One of our legal successes was the removal of “Ulpana Hill”, known to Palestinians as Jabl Artis. Recently we even managed to have one of the land owners visit his land. This is what he had to say.
One of our greatest and most significant successes has been the removal of “Ulpana Hill,” a neighborhood illegally built near Kiyrat Hayeshiva in Beit El on private Palestinian land. Following our petition, the High Court of Justice ruled that the structures built there be removed. But despite the fact that the Court acknowledged that the land belongs to the Palestinian residents and may not be used for private purposes, access to the land – physically located within the settlement of Beit El – is very limited to Palestinians.
At the end of October, we managed to grant one of our petitioners, Kharbi Ibrahim Mustafa Khassan, permission to visit his land, though he was not allowed to cultivate it. Another petititoner, Khaled ‘Abdallah ‘Abd Al Ghani Yassid – the son of the original petitioner, Mahbuba Muhammad Said Yassin, who passed away during the legal procedure – was not granted permission. We are continuing to act to change that. Prior to Mustafa’s visit to his land, we interviewed him.
Let’s begin with the basics. What is your name and age? How long have you been living here?
My name is Kharbi Ibrahim Mustafa Khassan, and I will be 74 years old in two months. I was born here in 1940. I studied in the U.S. and am a business management professor. I used to teach ùà Beir Zeit University, and now I’m a pensioner. I last visited the land in 1996.
Did you try to go there without a legal procedure?
They did not allow us to go to the place; they declared it a closed military area, and any one who tried to get close would be shot. Someone was actually shot to death there in 1996. We don’t know whether he was shot by soldiers or by settlers.
[Note: To the best of our knowledge, Kharbi’s plot was never under and official military closing order, and this was probably an oral order, unsupported by writ – Yossi Gurvitz]
But this closed military zone was closed to Palestinians, not Israelis?
How did you use the land before it was taken?
We have grown grapes on our land since the 1940s, and in fact we used to send those grapes to Tel Aviv. In 1947, as a young boy of seven, I was responsible for taking the grapes down from the mountain on a donkey to a truck. Some people from the town of Lod would ask anyone who had grapes to put them in boxes, and they would take them to Tel Aviv. The grapes were fantastic. Everything changed after 1967.
What happened then?
The land was declared a closed military zone, and the soldiers used to train there. We were allowed to visit the land only one day a week – Saturday – because there’s no training on Saturday. But if you are a farmer, you cannot cultivate the land in one day. And I know that people who grow olives still have permission to visit the land for only one or two days, and only during certain hours. What can they do? Therefore many people simply abandon the land.
So the land was used since 1967 for training purposes, and since 1996 was turned into a settlement?
We don’t know exactly when. We did not have regular access to the land. Many times they brought trailers there and turned them into homes. Many people in the area were afraid to go to court.
But you weren’t afraid.
Fortunately I have American citizenship and since I live in Jerusalem I also an [Israeli] ID. We went to court because of the aid of people like Yesh Din. Otherwise…
Do you think that people without these privileges – American citizenship or Jerusalem residency in Jerusalem – wouldn’t go to court?
They may have access to the court, but they are afraid to go to the court.
They have the potential, but not in reality?
Exactly. If you live in the Palestinian Authority area (Area A), how can you even get to Jerusalem? And those privileges are not as they once were. The Israeli ID doesn’t mean much. All that matters is that you are an Arab. In the past when the soldiers saw the American passport, they’d put it on their heads (what does this mean?). But in the 1990s, I saw them put it on the ground. It is getting difficult to enter Jerusalem: going through the Qalandia Checkpoint can take two or three hours. Why?
Yes! Sometimes it takes me six hours to travel 500 meters. The soldiers decide when to open and close the checkpoints. They spend time conversing among themselves, drinking coffee and making jokes for half an hour. They don’t care. And when someone talks back, they search them…
Are you happy with the results of the process?
Absolutely. There is no doubt we are happy to get our land back. Nevertheless, I need permits whenever I want to reach my land. I am sure they will come up with some problem at the last moment. [We should note that Kharbi actually was allowed to visit his land, accompanied by our attorney, Adv. Anu Lusky] I’m supposed to come alone, without tools.
Did they allow you a shovel, at least?
You’re supposed to work the land with your bare hands?
I’m not allowed to work the land! The land is legally ours; the court decided so. In practice it isn’t ours. They told me I have to go there with Israeli soldiers; I refused. I don’t trust these soldiers. I would only go if accompanied by a Yesh Din lawyer.
Given all the restrictions, why are you happy with the results?
We are happy that the buildings were removed, that the court recognized our legal papers, and we hope that the land of the entire town (1,500 dunams) will be restored. We want to have roads so that we can visit our lands.
The next question may sound offensive, but I hope you don’t take offense. It is meant to provoke, not to offend. You are probably aware that in Israel, we have something called “The Milky Protest:” Young people don’t have any economic prospects and are thinking about emigrating. And here you are, an American citizen, living under hardship most Israelis can’t even imagine – and yet you stay, even though you can leave. Why is that?
It’s a very difficult question to answer, but to us, land is very dear. I was born here, my father was born here, my grandfather was born here; my family goes back more than 500 years. In your own thinking, the Jews have lived in Palestine 2,500 years ago – they did not forget their land. They still claim “this land is ours.” How do they say in Hebrew, “If I forget thee, Jerusalem, let my right hand wither?”
First photo: Kharbi Khassan and Khaled Yassid during the interview. photo by Yossi Gurvitz. Second photo: Kharbi Khassan sitting on the remains of the “Ulpana Hill”.