Sixty years ago in Battir (Part 2)

Women and girls in Battir prepare to dance, early 1950s. (Photographer unknown)


For a long time any discussion of the “Arab-Israeli conflict” has skipped one basic fact: Israel, whether one loves or hates it, was created at the expense of the Palestinians. An entire people and hundreds of communities that had lived for centuries in tranquility had to be ruthlessly and unjustly shattered to make room for the Zionist state. The story of my village, Battir, southwest of Jerusalem, is only one of hundreds.

When I was growing up, hardly anyone in the village was aware, or needed to be aware, that our village traced its roots back to the second century. Generation after generation tilled the land, lived off its gifts and engaged in small trade. They adapted to the often harsh environment, brought up their children, interacted with their neighbors from villages near and far and lived their lives relatively happily and peacefully.

Although Palestine had a large Christian population, the 1,200 people in our village were all Muslim — though there was one German wife who was very popular and known for her kindness, and I believe she was Jewish, by the name of Lina Shaffer — and lived in effect like a large extended family. Everyone in the village knew everyone else, and everyone shared happy and sad moments. The whole village knew if someone was getting married, got a job in the city, was caught up in a problem, was expecting guests, or even bought a new garment.

Life was simple, indeed you could say primitive. There was no electricity, running water or other services, no paved roads, no cars or any kind of machines. Most houses had one or two rooms, which people often shared with their animals. Unless cold weather dictated otherwise, women cooked on open fires in front of their houses using home-made pottery. So in addition to everything else, the neighbors always knew what you were cooking.

People never locked their doors, even when they were not home. But that does not mean that there were no disputes, rivalries and even fights. Indeed, in such close quarters these were unavoidable. But these were mostly settled through the wisdom and compromise of family chieftains as there was no police station in the village. Only serious cases, involving injuries, were reported to the Mandate authorities in Jerusalem who would come down by car if there was a matter they had to address.

The village elementary school which I attended taught boys Arabic, arithmetic and Qur’an until the fourth grade. By that time they were expected to have learned the Qur’an by heart. The school was gradually extended up to seventh grade by just the time the winds of danger began to gather over the country. Girls did not attend school until UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees, established a school for them in the early 1950s after the first war was over and the village people returned home.

The village was much like a voluntary cooperative. If someone wanted to build a house people would offer free labor and contribute small amounts of cash to buy materials, a practice that was strictly and evenly reciprocated village-wide. This system also applied to gathering the harvest and preparing the land for the next planting season. People also made small donations for weddings and attended to the needs of the sick and the poor.

Apart from agriculture, many young men worked for the Mandate government, mainly the railways, the Palestine Police, the post office or other clerical jobs. A few managed to finish high school in Jerusalem to become school teachers.

Battir had a simple mosque with one large room and no minaret. The call to prayer was made from just in front of the mosque and could be heard throughout the village. There were also a few public places for men to meet in the evenings for coffee and conversations. Each family took turns to supply coffee and firewood for these gatherings. Visitors from outside the village were received, entertained and sometimes offered accommodation in those public houses, which were also used for other community occasions such as weddings or mourning.

When the Mandate administration started to crumble, most village men, including those who lost their jobs, started to join militias to defend the country. Though they did not match the Jewish militias in organization, training or arms, they fought as best as they could. Mainly armed with second hand rifles they rushed to help defend neighboring villages as they fell under attack.

The Palestine war of 1948 was disastrous. Neither the volunteers who came to the country from the Arab world, nor the Arab states’ armies that intervened in May 1948, well after much of the Zionist ethnic cleansing plan had been put into action, managed to save much.

Once the fighting stopped 78 percent of Palestine had fallen to the Zionists, and became the “State of Israel.” After fierce fighting around Jerusalem, the Jordanian army held on to the West Bank, and Egypt held the Gaza Strip, which together formed the remaining 22 percent of Palestine.

Battir itself was not occupied, although all the villagers fled under heavy fire from Zionist forces on the opposite slopes. The village ended up right on the front line when the armistice lines were drawn. Israel wanted to control the entire Jerusalem-Jaffa railway, which it mainly did, except for the small sector which runs through Battir’s valley.

A special proviso in the armistice agreement drew the line two hundred yards east of the railway, thus cutting the village almost in half. This was meant to allow Israel to use the railway and to provide a corridor for its protection, but at the same time it allowed the village inhabitants to reach their lands beyond the demarcation line on the Israeli side. This was an unusual overlap which caused serious problems. About 15 village houses and the school ended up on the Israeli side, but two gates in the barbed wire allowed people to cross either way and to reopen the school under the Jordanian administration following the unification of the West Bank with East Jordan in 1950. Nevertheless, several villagers crossing the barbed wire to reach their property were shot dead by Israeli patrols.

For the villagers who had spent months sleeping in fields as refugees, or dispersed further away, returning to the village after the armistice was a great relief. But nothing was the same. Now we were cut off from Jerusalem, the city which had been our lifeline to any services not available in the village, as well as the main market for our produce.

The armistice line became like a wall concealing an alien, hostile and inaccessible world, where before there had been an environment of gracious Arab villages enjoying ties of kith and kin that we had taken for granted and whose end we could not have imagined.

The village of al-Walaja had lain across the valley on the other side of the railway line, close enough that Battir’s people could watch al-Walajah’s coming and goings, hear people calling to each other, and even hear their wedding celebrations. Similarly, al-Qabu lay just to the south and tens of other villages to which we were linked lay beyond our line of sight. Many ended up deserted and in enemy territory.

Instead of hearing the ordinary sounds of al-Walaja, after the war, we watched with dismay as the Israeli army blew up the deserted houses, as it rushed to eliminate any trace of Palestinian existence. One after another, we would see a house disappear in a cloud of dust and seconds later we would hear the loud explosion. This went on until the entire village was destroyed. (Some of the destroyed town’s inhabitants built a new village across the valley from the original site and this new village bears the name “al-Walaja” today).

Nor did the armistice provide much safety. Beyond the barbed wire, people had to move with extreme caution. Israeli patrols repeatedly arrested farmers, led them deeper into the occupied territory and then executed them. Villagers took great risks searching night after night in dangerous terrain until they recovered the bodies. The Israelis also made incursions deep into Arab-held territory with terrible tolls in death and destruction. Husan village a few miles south of Battir, and Nahalin experienced such attacks as did neighboring Beit Jala.

Villagers traveling early to market were also ambushed; one night I woke up to shrieks and wails to find that my sister Zahiyya had been brought home soaked in blood. Caught in one of these ambushes, she had been shot in her upper leg. She survived despite heavy loss of blood and no proper medical care.

When we returned to the village after the armistice, every house had been ransacked and emptied of its contents. Even doors and windows had been removed. Slowly we managed to replace and rebuild many of these things but there was much that was irreparable; we could not rebuild the same community atmosphere. That was lost forever.

But we are thankful that Battir, unlike hundreds of other Palestinian villages, did survive the Nakba — the catastrophe. That was only a respite. In 1967, it fell under Israeli occupation along with the rest of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Forty-one years later, Battir is drowning in a sea of Israeli settlements and lies virtually cut off from what is left of its Palestinian environment by Israel’s relentless construction of settler roads and apartheid walls.

I was there last in the summer of 1966 spending my usual summer leave with my family. The 1967 occupation shut me out until I managed a brief visit in 1997, 31 years later. There was little that I could recognize and I have not been back again.

Hasan Abu Nimah is the former permanent representative of Jordan at the United Nations. This article first appeared in The Jordan Times and is reprinted with the author’s permission.