The NI Interview
Muhammed Abu El Haija
Nikki van der Gaag speaks to Muhammed Abu El Haija, Arab, Palestinian, Israeli;
a man determined in his fight for equal citizenship.
It never ceases to amaze me when I meet people who remember dates and figures with absolute precision. It is usually because years and numbers are etched into their memories by pain. Muhammed Abu El Haija, huddled in his battered black leather jacket against the English winter, charts his story year by year. It mirrors the setting up of the State of Israel, exactly 50 years ago.
‘My parents were moved from their village, Ain Hod, after 1948. There were 900 people in that village, but only my family remained, setting up a new village two kilometres away. The rest left, for Syria, for Jordan, all over the world...
‘In 1964 the authorities fenced off our new village. The land they took was planted with olive trees. They planted taller trees between the olives which were supposed to kill them and deprive them of fruit. I remember this day very well. I was nine years old. The military came and said, “This area is for you and from here down is for the Government of Israel.” My house was inside the fenced area.’
His hands, sweeping across the table, suggest the wilting olive trees on a wide expanse of mountain and the incomprehension of a small child. He shrugs. ‘The olive trees are still there. They can’t produce fruit now. They are frozen trees.’
‘In 1971 they said that our area is now a National Park. We were not supposed to be there. But we continued to live from our goats and farm our land until 1975 when they made a law that goats are a danger to the trees.
‘We had to sell our goats and look for work outside the village. So the young people went to Haifa to learn to become educated people.
‘My grandfather believed that by getting an education his grandchildren would be able to get the things the village needed. Things like electricity, water, roads. He held a meeting in the village saying that now the children were going to be educated we would be able to get these things. We were very happy that day.’
Muhammed’s face is lined beyond his years but he smiles at the memory; a smile that somehow gives me a picture of his grandfather and that meeting so many years ago.
‘Then in 1981 they made another law. Every house had to have a permit to get services. We didn’t have a permit. So we wrote letters. And more letters. We were very naive. By 1985 we realized that the Government did not want to give us services because they didn’t want us to be there. In 1986 they put a demolition order on seven houses, and we had to forget about services and start a new struggle to stop the houses being bulldozed. We just wanted to be left alone...’
But Muhammed Abu El Haija was not about to give up.
‘It took until 1990 to stop the order. By this time I had qualified as an electrical engineer and was working in council planning. We heard of other places under demolition orders. With two other guys I travelled from village to village. Those were long days and long nights, sometimes sleeping on the road. In the end we found 90,000 people living in the same way in villages without services. So we had the idea to band together and get the villages recognized.
‘It is a funny thing, this word “recognition”. I am not recognized, my village is not recognized. And yet I have a passport, I have an identity card which says I am an Israeli. I speak Hebrew better than Arabic. “No, you are not recognized so we cannot deal with you,” they say. “We cannot give you services.”
‘We called ourselves the Association of 40, referring to 40 years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. By 1992 we had our own plan – we had grouped some of the villages in the north of the country and asked for nine to be recognized. By 1994 the Labour Government had formally agreed to recognize eight, including Ain Hod. But then they lost the election.’
The Association of 40 were back to square one. ‘You see, we live in a beautiful area and they don’t want to give it to the Arabs. There are right-wing political parties who want to move us from where we are on the mountainside down into the valley. They want a military post on the mountain. If we are moved into the valley it will be our grave. Down there, we cannot see the sun. No sun in our sunny country...’
His voice is sombre now. ‘So I am here in Britain. Israel is sensitive to pressure from outside. We understand this now. I have come to Britain first because Britain was where the problems started for the Arabs who live in the State of Israel. There are a million Arabs who are citizens of Israel – 25 per cent of the Palestinians in the world. We are only asking to be given the same rights as everyone else. The Palestinian State has made no difference to me. I don’t want to live there. I want to live here. But I do want to be an equal citizen. And if I have to walk to Geneva and then walk home to get this, then that is what I will do.’ And Muhammed Abu El Haija squares his shoulders, sets his face in a determined frown and then grins at me.
Photo by NIKKI VAN DER GAAG
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7