26 Jul 2011. Source: Palestinenote.com by Joshka Wessels

Fahmi Manasra walks to the spring he remembers from his childhood. He was a young boy when he moved from Dheisheh refugee camp to the paradise of Wadi Fukin some 30 years ago. At the time, he felt like he was in heaven.  He had wished to share this same feeling with his children but the spring is empty. Today, the spring and its reservoir are completely dried up. Nothing is left of the spring. Fahmi’s paradise is lost. The cause ? Construction of an expanding illegal Israeli settlement that is taking up land, drying up the springs and contaminating the soil.

Perched against the 1967 border, tugged away in a beautiful green valley lies the village of Wadi Fukin just south of Bethlehem. A village of a mere 1200 people. The Israeli army destroyed the village in the years following the 1948 war. Many inhabitants ended up in the Dheisheh refugee camp near Bethlehem. Some 20 years later the villagers returned and rebuilt the village. It is the only known example in Palestine where refugees actually returned.  But today the village faces his second death. The illegal Israeli settlement of Bitar Illit, which currently houses some 40.000 ultra-orthodox settlers, is continuing to take up many slabs of land for its on-going expansion. Bitar Illit knows an exponential annual growth rate of 10%  and shows no signs of stopping. On Fridays, Israeli settlers and soldiers who swim in the Palestinian irrigation pools, regularly harass the local farmers. The settlers and soldiers undress and swim bare-naked in the pools.  With their military power and guns, they prevent farmers to enjoy Fridays in their own gardens. The villagers are in despair.

The impact of the settlement construction severely destroys the valley’s unique environment. UNESCO designated the valley as the best preserved natural heritage site of its kind in the West Bank. The valley consists of ancient terraces where local farmers grow organic vegetables, well known for their quality throughout Bethlehem governorate. This beauty will soon vanish if the Israeli policy continues. The construction of Bitar Illit caused already 3 of the main 11 springs to dry up in the valley. The sewage spills from the settlement contaminate almost all groundwater in the valley. Farmers cannot irrigate their land properly anymore, land that is reduced to 2600 dunums from an original 12000 dunums in 1948.  The village is suffocating.

To fight the destruction of their livelihoods and natural environment, some villagers of Wadi Fukin have taken an exceptional route. During the second intifada, local farmers did not have a market to sell their vegetables. Residents of Tsur Hadassah, just on the other side of the Green Line, decided to buy the vegetables to help them out. These activists were first approached with suspicion but when it was clear that people from Tsur Hadassah had no interest in the land of Wadi Fukin, local farmers started to trust and built relationships with them. Slowly a friendship emerged.  Activists from Tsur Hadassah say they feel more threatened by the illegal Israeli settlers of Bitar Illit than the friendly farmers of Wadi Fukin. Their love for the valley and its beauty brought the people of Tsur Hadassah and Wadi Fukin together.

During the years after the second intifada, it became clear that the increased settlement construction was severely damaging the environment.  This alarmed both the Palestinian farmers and Israeli activists to take action. The environmental NGO “Friends of the Earth Middle East”, a unique organization with offices in Tel Aviv, Bethlehem and Amman, helped out with scientific research. The studies showed the large scale environmental impact by settlement activities.

A big shock came when people from Tsur Hadassah and Wadi Fukin were presented with the proposed plans for the Israeli separation wall. The building plans proposed a route that will cut the valley in two parts and destroy the environment even further. The village will become a prison, encircled by the wall and the settlement of Bitar Illit.

Alarmed by the developments, the Israeli activists and Palestinian farmers filed a case at the Israeli courts. They approached Israeli human rights lawyer, Michael Sfard, who also represents the Rachel Corrie case. Based on environmental grounds, they argued that the wall should not be build and settlement activity should stop. The process was lengthy. It included a petition in Tsur Hadassah and many rejections of the case. The group did not give up and went to the High Court and finally last year managed to get some positive verdict. The building of the Wall has now been frozen based on environmental grounds. How long this freeze will last is unclear. But the fact that they were successful in stopping the Wall gives some little hope.

When I heard about the story of Wadi Fukin, I realised the friendship between people from Wadi Fukin and Tsur Hadassah is a unique story in the midst of a hostile environment. The story touched my heart and I wanted to film it. People like Abu Mazen and Tami, the two protagonists of the film, are amazing human beings who proof that being human connects and true caring for natural environment transcends all religious, political, cultural and historical differences. Meeting them was an honour for me. A short version of the film was broadcast in November 2010 on Al Jazeera English. But I wanted to make a longer version and spent my spare time to finish it. The film shows how Palestinians and Israelis together use environmental rights to fight the destructive occupation. We plan to organize a community tour with the film in September. You can visit our facebook page and lend your support to our campaign on our IndieGoGo site.

Joshka Wessels is a filmmaker who focuses on human interest and environmental subjects currently working in the Middle East. She received her PhD in Development from the University of Amsterdam and owns her own production company, Sapiens Productions. Her work has been featured on BBC World/BBC News 24 and Al Jazeera English.