A West Bank Spring At The Center Of Deadly Struggle
There's a pretty little spring in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where fresh water has dripped from the rock, probably for centuries.
Now it is the center of a deadly struggle over land.
Israeli teenagers from Halamish, the Jewish settlement a short walk uphill, found the spring several years ago. It flows from a small cave.
"The kids were always looking for something to do in the summer," says Shifra Blass, who moved to Halamish, also known as Neveh Tzuf, more than 25 years ago when her husband became the community rabbi. "When they saw that there was water coming out over there, it was very exciting."
The young Israelis saw great potential and acted on it. They piled rocks into low walls to catch the water into pools deep enough to dip in. They brought in picnic tables, planted trees and passion fruit vines, and built a structure for shade. They put up a sign, naming it after one of the founders of the settlement.
They say nobody was using the spring.
"There was nothing here before those kids started working on it. This place was abandoned," says 24-year-old Tziana Ramol, who grew up in Halamish. "I don't think anyone can claim it was his."
A Palestinian Claim
Bashir Tamimi does. He says he inherited the land around the spring from his father, who inherited it from his father. Tamimi is from Nabi Saleh, the Palestinian village across the road and up the hill.
Tamimi's face looks older than his 57 years, but he moves lightly. One hot afternoon, he squats in the low cave where the spring trickles out of the hillside, scoops a handful of water from as close to the source as possible and drinks it. He says this is only the second time he's come to the spring in more than three years.
"At the end of 2008, (Israeli) settlers kicked out the (Palestinian) farmers who were using my land," he says. "We went to the Israeli authorities, and they actually removed a fence that the settlers had put up and said this is Palestinian land. But the settlers did not give up the spring."
Tamimi went back to the Israeli authorities and then, with the help of an Israeli legal organization, went to court. The Palestinian villagers also decided to act.
Every Friday afternoon, people from Nabi Saleh and many international supporters leave the village and try to march to the spring. Some throw rocks at the Israeli soldiers who are trying to stop the march. The soldiers shoot tear gas, spray water that stinks like sewage, and sometimes fire rubber-coated bullets.
Soldiers have killed two Palestinians in more than three years of demonstrations. They were relatives, as nearly all the 600 residents of Nabi Saleh are from the same extended family.
Mohammed Tamimi, 23, points out where Rushdie Tamimi was shot last November. "See that big tree over there?" he says, pointing across the road from the spring to a large olive tree. "Bullets in his leg and stomach."
He gestures up toward Nabi Saleh. "Mustafa – inside the village. In the street." Mustafa Tamimi was killed in 2011, after he was hit in the face with a tear gas canister shot by an Israeli soldier.
Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, and today some 350,000 Jewish settlers live in the territory. They are far outnumbered by Palestinians, who oppose the settlements and are seeking the West Bank as part of a future state. No foreign governments support the settlements, which are one of the thorniest issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Meanwhile, the Israeli administration that controls this part of the West Bank carried out an archaeological survey of the spring area. Shlomy Zachary, the Israeli lawyer representing Bashir Tamimi in Israeli courts, says the Palestinian's family can't farm there because of this.
"The owners are not able to use it for agricultural needs because it was declared a historic site," Zachary says. "So they're not allowed to plow the land."
He has read the archaeological report and says the one potentially significant finding was a possible Roman-era stone used to mark the road, but that's now been cemented into one of the pools the Israeli teenagers built.
"We cannot avoid the thought," he says, that the archaeological research may be "simply a tool" to support the settlers' aspirations for a picnic spot here.
The first two times I visited the spring, once with Bashir Tamimi, once with Shifra Blass, Israeli soldiers showed up 20 minutes into our interviews and lounged in the shade nearby until we left.
The third time, Israeli tour-guides-in-training arrived. Dmitri Kimmelfeld organizes tours to help Russian immigrants to Israel build a connection to West Bank land.
"We have a map where all the springs are," he says. "That is holy water."
Israeli soldiers have enforced a court order against the settler development of the spring. The Israeli teenagers were told to take down their first shade structure, because it was deemed too permanent, and was built without a permit. A canvas is now stretched across poles for shade.
Bashir Tamimi says he is fearful of visiting, though here and at other springs around the region, settlers say Palestinians are welcome. The people of Nabi Saleh and of Halamish generally don't know one another, but they both say this fight over this spring, symbolic of the much larger effort to establish territorial claims across the West Bank land, carries a legacy.
Shifra Blass' 27-year-old son Yehuda Blass finds the young Israelis' work to improve the spring inspirational.
"The heritage is if you believe in something you should make an effort to make it come true, and it will make a difference," Yehuda Blass says.
Mohmmad Tamimi, from Nabi Saleh, couldn't agree more.
"After we began our demonstration, we felt we are not alone in this conflict," he says. " We felt we have the power to do something."
He says maybe more people will die here, but he is not afraid. He says Palestinians have nothing to lose. "Life," he says, "is not very nice here."