The bike as an instrument to erase the past (and to resist)

Cycling through Israeli nature parks, where forests cover the ruins of Palestinian villages

For some it is a natural park with a beautiful cycling infrastructure, for others an erasure of the Palestinian past. MO* journalist Pieter Stockmans cycled with Israeli and Palestinian cyclists through West Jerusalem — the same region, but with different perspectives. Cycle tourism here is a means of indoctrination, but also of political awareness.

Translation of this article is provided by kompreno, using a combination of machine translation and human correction. More articles from MO* are included in kompreno‘s curation of the finest analysis, opinion & reporting — from all across Europe, translated into your language. Original source.

“Palestinian sites of trauma and memory are replaced by spaces of relaxation and entertainment for Israelis. This mechanism is deeply rooted in the psyche of Israelis.” So writes Israeli historian Ilan Pappe in his seminal work The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine.

The many nature parks in West Jerusalem are a boon for cyclists. But when the state of Israel was created in 1948, thousands of Palestinians were expelled from the area. Zionist militias destroyed their traditional farming villages. For decades, the inhabitants and their descendants have lived in overcrowded, poverty-stricken refugee settlements.

Over the ruins, agricultural terraces and orchards of the villages, Israel has built not only new Jewish settlements, but also nature parks and tourist infrastructure, with cycling routes and information panels about historic Hebrew sites.

“Whoever relies on the information panels of the Jewish National Fund in the nature parks will never know that people already lived here and who they were.”

“Expropriation was coupled with the process of giving new names to the conquered and destroyed places,” Pappe writes in his book. “A ‘naming committee’ with Bible experts and archaeologists was to israelise Palestinian geography.”

This constitutes until today the work of the Jewish National Fund (JNF). On behalf of Israel’s public land administration, this private foundation manages 13% of state land in order to “reclaim Jewish land” with donations from Jews worldwide.

“If they follow the JNF’s information panels in the nature parks, visitors will never know that people already lived here and who these people were,” Pappe writes.

The historian calls these information panels on cycling routes “part of a pervasive mechanism of denial that Israelis put in place. With a fanciful mix of history and tourist tips, they completely erase from Israel’s collective memory the thriving Palestinian community that was wiped out in a few hours in 1948 by Jewish forces.”

Every year on 15 May, Palestinians commemorate the loss of their land in 1948 and the modern-day erasure of their culture. The event is known as the Nakba, Arabic for “catastrophe.”

I cycle through the nature parks with Kobi and Naama Peor, two Israeli cyclists from Modi’in. They welcome the work of the Jewish National Fund. The cycling infrastructure in the parks makes for wonderful days on two wheels. At no point in our conversations does the destruction of Palestinian villages come up.

A few days later, I ride through the same nature parks with Anas Dadou, a Palestinian mountainbiker from Bethlehem. On gravel roads, closer to the forgotten places where the villages once were, he reads this landscape differently.

And yet the Israeli couple and the Palestinian cyclist are equally proud of the same nature. The area is in Israel, so Kobi and Naama show their own country. But Anas also guides me through this area as if it were his country. After all, Israel was founded in Palestine.

“You cannot create two states here anymore, consider Israel and Palestine as one country,” Anas will constantly repeat.

President’s Forest, where the village of Sar’a once was

With Israelis Kobi and Naama, I cycle past President’s Forest. Before 1948, the Palestinian village of Sar’a was located here.

“This is an attempt to de-Arabize names, geography and history.”

On 14 July 1948, the Zionist militia Palmach expelled all 390 inhabitants, shelling the village with mortars and dynamiting houses. After 1950, a new village was built on the site of the Palestinian village. It was given the old Biblical name Tzora, after the place where Samson, the Old Testament Israelite judge, was born.

The JNF also planted pine trees at the site “in memory of Chaim Weizmann, Israel’s first president.” The remaining ruins of Sar’a are explained as “archaeological sites.” Ilan Pappe, the Israeli historian, speaks of “an attempt to de-Arabise the site, its names, its geography and especially its history.”

In his book, Pappe does not mince words: “In Israel and large parts of the world, the JNF is seen as a respectable ecological agency diligently planting trees and paving the way for nature parks. But their real mission is not primarily ecological, but to cover the visible remains of Palestinian villages with trees and stories. To eradicate any memory of those villages.”

“Ecological awareness, Zionist ideology and erasure of the past go hand in hand. The JNF is ecologising the crimes of 1948.”

Sataf: a destroyed village becomes a tourist site

The first climb on our bike ride is a beautiful tarmac road through the Martyrs’ Forest. The JNF planted this forest in 1946 in memory of the victims of the Holocaust (as it explains here).

The climb appears on my GPS device as a 14-kilometre col. At the summit, at 700 metres, we have a drink at Sataf Café. There we get a beautiful view of the distant valleys and hilltops of the Judean Mountains.

A group of Palestinian schoolchildren make an excursion through the olive groves on the flanks, towards the ruins of Sataf.

The name Sataf refers to the ancient Palestinian riverside village that was at the bottom of the valley before 1948. Ilan Pappe writes of that village: “In 1949, Jewish immigrants from Arab countries were sent here to take the houses of Sataf. Only when these new settlers proved unruly did the JNF decide to turn the village into a tourist site.”

“The naming committee found no connection with Jewish sources. The name Sataf remained.” Yet there appear to be “Israeli trees” in Sataf. This can be read on the JNF’s webpage on Sataf.

“Here you can see agriculture from Biblical times,” the JNF boasts. But it was here until 1948, when Zionist militias destroyed the Palestinian village.

“The Arab village of Sataf was abandoned during the Israeli War of Independence”, the JNF writes. The houses and agricultural terraces are said to have “fallen into disrepair,” and small pieces of irrigated land are “a remnant of an ancient culture that has almost disappeared.” There are “orchards of Israeli trees — olives, grapes, figs, almonds and pomegranates.”

The website further explains that JNF staff rebuilt the agricultural terraces and irrigation canals in the 1980s, “with help from the JNF’s friends in Switzerland.” Thanks to these efforts, the JNF states, “today we can see terrace agriculture as it was practised in Biblical times.”

However, that type of farming was practised here until 13 July 1948, when the Palmach Zionist militia attacked the Palestinian village and dynamited the houses.

Zochrot, an Israeli NGO, maps the destroyed Palestinian villages. “The population of Sataf was Muslim,” the organisation quotes from All That Remains, an encyclopaedia by renowned Palestinian historian Walid Khalidi on the history of these Palestinian villages. “The land was planted with grain, vegetables, olives and fruit. Villagers sold their produce in Jerusalem markets. The area around the village spring turned into an Israeli tourist site.”

But in Sataf Café, Kobi, Naama and I only talk about how wonderful it is to cycle here.

Ein Kerem: a “trendy neighborhood”

In Ein Kerem, we are closest to the city of Jerusalem. 75 years ago, Ayn Karim was a lively Palestinian town. It was one of the largest municipalities in the Jerusalem district, with 3180 inhabitants, mosques and churches, two schools, a bookstore, a pharmacy, a theatre, sports clubs and a scouts movement. The inhabitants lived off olive and grape cultivating.

150 Jewish families took up residence in the abandoned houses. The village center was restored. It now houses coffee and ice cream bars and restaurants.

On 18 July 1948, Zionist militias began shelling Ayn Karim with mortars. According to Israeli historian Benny Morris, many villagers had already fled in April after hearing about what had happened to Dair Yassin, a village four kilometres away.

There, the militia had cold-bloodedly shot the residents. The massacre caused many residents of surrounding villages to flee out of fear. The same year, 150 Jewish families moved into the abandoned houses of the Palestinian residents of Ayn Karim.

The village centre (visible in this video) was restored and now houses coffee and ice cream bars and restaurants. “Ein Kerem is an ancient village with Christian, Muslim and Jewish heritage. It is very cosy. They have delicious ice creams there,” says Naama.

In the urbanised area around Ein Kerem, it is not easy to see any of the “Biblical” scenes, but here and there we still get a view of the flanks and valleys covered in olive trees and agricultural terraces. These areas are now protected as part of Ein Kerem National Park, where beautiful cycling infrastructure has also been built.

“It’s the first time I’ve cycled on this bike lane,” says Naama as we ride along a fresh bicycle path between the hill sides and through the Kerem tunnel, right through the mountain.

Al-Walaja: physical and mental apartheid

On the other side of the Kerem tunnel, Rephaim Stream Park begins. The road, accessible only to cyclists, climbs like a col with hairpin bends to a height of 850 metres. The Nakba, the disappearance of Palestinian culture by turning existing villages into parks, continues here to this day.

A long trail winds down the mountain flank across the valley. It looks like a wound cutting right through the agricultural terraces on the hillside. It is the annexation wall that Israel built to incorporate Jewish settlements in occupied Palestinian territory into Israel. From behind the mountain, the sounds of an Islamic muezzin calling for prayer can be heard.

The sound seems to come from another world. And so it is for Kobi and Naama — another world. For them, this is Rephaim Stream Park, one of Jerusalem’s many nature parks. But we ride across expropriated farmland of the Palestinian village of Al-Walaja. The centre of that village is on the hilltop across the valley. It is like a foreign country where Kobi and Naama never go.

The cycling infrastructure, the roads, the annexation wall: everything is constructed so that the physical and mental space in which cyclists move, is Israeli at all times. Palestinian town centres are behind the wall and agricultural land in front of the wall, separated from their Palestinian owners.

I decide to break out of this physical and mental apartheid. A few days later, I will go cycling in Al-Walaja.

The ‘local inhabitants’ are Palestinians, who are cut off from their olive trees by the nature park.

In the middle of the climb, Kobi and Naama want to show me a water source. Four Israeli teenagers are swimming in it.

An information panel from the JNF reads: “The ancient olive trees on the terraces reflect the dedicated care of local inhabitants over the centuries. This led to a unique cultural landscape. The springs will be restored and developed for the benefit of the growing number of visitors. Water was of paramount importance in the past, but also today.”

The fact that those “locals” are Palestinians, who are cut off from their olive trees by the very nature park, is mentioned nowhere. The “dedicated care” is the livelihood of these Palestinians until this day, but is explained as a relic of the past that Israelis can visit during walks and bicycle rides. And the “ancient spring” used to be a water storage for the farmers of Al-Walaja.

Natural beauty on the ruins of Aqqur and Deir as-Sheikh

With Israeli cyclists Kobi and Naama, I descend the wide asphalt road for 15 kilometres through the valley of the Sorek. This is one of Israel’s longest rivers, from the Judean Mountains near Jerusalem to its flowing in the Mediterranean Sea.

At the point where the Rephaim flows into the Sorek, the Sorek Nature Reserve begins. And our next ascent also begins. This takes us higher and higher above the riverbed. Unsuspectingly, we enjoy the beautiful view. But somewhere down there in the valley were the Palestinian villages of Deir as-Sheikh and Aqqur.

With Palestinian mountainbiker Anas, I ride along gravel roads in the valley where the villages were. The road undulates up and down like a rollercoaster through the gorge, along the river.

Suddenly, we see a signpost to the old train station of Deir as-Sheikh. The ruined village was on the old railway line from the coast to Jerusalem. The dilapidated and abandoned little station is listed as a “place of interest” in hiking trails.

The gravel road winds on, between ever-higher mountain sides, past increasingly spectacular rocks. Somewhere around here was Aqqur. Palestinian historian Walid Khalidi writes: “Olive trees surrounded the village on all sides. The adjacent slopes, covered with wild trees and herbs, were used for grazing and as a source of firewood.”

His fellow Israeli historian Benny Morris writes that the village was taken on 14 July 1948. On the site, the JNF planted pine and cypress trees in memory of influential American Jews. In that forest, the ruins of Aqqur are still visible.

The surroundings are paradisiacally beautiful and peaceful — a great contrast to the impoverished refugee quarters around Bethlehem, where residents and their descendants live today.

“Abandoned” orchards in Ajjur/British Park?

Anas takes me to the next nature park, in the plain between the Judean Mountains and the coast: British Park, created by the JNF with the support of British Jews.

Criss-crossing on a 13-kilometre single track mountainbike trail is thrilling. Is Anas bringing me here because he wants to share that feeling with me as a passionate mountainbiker? Or as a Palestinian who wants to emphasise that this nature park covers the village of Ajjur, which was here before 1948?

The challenging mountainbike trail descends and climbs to the highest point of the nature park, right through the former agricultural lands of the Palestinian village. The many old wells still bear witness to this past.

The JNF itself says this: “We have laid out the park with scenic routes, footpaths, lookout points, recreational areas and picnic areas. The abandoned orchards are still flourishing.”

In a recent past, these were not “abandoned” orchards, but the livelihood of Palestinians.

At the top of the Ramat Avishur plateau, 375 metres above sea level, we reach the summit exhausted. An Israeli family holds a picnic there. The tea they offer us tastes delicious.

Anas talks to them about experiences in Hebron, Tel Aviv, Bethlehem. These are cities in Israel and occupied Palestine, but they seem to be talking about the same land, as if they share it. “If only we could, as equals,” says Anas as we drive down.

It has become dark. We ride into occupied Palestine again. There, at the military checkpoint, we put our bikes in a taxi van and drive back to Bethlehem.

Al-Walaja: Palestinian tradition, Israeli story

A few days ago, I cycled with Kobi and Naama across former farmlands of Al-Walaja. Now I ride alone to the village centre, to the world behind the wall.

From the farmlands annexed to Israel, I first have to ride eight kilometres to an Israeli checkpoint in the town of Bethlehem, and from there another six kilometres on the other side of the wall to the village centre.

I climb out of Bethlehem past churches and centuries-old houses. Again, the wall cuts across an olive tree valley to separate an Israeli settlement road — between Jerusalem and the Jewish settlement of Gilo — from the Palestinians. Before me appears Har Gilo, once started as an extension of Gilo on land belonging to Al-Walaja. A few years ago, Israel built the wall here too, to annex Har Gilo.

A gravel road plunges down. Suddenly, an incredible image appears: the setting sun casts misty, orange rays over the olive tree terraces deep down in the valley. A shepherd passes by with his sheep. Is this a remnant of paradise as we know it from the Bible, the charming farming villages embedded in the valleys and on the hilltops?

It still exists, but the agricultural terraces of Al-Walaja are being annexed within Israel’s Rephaim Stream Park on the other side of the wall, turning living agriculture into a story. It is ironic that actual traditional — Palestinian-Arab — agricultural life is being destroyed in order to tell the story — on an information panel — that it was once Hebrew.

Battir: preserved but incorporated into Israel

From Al-Walaja, I ride along a gravel path on the mountainsides towards Battir, a Roman-era village that feels like an Italian mountain village. Whereas Al-Walaja is threatened, Battir could successfully resist turning its ancient agricultural way of life into a park. It has even been recognised by UNESCO as a world heritage site.

In 2012, the Israeli defence ministry wanted to build the annexation wall right through Roman terraces and water sources. To this day, residents irrigate their crops in the valley with that Roman infrastructure.

The village of Battir successfully resisted turning their traditional way of life into a park.

But the Israel Nature and Parks Authority allied with the Palestinian villagers this time. It was the first time an Israeli government agency could successfully change the route of the wall, and Battir was preserved as a Palestinian village. Unfortunately, it was a pyrrhic victory: the new route would not separate the village centre from its lands but simply annex Battir to Israel altogether.

Resistance in Battir was also successful in 1948, and then also, it was rare. Local leader Mustafa Hassan ensured the fleeing population could return to the village, and Battir continued to exist. A Roman well has carried Hassan’s name ever since.

The 1948 armistice line ran through the village. “Here we are on that line, the Green Line. Do you see anything?” says Anas when I cycle here with him. The Green Line is the supposedly recognised border between “Israel” and “Palestine” (the West Bank), but in the real world there is no border anywhere.

“Look there, this is Battir’s primary school,” says Anas. “It’s in Israel. While Battir’s shop, where we just bought food, is in Palestine. That doesn’t make sense.”

The real border here is defined by the obligation of Palestinians to apply for a permit, at the Israeli army. “Since I started cycling seven years ago, I don’t think about asking for a permit anymore,” says Anas. “I take my bike and ride wherever I want. This is my country too.”

“If you consider this one country, then so do I. I am a human like you.”

Suddenly, Anas stops at a bridge over the gravel road. “A few months ago, I bumped into two Israeli soldiers at this point — a strange sight, in the middle of nature. They asked where I was from. I said, ‘Bethlehem, Palestine.’ The soldiers said I was not allowed to come here. But I replied, ‘You are from Tel Aviv and are allowed to be here, in a Palestinian village. If you consider this as one country, so do I. I am a human being like you. I am just a cyclist.’ At the end of the conversation, they looked at me in surprise and said I could continue riding.”

Al-Qabu/Begin Park: “Swiss Palestine”

After the bridge, a gravel road pulls through the valley of the Rephaim and Sorek rivers. It looks idyllic, a bit like Switzerland. “We sometimes call this Swiss Palestine,” says Anas.

He does not mention it as something to be proud of. “There were many Palestinian villages here,” Anas continues. “They are now covered by European tree species, planted for this nature park.”

After the destruction of Palestinian villages, such as Al-Qabu, which had existed since Roman times, pine trees were planted over them in the 1950s. That became the so-called Begin Park. It was named after Menachem Begin, Israel’s sixth prime minister, who was a member of the Irgun terror group before 1948. Among the trees, the ruins of the mosque can still be seen.

Historian Ilan Pappe believes the JNF opted for conifers rather than Palestine’s native flora “to give the country a European look.”

Some Palestinian refugees want to commemorate the villages buried under the forests, but it is the JNF’s job to prevent that.

Anas thinks the bicycle is an ideal means to visit the sites of the former villages and commemorate them that way. “Golda Meir, an Israeli prime minister, once said that older Palestinians would die and younger ones would forget,” he says.

“An old man once showed me here the place where his village once was, in tears. I want to bring young people here on bicycles and tell them about the villages. We will never forget.”

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