Wadi Fukin

We had heard that Wadi Fukin was a ‘nice place for a walk’ and made a few enquiries which resulted in the instruction to meet a man called Ata outside the village mosque on Saturday at 0930. We thought he might point us in the direction of the walking routes, but he was generous with his time and instead gave us a fascinating tour to explain the village’s troubled history.

The name ‘Wadi Fukin’ comes from the Aramaic ‘valley of thorns’, and its predicament was starkly clear long before we arrived in the small village. As the road descended down towards the village, huge Israeli settlements loomed on either side, the biggest of which was Beitar Illit. The first Jewish families settled here in 1990 on land that had been confiscated from Palestinians in 1985. Rapid expansion meant that 60,000 people lived there today, and it was still growing.

Looking at Beitar Illit from Wadi Fukin
Construction continues in Beitar Illit

Multiple-storied apartment blocks all with red roofs, stood side by side on the hillside creating an impenetrable barrier. The settlement was largely populated by Haredi families and the valley floor where Wadi Fukin was situated was considered a dumping ground for their sewage and industrial waste.

Rewinding a few generations, Ata started the story, like many a Palestinian tale, in 1948 when the residents of Wadi Fukin were forcibly removed from their houses and Israel occupied the territory. Many ended up in the Dheisheh Refugee Camp in Bethlehem. The interesting twist which makes it a unique story, is that in 1972 they were invited back to live in the village, to make space in the Camp for an influx of new refugees from Gaza.

The village was watered by 11 natural springs and similar to nearby Battir, there remained a system for fairly sharing the water amongst the farming plots. Ata told us that the village used to have 15,000 dunams[1] of land but that had been shrunk to 800 dunams through a series of land confiscations by Israel.

The land used to provide excellent space for grazing sheep and there were around 2000 in the village – nearly double the number of people who inhabited it. Ata doubted if there were 100 sheep now. Ata also talked of the wonderful natural wildlife like antelopes and gazelles that used to roam the area, but the massive construction and destruction of their natural habitats meant they too had been lost.

Spring flowers in Wadi Fukin

As we were lamenting this, the smiling face of an older gentleman appeared from across the path waving a coffee pot in our direction. ‘Ah that is Abu Ibrahim and we should meet him’ Ata said. ‘It is not nice to refuse taking coffee’.  We wandered across the road and into Abu Ibrahim’s small farm where he grew lettuces, spinach, cucumber and tomatoes.

He had arranged some chairs under the branches of a fig tree, and we sat and sipped the strong, cardamom infused Arabic coffee. The fig tree had no leaves at this time, but Ata told us that it was a Palestinian custom that anyone passing by a fig tree could help themselves to the fruits but not to take them home with them. It was intended as a travellers’ benefit, harking back to a reference in the Bible of Jesus picking figs from a tree.  

Even in the glorious Spring sunshine, sitting in farmland, the sense of being surrounded was oppressive. A helicopter buzzed around nearby, and the sound of Jewish prayer could be heard cascading down the hillside from Beitar Illit. Ata and Abu Ibrahim told us that the people from the settlement weren’t that violent, but it was usual for their children to throw stones and shout insults at the Palestinian residents of Wadi Fukin. There was greater fear of the armed settlers who came from Hebron to bathe in the natural springs, as they were often violent, and they prevented farmers from accessing their own land.

Huge swathes of the landscape that Abu Ibrahim had grown up around had simply disappeared as the settlements consumed the land. He said he had been a farmer (a fallah) since he was five years old. The dynamite used during the construction of the settlements had caused structural damage to many of the buildings in Fukin and special local features such as a rock called the ‘Time Rock’ had disappeared altogether. Furthermore, the loss of natural vegetation meant that there was greater erosion and flooding in winter.

Mural painted by Italian visitors
The playground in Wadi Fukin

Despite these serious challenges the spirit of strong resistance lived on. I asked Ata if he could ever imagine leaving his village and he said he would stay regardless of how bad the conditions became. He talked of his father who at 94 had never been to a dentist and ‘eats lots of fats and takes lots of herbs’. This, along with a fighting spirit of survival and preservation, was the Wadi Fukin diet.

Before Covid-19 struck, Ata had been a tour guide, but he said we were the first people he had met with since February 2020. Over the past years he had established a strong connection with an American charity called ‘Friends of Wadi Foquin’ to establish development projects and bring tour groups to the village. The village had also hosted high profile visitors like David Cameron and Jimmy Carter over the years, but nothing seemed to reverse the tide of their fortunes.

Ata continued the tour with a trip to see the local playground that had been built with the support of the Friends of Wadi Foquin. We were also shown the big caves which were guarded by two farmers – a brother and a sister – as their sheep and goats clambered around.

Leaving Ata, we started a short walk through the fruit trees and spring flowers. With the settlements behind us we were suddenly in the beautiful Palestinian countryside, and able to enjoy its natural beauty. It is this that should be the thing that puts Wadi Fukin on the map.

I hope that this tiny corner of Palestine can withstand the abuses it suffers from all directions. If you would like to visit and see it for yourself, you can arrange a tour with Ata by contacting him on +972 54-691-8644 or ataguide@yahoo.com.      

[1] 1 dunam = 1 square kilometre

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