The villagers of Nabi Samwil have already lost land and been displaced due to an Israeli National Park. Now, the expansion of the National Park, means this could happen again.
by Aaron, Ar-Ram team
Nabi Samwil: a holy place for Muslims, Christians and Jews
One of the main reasons people come from all over the world to visit Israel and Palestine is the large number of Holy Sites. Since we’ve been here, members of our group have been to visit the Western Wall, The Sea of Galilee and Manger Square in Bethlehem, among others. These sites are of spiritual significance to people of different faiths from around the world. They are also an opportunity for local people to earn a living and to provide services for tourists.
It sounds like a win-win situation. But like many seemingly straightforward things in this place, there is more than meets the eye…
Members of EAPPI Al Ram Team 50 have been regular visitors to a site which has been special to Jews, Muslims and Christians for hundreds of years, and is now at the forefront of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
An Nabi Samwil is a small village in the north of Jerusalem. It’s reputed to be the site of the tomb of Samuel – a figure respected and revered by all three Abrahamic faiths. While the historical evidence for this is hard to substantiate, what’s clear is that a monastery and crusader church which were built there nearly 1000 years ago have since been replaced by a building which is now in use as both a Mosque and a Synagogue.
A history of land loss
An Arab village grew up around the tomb. For much of the last few hundred years, Jews and Muslims have been able to worship at the site alongside eachother. However, in 1967, Israel occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank. In 1971, the village of An Nabi Samwil had about 1000 people in it. But then the Israeli Army came and announced the creation of a National Park surrounding the tomb. This meant the villagers would have to move – they had no choice. As in many other Palestinian villages, An Nabi Samwil was cleared of its population and no provision was made for those being moved. Many left the area, either to Jordan or elsewhere in the West Bank. But some were determined to stay and set up new homes nearby.
Around 250 people now live in the village, which is a few hundred metres from the old village and the tomb. Many of them still remember the old village being cleared. They could hardly forget – seeing as they walk past the place where their houses used to be every time they go to the Mosque. Israeli forces have demolished various structures in the village and the village school’s new classroom has recently been given a demolition order.
Villagers may face displacement for the expansion of a National Park
Now, there is a new threat to the community. The Israeli authorities have declared that the National Park will be extended, a new road will be built with parking spaces and provision of more services. This is ostensibly to attract more tourists and make the tomb a more popular destination. But the creation and expansion of National Parks is a tactic that has been used elsewhere to acquire more land for Israel and to take it from Palestinian communities.
Land surrounding the tomb will be declared part of the National Park, which means that villagers will lose plots which they own. It means it will be harder to find a place for their animals to go, and it will bring the possibility of large numbers of visitors – but little benefit for the Palestinian community. Because they are not allowed to build any new structures (Israel permits very little building by Palestinians in the parts of the West bank know as ‘Area C’) there will be no opportunity for local people to capitalize on the expected influx of visitors by building souvenir shops, for example.
Israelis, Palestinians, and Internationals stand with Nabi Samwil in solidarity
It is easy to see why the village is objecting. We have been supporting Aeed Barakat, a local man who is taking the lead in opposing the plans. Two weeks ago, we attended a planning court hearing at Beit El, which is the local office of the Israeli Military which runs so much of life for Palestinians.
Along with 10 others from the village, Aeed attended and stood alongside peace campaigners from around the world, including many from Israeli groups such as Peace Now, Bimkom and Rabbis for Human Rights. All of us were shocked when the architect in charge of the plans told those assembled:
“There is no village, only a few houses.”
At this point, the meeting broke up, with the villagers so upset that they couldn’t carry on. It was left to the Israeli peace activists to continue the hearing on their behalf. When the meeting finished, we asked them how confident they were of a good outcome. It didn’t sound likely.
We are now awaiting the decision of the hearing. It could come any time. But it’s thought that the plans will be approved. And at this point, the villagers will resort to court action in an attempt to preserve their land.
They’re not content just to wait and be told that their land is being taken away. So last Friday they organised a peaceful demonstration. Around 50 people gathered in the village to protest against the plans. There were local people as well as internationals, and again, many Israelis who are passionate about peace.
Four police cars soon arrived carrying 15 armed officers who told the group they had five minutes to move. Aeed simply said,
“This is our village. We won’t move.”
The police seemed taken aback by the number of Israelis who had gathered in solidarity with the Palestinian group. After several more attempts to order the demonstrators to move, the police eventually gave up and went away. Aeed was delighted. He told us, “This is good news. I hope this demonstration will now be able to happen every week.” It was a privilege to stand alongside such a diverse group, united in one aim. EAPPI will continue to stand alongside the villagers of An Nabi Samwil and many other villages like it, for as long as they want us to be there.
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