Trying to watch the stars in the Palestinian desert

The occupied West Bank town of Jericho viewed from Wadi Qelt. (Maureen Clare Murphy)

I think my friend Ahmed is bored. I think that when I rock up from Britain for another hectic visit to Palestine, I provide an excuse for him to go to places he hasn’t been since his youthful days as a tour guide during the busy Oslo years of the mid-1990s, before the uprising of the second Palestinian intifada. Nowadays, he works as a security guard in East Jerusalem. And for the purposes of this story, it’s worth knowing that Ahmed is Palestinian, with Israeli citizenship.

This evening, he suggested we head out to Wadi Qelt to sit in the desert at night, look at the stars and see what nocturnal creatures might come out. So we headed out from Bab al-Amud, along the big, smooth new roads that have been and are still being built for the benefit of settlers and, Ahmed thinks, because Israel is hoping for an influx of rich Middle Eastern visitors if it manages to stitch up some imitation of a peace deal with the Palestinian Authority. They will come sweeping up this road from Allenby Bridge if they come via Jordan to spend their petrodollars.

As we pull off into the entrance signposted Wadi Qelt (with the Arabic script obscured by spray-paint), Ahmed swears ripely as we nearly hit a large barrier closing the road. As we sit staring at it and he tries to work out if his memories of this road have been confused by premature senility, a figure strides across the empty parking lot toward us.

“Fucking security,” says Ahmed. He is, of course, right. The man is a security guard from the settlement overlooking the entrance to the valley, and he informs us that Wadi Qelt, the famous Palestinian beauty spot, popular hiking destination and site of some of the most ancient monasteries in the world, is now only open during daylight hours. We leave. Ahmed drives back up Route 1, muttering dire things under his breath about Palestinians who work as security guards for settlers.

We try another tack. Turning up a side road signposted Maale Mikhmas — a smallish settlement originally established by settlers from Maale Adumim — we wind our way through the hilly desert, at one point passing a carload of Palestinian youths smoking, chatting and knocking back cans of soda. We pass a medium-sized settlement, where families with children and buggies stroll along a wide avenue of trees close to the highway. Further on, the road curls its way past an Israeli military base and Ahmed starts to get jumpy. We turn back and stop half way back down the road, where a passing point offers enough space for us to stop and gaze out over the lights of Jericho and up at the Milky Way, and listen to the sharp barks of the desert foxes.

Suddenly, several loops of road below us, a bright light flashes on and a bullhorn starts bellowing a repeated phrase in Hebrew. “Fuck you!” explodes Ahmed. A security guard from the settlement we passed has found the group of Palestinian boys trying to find a quiet place to hang out for the evening and has fixed its massive spotlight on them. “Leave the area NOW” they are being told by the guard’s bullhorn, which we can hear as clear as crystal across the valley.

“Let’s get out of here,” says Ahmed, predicting that the same guard is going to be all too interested in us. He is, of course, right again.

As we snake our way back downhill, the security jeep pulls out of a lay-by and starts to follow us. After a few hundred yards, it starts up its flashing lights, pulls in front and stops. A lone guard with a large rifle slung over one shoulder comes round, and demands to know who we are, where we’re from and what we’re doing.

Ahmed remains impressively calm and only mildly defiant. He knows that any trouble could jeopardize his family’s home in an extremely sensitive part of the Old City of Jerusalem. Earlier in the evening, as we worked our way gingerly through the crowds of orthodox Jewish worshippers heading to the Western Wall for Sukkot prayers, he commented that the Old City settlers would just love for him to merely stroke one of them with the bumper of his car, and his family would be out. He also knows that this guard is both armed and has the backing of the Israeli police. After all, Ahmed knows the family of the man shot with impunity by a settlement guard in Silwan just days ago. This, of course, is how the guard gets to behave towards a fellow Israeli citizen, just because that fellow citizen is of Arab — Palestinian — rather than Jewish ethnic origin. What he would be saying to Ahmed if he was a West Bank Palestinian rather than an Israeli citizen is only too easy to imagine.

He demands to see Ahmed’s ID, and then insists that because of Palestinian attacks on settlers in the area the nature reserve is completely closed after dark. By the glare of the settlement streetlights we can clearly see settler youths hiking over the nearby hillside — so it’s not that closed. “It’s like they want to take all of nature,” comments Ahmed afterwards.

Eventually, the guard moves us on and we leave. I, with my glow-in-the-dark English whiteness, haven’t even been asked for ID. Ahmed’s Palestinian-ness is everything here. Miraculously, past Nabi Musa we find a patch of desert still free from settlements and their heavily-armed protectors. The stillness and the stars are amazing; the bare desert hills are lit by the moon and the steep wadi walls are dotted with scrubby brush. Out here even a dyed-in-the-wool heathen like me could perhaps start believing in God; I can certainly see why the Desert Fathers of the fifth and sixth century church came here to find Him. But any God to be found in this place of profound calm and beauty is certainly not the one who’s apparently promised this land to the settlers with the bullhorns and rifles.

Sarah Irving is a freelance writer. She worked with the International Solidarity Movement in the occupied West Bank in 2001-02 and with Olive Co-op, promoting fair trade Palestinian products and solidarity visits, in 2004-06. She now writes full-time on a range of issues, including Palestine. Her first book, Gaza: Beneath the Bombs, co-authored with Sharyn Lock, was published in January 2010.