Too many trees in the forest

Reichan Forest, which lies in the northernmost corner of the West Bank, symbolizes the complex nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

samaria 88 (photo credit: )
samaria 88
(photo credit: )
A large forest of closely knit oak trees spreads leafy shade over a group of small hills atop a range of mountains, part of which is in the State of Israel and the other part in the northernmost corner of the West Bank. The security fence and pre-1967 armistice line (or Green Line) diverge in this area, creating a narrow zone of the West Bank on the Israeli side of the fence. Tranquility reigns. The only sounds come from a flock of goats slowly picking their way over rocks and through undergrowth on the outskirts of the forest. From time to time a young shepherd boy knocks a large stick on a rock to gather in a few strays, the sound echoing across the narrow valley together with an occasional bleat from the long-haired, nimble-footed goats. On one side of the forest, atop a small rock-strewn hill, sits a small Palestinian village, Umm Reichan. On the other side of the forest's solid, majestic oaks is the Jewish settlement Reichan. They share the name of the forest that physically separates them. However, there is more than a dense forest creating a deep divide between the residents of Umm Reichan and those of Reichan. Though beyond the pre-1967 border, both villages are situated on the Israeli side of the security fence running through this part of the land - that the Jewish residents refer to as "Samaria" and the local Arabs simply call "Palestine." Difficult to imagine that the people living almost side-by-side in an area easily covered on foot in half-an-hour are part of what is known as the Middle East conflict. Nothing seems further from the sounds and smells of nature in this luscious hilly green belt looking over the narrow and flat State of Israel below. On a clear day, one can see way out over the Mediterranean Sea, and in the evening watch the sun seemingly plop into the yonder water. A soft breeze gently embraces the treetops and slightly bends long stalks of wild wheat and undergrowth on the forest perimeter. Two elderly gentlemen, heads wrapped in dazzling white keffiyehs held in place with black headbands, slowly herd two sheep and a goat along the twisting, narrow road between Umm Reichan and the forest. Both gentlemen carry long sticks - the walking aid doubles as a pole of persuasion, gently coaxing the animals to keep moving along the hot tarmac. They are coming from the direction of an Israeli-Arab village, Ein el-Saleh, round the corner and over the Green Line. Neither gentleman has permission to be on the Israeli side of the Green Line. They are suspicious when asked where they have come from and where they are going. "We were just grazing our animals over there," says one of the elderly men, pointing with his staff in the direction of a few Ein el-Saleh rooftops in the near distance and using the local slang to describe the other side of the ever-present divide. There are no signs or markers of any description to identify where the Green Line passes in the area, but locals know exactly to which point on the road Jordanian soldiers patrolled pre-l967 before turning back. The former border snaked off through the undergrowth about half way between the villages of Ein el-Saleh in Israel and Umm Reichan, annexed to Jordan. In the middle of the forest a small number of houses belonging to Palestinians from the same extended family and known by the family name form another village, this one not signposted unlike Umm Reichan. Between them and Jewish Reichan is a small but sprawling one-family farm where goats are reared and a wide variety of cheeses made by a young Jewish couple with two small children, who live in a caravan between the goat sheds and the kiosk where they sell their products. They began to establish themselves in the region several years ago. The buildings and goods on sale were built and produced with their own hands and those of friends and family who came to help out. Protruding from the center of the forest a number of cypress and other trees look rather out-of-place among the gnarled oaks. From a distance they appear like long-necked animals scouting the surrounding land. At this spot is a memorial to a Syrian-born hero of the Palestinian people, killed inside the Reichan Forest in the l930s during a bloody clash with British Mandate police, but whose name is unfortunately still in the news almost every day. Born in 1882 near Lattakia in Syria, Sheikh Izz ad-Din al-Kassam was one of the leaders of the Syrian revolt against the French in 1921. He fled via Lebanon to British-controlled Haifa after the French victory, organized Arab terrorist cells in Palestine who attacked Jews and the British forces, and terrorized local Arab villages when food and shelter was not readily proffered. His name was adopted by the military wing of Hamas, and is now attached to the rockets raining down on the southern Israeli town of Sderot and surrounding area. By the time Izz ad-Din al-Kassam and some of his gang - known as the Black Hand - were cornered in the Reichan Forest in November 1935, the followers of al-Kassam numbered in their hundreds and were well armed. Izz ad-Din al-Kassam is buried in a Muslim cemetery in the Nesher neighborhood of Haifa. Following the Black Hand murder of a Jewish Mandate policeman who was highly respected by both Jews and Arabs in the Gilboa region, a concerted effort was made by the British to track him down. Quite by chance, Mandate police on the lookout for cattle thieves came across al-Kassam in the Reichan area - and the rest is history. An Egyptian officer was given the task by the British to chase down al-Kassam and his men. The successful police officer, Halim Basata, had been serving in the south of the country when he began his investigation into the movements of al-Kassam and his Black Hand gang, who in turn passed a sentence of death on him. Two years after al-Kassam's death, remnants of the Black Hand movement carried out the "sentence," murdering the Egyptian officer in Haifa. As I reflect on the events of over 70 years ago, a chorus of children's voices emanates from a recently renovated two-storey building on the verge of the forest. What was a Jordanian border police station until 1967 now serves as the junior school for 120 Palestinian pupils living in Umm-Reichan and other small Palestinian villages dotted between the Jewish settlements of Shaked, Tal Menashe, Hinanit and Reichan. The Jewish children, and those of Mevo Dotan and Hermesh over the other side of the security fence, attend the Omer School built on a small island between Shaked and Tal Menashe. It is less than a five-minute drive from the school at Umm Reichan to Omer. It would take about the same time to drive in the opposite direction - but over the Green Line - to the school at Katzir, a Jewish community of 760 families perched on the end of the Amir mountain range. The schools of Omer and Katzir come under Israel's Ministry of Education and Umm Reichan - physically situated between them - falls under the Palestinian Ministry of Education. A wide-eyed young boy, black curls protruding from under a grubby baseball cap, walks out through the school gate. His name is Ibrahim, he is 12-years-old and begins our limited conversation with "Welcome to Palestine." Seems the A's, B's and C's, as well as who is who, where is here and what is over there, are taught somewhat differently in the schools in this area that are physically only five minutes apart.