajeh.|
A Café for All Nations
By Marco Espvall
A shattering loudspeaker voice greets me as I step out of the car at the historical site of Al Walajehi village. It echoes from an Israeli checkpoint some hundred meters below, on the road between Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Four Israeli settlements are built on the surrounding mountains. This was once a Palestinian village famous for its olives, almonds, and peaches.
Al Walajeh is still green in contrast to the bare and stony landscapes of the neighbourhoods around it. Abed is feeding his chickens when I come down the slope.
For the past ten years Abed Rabbeh has lived alone in a 4,000-year-old cave.
“This is my home, my everything,” says Abed. We drink coffee on the terrace that the Israeli peace activists from FODfest built for him.
Abed Rabbeh is a 51-year-old olive farmer who owns around 20 dunamsii (2 hectares) of land in the village of Al Walajeh that has been with his family for more than four generations, approximately two hundred years.
“I have papers that prove that my father, my grandfather, and their fathers before them were born here in Al Walajeh. But now I’m the only one left here,” Abed says and lights a cigarette.
In 1948 his family was forced to move from Walajeh to Dheisheh Refugee Camp in Bethlehem.
Now Abed’s land has been separated from Al Walajah, following the Israeli cabinet’s 2002 decision to construct a physical barrier to separate Israel from the West Bank. The International Court of Justice, the UN Security Council, and the UN General Assembly have all condemned the Wall as illegal under international law. But Israel has proceeded with the construction of the Wall, confiscating whatever land is in its way. In 2006, the Israeli cabinet approved a revised route for the Wall near Jerusalem, annexing land belonging to many Palestinian villages, including Al Walajeh.
Abed is one of many farmers who are suffering from land confiscations because of the Wall. Despite being expelled from his village, Abed was determined to come back; he insists on living in his village to preserve ownership of his land even under very trying conditions. Attempting to remain on his land, Abed built a small one-room home with wood and sheets of metal 15 years ago. It was demolished by the Israelis.
Ten years ago, Abed discovered a cave on his property and managed to convert it into a small house. He created a space for his bed and a small living area, and hung his kitchen utensils on the cave walls. His wife refused to move in with him and live without water and electricity, so he left her and their eight children:
“I can understand my family, but for me it’s impossible to live as a refugee in Dheisheh, when I can live here on my own land.”
While living alone in his cave, Abed came up with a fabulous idea - to open a coffee shop for all nations on his land. Although Abed’s land is surrounded in all directions by Israeli settlements, the spot he envisioned for the coffee shop lies in an area that can be reached by all people: Palestinians, Israelis, and foreigners. With his coffee shop idea, Abed turned his own tragic story into a positive and transformative project. The coffee shop encourages people from all nations to visit Abed. It allows him and the visitors to exchange stories and creates a livelihood for him with which he can support his family.
Abed is a one-man resistance movement. If he had not fought for his land, it would be occupied as well. As a child he came here with his grandparents and learned to love this piece of land.
“I’m like a fish in the sea here,” says Abed. “If you take me out of the water I will die.”
Al Walajeh is only one of many villages that have been drastically affected by the Israeli policies in Palestine. The creation of the Israeli Wall, a settler bypass road, checkpoints, and the neighbouring Israeli settlements have all contributed to the continued decrease of Al Walajeh’s population since its initial reduction in size in 1948. The revised route of the Wall encircles the village, turning it into an enclave whose only possible access is through a future Israeli-controlled checkpoint near Har Gilo settlement.
The Jerusalem-Jaffa railway once made daily stops in Al Walajeh to pick up produce grown by the villagers for sale in Jerusalem. But that was before the war of 1948. On the night of October 21, the Zionist Etzioni Brigadeiii attacked and captured the village; 75 percent of its land was taken.
Then in 1967, after the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the Israeli government expanded the Jerusalem municipal boundary to include lands from nearby villages. From what had remained of Al Walajeh after 1948, 48 percent was annexed to the state of Israel.
When Israel and the PLO signed the Oslo Agreement in 1995, the West Bank was classified into three areas of control. Area A was defined in the agreement as places from which the Israeli military was supposed to withdraw. In Area B, the Palestinian Authority was to have full control over civil administration while Israel was to have overriding responsibility for security. Places in Area C are under full Israeli administrative and security control. Under the agreement, parts of the land of Al Walajeh were designated as Area B, while the rest of the village fell under the category of Area C.
In February 2006, Al Walajeh checkpoint was transformed into a border passage, taking away an additional 40 dunams (4 hectares) of land from the already diminished village lands. Today, what’s left of the village continues to be threatened with military confiscation and demolition orders.
Since Abed opened his “Café for All Nations,” people have come from all over the world to support him. The walls of the small cave are covered with newspaper clippings about Abed. Several guest books are filled with messages of solidarity in many different languages. Even though he doesn’t speak any language other than Arabic, and he learned only basic reading and writing during the four years he went to school, Abed loves to look through the books. It’s obvious that he is very proud of them.
When US President Barack Obama was visiting Israel, Abed invited him to have coffee in the cave, but the US Consulate in Jerusalem sent a brief note of regret saying this could not be arranged.
“If he would have shown up, I would have told him that I believe in peace even if the Israelis have stolen our land,” Abed says.
“I want Muslims, Jews, and Christians to live here in peace. But the state of Israel does not want peace. And the young generation is angry and impatient. Extremists on both sides are gaining influence. The Israelis might have to pay a high price if they continue to refuse us basic human rights.”
Marco Espvall is a Swedish-born journalist who lives and works in Ramallah.
i Al Walajeh is located 8.5 kilometres southwest of Jerusalem and 4 kilometres northwest of Bethlehem.
ii The dunam is a unit of land measurement dating back to the Ottoman Empire. One dunam equals 1,000 square meters or 0.25 acres.
iii The Etzioni Brigade was an infantry brigade in the Haganah and Israel Defense Forces in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.