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Palestinian village and Israeli town build rare partnership across line

WADI FUKIN, West Bank (JTA) — Mohammed Mansara, a 70-year-old farmer who goes by the name Abu Mazen, indicates with a sweep of his arm the fruit trees and vegetables he grows on his small plot of land in this Palestinian village in the West Bank, population 1,200.

Then he points to a small green hill on the western side of the village topped by a tidy cluster of red-roofed homes. That is Tzur Hadassah, an Israeli community of about 5,000 Jewish residents.

“Tzur Hadassah has such nice people,” he says in Hebrew. “They are great neighbors.”

Mansara could walk from his home to Tzur Hadassah in about half an hour, but it’s illegal. Wadi Fukin sits smack on the Green Line, the demarcation between pre-1967 Israel and the West Bank. A portion of the West Bank security fence is slated to go through the valley, cutting off Wadi Fukin from Tzur Hadassah and from much of what remains of its agricultural land.

Similar stories repeat all along the Green Line, as Israelis and Palestinians jostle over the route of the fence.

What makes Wadi Fukin’s case different is that it has strong allies across the Green Line: Tzur Hadassah residents who buy fresh produce from village farmers, and Friends of the Earth Middle East, or FOEME, an Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian environmental organization that is challenging the route of the security fence here in Israel’s Supreme Court.

Three hundred Tzur Hadassah residents have signed a petition against the fence being built in their valley.

Wadi Fukin and Tzur Hadassah have had a relationship since 2001, when they became two of the first members of FOEME’s Good Water Neighbor project. The project, which now works with two dozen towns and villages, brings together Palestinian and Israeli communities to protect their shared water resources, fostering peace and long-term cooperation based on shared environmental interests.

Tzur Hadassah resident Tamar Gridinger says FOEME’s project prompted her to visit Wadi Fukin for the first time several years ago. A group of Tzur Hadassah residents had been buying organic fruits and vegetables from another source, she says. Then they learned that FOEME had brought in permaculture experts to help Wadi Fukin farmers give up pesticides and return to the sustainable agricultural practices used by their grandfathers.

“When we realized that Wadi Fukin farmers were growing organic vegetables, it was like a gift,” Gridinger says.

Now she and 25 other Tzur Hadassah families participate in a Community Supported Agriculture project, where they pre-buy a month’s supply of fresh produce from the village and pick up their allotment every week. (Israelis may cross the Green Line into the West Bank, but Palestinians need a special permit to cross the line into Israel.)

“Both sides gain from it,” Gridinger says. “We get inexpensive, organic fruit and vegetables, and they earn money.”

Since 2001, relations between Wadi Fukin and Tzur Hadassah have deepened. Wadi Fukin farmers invite co-op members to an annual hafla, or celebration, in the village, and Tzur Hadassah residents have helped villagers navigate the Israeli bureaucracy. When one young villager with leukemia needed weekly medical treatment at Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital, co-op members would pick him up and drive him across the checkpoint reserved for Israelis, saving him hours of waiting at the border.

“I’d never met my neighbors in Wadi Fukin before, and now they have become my friends,” says Gridinger, showing off a scarf Mansara brought back for her from Mecca, where he recently went on a haj, or pilgrimage. “Not because of the ‘great principles’ of the project. Abu Mazen is just a friend.”

Relations between Wadi Fukin are not as good with its Israeli neighbor to the east: Betar Ilit, a fast-growing ultra-Orthodox settlement of some 35,000 residents on Mansara’s side of the Green Line built in part on land originally belonging to the village.

Since construction began at Betar Ilit in 1985, Wadi Fukin’s 11 natural springs have dried up, and when Betar Ilit’s sewers back up, Mansara says, the effluent pours down the hill into the village fields. The Israeli government has sent notices to Betar Ilit to resolve problems caused to Wadi Fukin.

“The main spring is just a trickle now,” Mansara says, showing visitors an empty reservoir where water used to flow. “The water would go into a channel and then to the fields. Now the channel is filled with garbage.”

On March 17, UNESCO declared that the territory of Wadi Fukin and the neighboring village of Battir represent “the best preserved and continuously managed cultural landscape of its type in all the West Bank,” and merit protection as a World Heritage Cultural Landscape.

To farm, the villagers use terraced agriculture, where water from natural springs is channeled into more than 70 manmade pools and used later to irrigate the fields.

“The farmers of Wadi Fukin have been using the same agricultural system for over 2,000 years,” says Gidon Bromberg, FOEME’s Israeli director.

FOEME will use the UNESCO document to back up its case that the West Bank security fence should not go through this valley. Lawyers for the village are arguing on environmental grounds — a first in a security fence dispute, Bromberg says.

The section of the fence proposed for Wadi Fukin is a secondary barrier, Bromberg says. The primary security fence already stands east of Wadi Fukin, circling the Gush Etzion settlement bloc. The Wadi Fukin section is slated to stop just south of the village, meaning villagers, or anyone else, could walk around it and enter Israel.

“It makes a mockery,” Bromberg says. “If you have this open area a kilometer south of Wadi Fukin, why do you need a fence here at all?”

Following objections to the fence’s route in the Wadi Fukin area, a hydrological study and a study of the route’s environmental impact were performed, according to a spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces.

“It was decided that the fence would be constructed utilizing various engineering solutions that will limit environmental damage to a minimum,” the spokesman said, but the plan is still to build it along the original route.

Even if Wadi Fukin manages to get the court to change that, it may only be a temporary stopgap in the inevitable demise of the village’s agricultural lifestyle.

Mansara farms because his father, his grandfather and his grandfather’s father all farmed this land. But none of his five sons have gone into the field. They are doctors, lawyers and engineers, and have moved away from the village.

About a dozen farmers remain in Wadi Fukin, and Mansara is glad his children aren’t among them.

“I didn’t want them to go into farming,” he says. “You can’t make a living from it.”

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