Orange Against the Dark Night

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On Wednesday we were in Bethlehem, the tear gas capital of the world. There is so much tear gas sprayed here, just blocks from Israel’s separation wall, that the gardeners at Dar Jacir are trying to find out what plants are most tolerant of the chemicals in tear gas, which is manufactured somewhere in Pennsylvania. Our hosts, Emily Jacir and Muhammad Saleh, brought out a crate full of empty tear gas canisters in the middle of the terraced garden, and members of our group touched them, to warnings that they shouldn’t touch their eyes until they washed their hands. 

Later we went to the Tent of Nations, a family farm surrounded on all sides by Israeli settlements. The family has been fighting to keep this land for decades. There’s a brand-new yeshiva, a religious school for Israeli Jewish boys, behind barbed wire on the hill next to the Tent of Nations, which we walked past on our way in. From the hillside in the afternoon you could hear the children laughing and yelling, and it struck me: The children are being used as barricades, their voices ringing out to tell the Palestinians that they are here, the settlements edging ever closer, and raising up a new generation of settlers convinced that this land is theirs. 

Two images that stood out: Tent of Nations is dark at night. The Israeli government won’t grant permits for water infrastructure, electricity, or new construction, so the only new infrastructure is underground. They’ve drilled holes and wells for water storage, and installed solar lighting inside of caves, which are where the family and volunteers sleep. At night, our guide Nancy said the settlement’s bright electric streetlights burn orange, like flames in the distance, surrounding the farm on all sides. “We are here,” say these glowing electric lights all over the hillsides, standing in their anonymous rows. 

The other image that stood out is related, also orange against the dark night. 

In Battir, we visited the Terrace restaurant, a gorgeous stone structure above layers and layers of historic terraces filled with farms practicing ancient strategies of irrigation and permaculture. Hassan told us a story: in 1948, the Nakba, the entire village was scared out by threat of violence from Zionist soldiers. But 13 of the villagers decided to stay and defend the city, not with arms but by making it seem as though no one had left. This is not a land without a people. The coming Zionist armies surrounded them, so at night the villagers lit campfires around Battir and then surrounded them with structures of stone and stick, creating darting shadows. From a distance, it looked like people were gathered around the fires. The 13 villagers loaded up sticks on their backs to look like guns, and walked from fire to fire like soldiers defending their village. Fire after fire flickered orange in Battir, saying, “we are here.” 

The Zionists never came in to raze the village, and the following year the 13 went out to the refugee camps and brought back more than a thousand people to the village. Today they practice permaculture and have had Battir’s terracing declared a World Heritage Site, to prevent Israel from building a wall through their farms.