Standing defiant. Khalid Daragmah’s family protect their land in a sea of settlements
Khalid Daragmah’s home dates back to the Ottoman times. Set on 22 dunams of green, arable land, it is sprinkled with trees, a spring and rolling hills to the back. It has been in his family for generations; his grandfather ran a business pressing olives from inside.
These days, the entrance has been fitted with solid iron doors; a preventative measure to keep out the groups of settlers who arrive at night with sticks and stones to harass his family. They mainly come from Ma’ale Levona, a settlement on the West side of his home, which has been built on the land of Al Libban village near Bablus. Across the valley, on the mountain in front of the house, the Naley and Shilo settlements stretch for miles from here until the green line.
When I speak to Jamal Juma’, coordinator of the Palestinian grassroots organisation, ‘Stop the Wall’ who are helping Khalid with his case, he explains that the family are protecting a very sensitive part of the West Bank. “The Israelis want it because it’s connecting the settlements together. In this area they are planning to cut off the West Bank from the north and the middle of the south. So from here, until the Armistice Line, there are over thirty kilometres of settlements continuously. There are gaps between the settlements, and one of the main gaps is this one, that’s why Khalid has been under heavy attack for years now.”
In August last year, Khalid’s wife and sons were beaten at their house. They have also been subject to arson attacks, and jailed for fighting with the aggressors. “I don’t count how many times I’ve been arrested because it’s been so many times,” Khalid tells me. “Last time I was arrested they even stole stones from the house, and the tools I inherited from my grandfather, which he was using for the land.” It was one of many tactics used by settlers, intent on scaring them out of their house.
The settlers attacked Khalid’s wife so badly that she had to be taken to hospital. They told her it was because the house was their synagogue and they wanted it back, though Khalid’s family insist that this is not the case. “Historically, this place has been inhabited by my ancestors, it was never empty and there is no sign of Jewish heritage here,” Khalid explains. “Inside the house, there is nothing to do with Jewish culture.”
To complement the violence, officially, in 2004, 2006, 2009 and 2010, Khalid received eviction notices from the Israeli military asking him to vacate the property, but the family have refused. “This is our land, and they will not force us to leave” he tells me defiantly. “They are trying to find any mistake they can to use against me, they’re searching all my files and records since I was born. Which law in the whole world can penalise somebody for staying in his home and his land?”
Officials have delivered a string of excuses to the family, pretexts for why they have to leave. “They give one reason after the other, like the road leading to my house.” Khalid tells me. “They want me to open it because it is an obstacle to the military or to visitors, i.e. the settlers. They want me to allow the settlers to visit and pray in the house. They want me to remove the fence from around the spring and remove the doors from the house to allow them to come in.”
At one point, military officers even came to tell him he must use his home as a supermarket, to open it and charge visitors money to enter the room and pray inside, or let them swim in the spring. “They are punishing me and destroying my life.” Khalid tells me. “What problems have I caused them for them to do this to me? My only crime is that I’m staying in my house and I don’t want to leave.”
Khalid has a strong case because the land is officially registered in his name, and he has documents to prove the house is privately owned. But this has not stopped the authorities from claiming it is state owned and belongs to them. “In all the time I have lived here, why have they come here in the last few years? They say this is state land, and I asked them officially if they have any proof that this is state owned land. My cousins and my extended family are living in the village and we have had houses here for more than 270 years,” Khalid says.
For this reason, it has not easy for them evict him, which is why they’re using pressure, scare tactics and making his life impossible. “Abu Jamal [Khalid] is a very strong guy and despite all of this, he’s still standing here, he’s still staying in his land,” Juma’ adds. “They want to exploit him and make him totally disparate. They want to know how long he can survive under all these years of attack and targeting and they are gambling that he will get fed up and leave.”
Life is certainly hard. He rarely leaves his house without somebody staying inside; if he goes to the shop or to work they will occupy the house. He lives far from the nearest Palestinian village, so it’s not easy for people to come and help. A large source of the family’s income comes from their 22-year-old son, Jamal, who works as a mechanic nearby earning 1000 shekels a month. But such harsh tactics have meant the family have grown stronger. “They have tried so many aggressive tactics that now we’re not scared of anything” Khalid tells me. “Before, when my wife saw a mouse she got scared and started screaming. Now, when she sees a hyena, she will attack it.”
A large part of the problem is the Palestinian Authority, who don’t do anything to help them. Responsibility therefore falls on international organizations, which collect money to buy fruit trees to plant so he can earn money from his land, and individuals like Lubna Masarwa, a Palestinian activist, who is currently helping him find a lawyer. “Myself and Jamal Juma’ are really doing our best to try and keep him in the house,” Masarwa tells me, “but it’s impossible because someone always has to be here otherwise the settlers will use the chance occupy the house.”
“The settlers are well organised, they’re becoming very violent. And they don’t respect any laws. The rule of the army is to defend the settlers. When the settlers attack the Palestinian families, the army will be standing there; the soldiers are there to protect them, this is their work. In the West Bank you feel like you’re in a jungle, they’re beating the kids, they’re shooting, the kids don’t sleep at night. And they have nowhere to go with no one who can really protect them. In the last few years, the settlers are getting stronger,” Masarwa explains.
Khalid thinks that more people around the world should start pressuring governments and officials to hold Israel to account for this behaviour. Juma’ explains that in other cases this has helped a lot. “They [the Israeli authorities] try to do these things silently and in the dark, they don’t want anyone to know what they’re doing. The question is, how can we make his case well known, and how we can mobilise people to move, to talk about it, to ask them to question the Israelis about why they are doing this to him.”
Despite the hardship, Khalid and his wife are adamant that they’re not leaving. “I don’t have other option,” Khalid’s wife Um Jamal tells me “I can’t leave the house, my husband and the land; there is nothing I can do. Before they put in the iron doors it was scarier but now I feel a little bit safer. You can’t have a decent night sleeping when you can be attacked at any point.”
Yesterday, when the settlers came, one of her children stood in the window and asked them to go away. Um Jamal smiles as she tells me the story. “What do you expect? What can we do? This is our life and we have to show our power. If the settlers feel that we’re scared or weak, they will get stronger. The younger and the older kids have to show strength and have to stand up to them because this is the only thing that we have, we don’t have anything else.”
“This is our life and this is our struggle and we’re not going to give up. We’re not going to leave the house. I will never leave my home and my land.”
Written by Amelia Smith
Published in Interviews, Palestine and Israel, The Middle East