Home to around 1,300 Palestinians, the village of Wadi Fukin sits in a fertile valley close to Bethlehem, right along the border with Israel. Driving along the only road that leads into town, I’m taken by the sheer size of the nearby Israeli settlement, Beitar Illit, built just to the East. White stone residential towers housing over 45,000 Israelis rise above on the hills as my car descends into the valley. The buildings slide down towards the village, ending in a towering wall built into the hillside that looms above groves of olive trees.
Residents of this valley grow fruits and vegetables on the fertile land that has supported agriculture here for over 800 years. But in the last few decades Wadi Fukin has become squeezed in on two sides – by Beitar Illit, an adjoining industrial site to the settlement, and Tzur Hadasa, a small Israeli town just over the border with Israel to the north. Making matters worse, the Israeli Civil Administration, a governing body that controls most of the West Bank, recently declared that 370 acres, over one-third of the village, would become state land as part of a seizure that totals close to 1000 acres.
The announcement marks the largest attempt in decades to expropriate territory in the West Bank and place it under full Israeli control. The villagers worry that they are being cut off and strangled by the encroaching developments. They fear that eventually they will lose the means to support themselves through cultivating their land and will have to move elsewhere. While the village works with lawyers to fight the confiscation, unabated construction surrounding Wadi Fukin is having dire effects on a network of springs in the valley that have made farming in the area so successful for countless generations.
In the village, I meet Mohamed al-Hroub, a geology and environmental studies student at the nearby Al-Quds University. He is researching the effects of the Israeli developments on the town’s natural spring system. “We have a big problem with water here,” he explains, “Wadi Fukin is a catchment area, where the water comes down and recharges the land. If the Israelis keep building they stop this. So no water will recharge the aquifer and no water comes out.”
The catchment is created by the hillsides surrounding the village that funnels rainfall down into the spring system. Expanding construction that nearly surrounds the town is preventing more and more water from reaching the bottom of the valley. Two springs closest to Beitar Illit have run dry and Mohamed fears the situation will only get worse. “We have a spring here in the village, two months in the summer it stops. If they keep building, give us until 2020 and there will be no water, no agriculture in the village and most of the people here will start moving away.”
Eleven freshwater springs run under the village, a unique occurrence that has made the area so well suited for agriculture. The springs feed an aquifer that is connected to an irrigation system that waters all of the village’s crops – which lay in terraced fields running along the valley. But as the natural water flow becomes disrupted, less water will be available to recharge the aquifer and crops here will suffer. If the water were to stop completely the village would wither as well. With Mohamed acting as a guide, we drive further into the valley. Multi-story concrete homes and a few simple shops give way to groves of olive and fruit trees. We pass a group of young men swimming in a rectangular irrigation pool. Mohamed asks to stop the car and gets out. The men are Israeli; in swimming trunks, sitting along the concrete edge of the pool, legs dangling in the water. An M-16 rifle lies nearby, partially hidden under a pile of clothing.
Mohamed greets them with a smile and asks where they are coming from. The men reply that they are from Jerusalem and Mohamed, still smiling, tells them they must go. It’s not a request. The boys look at each other and then try to protest. “It’s a nice place here,” one starts but Mohamed cuts him off. “Yes it’s a nice place without you. It’s time for olive harvest and many Palestinian families are here. They will make problems for you if you stay here,” he warns.
I’m surprised to find a group of Israelis going for a swim in the middle of the village. For the past month there have been weekly protests in here, organized to raise awareness of the land seizure, which ended in clashes between activists and the Israeli military. The Israelis are either ignorant or uncaring of the recent events, Mohamed sure isn’t. The moment is more awkward than tense and soon they put their cloths back on, with Mohamed watching, arms crossed. One slings the rifle over his shoulder; they pile into a car, and drive off.
Further down into the fields we come across Maher Sukkar, a local farmer watering a terraced vegetable patch. The plot is broken up into small sections of short dirt levies. Mr. Sukkar breaks down a small piece of each, allowing water to flow in from a nearby irrigation pool. He repeats the motion over and over, working with a natural grace.
He’s too busy to talk much. “I’m just a farmer on the land, I work on agriculture here. The future, it’s very dangerous,” he says between quick chops into the dirt. “The government takes the land, what do we do? My land is my soul. What do I if my land is taken?”
The helplessness that Mr. Sukkar expresses is echoed by others in town who foresee a bleak future if they remain unable stop the Israelis from seizing their farmland and altering the landscape around their village.
A local activist – who wished to remain anonymous because he was helping to organize the weekly protests that have since ceased – summed up the situation by saying of the Israelis, “If they keep building, the spring will be without water and no agriculture will grow. Nobody is stopping them. They keep building, they keep confiscating, nothing is happening.” But he said that he will continue to try to raise awareness of his village’s plight, “We keep working to do something, we will never give up. It’s our land, our blood, our soul.”
Tags: Andrew Lichtenstein, daniel tepper, wadi fukin