NABI SAMWIL — Nawal Barakat never thought she would return to Nabi Samwil. She and her family left the tiny hamlet northwest of Jerusalem during the Six Day War of 1967, withdrawing together with the Jordanian army back to Amman.
But when her father-in-law fell ill in 1992, Barakat, 48, and her husband decided to pick up and relocate to their ancestral village.
“My husband wanted to return to Nabi Samwil; me — not so much,” Barakat laughs. “I grew up in Amman, which is really nice. My family members all still live there.”
Many things have changed in the village since Barakat’s relocation 22 years ago. The men of Nabi Samwil used to work in construction or retail in the northern Jerusalem Jewish neighborhood of Ramot — just a mile down the road — spending their money in the nearby Palestinian villages of Al-Jib and Bir Naballah.
But all that ended when Nabi Samwil was separated from the rest of the West Bank by the security fence in 2007, with a manned IDF crossing exclusively servicing the hamlet. Meanwhile, Israeli police started arresting and fining villagers entering Jerusalem illegally for work, as no physical barrier currently exists between Nabi Samwil and the Israeli capital.
“Three years ago things got much worse. It’s become like a prison here. The soldiers at the crossing let almost no visitors in, and the youngsters get arrested [in Jerusalem]. Bail is more expensive than their pay,” Barakat said. Three of her sons and her husband have incurred suspended prison sentences for entering Israel illegally.
According to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 17 Palestinian communities like Nabi Samwil lie west of the Israeli Security Barrier, which physically separates some 27,500 Palestinians from the West Bank and effectively annexes them to Israel. These residents do not carry Israeli ID cards, but can enter the West Bank only via 39 operational gates (out of a total of 66 gates along the barrier).
Tiny Nabi Samwil, with its 250 residents, dots the slope just east of a towering mosque built in 1730 over a tomb attributed by Jews to the prophet Samuel, who gave the village its name. The part of the village surrounding the mosque was demolished by Israel in 1971, which cited safety issues. Residents were moved a few hundred yards eastward and told to re-inhabit some 20 homes abandoned by villagers in 1967.
Today, a synagogue operates in the basement next to the tomb and a small ultra-Orthodox yeshiva (Jewish seminary) functions just outside. In 1995, Israel declared the mosque and the lands surrounding it a national park, incorporating the Arab village, which was built over a Hellenistic Jewish settlement from the second century BCE. According to Human Rights Watch, 10 men from Nabi Samwil are employed at the archaeological dig in the park.
Administratively, Nabi Samuel is the only Palestinian village in the West Bank located within Area C, a subdivision created by the Oslo Accords denoting full Israeli control, both security and administrative, and encompassing all Israeli settlements beyond the Green Line.
Shaul Arieli, a former head of the Peace Administration under prime minister Ehud Barak and an expert on the security fence, said that Israeli and Palestinian negotiators fought bitterly over Nabi Samwil during the negotiations on Oslo’s Interim Agreement in 1995. The Palestinians demanded the village be included in area B, where they wield administrative control.
“The key factor is its location overlooking Jerusalem,” Arieli told The Times of Israel.
The area’s status as a protected Israeli reserve means that residents now face severe restrictions on the commodities they are allowed to bring in through the crossing. Likewise, every Palestinian visitor entering the village from the West Bank requires prior authorization by Israel’s military coordination office.
The limitations placed on Nabi Samwil, raising the unemployment among men in the village to an estimated 90 percent, pushed Barakat into action. In 2010 she founded the Nabi Samwil Feminist Association in a bid to draw small projects from the outside world and employ women locally, while giving them a basic education.
Barakat, a primary school mathematics teacher, partnered with an NGO in the nearby Palestinian village of Qatanna to secure Norwegian funding with which she bought a few beehives. Then came an egg-laying hen project and a small vegetable garden project. Last month, Barakat got the French Consulate to fund a sheep pen for the production of milk and cheese. At the moment, the meager produce is entirely used for local consumption.
“We figured that since there’s no income we might as well sow the land. Nobody here cared about the land before; but now I give every woman a water tank, a generator, a hose and even the seeds, and say ‘sow your land.’ We have become self-reliant in this village.”
Each of the projects was immensely difficult to realize, Barakat recounts. The large black water tanks used to irrigate the small cucumber and eggplant fields were held up at the crossing for two months by the coordination office. The army allows villagers to bring in just one egg tray at a time, so when Barakat managed to buy 400 hens for 10 village families, she decided she would no longer play by the rules.
“The boys loaded the chicken cages on their backs and carried them into the village through the hills,” Barakat says. “Each cage contained 20 hens; and some were transported on donkeys. It took a whole day.”
A spokesperson for the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories told The Times of Israeli in a written response that the Al-Jib crossing allows the residents of Nabil Samwil to import agricultural products for self-consumption, not for commercial use.
“The transfer of goods on a larger scale requires special coordination, or the use of other crossings intended for merchandise,” the response read.
At the moment, Barakat and her women have no aspirations beyond feeding Nabi Samwil alone.
Barakat’s Women’s Association has grown since 2010 to include 50 women from Nabi Samwil and the nearby villages. Instructors come in from the West Bank and Jerusalem to teach classes in micro-agriculture and food production. The women recently sold locally produced baked goods to a visiting group of Arab schoolchildren from East Jerusalem.
“Something like this will happen once a year,” Barakat said. “People from Jerusalem are allowed to come here, but they don’t know about the village.”
Every Friday since December, Barakat and her friends assemble under a makeshift tent in the village along with a handful of Jewish activists, to protest Israeli land confiscation and house demolitions in Nabi Samwil. Subjected to the strict rules of Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority since 1995, none of the homes in the village can receive building permits for expansion or renovation. Additions to Barakat’s home were demolished three times in the past two years.
Cooperation between villagers and Israeli authorities does exist, however. The village leadership recently met with Israeli and Palestinian coordination officers to discuss the permits needed for commodities. During the blizzard in December, IDF armored vehicles plowed through the snow, allowing villagers to enter Jerusalem and stock up on food.
“They did good with us that day,” said Mariam, a local resident.
Nevertheless, the situation as it currently stands is untenable, Barakat told The Times of Israel. Residents demand free access either to the West Bank or to Jerusalem.
“For the time being we’re peaceful, but pretty soon we’ll raise hell. We refuse to continue living like this, confined from all directions.”