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Where drawing water can become an act of defiance

Thursday October 12, 2006

Jonathan Cook

In the Beit al-Falastini (Palestinian House), a cavernous bar in Nazareth?s old market, an exhibition of photographs shows the city in earlier times. There are pictures of camel herders and green hills, long obscured by the concrete that has engulfed the city of Jesus, as well as unpaved streets hosting, incongruously, the black automobiles of Britain?s Mandate rulers.

A more iconic image stands out. Peasant women, dressed in the traditional embroidered Palestinian housecoat, clay pots balanced confidently on their heads, congregate by Mary?s wDrawingell. This spot ? named after Jesus? mother, who according to legend was drawing water here when visited by the Archangel Gabriel to tell of her immaculate conception ? is where Nazareth?s women collected water for thousands of years.

No one does so today. The well was blocked up years ago, after the state monopoly, Mekorot, brought the supply direct to homes. But other communities have been more reluctant to abandon the old ways. In the village of Saffuriya, 2km north of Nazareth, for example, water is still drawn from its ancient spring in the traditional manner. Well, sort of.

The clay pots have gone, to be replaced by empty plastic Coke bottles. So have the traditional Palestinian dresses. And the women, too. Now, collecting water is strictly men?s work. Close to sunset, Saffuriya?s spring teems with young men in T-shirts, squatting on stones by the water source to submerge their bottles.

Israel?s founders once proclaimed that the small number of Palestinians they inherited in 1948 ? today, with their higher birth rate, they number more than 1 million, or a fifth of the population ? should be kept out of the Jewish economy, restricted to jobs as ?hewers of wood and drawers of water?. The authorities probably did not have in mind quite what is happening in Saffuriya.

Cleared off their lands by the Israeli army during the 1948 war, many of Saffuriya?s 6,000 villagers fled into permanent exile in Lebanon. But others sought sanctuary close by, on the higher ground of Nazareth, where they established a refugee neighbourhood called Sufafra overlooking their old lands.

The state, meanwhile, razed the Palestinian village (one of more than 400 destroyed by the army) and created a farming community for Jews only, given the Hebraicised name of Tzippori. The Palestinians of Saffuriya were permanently stripped of their title to the land.

Just one connection remained to their former village: the spring, protected by an old stone wall, on the edge of the new Jewish community. The authorities, busy with other matters, turned a blind eye as the refugee villagers made the short journey each day to bring water back to Sufafra.

Even after their neighbourhood was connected to the mains supply, families kept coming back to Saffuriya?s spring. In a small way it proved their irrevocable ownership of the land, and their return was a small but defiant gesture of what so many other Palestinian refugees longed to do.

Soon too the spring water was being extolled for more than its clean taste; the villagers claimed it had miraculous properties, keeping them healthy and their men virile. Youngsters were as keen to draw the water as generations of Saffuriyan women before them.

But the state had other ideas. Last year it erected a high steel fence around the spring to keep the villagers out. Within a few days, the men had cut a hole in it and were carrying on drawing water as before. Except that now all were agreed that collecting Saffuriya?s water ? breaking the law ? was work suitable for men alone.

?There?s a lot of hostility from the state and the Jewish inhabitants of Tzippori to us coming back to the spring,? said Ziad Awaisi, a 31-year-old physiotherapist. ?It just makes us more determined to keep the connection going, despite the physical and legal threat.? Awaisi says that members of Tzippori have tried to chase him away on several occasions.

The sealing off of what is left of the destroyed villages ? churches, mosques, wells, graveyards and ancient buildings ? is being repeated across the Galilee. Israel is designating these sites not only legally out of bounds but physically too. In the ancient village of Ghabsiyya, its mosque, once one of the most important in Palestine, is now wrapped in dozens of rolls of glinting razor wire.

Of course, there are pale echoes in these barriers separating Israel?s Palestinian citizens from their property of a wider modern quest by Zionism to surround and enclose the Palestinians in the occupied territories. Gaza was sealed off by an electronic fence more than a decade ago, and the West Bank is rapidly following it behind a wall of steel and concrete.

In the case of the occupied territories, Israel says it has no choice but to protect itself from the threat of suicide bombs. The walls around Saffuriya?s spring and Ghabsiyya?s mosque, however, suggest there exist other, possibly more troubling issues Israel cannot yet face.

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