Jerusalem wildfires remind of a lost heritage

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6 min read
Haifa
31 August, 2021
The recent wildfires that spread through Jerusalem's hills, tearing through forests planted after the Nakba in 1948, has sparked interest in long-forgotten villages which form a missing piece of Palestinian heritage.

The wildfires which ravaged Jerusalem's hills in August, and which tore through 25,000 dunams of dense woodland laid bare a long-hidden landscape, full of forgotten traces alluding to the crimes which took place in 1947-8 during the Nakba.

This has served as a reminder of the ethnic cleansing which took place in the hilly region southwest of Jerusalem, in which all the Palestinian villages were destroyed and their remains concealed.

The fire returned the hills to their natural state, allowing their underlying shape to become visible once more: their historic terraced slopes testifying to the work of Palestinian farmers over centuries, as they strove to cultivate the land and make it bear fruit for its inhabitants.

While Israeli media mourned the burning forests and the wrecking of dozens of Israeli homes which had been built on the ruins of Palestinian villages, ancient agricultural terraces were revealed which go back more than 400 years. They alluded to the complex farming methods which Palestinian peasants developed, bringing into being flourishing agriculture.

"Today, no sign of this farming legacy remains in the Jerusalem area except the terraced valley slopes of Battir village. The bare terraces exposed by the fires have provoked a surge of interest among Palestinian citizens of Israel"

Today, no sign of this farming legacy remains in the Jerusalem area except the terraced valley slopes of Battir village. The bare terraces exposed by the fires have provoked a surge of interest among Palestinian citizens of Israel, in the depopulated villages of the Jerusalem mountains, more than 70 years after the Nakba.

Historian Johnny Mansour, from Haifa, said to Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, The New Arab's Arabic-language sister publication: "The Zionist project of expulsion and occupation involved a wholesale fabrication of history and geography and this also extended to place names."

The fires in the Jerusalem mountains uncovered the extensive terrace systems there, which have a number of Palestinian names like salaasil ('an interlocking series') and mudarrajaat ('terraced mountain slopes'). Most of them date back to between 400 and 800 years, according to research.

Voices

The Zionist project, through its colonial institutions, planted trees over vast swathes of these mountains to hide the natural features of the land and eradicate what Palestinian agricultural labourers had accomplished and formed.

After the tree-planting and forestation operations which the Jewish National Fund bankrolled, everything Palestinian was covered up, concealing thousands of years of history. In contrast, anything which indicated Jewish history was highlighted by the Zionist movement, keen to stress its predominance.

Added to that was the European colonialist mentality which had shaped Zionism. The colonialist outlook desired to transplant a European 'space' in Palestine so that the settlers would feel at home and be surrounded by an atmosphere similar to that they had lived in Europe".

"Nature is fighting back against the occupation after 70 years. The European trees are newcomers, extraneous to the Palestinian climate and landscape. Ben Gurion thought that by evoking a European vista, settlers' longing for home would be soothed"

Mansour added: "According to the historical agricultural studies, some of these earth terraces go back thousands of years, and show human efforts to cultivate grapevines, olives and figs. These crops preserve soil moisture: a secret discovered by Palestinian farmers. As for the Zionist movement, from Haifa to Jaffa, from Nazareth to Galilee, they planted European pine trees. You can see that for example on the lands of the depopulated villages of Ma'alul, Farradiyya and Kafr 'Inan in Galilee".

He continued: "Nature is fighting back against the occupation after 70 years. The European trees are newcomers, extraneous to the Palestinian climate and landscape. Ben Gurion thought that by evoking a European vista, settlers' longing for home would be soothed.

Nature has had to bear 70 years of this unnatural tampering and has rejected it. European cedars are quick to burn and cannot handle the heat and climate of our region. In contrast, on the way to the Rameh village, Shaghur region and Maghar and Deir al-Asad, all of the lands are planted with olive trees, which have been at home here for over 1000 years".

Burned forests around the Eitanim hospital in the mountains eight kilometres west of Jerusalem, 18 August, 2021
Burned forests around the Etanim hospital in the mountains eight kilometres west of Jerusalem, 18 August, 2021 [AFP via Getty Images]

Umar al-Ghubari, a researcher and political educator on the Nakba and Right of Return, who also organises visits to the destroyed and depopulated Palestinian towns said: "During the Nakba, the area surrounding Lod down to Beersheba was ethnically cleansed in its entirety. All of the inhabitants who lived in the Palestinian villages in these areas were uprooted and expelled.

The fires have stimulated a newfound Palestinian interest in these villages because their ruins have been uncovered as well as the agricultural terraces – the terraces were a distinct feature of the Jerusalem mountains. Israelis claimed that these steps were signs of Jewish heritage from the biblical era, constructed during the Kingdom of Judah in the land of Canaan more than 2,000 years ago. This is a myth fabricated to enforce the Zionist narrative.

The way in which the land is divided indicates agricultural practices of the Ottoman period, and which were the product of Arab Palestinian fellaheen (agricultural labourers). The Israeli forestation drive violently usurped Arab Palestinian spaces and forcibly transformed them into European colonial ones.

"The JNF dealt with trees as though they were soldiers performing a duty for Zionism – helping it both to take over the land and to conceal the crimes of the Nakba"

The JNF dealt with trees as though they were soldiers performing a duty for Zionism – helping it both to take over the land and to conceal the crimes of the Nakba. The fires revealed once more the ruins of houses where massacres took place".

He adds: "When we travel to Jerusalem we see green mountains. Greenifying the land had a deceptive intent: it aimed to hide Palestinian history from the public domain and prevent it from entering our awareness.

The fire has helped us approach the truth and has peeled back a layer from the colonisation project. We should be grateful for this. Although fire is a destructive force, it can also be cleansing. Here it has reintroduced into our collective consciousness the Palestinian identity of the region - the ethnically cleansed regions of West Jerusalem and the countryside of Ramla and Lod to Beersheba, which are now covered in settlements.

It has helped us to make out the villages destroyed in 1948: Suba, today known as Kibuts Tsova; Saris, today Shoresh kibbutz; Bayt Umm al-Mis, today Ramat Raziel; Kasla, today Kisalon; Bayt Mahsir, today Beit Meir; Dayr 'Amr, today Etanim hospital; Sataf, today Ha Sataf; Khirbat al-Lawz, today Har Eitan; 'Ayn Karrim, today Ein Kerem; al-Jowra, today Ora; al-Walaja, today Aminadav; Khirbat Jabaa and Khirbat al-Umour, today Givaat Ye'arim and Ishwa, today known as 'Eshtaol".

Ghabari concludes: "All these buried villages were ethnically cleansed. Not one Palestinian family remains to bring these villages back to life. The JNF hid them with trees and forests. These village names have long been absent from the Palestinian consciousness. As for the original Palestinian farmers - they know the land and talk to it. They understand its nature and climate. Their relationship with the land is a world away from that of the colonisers, who have forced themselves on the region and violently abused its land".  

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition. To read the original article click here.