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In Photos:
Palestinian village imprisoned in holy shrine of Nabi Samuel

Feb. 12, 2015 4:35 P.M. (Updated: Feb. 14, 2015 9:44 P.M.)
By: Alex Shams

NABI SAMUEL (Ma'an) -- The tomb of the Biblical prophet Samuel is blessed with a stunning view over Jerusalem from its perch four kilometers north of the Old City.

Long an important lookout, the shrine and the village that grew up around it -- today known simply as "Nabi Samuel," or "The Prophet Samuel" -- was even briefly named "Mount of Joy" by the Crusaders, as the site provided their first glimpse of the Jerusalem Basin.

But for the Palestinian residents living in Nabi Samuel today, the incredible vista is bittersweet, offering them visual access to a holy landscape that they are forbidden by Israeli authorities from actually visiting.

Trapped by a Jewish-only settlement on one side and the Separation Wall on the other, locals are forced to apply for permits to leave the village and can be sent to jail if they walk too far off the hill in any direction.

While the shrine has become a popular tourist site for Israelis as well as Jews from all over the world, the Palestinians whose lives have long been intertwined with this holy place remain trapped, prisoners in the invisible cage that surrounds them.

(MaanImages/Alex Shams)

The troubles facing Nabi Samuel began in 1967, when the West Bank was occupied by the Israeli military. Many of the village's 1,000 residents fled at that time, terrified by reports of Israeli atrocities that had circulated since the 1948 Nakba when Zionist forces expelled 750,000 Palestinians from their homes.

When Israeli authorities decided to expand Jerusalem's municipal boundaries a few years later, military planners tasked with drawing the new lines insisted on including the strategic site. The annexation came with a catch, however. While the shrine would become Jerusalem, the residents would remain West Bank residents, in keeping with a broader policy of annexing as much land and as few Arabs as possible.

In the early 1970s, Israeli authorities demolished the historic village that used to surround the shrine, leveling home after home in a bid to ensure none of the refugees could return. The few dozen villagers who had remained, meanwhile, were forced to move into a handful of ramshackle homes a little bit further down the hill.

Over the years, residents have watched the shrine that was once the jewel of their hometown turned into a tourist attraction for Israeli Jews, few of whom notice the impoverished collection of houses just on the other side of the parking lot.

For many of the tourists who come, the Palestinians are interlopers and invaders on the Jewish homeland, despite the fact that few Israeli Jews trace their ancestry in the Holy Land back more than a couple of generations.

Israel's construction of the Separation Barrier around Nabi Samuel has compounded residents' misery. The village is located in the "Seam Zone" on the "Israeli side" of the wall.

The United Nations estimates that in total 50,000 Palestinians are stuck in the zone, confined to small enclaves with limited access to their farm lands and neighboring villages.

Because the residents of Nabi Samuel have West Bank identity cards, they are forbidden by Israeli military authorities from leaving the village in any direction without authorization.

Local resident Eid Barakat told Ma'an that the only way in and out of the village is through an Israeli military checkpoint to nearby Bir Nabala, but that villagers could be arrested or fined if they went anywhere without prior authorization.

The Israeli settlement of Ramot, less than two kilometers away and clearly visible from the shrine, is completely off-limits, as is the rest of Israeli-occupied Jerusalem.

Children in the village are required to take a special bus to school in the Palestinian villages on the other side of the checkpoint every single day, but even they aren’t allowed to leave without their birth certificates.

Barakat told Ma'an that residents felt increasingly isolated from the rest of the world atop their mountain homes, as the Israeli military refuses to allow other West Bankers to visit them through the checkpoint. As a result, local families are forbidden from inviting friends or relatives to visit.

The isolation faced by Nabi Samuel has also had devastating economic impacts for villagers, as the agricultural goods they make on their own are subject to restrictions at the checkpoint. As a result, locals are forced to run through the forests around the village to bring in chickens or bring out barley.

Barakat told Ma'an that once he was trying to cross with a bag of barley, but when Israeli soldiers caught him he was forced to endure a military court trial.

The revolving doors of the Israeli military court system are a major burden for villagers, as Israeli expropriation of the lands around the shrine has severely limited the amount of agricultural land available to them.

Barakat even said that Israeli soldiers had fined him for trying to plant trees near his home, in the end uprooting them.

It is clear that Israeli authorities are attempting to make life so miserable for locals in Nabi Samuel so as to force them to leave, in the process achieving the expulsion of Palestinians without having to do so directly.

But the villagers are not ready to give up their homes or their land so easily, and despite official pronouncements that there is no village of Nabi Samuel but only a park -- seen by many as a virtual admission by the state that the plan is forcible removal -- there are signs of resilience everywhere.

Eid's wife Nawal Barakat is the leader of the local Feminist Association of The Prophet Samuel, which works to encourage economic independence and the development of local projects to provide sustenance for residents.

Through a mixture of smuggling in resources and strategically petitioning international aid groups, the association has managed to encourage a minor economic revival.

And villagers have not taken the land expropriations sitting down. As Israeli authorities have repeatedly announced confiscations of agricultural land for "archaeological digs," Eid, Nawal, and their neighbors have set up protest camps beside the shrine and agitated for their rights.

But many villagers are scared of reprisals by the military, and the weekly protests have for the most part ended.

Nabi Samuel is in many ways a microcosm of the multiple aspects of the Israeli occupation -- ideological as well as material -- that work to drive Palestinians off their land.

On the day Ma'an visited the village, a large group of Israeli officers were touring the shrine, which is divided into a Muslim area in the mosque above and a Jewish area around the burial site below.

Authorities have long sought to inculcate Israelis with a belief in their exclusive connection to the land, a strategy pursued specifically through tourism with the aim of getting to “know the land.”

Soldiers and tourists alike at the site are not told about the Palestinian village of Nabi Samuel nor of its residents long-standing connection to the area, but are instead offered a history that emphasizes Jewish rights and Jewish rights alone to the area.

This ideological exclusion -- compounded by the military’s confinement and regulation of the Palestinians who have managed to hold on to their homes -- allows Israel to carry out a slow-motion ethnic cleansing with hardly a peep of opposition by Israeli Jews, who are largely either blissfully unaware or supportive of the colonization project.

Eid and Nawal Barakat, meanwhile, as well as the dozens of villagers who remained, are forced to fight for survival on the margins, smuggling animals and crops in a desperate bid to survive in the shadow of a holy site Israeli authorities have turned into a monument of ethno-supremacist exclusion.

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