We moved off the road and into a large palm grove, walking towards the chants and whistles we heard through the trees.
“Fuck, it feels like I’m walking on dinosaur bones,” shouted a friend, as we tromped through a graveyard of dead palm branches and into the village of Ein Hijleh.
The remnants of Palestinian homes we arrived at – now wrecked stone structures - were occupied by hundreds of Palestinians and a handful of international activists. The protest was coordinated by members of Melh al-Ard – Arabic for “salt of the earth” – a newly established direct action collective that has taken it upon itself to revive the destroyed village. It's the first step in a series of actions opposing Israel’s growing colonization of the Jordan Valley and the illegal occupation of Palestinian land at large.
The catalyst for the demonstration was the ongoing "peace" process led by Secretary of State John Kerry. Although the specifics of his plan are unknown, the general outline is clear: it would allow Israel to maintain a significant military presence– complete with U.S.-funded drones and surveillance equipment – in the Jordan Valley for the next 10 years, supposedly to quash any "destabilizing" security situation. Unsurprisingly, Kerry isn’t too popular among the crowd of protesters.
"Negotiations under Kerry are a joke," said Ahmad Nasser, an activist from the Ramallah area. "How can the U.S., who provide Israel with over $3 billion a year in military aid, be trusted?"
As Kerry marches the two countries down the aisle towards a wedding that will never be consummated, groups like Melh al-Ard are taking matters into their own hands.
Ein Hijleh sits on land belonging to one of the oldest monasteries in the region. In fact, the site is believed to have briefly served as a resting place for baby Jesus and his parents as they fled from Herod back in the Biblical day. The Palestinian Christian village, known as Deir Hijleh, was depopulated and destroyed during the Six Day War in 1967 and has laid in shambles ever since. Now it is surrounded on three sides by a closed military area set up by the Israeli army, all but forgotten until Melh al-Ard’s action last Friday.
We watched busloads of protesters from all over historic Palestine and present-day Israel arrive throughout the weekend, defiantly trooping past soldiers and clearly keen on getting their hands dirty, either by helping out in the reconstruction process or by simply adding another body into the mix.
Aside from the military jeeps and armed soldiers surrounding the village, Melh al-Ard’s re-appropriation project in Ein Hijleh felt like summer camp. Games and sing-alongs were organized throughout the day, but they were balanced with productive ventures like collecting debris, rebuilding destroyed homes, planting trees and, of course, planning the next action.
The atmosphere was incredibly jovial - people embraced friends and first acquaintances as family, chanting protest slogans, starting campfires and settling in for what was inevitably going to be a sleepless night. It looked as if we’d stumbled onto a film set for a Babylonian remake of Lord of the Flies, minus the impending death of any overweight children.
Nightfall was dealt with by simply burning anything and everything in sight. The dried-out palm branches that littered the village made for an easy and abundant source of fuel. Within hours of sunset, campfires dotted the village, fresh bread was baking and the drum circles were giving me a headache.
Unlike a Western protest sleepover, which promise to include at least some guy with a 12-pack and stick of Moroccan squidgy, the vibe in Ein Hijleh remained innocent and youthful. Those in attendance were taking back and occupying one of the hundreds of destroyed, depopulated Palestinian villages, and doing so in the face of what promises to be a brutal crackdown by the Israeli army.
With 37 Jewish-only settlements, a vast network of military bases, live-fire training areas, minefields and an exclusive hold on water sources and touristic sites, Israel’s grip on the Jordan Valley leaves little room for Palestinians to breathe. The country's network of settlements freely exploits some of the most fertile soil in the region, exporting produce and beauty products taken from occupied land across the world. Meanwhile, neighboring Palestinians are relegated to using just 6 percent of the valley’s land.
The vast majority of the valley falls within Area C, the 60 percent or so of the West Bank placed under full Israeli military and civil control. Any use of the land is strictly prohibited – to Palestinians, that is – without specific permission from the Civil Administration, the governing body of Israel’s occupation. No building, no farming, no well digging. As a Palestinian in Area C, you can barely take a step without signed permission from the Israeli authorities.
With that in mind, every activist I spoke to knew that the project wouldn’t be as simple as showing up and putting in the work.
“We know they’re going to come for us soon,” said Manal Tamimi on Saturday.
The mother of four and coordinator for the Palestinian Popular Struggle Committee (PSCC) is a resident of Nabi Saleh, a village well known for its heavy clashes with Israel’s army. Similar projects established by the PSCC back in early 2013 lasted only a day or two before their members were arrested and their infrastructure torn to bits.
Groups of Israeli army soldiers and border police have been filming the village since its inception, entering sporadically in an attempt to get a count on Melh al-Ard’s numbers, but the eviction has yet to come. Each time the military jeeps arrived, groups ofshabab– the Arabic equivalent of "youths" – would march out to see what was up. No rocks or fists were thrown. Time and time again, the shabab stood their ground against their heavily armed opponents, placing themselves in front of their village.
As of now, however, Israel’s ad hoc method seems to be to starve the activists out. They’ve set up checkpoints throughout the area in an attempt to block provisions from reaching the surrounded camp.
"Whatever [the Israeli army] do, we adjust," said activist and PSCC spokesperson Diana Alzeer, describing the tear gas, sound bombs, night flares and live bullets that define the relationship between the activists and Israel's armed forces. "We’re not leaving any time soon, but man I’m hungry. They’re blocking all cars carrying food and water from entering the village."
Arab news stations and politicians from the Palestinian Authority trickled in throughout the day and made small talk with the activists. But most were more concerned with keeping an eye out for military vehicles than actually engaging in substantive discussion.
No one knows how long Ein Hijleh will last, but Diana Alzeer is determined to stay for as long as she can before she's physically kicked out.
"The Jordan Valley is [undergoing] daily ethnic cleansing anyway, and now there’s news of Israel’s possible annexation,” Alzeer said on Monday evening. "We have no choice but to fight for our land. It’s being ripped out from under our feet."
Additional reporting by Daniel Tepper