The trip Rashida Tlaib didn’t get to take
|Gideon Levy 26/08/2019
A visit to Upper Beit Ur, where the mother and grandmother of the Palestinian-American congresswoman were born, and where she married in 1998.
The tens of thousands of Israelis who whizz by here every day in their cars on their way to Jerusalem, or, if they’re traveling in the other direction, to Tel Aviv, probably don’t notice the small, old stone house that stands a few dozens of meters away from Highway 443, on the other side of the security barrier. A little house in the West Bank, with a covered verandah, a few plastic chairs and fruit trees in the yard; a solitary house set between two villages, east of the city of Modi’in: Beit Ur al-Fauqa (Upper Beit Ur) and Beit Ur al-Tahta (Lower Beit Ur).
It’s to this house that U.S. Representative Rashida Tlaib (Democrat, Michigan) was planning to come, to visit her grandmother, possibly for the last time. It’s to this house that she didn’t come, as Israel initially prohibited her from entering the country, and afterward set humiliating conditions for a visit that she could not abide. In this house we find Tlaib’s grandmother, Muftiya Tlaib, who is 90, and her uncle, Bassem Tlaib, disappointed and angry.
If Israel blocked this roots journey of the promising and courageous congresswoman solely because of her political views, and Tlaib wasn’t able to get to the village, we will bring the sights of the village to her.
Her family, who declined this week to speak to Israeli reporters as an understandable protest, related that Rep. Tlaib, who was born in Detroit in 1976, last visited here in 1998. That’s when her mother and grandmother set out from this house to attend her wedding to Fayez Tlaib, a native of the village. (The couple divorced in 2015.) Much has changed here since then.
Nothing that Tlaib would have seen in her mother’s hometown would have reminded her of America, her mother’s adopted homeland. There are no scenes like this in the United States, and few like it anywhere in the world. The landscape that unfolds from the yard of the old house, a panorama of checkpoints and fences, is different from what it was when her mother grew up here, even from when Rashida visited last.
A checkpoint, near Upper Beit Ur. Nearby Highway 443 would probably be called a freeway in America, but here it’s hardly free. Photo Alex Leva
Just a few dozen meters to the left of the house is an Israel Defense Forces checkpoint, complete with warning signs, banners of the unit and a female soldier who was sitting there this week at the guard post at the entrance, her rifle aimed at the road. “Stop before the stopping strip, shut off lights and turn on vehicle’s inside light, prepare ID cards.”
This checkpoint is otherwise desolate; no one goes through it, it doesn’t lead anywhere. But if Tlaib were to look rightward from the house, she would see an even more daunting sight: a fortified tower, a veritable high-rise, that also belongs to the IDF. The observation tower overlooks all the surrounding villages and the highway to Jerusalem.
The yard of the Tlaib family’s house ends at a busy road that abuts it; after that is a fence and another road, far busier. The occupants of the house can’t use that expressway – which was built on their land – to reach the district capital of Ramallah, not to mention to get to Jerusalem, and they are not able to travel by the direct route to the neighboring villages opposite them, nor to their own farmland, on the other side of the road. The expressway in question is Highway 443, the apartheid road, which, along with the separation barrier, has been a curse and has brought suffering to the residents of Upper Beit Ur, just as it did to other villages in the enclave that was created here.
How would Rep. Tlaib have arrived at her village? The way there from Ramallah now passes through a “fabric of life” road, as the IDF terms the route that was carved out for the Palestinians, who are prevented from using Highway 443. It’s not likely that the armed soldier at the checkpoint-exit from the expansive 443 would agree to open the passage for the unwanted congresswoman. She would have to use the “fabric of life” route instead. To get to the house adjacent to Highway 443, we too had to take a circuitous route, through the local villages of Bil’in, Safa and Lower Beit Ur.
Upper Beit Ur is the smaller of the two Beit Urs, with 1,200 residents and another 600 living in exile abroad. Whoever was able to leave, including Rashida’s parents, left for the United States or Brazil. Her mother is a native of the village and her father hails from the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Hanina.
Muftia, the grandmother of U.S. congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, walks with her son and her granddaughter outside her house in the village of Beit Ur Al-Fauqa in the West Bank, August 16, 2019. Photo MOHAMAD TOROKMAN/ REUTER
Highway 443’s chokehold on the village, and construction of the settlement of Beit Horon in its very backyard, crushed Upper Beit Ur. Lower Beit Ur is larger, with a population of about 5,000, most of them well-off, to judge by their homes. Many of the signs here are in English: Al Huda Pharmacy, Power House Gym and Hamooda’s general store. Almost like America. The taxis here are yellow, too, as they are throughout the West Bank. Yellow is also the color of the metal gate at the entrance to the road that goes from Bil’in to Upper Beit Ur.
For the information of lawmaker Tlaib and her constituents: Most of the roads in the West Bank start and end with a yellow metal gate. That’s how Israel controls the territory. Within minutes a siege can be imposed anywhere. And the congresswoman might also like to know that there are two types of license plates here. The yellow ones are for Israeli or East Jerusalem vehicles, which are allowed to travel freely in both the West Bank and Israel proper; the white ones are for Palestinian vehicles, which are authorized to use only the roads designated for them, and in any event cannot enter Israel. Not to drive to the seashore, which is half an hour from here, not to see beautiful Jaffa and not to pray at the holy Al-Aqsa, in Jerusalem. How many Americans know that?
Highway 443, next to the Tlaibs’ residence, is the second main highway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. In America it would probably be called a freeway, but here it’s hardly free. It’s a separation road, which runs through the territory of the occupied and is intended exclusively for the use of the occupier. It was born in sin – the sin of expropriating the land of the local villages, including that of Upper Beit Ur – and it grew into an even bigger sin: the sin of its closure to Palestinians.
A brief history: In order to build this highway, Israel expropriated about 200 dunams (50 acres) of land from Upper Beit Ur in the late 1980s. The villagers petitioned the High Court of Justice against the expropriation. The court rejected their arguments, the state claiming that “the road is needed for the Palestinian population in the area and is therefore being built for its needs, based on the military commander’s obligation to the local population.”
In practice, the road cut the village off from about 1,700 dunams of its own lands, which were now on the western side of the highway. Afterward, the authorities planned to build another road, between the Ben Shemen youth village and the Ofer military base; it was never built, but the plan itself entailed more land expropriation from the village, in addition to bans on construction by its residents. All told, Upper Beit Ur lost about 450 dunams of land to the two roads – the one that was built and the one that wasn’t.
Beit Ur al-Fauqa. Photo Alex Levac
Then the second intifada broke out, in late 2000, and Highway 443 was closed completely to Palestinian vehicles, following shooting attacks there. Since 2002, it has been a road for Israelis only. The fact that its construction was authorized by the High Court of Justice solely because of the sanctimonious claim that it was being built for the Palestinians and was intended to serve them, was of course forgotten. The local villages were cut off from their district capital.
Subsequently the occupier’s heart went out to the locals and a “fabric of life” road was built – on the village’s property, of course. For that, another 120 dunams were taken from Upper Beit Ur. Dror Etkes, an expert on settlements from the Kerem Navot organization, which monitors Israeli land policy in the West Bank, this week tweeted the chain of events for the congresswoman who didn’t visit. He noted that, “Frankly Upper Beit Ur is far from being a village which suffers the worst from Israel’s occupation and Israel’s settlements related land-grab machine. It’s just ‘another village’ in this sense.” Etkes then invited Rep. Tlaib to visit, adding, “We’ll be here.”
On December 29, 2009, the High Court of Justice ruled in favor of a petition filed against the plan to block the highway to Palestinians. Three (maybe two) cheers for the enlightened justices. The IDF then set up two checkpoints alongside Highway 443 and added two exits from the road, equipped with cameras and spikes, and it ceased to be an apartheid highway. Very funny. The only way to travel on Highway 443, when coming from Upper Beit Ur, is to drive west in the direction of the village of Beit Sira; a short stretch of the road there is open to Palestinians. But that’s it. The way to Ramallah or Jerusalem remained blocked to the Palestinians long after the intifada shooting attacks stopped. The checkpoints remain unused and the High Court ruling remains ridiculous. No Palestinian would want to pass through the checkpoints just to travel the short distance to Beit Sira. In any event, Israeli traffic cops will stop any Palestinian who’s making the short trip and look for all kinds of reasons to give him a ticket – a burned-out lightbulb in the glove compartment, say – as a means of harassment, to discourage him from using the road again in the future.
U.S. Representatives Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar react as they discuss travel restrictions to Palestine and Israel during a news conference at the Minnesota State Capitol Building, August 19, 2019. Photo STRINGER/ REUTERS
As a result, Highway 443 has reverted to what it was, an unambiguously segregationist road, with villages locked in on both sides, a fence, checkpoints and the home of the grandmother of a congresswoman from Michigan that overlooks the road from zero range. If Tlaib had been permitted to visit, maybe the Americans would have seen what’s happening on the roads of their ally, the only democracy in the Middle East. Maybe that’s why she was initially banned.
According to a sign here, the German government helped develop the villages’ roads. Upper Beit Ur is a very handsome place, with many spacious homes and landscaped gardens. The Tlaibs’ diwan – a gathering place for special occasions – is located next to the village cemetery. Probably this is where Rashida would have met with the villagers, or possibly have convened a press conference. Instead, she held a press conference this week in Minnesota, together with Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Democrat from that state, who was also refused entry to Israel. Tlaib burst into tears when she related how, in her youth, she had seen her grandmother humiliated before her eyes at these checkpoints.
Sitting nearby under what’s known as an “American” almond tree and drinking coffee is Zaharan Zaharan. This is his property, he has prepared it for building, but the Palestinian Authority warned him to drop the construction plans, because Israel will demolish whatever he builds because of its location in Area B (joint Israeli-Palestinian administration) of the West Bank. He paid 50,000 shekels ($14,200) for a bulldozer to level the ground and another 4,500 shekels for surveying and design – and it’s all gone down the drain. Zaharan has already lost 14 dunams to Highway 443 and a “fabric of life” road, and he doesn’t have much left. Sixty of his relatives live in Brazil.
“Highway 443 ruined us,” he says sadly.
Below, the separation barrier winds its way through the valley – it too wasn’t here the last time Tlaib visited. She needs to show its route, too – deep inside occupied territory – to her voters. And Beit Horon as well, the settlement that invaded the heart of Upper Beit Ur.
The tunnel once used by the children of A-Tira used to get to school. Photo Alex Levac
We’re driving along the wall that surrounds the settlement, which is high and haughty and estranged from the village within which it grew wildly. Rep. Tlaib would undoubtedly have come here, too, on her roots journey. The road is empty. It leads only Upper Beit Ur’s high school, founded in 1955, long before most of Beit Horon’s settlers were even born. It’s summer vacation now, and the old, well-kept stone building and the large yard are deserted. This co-ed school serves the children of Upper Beit Ur and of A-Tira, located on the other side of Highway 443.
The children of A-Tira used to get to school through a narrow, dark, head-high concrete tunnel that passes under the road. Now the steps leading to the tunnel are blocked by barbed wire; in its place is a bypass route, a long road for walkers. A fig tree that has yielded its fruit overshadows the entrance to the tunnel. Yet another recommended site for the legislator to visit.
A Rome Pizza box lies on the road, probably from the settlement above it. Welcome to Binyamin, the sign above us on the expressway says, referring to the biblical name of this part of the West Bank, as the Israelis zoom by as if it were their country.