Sitting atop a small hill in the northern fringes of Jerusalem, the small village of Nabi Samwil has seen its fair share of political and religious turmoil over the years. Believed to be the burial place of the biblical Prophet Samuel, the village has witnessed centuries of Jewish and Christian pilgrims, the establishment and abandonment of a Byzantine monastery, and the comings and goings of empires.
But, things have been different since the Israeli occupation began in 1967. Nowadays, the very existence of the village is under threat.
In 1971, Nabi Samwil, which is one of many Palestinian villages that are “unrecognized” by the Israeli state, was declared an archeological site, and its inhabitants were forcefully evicted from their homes. Refusing to leave their lands, village residents re-settled a few hundred meters away.
Last year, during a discussion on objections to planned enlargement of the archeological site’s borders, a senior representative from the Civil Administration, the division of the Israeli army dealing with “civilian” matters in the West Bank, was asked by the villagers’ advocates about the future of the village’s residents. The representative, architect Daniel Halimi, responded by saying that “there is no village there.”
Nabi Samwil, with its makeshift houses, chicken coops and occasional communal buildings, is located in Area C’ – the part of the West Bank over which the Israeli army has full administrative control under the 1995 Oslo II Accord. Despite the centuries-long and continuous history of the village, Nabi Samwil is not recognized by the Israeli authorities. This means that the authorities are providing infrastructure and services for the archeological site, but not for the villagers who were evicted from their homes. Thus, water and sewage infrastructure is improvised by the residents themselves, while the Israeli army forbids improvements to the village’s roads or structures.
Mountain of Joy
Nabi Samwil provides a beautiful panorama of the city of Jerusalem, whose old city is 7 kilometers away. The Christian Crusaders nicknamed the village hill ‘Mont de Joie’ (Mountain of Joy), to mark their happiness on arriving at the site. For Nabi Samwil’s current residents who number approximately 220, the view from their hill taunts, rather than pleases, them.
Since the mid-2000s, Nabi Samwil has been located in the ‘seam zone’ of the Occupied West Bank, sandwiched between the Israeli separation wall and Jerusalem’s municipal boundary. Despite being on the ‘Jerusalem’ side of the wall, Nabi Samwil’s residents are not allowed to enter Jerusalem without special permits, which are rarely issued by Israeli authorities. Access to the rest of the West Bank is limited by the wall, a series of checkpoints, Jewish-only roads, roadblocks, tunnels, and no-go zones.
As described by D., one of the residents of the village who asked to remain anonymous, there are close ties between the Nabi Samwil community and the village of Bet Iksa, which is only a kilometer away: “We have many family ties, we attend each other’s weddings and funerals – as kids we also used to go there for school, walk down the hill and visit each other every day”. Since the wall was constructed in 2007, however, taking the most direct route linking the two villages has become impossible.
Instead, the residents of Nabi Samwil must drive 5 kilometers to Jib checkpoint, their only way of entering the rest of the West Bank. From there, they must drive through the Bir Nabala and Biddu enclave areas, including a passage through a long tunnel connecting both enclaves, situated beneath the Jewish-only road. From here, they must pass the Bet Iksa checkpoint (assuming they are allowed to cross by the Israeli authorities) before finally reaching the village of Bet Iksa itself.
In total, the drive is about 15 km. With (likely) delays at the checkpoints, the journey may take over an hour. By contrast, Jewish-Israelis traveling from Nabi Samwil can easily and freely reach Jerusalem and the nearby West Bank settlements with no impediments along the way.
Israeli checkpoints, together with the wall, have also limited the village’s agricultural and commercial activities. All goods that enter Nabi Samwil are inspected at Jib checkpoint with fines imposed for the transportation of illicit goods, like eggs and fruit tree saplings
D. recalls being arrested at the checkpoint for transporting a sack of barley: “They called a senior commander and threw me at the back of a military jeep. I was then forced to wait for 6 hours outside in a detention area near Qalandyia checkpoint, it was New Year’s Eve and I was freezing till they let me go at 4 a.m” After several hearings at the Israeli military court, D. was forced to pay a fine and was barred for five years from seeking an entry permits into Jerusalem.
Severed from other Palestinian communities, the residents of Nabi Samwil face difficulties in finding employment. Farmers are either barred from entering their land for so-called ‘security’ reasons, or must deal with strict limitations imposed by the Israeli authorities – cultivating crops is allowed, for example, but planting trees is not. Working in Ramallah is nearly impossible, as the wall makes the daily commute too long.
The result is that Nabi Samwil’s residents are slowly abandoning the village. The younger generation is particularly affected by Israel’s suffocating policies, unable to either find work or secure the necessary permits to build homes on their own land. Some have moved to Bir Nabala, on the other side of the wall, where there are educational and municipal services and housing is more affordable.
Some of Nabi Samwil’s remaining residents have had little choice but to sneak over into Jerusalem and work without permits. Fearful of being caught, they return home only on the weekends, despite living a short ride away from their jobs.
A., one of the few remaining young men in Nabi Samwil, explains that “if you sneak into Jerusalem, 90% of the times you won’t get caught,” but “in the 10% when you do get caught, they will arrest you and the next time they catch you, they will punish you double as much.” A. prefers to spend most of his time outside of the village, as “they [the Israeli army] have turned our village into a prison…they have their surveillance cameras everywhere and they see everything that is happening in the village, they know where we go and what we do. I never feel free here.”
As if the presence of Israeli soldiers, omnipresent surveillance, and strict limitations on freedom of movement and access to their lands were not enough, Nabi Samwil’s residents are at imminent risk of losing the little they have left.
The archeological unit of Israel’s military civil administration plans to expand the village’s archeological site to double its current size, with the excuse of attracting more Jewish visitors. This will involve physically blocking Nabi Samwil’s residents from accessing a large part of their village and demolishing a number of houses and agricultural structures.
The Israel Nature and Parks Authority, which oversees Israeli-declared parks in the West Bank, also has big plans for Nabi Samwil. The area was declared a natural park in 1995, on an area of 3500 Dunams – one hundred times larger than the archaeological site. The Nature and Parks authority now proposes a revamping of the Nabi Samwil Natural Park, a plan which would impose new limitations on the villagers’ ability to use their land. Ostensibly intended to improve the accessibility and attractiveness of the site to tourists and pilgrims, the plan calls for demolishing many of the village’s existing houses and restricting building permits to the construction of ‘authentic’ houses, which ‘preserve the character of the site.’
Under the Nature and Parks Authority plan, agricultural initiatives will be further limited and the maintenance of beehives, livestock enclosures, as well as some type of trees will be forbidden on private land. This is not a case unique to Nabi Samwil: Using natural parks and archaeological sites statutes to displace, dispossess or marginalize Palestinian communities has become a widespread phenomenon in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Such is the case in Silwan, a Palestinian neighbourhood in East Jerusalem, and in the hamlet of Susiya in the South Hebron Hills. In all cases local communities are facing displacement, house demolition and severe limitations on their usage of their land as a result of Israeli nature and archaeological authorities decrees, enforced with the aid of the Israeli army and border guards corp.
In 2014, Human Rights Watch issued a statement condemning the Israeli authorities plans, stating that “The Israeli military has choked off Nabi Samwil for years, and it is cruel to now make a tourist attraction out of the part of the village the military destroyed”.
The Struggle Continues
Through political and media campaigns, legal petitions, and various initiatives aimed at improving the village’s access to services and other facilities , the residents of Nabi Samwil are pushing back against the growing limitations imposed by the Israeli authorities. Many of the campaigns are led by the local women’s association, the Nabi Samwil Women Society, which is somewhat unusual in the West Bank. The society has built ties with donors, organized tours for members of the media, and invested tremendous effort in enabling the village’s residents to work as much of their land as possible.
With the help of these local activists, as well as support from the Israeli women’s organization, Machsom Watch, Israeli filmmaker Eran Torbiner produced the short film Nabi Samwil 1099-2099, which brings the story of the village to a wider audience.
Despite being trapped by the wall on one side and the invisible boundary of Jerusalem on the other, the residents of Nabi Samwil continue to engage in a daily struggle to remain on their land – something they have been doing for a long while.