September 19, 2015

The village Al-Za'im

Close to Jerusalem, along the highway to the Israeli settlement of Ma'ale Adumim and the Dead Sea, one can find the Palestinian village Al-Za'im.

In previous posts I have mentioned that I visited Ahmad's village. So, let me tell you somewhat more about the village itself.

Al-Za'im is the home of Ahmad's family since their tribe was moved by Israeli forces from the Tel Arad neighbourhood in the South, in the early fifties. The villagers of Al-Za'im are partly Bedouin and partly non-Bedouin Palestinians, virtually all Muslim. It's quite a large village, where tradition and modernity mix. The village, with over a thousand inhabitants, has buildings of four stories and more, and many little shops run by families. Some families live in huts with their flock, on the outskirts of the village. Occasionally houses are demolished by Israeli authorities, since people don't have building permits. However, building permits are not given, which forces the villagers to build anyway. There are many people in the streets; mostly men. Young men in modern clothing and older men in jalabiya (traditional dress) mix. Women, if around, all have their hair covered. It's full of cars, also on the road sides; some new, but many far beyond repair. Occasionally, a horse, donkey, sheep or camel may cross your way.

Life in Al-Za'im is difficult, but relatively calm. People are friendly, and riots are scarce. Garbage is mostly burned and water is distributed in tanks. As in many suburbs, life in the village used to be oriented toward the city, Jerusalem, with many people either working or having relatives there, like in Ahmad's family. People went to Jerusalem for shopping in the Old City, praying in the Al-Aqsa mosque, and visiting one of the hospitals at the Mount of Olives. This was until the establishment of the separation wall, about a decade ago, which kept Al-Za'im on the Palestinian side of the wall, in Area C (Israeli administration).

The wall, which you can see from all parts of the village, changed everything. With its grey concrete, barbed wire, and soldiers, it is a symbol of oppression. The villagers who hold Israeli identity cards can cross the checkpoint, like Jewish Israelis and foreigners, but recently the opening hours of the gate were limited to only few hours a day. If the wall is closed, one can still reach the village from another direction, which makes the drive half an hour longer, which is a real bother. Those who have only Palestinian identity cards cannot legally cross, even if they are offered work in Israel or have family members living just on the other side.

As a result of the separation from Jerusalem, finding work became a major problem. In the past, Israelis would come to have their cars fixed in one of the many garages. However, Israeli authorities put at the entrance of the village a big sign claiming that it's not allowed to hand over cars to a garage in Palestinian Territories. This caused a drastic reduce in the number of Israelis, limiting even more the possibilities of income for the villagers.

As a consequence, the villagers of Al-Za'im orient themselves toward the nearby town Al-Eizariya. This small desert town is only a 15 minutes drive from the village, but buses are infrequent and not always stop at Al-Za'im. Since Al-Eizariya is up the mountain, it's for most villagers too far to walk.

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