During the Being Peace retreat, our group visited a particularly fertile valley not far from Deir Istiya, known as Wadi Qana.
The valley contains a natural stable watercourse and five springs which supply water to the orchards and olive groves lining the valley’s gentle hillsides. Much of the land in the valley is owned by farmers from the village of Deir Istiya and is regarded as a very special place the villagers.
Before the 1990s Palestinians were living in the Wadi and farming its land with citrus trees, dates, pomegranates and olives. Water from the springs was used for drinking and irrigation.
From the late 1970s to the present day, settlements began appearing on the hilltops surrounding the valley, of which there are now six, along with various outposts and expansion zones.
In 1983, the Nature Reserves and National Parks Unit of the Israeli Civil Administration declared Wadi Qana a ‘nature reserve’. Despite the new zoning, sewerage from the settlements began to pollute the natural springs of the Wadi, forcing the Palestinian farmers to leave and move to Deir Istiya. In 2006, members of the Civil Administration and various settlement representatives decided to develop the area as a ‘tourism site’, with the goal of establishing a more prominent Jewish presence in the area.
As well, a proposal exists to divert the separation barrier around the Wadi, essentially incorporating the land into Israeli occupied territory and completely cutting off access for Palestinians.
During our visit we saw the ‘nature reserve’ for what it was – an area taken over by people with little real connection to the land. The water sources were polluted and barely flowing, crops had not been maintained and parts of the ground, particularly around the picnic tables, were littered with rubbish. There were also various markers on the ground, painted the same colours as the Israeli flag, indicating the presence of recreational hiking trails.
During a walk we did through the valley we passed a group of Israeli school children. Like all school groups on excursions in Israel and the Occupied Territories, they were in the company of several security guards, armed with automatic weapons.
In the late afternoon we were invited to the hilltop settlement of Yaqir, which overlooks the Wadi. One of the Jewish settlers had agreed to speak with us to provide his side of the story. We met him in a local park next to the synagogue. He had spoken to members of the retreat from the previous year and several people in our group remembered him well.
He began by talking a little about the history of the settlement, and what had drawn him to live there. With references to pictures in the Bible he had seen as a child, he described the intense similarity between those images and the land around him. He said he knew when he first saw the land and recalled those biblical associations, that it would become his home.
Even though we asked him questions, he tended to circle around them with well-rehearsed responses. In essence the meeting was an opportunity for us to learn about the situation from the perspective of the settler. We knew from the outset that we would not alter his thinking or even get much of an opportunity to discuss the problems of the Occupation for the Palestinians, or ‘Arabs’ as he called them. Nevertheless, it could not have been easy for him to meet with members of a group such as ours and it was interesting to hear his opinions, however distorted we may have thought them to be.
Further information on Wadi Qana from B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Centre for Human Rights, can be found here.