The JNF trail: sun, cycling and shabbat

“Life in Israel can be difficult. A six-day work week for many. Mandatory military service. Maintaining a sense of normalcy in a region that has been plagued by wars and terrorism. With parks, forests, historic sites and recreation areas developed by JNF, Israeli citizens can enjoy much needed respite from the pressures of daily life.”

JNF website

We awoke on Saturday morning, the 7am alarm scarcely indenting our deep sleep,  finally opening our eyes to the world at 10am. Picking our way through the soggy clothes we had flung off the night before, opening the door to a world whose night time rain now sparkles off the trees in the sunshine. Delighted to see the blue sky hanging above us.

We make tea, munch on some peanut butter and banana topped oatcakes and attempt to cleanse the mess we have muddied about the room.

Then panniers on, and off we go – to find the JNF bicycle trail that isn’t too far away.



It doesn’t take long to get back into a steady cycling rhythm – the bliss of off road biking. All the memories and smells and treasures from our cycling days come back to us. This is what we love. To be on our bikes. To meet the world like this, with our eyes wide open, on two wheels. How could we be doing anything else?

As we swoop past olive trees and the beautiful wild flowers that bloom on the sides of the path, we can’t help but think of the friends we have left behind, on the other side of the wall, whose last words to us now frame the picture before us: “we wish we could come with you”, “we’d love to go cycling and camping in Palestine (the Israel of today)”.

We heave ourselves up hills, one bike – the one we affectionately call “the tanker” – unable to move below 3rd gear, another bike ridiculously heavy with the bulk of our possessions, and the third with an oh so wobbly back wheel. We are quite a sight! Puffing up these hills, rolling down others, bumping into men in lycra with light mountain bikes – faces of leisure and bemused expressions.



We pass endless forests, every so often discovering tall stone pillars bearing the signs of the JNF/KKL. The JNF are prolific commemorators, we learn. We pass innumerous signs memorialising Jews who were killed during the Holocaust or in fighting for Israel; particularly memorable is the epic Lehi memorial which commemorates those who died from this extremist Zionist militia. Also known as the Stern Gang, the Lehi used terror tactics – such as assassinations and bombings – to further their ambitions for a Jewish state. The Lehi were also involved in the Deir Yassin massacre, where over one hundred Palestinian villagers were murdered on the 9th April 1948.


This selective memorialising is another method to erase the existence of the Palestinians. The strange pillar of the Lehi memorial fits into a narrative of the Jewish struggle to create Israel. All along the path, the carefully chosen monuments present a picture of the suffering of the Jews and their eventual success; quite literally one side of the story. A history given in order to create new memories for this land. To replace one story with another.

As a granddaughter of Jews who fled to the UK from Poland just before the war, I wince at this pattern: using the catastrophe of the Holocaust as a justification to hide the memory of another people who lived here – and the injustice served to them. Holocaust memory must be preserved, but it cannot be used as an excuse to deny another people’s trauma and uprooting. It cannot be used to oppress another.

These forests and parks are full of trees planted by the JNF and full of picnic benches. We pass hundreds of them. Will there ever be enough picnicers to fill them? They are perched, desperately, as if to say WE WILL BE PARKS. WE ARE NOT PALESTINIAN VILLAGES ANYMORE. COME AND HAVE A PICNIC.


We shudder, because we see through it. We know what lies beneath, the stories of our friends and the people we have met in the refugee camps before this trip, stories that go untold, but that sit beside the trees and these picnic benches if you really look. And when you do, it’s pretty haunting.

(See Eitan Bronsteins work on this; he explains the Palestinian past in all the JNF forests and parks – most of which lie on sites of destroyed Palestinian villages.)

Israel will never be the same for me again. The past few years have been hard, remapping a land that for so long served as the site of my homeland, as a spiritual centre – slowly coming to see it as another land. A land that is the homeland of many Palestinians and Palestinian refugees who have never been able to return after they or their families were expelled in 1948.

This land is multiple places at once. and that must be known. Lisa Malki once said, “one country cannot at the same time be another country”, but here it is. Meeting and clashing in the national imaginations of the Israelis who live here and the Palestinians who remember living here.

We snake on golden paths for miles and miles. We meet two Germans who are walking Israels National Trail for an art project called the ‘4th Pole’, we meet a family driving a buggy, the older guy in the front wearing a KKL hat. We proudly give them our cards, hoping that they might learn another version of the story of the trails they are taking.



Our bellies begin to rumble, but it’s Saturday – the Jewish sabbath – and we haven’t seen a shop in a long while.

Red roofs loom on the hill up ahead; at least we can ask to fill up our water bottles, we think, hoping that we won’t disturb families as they honour Shabbat.

We trudge up, knock on the door and are met by smiling eyes who say “of course, of course”, grabbing our bottles. We wait on the doorstep, the hills looking so beautiful, the scene so tranquil. Another guy comes to say hello and offers us a tray of round brownie balls. Hydrated and sugar boosted we get back on our bikes.


We cycled just a few yards when a jeep attempted to pass, windows were rolled down and two young Israelis smiled out. “Are you hungry’? one of them asks, and I yelp YES before i can stop myself.

The guys confer and let us know animatedly that they are off on an adventure to have a picnic and have lots of vegan food and Arabic coffee and they’d love us to join. We don’t need much persuading and ride on a bit before finding a nice picnic spot, where we sit to a feast of fresh bread and raw tahini, quinoa, avocado, wonderful salad, and roasted aubergine.


It is one of the more curious parts of this trip: worlds colliding – the three of us, adventurers on a political mission meeting two wonderful Jewish Israelis, who readily offer us anything they possibly can. Eager to hear about our trip, but more eager it seems, just to connect, to share the world they live in, to chat about life post army and to discover, to our surprise, common values.

Our experiences of Palestine, though, could not be more divergent. One told us that he had only ever met the ‘bad Arabs’, that he had only ever been to the West Bank in the dark, on missions, to arrest said ‘bad Arabs’ who were planning to bomb Tel Aviv or something. We listen. Thinking of all the stories of the young boys who get taken by the army in the middle of the night; our friends and neighbours. Boys who have done nothing wrong. People who are non violently resisting their illegal occupation and a perpetual Nakba. ‘Intelligence’ obtained by torturing people. The thoughts come in waves, our minds filled with the faces of those who have suffered at the hands of this Israeli army policy.

But we listen, and we witness the loveliness of the occupying forces a couple of years on, without uniform and with the clarity of a few years spent travelling, reflecting, and thinking.  It is simultaneously interesting, bizarre, and humbling. How can this man before us have been so active in such an obscene occupation? None of it makes sense. But it feels important to have these strange pieces of the puzzle with us now.

It can be difficult, faced with such an immense, complex, structure of oppression, to direct energies in a constructive way in order to support Palestinians in the struggle for justice.  The Israeli forces that we see exercising their control over Palestinians throughout the West Bank every day are just the front line of this occupation. Behind them are institutions such as the JNF. which are instrumental to the process of dehumanisation that permits this systematic mistreatment of Palestinians.

It is a strange encounter.

We sip our tea, leaving some of the more difficult questions unsaid.


Imwas: Beneath the Park and Picnic Tables


Wet and bedraggled, we sit down to a great cycling lunch across the road from Canada Park. Walnut bread was involved. Pretty perfect.

It was an exhausting couple of hours swooping up and down the hills on our heavy mountain bikes, and we gave a woop of excitement and achievement on arriving at the gigantic sign marking the entrance to the Jewish National Fund’s Canada Park. Hang on! We shouldn’t be excited, we remind ourselves. This sign, this park, is part of an elaborate game of make-believe. Pretending to live in a different world; a world in which Palestinians never existed.


As we walk around the park, guided by the wonderful Umar, who works at Zochrot and has a great treasure trove of maps and information to explain the site, the dynamics of this game become clearer. The range of techniques employed by Israel and the JNF to vanish the Palestinian presence from this land; the towering fir trees, the selective historical narratives, the winding paths .



A sign points to a Roman bath – a building which was used by the villagers of Imwas for hundreds of years – but is portrayed as an archeological structure from Roman times. Another sign, accompanying an amazing panoramic view, marks all of the Israeli towns, settlements, and Kibbutz in sight, whilst determinedly ignoring the fact that there are numerous Palestinian villages in our sight line too. Information signs tell you what they want you to see and, simply, effectively, the landscape is distorted.





Imwas was the scene of fierce fighting in 1948, but ultimately the Jewish forces were unable to occupy it. It is among a handful of Palestinian villages which managed to successfully defend itself.

That brave fighting bought the villagers just 19 more years on their land.

In June 1967, the residents of Imwas were surprised to hear Israeli soldiers shouting at them to evacuate in the middle of the night. Many took just a few belongings, believing that they would be able to return in the coming days. Others hid out nearby, but were soon rounded up by the Israeli military and herded on to trucks, bound for Ramallah and Jordon.

With the Palestinians out of the way, the next step was to prevent their return, and ultimately deny their existence. Cue dynamite and bulldozers.

Within two weeks of the forced evacuation of the villagers from Imwas, their homes, school, post-office, and mosque had been blown up and razed to the ground.

Five years later, the Jewish National Fund was opening the gates of Canada Park on their land.


And 48 years on, here we are. Here, standing drenched in the pouring rain hearing the stories of Imwas. Witnessing how the Jewish National Fund has transformed a village into a forest. Watching awkward trees cover up a story that can never be truly erased. The memory of Imwas burns through this seemingly idyllic park – the injustice of this place will be remembered. You cannot remove every stone, and every single one that remains stands in testament to the village that was.




Salah, Ajjur on the right of return, a one state solution and fresh milk everyday


Salah talks to us from the rooftop of the Lajee Centre in Aida Refugee Camp, Bethlehem. Notice the separation wall and Israeli settlement in the background.

Salah was born, grew up and now lives with his wife and children in Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem – where we started our journey. His name is Salah Ajarma, but he is known as Salah Ajjur; as is common in many Arabic cultures, he is referred to by the place that he comes from. Salah has only been able to visit the area which gives him this name a handful of times in his life – on the occasions he has been granted permission by the Israeli authorities.

Salah now manages the Lajee Centre; an organisation based in Aida Refugee Camp which works to provide refugee youth with cultural, educational, social and development opportunities. He speaks to us about his work, his roots in Ajjur and his hopes for the future.

The voices you hear in the background of the recordings are the sounds of children playing in the 700sqm playground created by the Lajee Centre.

See below for recording transcripts

“A piece of paradise” (01.45)
(Salah talks about what Ajjur means to him)

“We don’t have any rights if we don’t have the right of return” (01.16)

 “We used to have fresh milk every day” (00.46)

“We want to live in a safe place” (00.36)

“A one state solution for everyone” (01.11)

“We start to know what freedom means” (00.25)
(Salah talks about the visits to Europe which the Lajee Centre arranges for refugee children to gain an understanding of what it is like to live not under occupation)

Recording Transcripts:

1. “A piece of paradise”
You know, I’m not see the paradise once but what people think how paradise it will be. As my grandmother she say most of the time it’s a piece of paradise. When she told that, she told that when she smiling and also you see her face in a minute change – like she smile and she sometimes feel sad when she say that. And its really, I want to say, it’s a part of – or a piece of paradise.

Because, Ajjur, its like, you know, it’s a piece of Palestine, its an open area, it’s a nice mountain, it’s a nice area, also it’s like that’s our roots is there – it’s a lot of old people, their bodies under that mountain or that area, it’s a lot of stories, like what our grandmother or our father told us about his memories there and when he was like working the field, or when he play his games or when he take his breakfast or when he talk about the food or the fresh milk or the fresh meat, it’s a lot of memory. Ajjur it’s mean the life, it’s mean the future, it’s mean the rights, it’s mean a lot of things.

2. “We don’t have any rights if we don’t have the right of return”
The right of return it mean for me – as a Palestinian, we don’t have any right if we don’t have the right of return, so the right of return is the main right for us as refugees. We live in our area, it’s Bethlehem, it’s part of Palestine, and the land of Aida Camp, where we grow up is part of Palestine, but to live as a refugee in your country, it’s more difficult than to live as a refugee in Europe, its more difficult, so you know how much you will be strong when you see your area, your land, your home and you can’t return back so it’s really for me, the right of return, it’s not that I want to go back to take all my grandfather’s land, it’s for me, to go back, to choose, at least, as a refugee, for the right of return – first, like, let me to choose, if I want to return back or not. This is my right – to choose.

3. “We used to have fresh milk every day”
You know my grandmother, she sometimes cry, she told me we used to have like fresh milk every day, she cant remember how many cows she’s own, or how many sheeps, or how many trees and the field. And she told me, how do you think when we start to go as a group of women, just to collect water from the villages after the nakba. And, you know, most of the Palestinian refugees or most of the Palestinians, they used to be farmers, and farmers – they not care about how much money they own, they care how much land, and animals, and fields they own, and that’s when you take one and throw him in a refugee camp and you tell him, ok – start your life.

4. “We want to live in a safe place”
You know we are sitting here now, they are watching us from the towers, there are many walls around us. So when you see walls and towers these kind of colours of Israeli soldiers, so it makes your life difficult. It’s like, when you look to trees… we don’t want to live behind the sea, but we want to live in a safe place. That’s what we need as humans. We don’t want to fight Israel because they are Israel, or they are Jew, no – we fight Israel, and we have the right to fight them because they have occupied us.

5. “A one state solution for everyone”
The best solution, if you ask me about what you think about the best solution in Palestine, I’m with people for a one state solution for everyone. I don’t want to chase the Jew out of Palestine. We host them, when Europeans chase them out of Europe, we host them as a Palestinian. My grandfather or my grandmother, she has told us, we – they used to come poor and we give them homes and we give them land and we give them work, but after five, six years, when they start to be strong in Palestine, in Jaffa or in villages, so they attack us and they do for us what happened for them in Europe. So our conflict, in our area, it’s not a religion conflict, it’s a conflict for people who chased out of their home, and people stay there. So, how you imagine if you are from England and people just chase you out of your area and they told you, ok, live there in a tent and start your life.

6. “We start to know what freedom means”
I remember on our first trip with our children to England, so our children they told us it’s the first time they sleep without nightmare, they sleep without problem, we’re not thinking about soldiers coming in the night to arresting one of our family so we feel how what is mean freedom, now we try to be free.

Ajjur: Golden Ruins in British Park

We awake this morning bleary eyed but warm after a surprisingly good sleep in the garden of a friend of the guide who took us around Sar’a and Deir Aban yesterday. We had had a late night, writing up the blog in the tent in frenzied exhaustion, a pot of houmous in the middle of us. Freezing and knackered, we slept well. After a lovely breakfast with the family and some minor bike adjustments we were off.

To Ajjur.

Ajjur, which in 1944/5 had a population (predominantly Muslim) of 3,750 with over 500 houses. Ajjur had two schools and two mosques and would hold a weekly market every Friday. Wheat and olives were Ajjur’s chief crops.

Now the lands of Ajjur sit on land claimed by the Jewish National Fund (JNF) inside British Park, and on the Israeli town of Agur.


Ajjur is only a few kilometres from where we had stayed and we were given good directions on getting there and finding the ruins. We traversed some beautiful hills, as the sun climbed higher and higher and then, like it always is, we spot the golden ruins on the hillside. We slow down, sigh. We can see cactus – sabra trees everywhere, and one large ruin, with many arched doorways and windows, another building behind it which looks lived in (it is) and another furthur up the hill, stately and roofless. We stop and take some photographs from this vantage point, before making our way down the hill, laying our bikes down and heading into the ruins.




They are extensive and overgrown. Where once life, chatter and prayer might have found these walls, weeds and pigeon shit find them now. And graffiti. Lots of graffiti.


We sit amongst these bones of Ajjur. Of all the places we have been, I am hit hardest being here. Maybe because you can really sit inside the rooms here, or maybe because it feels so close to home.




As we cycle for miles around this area, roads surrounded by JNF parks and forests – we spot the familiar trademark of the JNF/KKL and their blurb of what the park or forest is, no mention of course, of the Palestinian history that lies beneath. The lands  of Ajjur were seized by the JNF and transformed into British Park using funds raised through JNF’S UK branch.


And so it is me, my family, and my friends who planted the park that would try to make us forget the inconvenient truths of the Palestinian villages that lay beneath it. It was our pounds, in those blue and white tin boxes that helped destroy all this. We thought we were planting trees. But these trees have been used as a weapon of war, a weapon of forgetting and erasure.  Trees planted to hide the memory of another people. And it is devastating to witness.

These buildings, or what remains of them are so beautiful, I imagine the flesh growing back over the rubble, the sounds of laughter and song again filling these fields and doorways – their owners inside them proud and happy to live in such a beautiful place. Beside these hills! Enjoying all these prickly pears in the summer. People lived here.  And now they are gone. They were forced out. This is different to seeing a pile of skulls or a mass of hair or a heap of ash that indicates the mass cleansing of a people. Here, it is quieter and more subtle – it is a pile of rubble.

Between 23rd and 24th July, 1948 there was a military assault on Ajjur by Zionist forces, causing most of the population to flee. In October 1948, Ajjur was occupied fully as part of operation Yo’av, which sought to occupy both southern and central areas, and the remaining residents were expelled.

Now these refugees wait on the other side of the wall, in cramped refugee camps holding the keys to their houses, waiting to return. Knowing these people makes it so hard to see these villages today. When you meet Palestinian refugees you cannot forget them, you cannot forget their stories. You cannot stand at the ruins of their villages without thinking of them. You cannot talk to Israelis, particularly ones who have recently emigrated, from, say, the UK using the law of Jewish return without thinking of the Palestinian refugees who are not allowed to return.

Salah Ajarma from the Lajee Centre at Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem talks to us about what the Right of Return means for him.

And life under occupation.

Hear more from Salah

And so in Ajjur, I feel it all; the loss and the absence of the people who were once here and the tragedy of their ethnic cleansing. I feel their history in this golden stone and it is heavy.

We call on the British public to know this history and to demand the British charity commission revoke the charitable status of the Jewish National Fund which has been so instrumental in the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people and the erasure of their memory.

And we encourage you to join the Stop the JNF campaign which is part of the broader BDS movement, a Palestinian call which aims to put pressure on Israel until it complies with international law and ends the illegal occupation of the Palestinian people.


Remember, in Hebrew

Sar’a: Brides and Burials

Michael grew up gazing up at the hill from Kibbutz Tzora to the clearing on the mountain where Sar’a once stood, though he never knew of its existence. From his childhood, he remembered one grand stone building which had once been the centrepiece of the kibbutz. They called it “Bet el Sheikh” (The house of the Sheikh) but he knew nothing of its history before the establishment of his kibbutz in 1948.

This was the house of the Mukhtar (village elder) of the village of Sar’a.

It was not until the age of 40 that Michael learnt that this site had once been home to an entirely different community. He was intrigued. He looked into it. It had a population of 400, he read. 400 people? In one house?

A shy laugh crossed his lips as he recalled his first reaction to the discovery of the existence of Sar’a; “I had no idea that this was the only building which had been left standing” he continued, “nobody ever told me.”

Since then, Michael has been coming to terms with the history of his home, and has dedicated himself to unveiling what was hidden from him for so long.

Sar’a was entirely cleansed of its approximately 400 inhabitants in July of 1948. Later the same year, a group of young Israelis, fresh from serving in the Palmach forces, were granted the land as the result of an ultimatum given to them by the Israeli military. To remain in the army, or build a Jewish community on this land and stay there for at least two years. Choosing the latter, these young people were also committed to an important part of the deal – they must ensure that none of the expelled villagers return.

Michael shows us photos of the early days of his kibbutz, before it moved down the hill to the site on which it stands today. “Look” he says, flicking through black and white images of young, grinning faces, “they are so happy – and here” he points somewhere in the background of each one “is the village.” We join him in marveling at this bizarre juxtaposition; a youthful laugh, captured in a moment, behind the joyful subject – a picture of sorrow. A cheerful moment, so transient – as we expect it to be, but a camera can preserve it for generations to come. A village, stone houses, a community dating back to the 1500s – these shouldn’t have to rely on appearing accidentally in the background of photographs to preserve their memory.

At the time, these young people were living with this emptied village, an eerie backdrop to their new lives. The house of the Mukhtar stood a little way from the village, and this is where the kibbutz first established itself, enjoying the spacious building as their key communal area. Michael wonders what they thought of their macabre surroundings. He interviews some of those, now elderly, faces from the photographs. Their response; “we didn’t like it”, “we were frightened of it”, “we didn’t really think about it’. The kibbutz moved down the hill only 16 months later. The story goes, to be closer to the fields. Michael ponders about whether their uncomfortable, silent neighbour had something to do with it.

Michael is thoughtful and quietly emotional as he tells us these stories. He is someone who seems to truly be able to put himself in others’ shoes. A quality many could benefit from. He speaks of some of those he has interviewed, asking challenging questions about how they felt about building their new lives on the land – and in the homes – of others, so recently dispelled. “Sometimes they don’t want to speak to me” he says, “and I can understand this.”

The same sentence was uttered when he talked about Sar’a’s refugees – who ended up mostly between Qalandia and Dehesheh camps. He has managed to meet several, and is desperate to hear their memories, to see the land through their eyes. “But it can be difficult for them to trust me, of course – I am the occupier, I am always conscious of this.”

The village remains were demolished in 1967, and a very thorough job was done. The house of the Mukhtar continued to be used as the venue for kibbutzim gatherings – the mysterious place of Michael’s childhood memories – but was also demolished several years later; the reason given that it had become unstable.


Site of the old well

Two of the Palestinian villagers, Sara and Miriam – who were aged 5 and 20 when they were forced to flee this village on the hilltop with beautiful panoramic views – were able to return last year to visit their homeland. Michael accompanied them and invited some of those first members of Kibbutz Tzora to join. One woman, Ella, accepted the invitation. Ella was 20 (one of the oldest members) when she first came to the land.

They walked, they talked, they discovered that both Ella and Miriam had got married on the land. “We are both brides of this place” Ella had said to Miriam. A comment Michael mentioned was a little hard to hear, it implies an equality between them. But it was moving, he remembers, to see the connection between these women of the same age, who made their vows in the same space, and lived their lives in different worlds, only a handful of kilometres apart.


Miriam found the spot where her baby son was buried in the village cemetery; recognisable only from the distinctive iris leaves bursting from the soil. Here, Michael had learnt, they used to bury their dead with three bulbs of an iris flower; one at the head, one at the heart and one at the feet. So little evidence of Sar’a remains today. But each springtime, a patch of iris flowers blooms, and we imagine – in a couple of month’s time – purple petals blowing gently in the hill-top breeze, giving away the life that once was. A call from those who passed away before their village was taken, to those they left behind. Now the villagers of Sar’a, who have lived a life of exile, desire, at the very least, to be put to rest on the land which grips their hearts.



The last remains of Sar’a poke out between the trees in the JNF forest

NB: Michael is in the process of making a short film about Sar’a, he hopes to release it next year. It will be called “The iris only blooms in May”.

We have many more photographs and stories of Sar’a to be uploaded in the near future.

Dayr Aban: Stories that live

We approached the gorgeous hills of Dayr Aban in the bright sunshine. With around 2,000 inhabitants in 1948 it is one of the larger sites we have visited. Sixty seven years ago the village was spread across these slopes; the arched stone remains really give a sense of how stunning it was. What a beautiful village it must have been.

IMG_7776  IMG_0309IMG_7808

Today the land is still beautiful, but fir trees have been planted to transform the hills, to disguise its former life. It didn’t take much searching though, to see the homes that once were. Poking out among the greenery, doorways and walls reveal that this place is more than just a nice bike trail or a great place to hike.

Or somewhere to get married… Today on the land that used to be the bustling village of Dayr Aban, there is now a private company operating a wedding venue. A crisp garden is walled in by the same stones the villagers once used. A modern building of wood and glass walls, filled with round tables set for a celebration, stands metres away from the old ruins.


Michael – our local Israeli guide – had told us about this last night, had showed us photos of the empty Palestinian homes decorated for the use of the newly married couple; shaking his head sadly he’d muttered “bad karma, if you ask me…” It sent us reeling today, to see this setting of Palestine’s catastrophe, used for people to celebrate their love.

דיר אבן דרך ארץ 2 דיר אבן דרך ארץ 7 דיר אבן דרך ארץ 8 דיר אבן דרך ארץ3 דיר אבן דרך ארץ6

Last five photos from:

We climb the rocks and wonder through some of the village, marveling at the architecture, soaking in the beauty, reflecting on the outrageous injustice of it all. Refugees from Dayr Aban living in cramped camps, while there is all this luscious space, the place of their roots, their memories, and their homes, so close. And they are not allowed to travel the handful of kilometers to even see it. It feels absurd.


We knock on the door of the wedding venue. The manager is around: smartly dressed, approachable. Michael starts by asking him what he knows about the old Palestinian village, “no, I don’t know the name,” he shrugs. “The Arabs ran away – there were some rumours spread and they left.” As simple as that. “Nobody died”, he is quick to add. “That’s the story, nothing to cry about”.


Dayr Aban was surrounded by armed Jewish forces in January 1948. It was a punitive expedition that targeted Dayr Aban and nearby Zakariyya and Bayt Nattif, in response to an Arab attack on the Jewish Gush Etzyion settlements south of Bethlehem. The Palestinians of these villages weren’t involved in the attack. From its birth until today, collective punishment is a tactic regularly employed by the Israeli military.

That wasn’t the last of the fighting. The village was later completely occupied by Zionist militia in October 1948.

Last week I met with refugees from Dayr Aban at Dhesheh refugee camp in Bethlehem. Naji Owdah, who is the director of the the buzzing Laylac social centre, told me about organising a trip to the village with the elderly members of the camp, including his mother who was a young woman in 1948.

He described the momentary disorientation the new trees caused the Nakba generation, the tearful delight as his mother washed her face using the water from the old well, and the smell of olives that still emanated from the old olive press, which had been covered for so long.

Naji also showed me an incredible book. A detailed history of Dayr Aban, filled with facts and figures. It featured family trees of all of the families in the village, as well as pages on births and deaths. In the year 1948, many deaths were recorded. Martyrs, Naji explains. He relates stories his mother had told him, of hiding in a cave on the hill side, hoping to wait it out, until the fighting passed. She said that those who returned to the village, to retrieve belongings or because they thought it was safe, were never seen again.

We challenged the man before us, framed by the doorway of a wedding venue on the land of Dayr Aban. “People did die”, we say, “there was fighting here, a battle. People did not simply run away, they were forced from their land”. “Well, that is another story, I don’t know about that.”

And whilst he chooses to stand there and talk about this for 20 minutes, he says he is not interested in meeting some of the refugees from Dayr Aban who will come to visit a week later.

Outrage and horror bubble close to the surface, but we keep calm, as we are repeatedly told “they’re just stories”. “People need to get on with their lives”.

We have talked a lot here about stories. About finding the stories and retelling them when they are not being told, about hunting for them under new architecture and vast forests. But they are never just stories. They are people’s realities that shape their lives to this day.

This isn’t a history that can be relegated to the past. Palestinians are still living the reality of the ethnic cleansing of 1948. A third generation is living the reality of life as a refugee; forced to ask Israel – the occupying force – for permission to visit their former home, or their capital city, or the sea. Permission that is expensive, if it can be obtained at all. A third generation is living within the increasingly cramped space of the refugee camp, without space to breathe or think, with limited water, low standards of education, and increasingly caged in by the wall and check points.

These are not just stories.

We walk down the hill, leaving the old stones, olive trees, and almond blossom glittering in the sun. Glorious gems of the natural world, which somehow humans have made so complicated.

In the future, we hope to upload some video clips of meeting refugees from Dayr Aban, and perhaps some transcription of our enlightening conversation with the manager of the wedding venue. Right now our office is a tent on a chilly night, but watch this space!

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Al Walaja: walking the ruins, cycling a storm

We awoke this morning after a troubled nights sleep; cold in our bones, the wind (and the dogs) howling all night.  We unzip the tent and peek out, a bright sunshine appears over the top of the towering hill on the other side of the valley.

Are we really going to do this? We ask each other in the freezing gale, remembering the words of friends who assured us the weather this week would be terrible.  But we load our stuff and get on our bikes – the wordless response for our latest cycling predicament.


We pick up the first bit of the JNF Jerusalem to Tel Aviv trail, thankful that we borrowed mountain bikes as we traverse boulders on a very rocky path.

Blue and white strings tied to the trees next to us flap in the wind, indicating that we are on ‘Israel’s National Trail’. We are in search of its secrets. This morning, we are looking for al Walaja.

We reach a juncture – to our right the path carries on, getting rockier and rockier, to our left is a road – with a checkpoint and two male border police. A checkpoint? Here? We thought we were done with them after Bethlehem. But we need directions. So we ask them.

“Walaja?” They laugh. They don’t speak much English and do not know what we mean. We eye their big guns and walk away.

We realise it makes sense to take the road, through the checkpoint, to Walaja.  We check with one of the soldiers as we pass, confirming that one of the Israeli villages we found on the map close to the ruins of Walaja is in this direction.
“Yes, this way,” he confirms.
There. There it is  – the almost tangible absence of memory of a village who stands right here along this road.

We cycle along the railway line, past beautiful prickly pear, olive and almond trees, blossom indicating that at least spring is on the way. The land is lush and green, and there are terraces on the hillside, dotted with red and yellow flowers.

After a while I notice golden stone houses, (abandoned) beside us:
“Is that it?” I ask, stupidly, feeling the hairs stand up at the back of my neck. A ghost town amidst this beautiful landscape. Being on a bicycle helps you notice things, alert to the weather and friendly passersby, appreciative of the flowers and the views, witness to lost Palestinian villages.


We stop and cross the road with our bikes, leaning them on the barrier that separates the busy main road from the village ruins. We climb over it and clamber down the ditch on the other side.  There are no signs indicating what these stone structures are, no dedication, no apology. Just the golden ruins of a people lost to this land.
We stare up at the houses, and begin to wander amongst them. It feels like we are forensic scientists searching for memory, scouring the land for evidence. The houses stand hollow, long-since emptied of life. Now we can only imagine, fill in the pieces of the village that was.


Al Walaja was attacked and occupied in October 1948; however the Zionist militias were not able to hold on to the village, and were forced out by a successful counterattack by Arab forces. Most of the village was handed over to Israel according to the terms of the armistice agreement signed with Jordan on 3rd April 1949, (some of the land remained in the West Bank – more on this later). The Israeli army entered al Walaja, along with other villages handed over in the Jerusalem area, in the weeks following the signing of the agreement.

Today, three major structures still remain. The rooms look large and beautiful, the ceilings are domed, the windows and doorways arched.

To the north, beyond the road, amongst the terraces of olive trees, lies the railway. The Jerusalem – Jaffa railway, connecting two great cities. Both of which are now closed to Palestinians. As we watch a train passes, no one from Walaja can take that journey now.

Many cars pass too, but there is no place to stop. We wonder how many of those passing by look to their right and consider these remains. Not many, in their speedy machines, we suppose. Though the stone houses stand so close, and so clear, they are almost invisible. This is the architecture of forgetting.

Walaja, I want to tell you blossom grows from the stone walls of your houses
Walaja, I want to tell you your ground is covered in red and yellow bouquets.
Walaja, you are beautiful.
but you are naked and lonely without your people.


We leave Walaja with heavy hearts. We continue on and the wind is even stronger. We battle against it, up our first big hill, cycling through cloud. Freezing and exhausted, we can’t but admire the views. Gorgeous olive groves in the valley below and mountains poking through the mist.


Some way up we see the Palestinian village of al Walaja today. The 1949 armistice line divided the village, giving a large part to the new Israeli state; Palestinians from the village cannot visit this part, they cannot wander among the old stone houses, as we did. But perhaps that is the least of their worries. Al Walaja is emblematic of the continuing Nakba. Since 1948, more and more of their land has been stolen and destroyed. Today, Israel’s apartheid wall encircles the village; isolating its inhabitants, controlling their movement. The villagers have no security, as the Israeli forces encroach ever deeper onto their land, destroying olive trees and houses as they go.

With the weather against us, we don’t have time to stop in the village today, but please have a read of this article for more on their story. 

Tired out, and wanting to get provisions while we are temporarily back in the West Bank, we stop for food. Dried date paste, a bag of nuts, houmous (obviously) and pretzels. Perfect cycling snacks. We get speaking to the shopkeeper and tell him our plans.
“I’m originally from Jaffa”, he chimes. Everywhere there are stories. Everyone is from somewhere. Nobody will forget.

We pass another checkpoint, not even needing to show our passports, we are reminded again how privileged we are: to be taking this trip, to be crossing these lines with such ease, to find these villages and these experiences.


Snaking our way up and around hills, with icy rain in our faces, every 10 minutes it seems we are passing the sites of villages that were destroyed. Begin Park – where al-Qabu and Ras Abu ‘Ammar once were. The American Independence park, where Allar, Dayr al-Hawa, Khirbat al-Tannur, Jarash, Sufla, Bayt ‘Itab, Dayr Aban once stood. JNF sponsored erasure.



But there isn’t time to tell all these stories today; eyes tired from the wind, hail snapping in our faces, we head towards Mahseya, where we will meet an Israeli contact who will tell us about the villages that once stood around the site of his Kibbutz.

By the time we meet him, the fog has thickened, we are exhausted, and we decide that a cup of tea is the only course of action. We hear the story of Michael, born in a Kibbutz a few kilometers from the villages of Sar’a and Dayr Aban; until recently he was completely unaware of the history of the Nakba. After a couple of years of determined research, he has much to tell, and we sit with steaming mugs in hand, listening to the history of the land around us.