In 1970, Palestinian farmer Sabri Gharib built a white stone house on a hill in the central West Bank village of Beit Ijza, a fertile area rich with olive trees, grapes and local vegetables. Now, some 41 years later, his view is dominated by a six-meter-high steel fence that annexes the house into the Israeli settlement of Givat Zeev and separates the Gharib family from their land and the rest of Beit Ijza village.
The Gharib family’s situation is one of the most extreme and unsettling cases highlighting the effects of Israel’s illegal settlement building in the West Bank. Palestinian families being affected by the ongoing Israeli occupation is nothing new, but the Gharib family’s situation is still unique in its absurdity.
Gharib, an elderly man suffering complications after a stroke, welcomes us sitting in the shadow of his only remaining olive tree and explains how his land and livelihood was taken away from him, leaving him and his family with only one dunam (a dunam is equal to 1,000 square meters). At the time he built his family home, his land was 110 dunams in size.
Gharib’s small garden, now only a few-meters-wide path between the white wall of the house and the steel fence separating the house from the settlement, has just got enough space for our little group to sit on plastic chairs and drink our coffee. Meanwhile, on the other side of the fence, settler women are hanging out their washing, children are playing and someone is walking their dog. It is a mild spring day — birds are singing and the sun is shining. The contrast between this everyday-life normality and the abnormality of Gharib’s situation is so striking and unsettling we hardly believe what we see.
Recounting a worsening situation
In contrast to the hospitality Gharib displays, the entrance is anything but welcoming. The house, where 11 children grew up and where Gharib, his wife, son and daughter-in-law now live, is only reached by a concrete corridor. This stark corridor is controlled by an iron gate that the Israeli military operates electronically from a base kilometers away.
Walking in, we realize that we are being watched by the two cameras placed by the gate. We clearly see how shutting the gate would make it impossible for us to get out again — there is no other way out. Now the gate is always open, but it has been so only after a recent court ruling. Before, the gate was randomly opened and closed, meaning that the Israeli military controlled all movement of the Gharib family.
Gharib, who is somewhere between 75 and 80 years old — he says his birthdate is not written down anywhere — remembers the past decades well, and recounts how his family’s situation has gradually worsened.
In the 1980s, life hardened for Gharib and people in nearby villages when Israel began building Givat Zeev, stealing land from the local villagers and increasing its military presence in the area. In 1995, the settlers started to build houses which now surround Gharib’s home. From that day, the settlers have more or less controlled their lives.
Then, when Israel began building the wall in the area in 2005, it got even harder for people to travel and lead their lives, and more land was taken. During this period, people protested to protect their land, but the Israeli army met them with harsh measures — several people were killed and the protests couldn’t stop the land grab.
Imprisoned for protecting his home
Like many other Palestinians whose livelihood is directly threatened by Israel’s settlement construction, Gharib has tried to protect his land and his home. So far he has endured many attempts to force the family away. His eldest son Samir was killed by the Israeli military.
Israel has responded imprisoned Sabri Gharib more than 30 times. His longest period of imprisonment was in 1990, when he was jailed for 36 months.
The last time, in 2005, he spent another month in prison. He was then at least 70 years old.
Sabri Gharib and his family have also been met with violence from the nearby settlers. In groups, the settlers have launched violent attacks. On one occasion over the past decade, around 300 settlers surrounded and attacked the house — cutting the fence and throwing Molotov cocktails and stones at the people inside. One of his sons, Ahmed, who also joined us, explained how they were ten people, among them women and children, trapped inside the house, preparing to defend themselves from the attack. After one and a half hours, Israeli police arrived and stopped the settlers.
These days, the neighboring settlers verbally attack the family by shouting abusively across the fence. But over the years, the army has also raided the home several times, which the family believes is just another way to force them to leave.
The worst period
Sabri Gharib recalls the worst period, which was around two years ago, when the gate was continuously closed for six months. The Israeli soldiers only opened it one or two hours each day, allowing other family members to visit and to bring basic goods and living supplies. It was difficult for the family to leave the house and for people to visit. Even now, they never leave their place empty, in fear of coming back and not being allowed enter their own home.
Their home is clearly sought after by Israel — the Israeli authorities have even given him a blank check, ready for him to write the selling sum and sign away his house. But Sabri Gharib refuses to sign, and says he will continue to do so. He has lost a great deal over the past few decades — his land, his livelihood, his freedom and a son — because of the Israeli occupation, but he has not lost his dignity. “I will never give up our house and our last dunam,” Gharib says with conviction.
Postscript: Sabri Gharib died a few days after we met him. He was buried on 18 April. He was a remarkable man, fighting until the end of his life. His story and his struggle must not be forgotten.
Hilde Reksjø is a registered nurse who has spent time in Ramallah working as volunteer with the Palestine Red Crescent Society Emergency Medical Services. In 2008 she was the resident representative from The Norwegian Palestine Committee.
Maria York is a teacher who lives in Norway. She has lived in Nablus and Ramallah.