Umm al-Sahali: Life in a Fading Palestinian Village

The Palestinian village of Umm al-Sahali is slowly being destroyed by the Israeli government. (Photo: Paul Karolyi)

By: Paul Karolyi

Published Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Palestinian village of Umm al-Sahali is slowly being destroyed by the Israeli government. Home to 80 people living in 13 small houses, the residents of this village inside the green line are denied electricity and prevented from building new homes on their own land. This is in stark contrast to the Israeli towns nearby, which, even though they belong to the same municipality as Umm al-Sahali, are granted all the essentials. Each day, the Palestinian residents anticipate their uncertain futures.

Every few months, a story appears in the back pages of Israeli newspapers about the demolition of a Palestinian’s home. This month, an entire unrecognized village is being threatened with destruction.

Early in the 1950s, a Bedouin Arab named Atif Mohammad Sawaed (Abu Walid) bought a small parcel of land from the Shafa ‘Amr municipality. After 60 years, the Israeli government has decided that the village that grew on that land, Umm al-Sahali, has no right to exist.

In the beginning, Abu Walid was hoping to simply build a home for his new wife and his family. The land he bought lies on a hilltop, no more than two kilometers south of Shafa ‘Amr in the Lower Galilee. It is a beautiful place. From the front steps of the home he built, you can see the shimmering blue waters of the Mediterranean, the urban sprawl of Haifa, and if you look north on a clear day, you can even see into Lebanon.

As the Sawaed family grew, so too did Israel around them. In the early years of Israel’s existence, the government instituted a policy of “Judaization” in the Galilee. On the recommendation of David Ben Gurion, who famously said that traveling through the Galilee did not feel like traveling through Israel, the government seized thousands of acres of land to found three new urban centers for new Jewish immigrants.

In addition to the cities, many new Jewish neighborhoods were founded. The purpose of the plan was to negate the perceived threats of a demographic imbalance to the Jewish nature of the state. Though the term “Judaization” has gone out of style, modern politicians still openly speak about defense against the “Arab Threat.”

Palestinians living inside the green line have a difficult choice. There is too much poverty to move into affluent, Jewish neighborhoods, and there are too many people already living in Arab municipalities. The choice is between living in legal yet crowded homes, or breaking the law by building a home without a permit.

In this time, 25,000 dunams (one dunam = ¼ acre) of land were expropriated from Shafa ‘Amr, an Arab municipality 25 kilometers east of Haifa. Initially, the confiscated land was designated for military use. After a reasonable enough period of “uncultivation,” it was developed for Jewish settlements. In the years since the initial seizure of land from Shafa ‘Amr, the population of that city has grown.

In 1961 there were around 8,000 people living there. By 2009, that number had ballooned up to over 35,000. The Israeli government has not allocated enough land to Shafa ‘Amr to keep up with the growth of the population. In 1962, Shafa ‘Amr was 10,731 dunams, and in 2009, it is still only 19,766.

For Abu Walid, the restrictions to Shafa ‘Amr’s expansion meant that Umm al-Sahali became isolated. It is also one of the many unrecognized villages in Israel.

Two kilometers from Umm al-Sahali, the “Judaization” effort led to the establishment of a town named Adi. Adi was built in the 1970s on the land Israel expropriated from Shafa ‘Amr for military use. The Jewish residents of Adi built stables for their livestock, playgrounds for their children, and all the other expected features of a modern, affluent, residential space. Because it is a Jewish settlement, the land Adi was built on was put under the purview of the Emek Yisrael Regional Council rather than the Arab municipality of Shafa ‘Amr. The proximity of Umm al-Sahali to Adi means that the governmental administration of Abu Walid’s land fell to Emek Yisrael as well.
__title__(Photo: Paul Karolyi)

The specifics of which municipality controls which neighborhoods are critical to what happens next in the story. Both Adi and Umm al-Sahali are situated within the borders of Emek Yisrael. But, the people living in Adi received citizenship services from Emek Yisrael while Abu Walid’s family hold identification cards listing them as residents of Shafa ‘Amr. They vote in Shafa ‘Amr. They send their children to schools in Shafa ‘Amr. They receive medical services in Shafa ‘Amr. Still, their land is in Emek Yisrael, so there are no bus lines to transport the children to school, there is no electricity in their homes, and there is no connection to a central plumbing system. The residents of Adi enjoy all these services. In fact, a power line was built through Umm al-Sahali leading from Adi to the central grid. It literally traverses Abu Walid’s land while ignoring his home.

In 1994, the situation deteriorated for Abu Walid and his family. The Haifa district court decided that six of the houses in Umm al-Sahali needed to be destroyed. Without offering Abu Walid an opportunity to appeal the decision or to make a plea for his case, the government set in motion a plan to remove them from this hilltop.

Abu Walid says he is not sure why they want to destroy the houses. At times he hypothesizes that the land is too strategic to pass up. “You build a tower here, you can see Haifa University, the Golan, and the mountains in Lebanon.” He vacillates between that opinion and an agricultural option, “maybe they want this land for farms or something.”

Regardless of the murky reasoning, it took four years for the demolition orders to be acted on. In 1998 the notorious rumble of tread on dirt that has become so familiar to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza could be heard on the road leading up to the peaceful hilltop community of Umm al-Sahali.

Something unexpected happened next. The community rallied behind Abu Walid’s family. And not just the Palestinians living in Shafa ‘Amr. Over the years, many Jews living in Adi had grown quite close with their neighbors in Umm al-Sahali. Personal relationships had been forged. So, when the bulldozers started knocking down buildings, the people came out in droves. What started as protests turned into riots when the police showed up. Hundreds of people were arrested and between 40 and 50 were injured in a crossfire of tear gas, rubber covered-steel bullets, and live ammunition. Though the protesters eventually stopped the demolitions, three homes were destroyed that day.

The community had fully embraced the cause of Abu Walid’s family in opposition to their government. Not only did hundreds turn out to protest the demolitions, but they stuck around to help rebuild as well. All three homes that were destroyed that day have since been reconstructed.

Since 1998, Abu Walid has been concerned less with national politics, and more concerned with finding suitable housing for his family. Despite his petitions to build more houses, the Emek Yisrael Regional Council refuses to permit any construction in Umm al-Sahali.

“There are men, thirty years old, living in the houses they were born in,” Abu Walid said. “They cannot get married or start a family.” There are 80 people living in Umm al-Sahali today and they live in 13 small houses.
(Photo: Paul Karolyi)(Photo: Paul Karolyi)

Earlier this year, Abu Walid’s son, Sayid Sawaed got married. Out of desperation, he and his new bride built a small structure out of aluminum siding near his father’s home. They don’t even call it a house because it is not a permanent structure. They prefer a word that translates best as “shack.” The ironic thing about Sayid’s new home is that however shabby and dilapidated the outside appears, the interior is awash in modern luxuries. He has fitted out his new living space with leather furniture, numerous kitchen appliances, and even a flat screen TV. The problem is not the money. They clearly have the money to build proper homes. The government simply refuses to permit them.

The flat screen TV may seem out of place in a rural village with no connection to the power grid, but Abu Walid and his family have figured out other ways to get electricity. At first they purchased large portable generators. Each home was outfitted with a generator and, though it was far from perfect, it was enough. Unfortunately, the city council of Adi had some complaints about the noise from the generators. The city council appealed to the Regional Council and the generators were quickly seized.

Abu Walid told me all this on a tour of Umm al-Sahali. Pointing out a small building in the distance, he said, “Do you see that? That is a stable for horses. The people of Adi have electricity and air conditioning for their horses and we have nothing.”

Walking through Umm al-Sahali today, there is clear evidence of ingenuity in the face of bureaucratic constraint. For each restriction the Israeli government institutes on Abu Walid’s land, he and his family find a way to make due. So when their generators were arbitrarily seized, the people of Umm al-Sahali outfitted each of their thirteen houses with a functioning solar panel. They have struggled for fifty years to find these types of creative ways to get around the intrusions of the government. After the most recent developments; however, the days of resilient workarounds may be over.

Following the construction of Sayid’s makeshift “shack”, the Haifa District Court once again ordered the demolition of houses in Umm al-Sahali. Abu Walid and his brother went to the Emek Yisrael Regional Council to appeal the decision. They had several meetings with various officials, but the governor general had the final word. He said that Abu Walid was allowed six houses, no more, and he condemned the other seven houses to demolition.

Unlike in some other “unrecognized villages” (such as al-Araqeeb or al-Sira), the government has not offered the Sawaed family access to alternative housing.

My visit to Umm al-Sahali coincided with the officially given date for the first demolition. Starting Tuesday, 14 November 2012, Sayid and his wife live in fear of waking up to bulldozers with orders to destroy their home. They don’t know when it’s going to happen, be it a week, a month, or even a year; but they know it’s coming.

The outlook is bleak, and it’s even worse than it seems. The thing is, Abu Walid knows the solution to this whole crisis. He thinks that Umm al-Sahali should be absorbed by the Shafa ‘Amr municipality. With roads leading into town, bus routes near his home, and power lines, Abu Walid could finally get his kids to school on time and keep some lights on at night for them to do coursework. The Shafa ‘Amr municipality is on record approving this plan and the Arab High Follow-Up Committee supports it as well.

Unfortunately, the Israeli government will never accede to this proposal. It would mean expanding the borders of Shafa ‘Amr and allowing for growth in an Arab municipality. In its refusal to make this prudent zoning change, Israel displays the policy that maintaining a favorable demographic balance is higher on the list of state priorities than protecting and preserving the welfare of its citizens.

Abu Walid described how it felt to have his proposal stifled. He said “I just want freedom on my land. I don’t care how it happens. This is an occupation and it should be settled.”

The human rights of 80 people are being stomped on because the Israeli government refuses to allow for an expansion of the Shafa ‘Amr municipality. In 64 years of its existence, Israel has never stopped treating the indigenous Palestinian Arab minority as enemies. This bureaucratic quagmire in Umm al-Sahali is “Judaization” in another form, just a new way of countering the perceived “Arab Threat.” With these terms in mind, it’s no surprise that Abu Walid insisted, “Umm al-Sahali is like Gaza...We are living under siege.”

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