Life in an ‘invisible cage’: the Palestinian village of Nabi Samwil

Rory Macdonald/PNN/Bethlehem

Few places are as beautifully positioned as the Palestinian village of Nabi Samwil. The ‘Mount of Joy’, as the Crusaders called it in 1099, still has commanding views over Jerusalem and the surrounding hills, but its current reality under the Israeli occupation lacks any cause for celebration. Caged in by both the Separation Wall and designated as an Israeli national park, Nabi Samwil is a striking example of the profound injustices of the occupation- just a stone’s throw from the wealthy suburbs of Jerusalem.

Since it was occupied by the Israeli army in June 1967, Nabi Samwil has been subjected to repeated human rights violations. After roughly one thousand inhabitants fled the village 51 years ago, making their way to the safety of Jordan, a few hundred remained. For the latter, life has become more and more claustrophobic under subsequent Israeli rule, as the village has been targeted for its proximity to Jerusalem and for its strategic position on a hilltop.

One of the largest injustices in the earlier years of Israeli occupation was the sudden demolition of 52 homes in 1971. These properties were located beside the supposed tomb of the Prophet Samuel and were bulldozed under a paper-thin pretext:  that they were structurally unsound and dangerous to their inhabitants, following damage in the 1967 war. Israel’s decision not to return of the land to its owners is clear evidence of its underhand intention to force Palestinians from their homes and constitutes a direct forcible transfer of the population. This trend continues, with The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reporting that 125 people were coerced, through the draconian restriction on their lives, to leave Nabi Samwil between 2007 and 2014.

Al-Haq, a leading human rights NGO based in Ramallah, recently released a detailed report on the ‘all encompassing impacts of Israel’s occupation’ in Nabi Samwil. Its research, full of first-hand testimonies, makes for painful reading about the daily abuses experienced by Palestinians there.

Designated as Area C under the Oslo accords, Nabi Samwil comes under full Israeli military and administrative authority. Consequently, severe and unlawful planning regulations afflict it, which mean that, in effect, all building is prohibited. With extensions deemed illegal and threatened with demolition, local families, which have grown considerably since 1967, are forced to squeeze into small houses, often with no windows and problems with humidity.

The building of the Separation Wall in 2005 has further deteriorated people’s quality of life and has isolated them from the West Bank (even though they have West Bank IDs). As one resident put it, the community now lives ‘in an invisible cage’ and even the simplest of daily tasks prove difficult. For instance, villagers must receive ‘coordination’ from the Israeli Civil Authority (ICA) to receive guests, even if they are visiting family members; the checkpoint is arbitrarily closed for days on end, meaning it is impossible to leave the village; and public transportation is limited by Israel to just ‘one West Bank licensed-bus, one minivan, and one taxi for emergencies’.

Given the limitations on movement, access to health is heavily restricted. People in need of urgent medical attention often cannot be taken to Jerusalem for treatment, since their escorts do not have the correct permits. The village used to receive weekly visits from health professions, but these stopped after the women’s centre, where the visits took place, was demolished on August 3rd, 2016, in a move that France (the building’s funder) decried as ‘illegal under international law’.

Access to education is not much better. The village’s school bus driver, Khaled Sa’adeh disclosed the indiscriminate racism he and the children suffer on their way through the checkpoint to school in the nearby village of Al-Jeeb. On 5th April 2015, an Israeli soldier deliberately prevented the students from reaching their classes by asking to see seven of the girls’ birth certificates. When Sa’adeh asked whether this was a new law, the reply he got from the soldier was: “this is a new procedure that I am taking, and as a consequence, I am going to prevent this bus from passing”.

Israel also further undermines the cultural life of the community through archaeology. Citing spurious Biblical scholarship, Israel claims the village of Nabi Samwil lies on the site of Biblical Mizpah and contains the bones of the prophet Samuel. However, as Emek Shaveh, an Israeli NGO which seeks to protect cultural property, points out: “remnants from the 11th century BCE, the time of the prophet Samuel, have not been found at the site’.

Under the guise of Biblical history, Israel is selective and destructive in its archaeological practice. Whilst preserving the layers which support its own religious-national agenda, Israeli archaeologists destroy evidence that they do not wish to see. In the case of Nabi Samwil, an anonymous Israeli archaeologist admits that hundreds of years of early Muslim archaeology were erased from the site: ‘In the northern part of the site, thick layers of almost 1000 years of Islamic remains were bulldozed in order to uncover the Crusader era stable area’. This wanton destruction of cultural property could amount to a ‘war crime’.

Nabi Samwil is plagued by the occupation in all areas of community life and effectively serves as a microcosm of the occupation at large, exemplifying, to quote Al-Haq, ‘Israel’s policy of fragmentation, and the physical and invisible barriers that divide Palestinian land and people’.

The Israeli Nature and Parks Authority website tells a different story of Nabi Samuel national park, when it promises ‘fascinating antiquities, a terraced agricultural landscape, mountain springs and orchards’ and ‘one of the most breathtaking vistas in Israel’. All at the expense of the local Palestinian population, whose existence might not even be noticed, let alone understood, by the passing streams of tourists.