Beit Safafa is a typical stone-built Palestinian village, but its place in the modern history of Palestine is far from typical.
Beit Safafa’s houses dominate the slopes, summits and valleys formed by the hills between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Its people are hearty, tough folk who have remained steadfast and endured both occupation and division ever since Israel’s war of establishment in 1948.
At that time, Beit Safafa was a community of farmers and stonecutters. The stone workers mainly worked in West Jerusalem, five kilometres away. When these neighbourhoods and nearby villages came under Israeli attack in early 1948, some men from Beit Safafa took up arms. Five were killed on April 30, on the first day of the Battle of Katamon, an upper- and middle-class Palestinian neighbourhood where many worked. The survivors only returned home when their ammunition ran out.
Palestinian village volunteers were no match for Israel’s well trained and well armed underground army, the Haganah. Its advance was eventually halted on the eastern flanks of the Holy City by Jordan’s Arab Legion.
Like most other villages in this area, Beit Safafa was swamped with refugees who had fled towns and villages to the west.
By May 15, there were a quarter of million destitute Palestinians seeking sanctuary, shelter and food. Whenever Israeli forces approached a village where expellees had taken refuge, they would flee to the next. Refugees slept in orchards, fields, schools, churches and mosques. Boy scouts collected bread, blankets and clothes; communities cooked cauldrons of rice and lentils to feed the desperate multitude.
Mustafa Othman, a retired history teacher and author, was four years old in 1948. Most of the people of Beit Safafa remained in spite of constant firing from Israeli positions on surrounding hills.
“The Israelis did not come to the village and order the people to flee [as they did elsewhere]. We had Arab soldiers from Jordan and Egypt and Sudan.”
The families from Beit Safafa who did leave went to Bethlehem or adjoining Beit Jala and returned. When the fighting was over, Beit Safafa found itself straddling the ceasefire line between Jordanian and Israeli forces. Following negotiations between the armistice commission, Israel and Jordan, “they put a three-metre fence down the middle of the main street of the village, dividing us between Israel and Jordan. We lived on the Jordanian side, my uncle and his family on the Israeli side. We became Jordanians, the others Israelis.”
He strode to the far wall of his sitting room and took down a large framed photograph which had been published in Al Arabi newspaper in Kuwait, in 1962. The photo showed mainly girls and women dressed in their colourful best on either side of the fence, greeting each other on a holiday.
“We could approach the fence only on feast days. We were not allowed to touch or pass notes. My aunt used to ask me to get her coffee from Bethlehem. The police were very strict. Men on our side left for Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Jordan to get jobs. The village was full of women and children. The men came back to marry or for a month’s holiday in summer. Some built houses” with their earnings.
Othman went to secondary school in Bethlehem and to the Arab University in Beirut; his cousin studied at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where he now teaches Arabic to foreigners.
“I could travel easily in the Arab world, but he could not. The Arab world was open to me, Europe and the US to him.”
After Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967, Beit Safafa was reunified by Israel.
“They took down the fence and called the street [where it had been planted] unity.”
But division persisted. Jordanians remained Jordanian West Bankers and Israelis Palestinian Israelis.
Beit Safafans caught outside by the war were not allowed to return on a permanent basis, live in their houses or reclaim their lands which became subject to absentee property laws adopted after the ethnic cleansing of 1948.
Othman married a kindergarten teacher, Rab’a, who had grown up as an Israeli citizen on the Israeli side of the fence and studied in a teachers’ college in Haifa. She has been teaching for 32 years now while Othman retired due to a heart condition.
“Since she is Israeli, our three sons and daughter are Israelis,” he remarked.
He taught in the local school, the Hand in Hand School for Bilingual Education.
“It is unique. There are separate classes for the two sides. Jordanians follow the Jordanian system, Israelis take the Israeli exams. I taught my students about the tragedy of the Nakbeh while my colleague taught the history of Israel. Israeli students learn in Hebrew, Jordanians have one hour of Hebrew a week. We have two very different mind-sets.”
The fence is gone, but there is still partition.
“Most Israelis from Beit Safafa get jobs in Israel, in hotels, coffee shops, factories. They are not educated. Israel does not encourage them to become doctors or lawyers. Jordanians from the village do not finish high school and seek [unskilled] work outside. The literacy rate has fallen since ‘67.
“In 1948, Beit Safafa had a population of 1,500; today there are 6,000 living in the village and 4,000 dwelling outside. Beit Safafa had 3,314 dunums of land, mostly agricultural, now it has 1,577 dunums of built up land. Before 1967, there were five Christian families living there, now there are 45-50. They came from Nazareth, Jaffa and Jerusalem. There is no church here so they go to Bethlehem [for worship]. On Christmas, the Muslims invite the Christians for a celebration at Mar Elias [a nearby monastery] and during Ramadan, the Christians invite Muslims for a feast at Mar Elias. Our relations are very good.... Ten Jewish families have moved into the village. They keep to themselves.
“Before Oslo, we could not rent or sell houses, but after Oslo and the peace treaty with Jordan, we have been allowed to sell to other Palestinians. Not to Israelis [Jews]. It is forbidden to sell to them. [If forced] I would abandon this house for 400 years, but I would not sell to Israelis.”
Israel grants very few permits to build houses inside the village which is flanked by the Israeli neighbourhood of East Talpiot and the West Bank settlement of Gilo.
Othman’s brother emigrated to Germany, became a physician, worked there for 37 years until retirement and returned after selling his clinic and house there. He had to pay $50,000 to get a permit to build a house on land owned by their father and grandfather. He managed to get an Israeli ID card because his wife is from Kalandia, near Ramallah.
Othman walked me to the door and into the dark street where my taxi waited. We were shaking hands as the siren wailed to honour soldiers fallen in Israel’s many wars and military actions.