Rajah Shehadeh
New Statesman
July 3, 2008 - 4:11pm

We stopped to eat our picnic breakfast of Nabulsi goat's cheese and tomatoes - which we had to eat whole because I could not risk being stopped on the road carrying a Swiss army knife

My walk in the Ramallah hills with a radio journalist was going well. The weather was balmy, a bulbul was warbling away, grey-green olive trees dotted the terraced slopes. We came upon some natash plants - a highly politicised thistle used in Israeli military courts as evidence that a particular piece of land is uncultivated and is therefore "public land", and so can be confiscated for the "public": Jewish settlers.

We began our walk at the top of the hill near the village of Masra'e Qibiliya, not far from Birzeit University. As the cool air swept my face, I attempted to explain the dramatic changes that have taken place in the Palestinian landscape over the past 60 years. To our right was the new Jewish outpost of Horesh and further north the sister settlements of Talmon B and C, dominating the hilltops of what I call Palestine and the settlers call Eretz Yisrael. Down in the valley was the centuries-old Palestinian village of Ain Qenya, with its ancient spring (or ain), above which stood the settlement of Dolev. All these settlements lie to the east of Israel's annexation wall.

As we walked down, I thought of President Bush's speech to the Knesset on the 60th anniversary of the State of Israel. Using religious language, he described the founding of the state as "the redemption of an ancient promise given to Abraham and Moses and David - a homeland for the chosen people, Eretz Yisrael".

Danger in the hills

Before I'd left home, my wife had made me promise to be cautious. Recently, a young Palestinian out hunting birds had been shot in the back by Israeli settlers not far from where we were walking. Another middle-aged man on an afternoon stroll near his home had been shot to death by the Israeli army. I chose a route that avoided both the army post and the hill where Dolev stood.

Halfway down the hill we stopped to eat our picnic breakfast of Nabulsi goat's cheese and tomatoes - which we had to eat whole because I could not risk being stopped on the road carrying a Swiss army knife. We sat in the shade of the cliff known as Urud el Hamam ("the meeting place of pigeons"), then continued down the steep slope to Ain Qenya. On the way down, we made several stops to record the morning sounds of the nearby village, the cock crowing and the pedlar selling his wares, as well as the more sinister sound of the cement mixer pouring concrete for new housing at the Talmon settlement north of the village.

Who really lives here?

Just as we arrived at Ain Qenya's main and only street, we noticed a car parked at the side of the road. The driver wore a knitted skullcap; next to him sat a younger man with the side locks worn by ultra-religious Jews. The driver rolled down his window and asked: "Who are you?"

I thought he might have mistaken us for Israelis who had lost their way. Reassuringly I said: "I live near here."

Looking me in the eye, the settler said in his poor English: "In different from you, I'm living here, really living here, not like you."

I wanted to know what he meant by "not like you". But the settler did not answer; he rolled up his window and began to dial the army on his mobile. We stood by awkwardly until the Palestinian driver of a van parked nearby called us over and invited us to hop into his vehicle.

"This settler is from Dolev," our driver said. "He's constantly driving down to the village and making trouble. Sometimes he blocks the road with his car, or he brings younger people who throw stones at cars and homes."

When we attempted to turn up the hill to Ramallah, the settler swerved and blocked the road. I was wondering what lies he would tell the army, when - finally - he let us pass. After passing through the army barrier and entering Ramallah, I had the distinct feeling of arriving at a ghetto surrounded by hills forbidden to its residents. As I was driven to my house overlooking these hills, I wondered how much longer it would be before I will be prevented by fanatics from "really living here".

Raja Shehadeh's "Palestinian Walks: Notes on a Vanishing Landscape" (Profile, £7.99) won the Orwell Book Prize 2008


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