ILANIYYA, ISRAEL August 2006
With the Middle East reeling from yet another Arab-Israeli war, descendants of the settlers who built one of the oldest Jewish villages in Galilee in the mid 19th Century tell how they would never have come if they’d known the violence would have lasted so long.
The wind blew strong, dry and hot, and standing on high ground of Galilee, looking east towards to the Golan Heights, the landscape seemed to come straight out of a Western movie.
Vast, empty, difficult, it could have been New Mexico or Texas, where two centuries ago, settlers pushed frontiers to flee persecution or simply find somewhere they could make a living and a future.
But this was Israel, a place called Ilaniyya, a cluster of rugged single story homes, flowers in front gardens and grit-coated four-by-four vehicles in back yards with other machinery needed to tame land and stay self-sufficient.
It was one of the first places where Jewish settlers, escaping European anti-semitism, came to live. Land title documents go back to the mid 19th Century, with the village itself first titled in 1898 – long before the holocaust and the creation of Israel that followed.
That’s why I was there, to find out what it was like then, before the constant stream of apparently insoluble wars – an era when you could travel from Haifa to Beirut as easily as from London to Paris.
Except no-one was around – just a loose cable banging against a water tank and dust blowing skittishly along the road – until an elderly lady, haired dyed wild red, came hurtling towards us in a battery-powered mobility scooter. Her terrier dog, circled, overtook her and snapped at my heels.
‘Excuse me,’ I said, as she stopped. ‘Is they’re a mayor if Ilaniyya or anyone?’
She pulled a loaf of bread out of her back carrier basket, thinking we were hungry and looking for a restaurant. Then she made us follow her to the local shop, from where the owner used a mobile phone to summon – and I couldn’t believe it – a historian.
Dr. Estie Yankelevitch was about to catch a plane to Holland to lecture on Ilaniyya, but she found time to take us to a point where we could see the Israeli flag flying above an army camp.
‘Over there,’ she said. ‘That’s where the first ever militia was trained up to protect Jewish settlers. Now we call it the Israeli Defence Force.’
‘When the Jews first came here, they bought the land from Arab owners. They paid for everything. But local people were used to walking through it and the settlers needed it for cultivation. There was trouble, but it was only petty crime.
‘It became more serious in 1908 with the Ottoman revolution in Turkey and nationalism started emerging. Then came the great Arab uprising 1936-39, then Independence in 1948, then,’ she pauses, to flick away dirt which has blown into her face. ‘Well it hasn’t stopped, has it?’
‘Did they know,’ I asked, ‘that there’d be so much violence?’
She shook her head. ‘Nobody anticipated that the cost would be so heavy,’ she said sadly.
‘You see, it’s a clash of ideas. It’s Europe in the Middle East. The Jews didn’t realize the Arabs would become their enemy and be so strong. They thought they could live side by side and with their Western technology help the them advance. But a hundred years of conflict and we are still having to fight for this land.’
‘What happened to the Arabs who lived here?’
Dr Yankelivitch pointed north-west. ‘Just over there,’ she said. ‘They went to Turon.’
We left Ilaniyya and drove down to the Golani Junction, the crossroads of Highways 77 and 65, with a service station, Macdonalds and huge road signs to Haifa, Tel Aviv and Tiberias. We turned left, drove for about a mile, then headed off up a small road to the village of Turon – where the minarets of a mosque rose above houses built up a hill side.
Immediately, it was a different world of winding alleys, minibuses filled with families, children running around, laughing, men talking in groups and workmen repairing buildings.
Along the street which curved round to the mosque, Ibrahim Salaymeh, a teacher, heard us speaking English with Ilaniyya in the conversation, and came up to correct us.
‘Are you talking about Segera?’ he said ‘The Arab village destroyed by Jewish fighters in 1948. In Arabic, it’s Segera. In Hebrew it’s Ilaniyya. It means tree. My parents, my uncles and aunts all lived in Segera. Here in Turon we’re called the Segera people. My parents used to go back again and again just to see their destroyed houses and their land.’
He was a short, stocky, thoughtful man, cuddling his daughter who kept trying to escape to play with other children.
‘But now you could go back and live if you wanted,’ I said.
He laughed. ‘I could. But this isn’t Britain. It wouldn’t work. No Jews here. No Arabs there. But I’ve accepted the reality. I enjoy being an Israeli citizen and the higher standard of living.’
‘Then, why all the fighting still?’
‘Search me,’ he said lightly. ‘I think politicians are making it tough. That’s all.’
A flicker of hesitation crossed his face. His smile vanished and distracted for a second his daughter wriggles free and runs off to play.
‘But we cannot our forget it,’ he said softly. ‘Nobody can forget their homeland.’