Travel to West Bank: Southern Countryside
We move south of Jerusalem now, to the highlands known historically as the Judean Plateau. (That's not a name you'll want to use in conversation with Palestinians.) At its best, it's a difficult environment for agriculture.
A land of "milk and honey"? Yes, but also a reminder that milk and honey don't necessarily come from land that most farmers would find very attractive. This study in rock happens to show land planted to wheat, which may or may not produce a crop worth harvesting. Much of the land sloping east and west from the plateau south of Jerusalem looks this grim, prompting outsiders to wonder why people are fighting over it. When Palestinians and Israelis lay claim "to every inch" of the West Bank, does the outside world think that they are struggling over this? If it did, the outside world would probably conclude that both sides were "majnoun," crazy.
The emblematic crop of the West Bank is the olive, but it doesn't grow well south of Jerusalem, partly because the climate is too dry on the eastern slope but mostly because the moister plateau surface is too high for the frost-intolerant tree. As if this wasn't enough, many olive groves around Bethlehem have been almost criminally pollarded. The land around this tree has been cleanly plowed, probably by donkey, but mostly as a sign of private ownership. There's hardly enough oil coming from this tree to take care of a day's consumption.
Southeast of Bethlehem the land quickly dries, but olives are still planted. There is terraced wheat upstream, but the crop yield is low and chancy. Much of the land is good only for grazing by sheep and goats.
A similar landscape, though marked in the background by the mysterious summit of Herodion, where Herod built a palace.
Add to the hazards of drought the political problems of farming on the West Bank, and you have to expect sad sights like this: collapsing terraces near the bypass road around Hebron.
Panning to the left.
Bethlehem used to be surrounded by olive groves, but urban expansion, Israeli controls, and neglect have decimated them. Here, on the south side of the city, some trees are still cared for.
It's a different story on the north side. (The spire at the uppermost lefthand corner is part of the Church of the Nativity.)
The old ways do endure, like this shepherd revealed at dusk by the camera flash.
Much of the eastern desert across which sheep and goats once grazed lies now in closed military areas, and Palestinian livestock depend on purchased fodder--in this case on round bales imported from Israel.
Such grain as in grown in the south is either harvested by hand, in work crews drawn from local villages, or by small harvesters like this one, made in Italy.
The prized crop of the southern highlands is the vine, grown in many ways but here unsupported by trellises or even stakes. The pines in the background are near Arrub, where, adjoining a large refugee camp, there is a pool similar to those of Solomon's Pools.
A more intensive kind of grape production: vines supported by trellises and forming a network casting heavy shade. Yields are much higher than with the recumbent or unsupported vines shown in the previous picture.
A proud vineyard owner. The soil is unbelievably rocky, but that is characteristic of the whole area south of Jerusalem.
The previous picture was taken in Halhul, north of Hebron. So was this one, but it shows greenhouse tomatoes. The competition comes from the Jordan Valley, warm enough for production in winter. Here the production relies on irrigation supplied by a cistern fed by the rain caught on the greenhouse's own roof. The greenhouse was made in Israel.
A close-up of the guttering mechanism that captures the rainwater.
A field of grain at the village of Wadi Fukin. The field can perhaps best be seen less as an agricultural undertaking than as a land-holding one, because the fast-growing Israeli settlement of Betar Illit lies just to the east.
On the other side of Betar Illit is Nahalin, where bare rock has been blasted into terraces for fruit trees. Passersby are welcome to take a plum: the owner says that in so doing they are "eating for the soul of my father."
Such phrases make special sense in an agrarian society where generations are rooted to the same spot. Here, near Herodion, is the kind of home occupied by families from generation to generation on the West Bank. It contains the architectual germ or basic cellular unit that was expanded to form all the larger indigenous buildings of the West Bank. The massive walls are comprised of inner and outer walls of finished stone separated by a thermal layer of rubble. The roof is domed. The stone was probably quarried from the hole that become the family cistern.
The same house, showing the pendentive supporting the dome.
A typical home of the sort built on the West Bank today for families of average means. The house is not finished, because the owner lost his permit to work in Israel, but it's inhabited by him, his wife, and their four children. The orchard shown several pictures back, and identified as hewn from bare rock, lies just to the left of this house.
Nearby, there is an older home with basement bedroom. All the bedding is folded up and stashed behind the curtain.
Upstairs, there's a modern, flat-roofed addition with this "best room" and an image of Mecca.
It's hard to walk around the West Bank without being asked to have coffee, which easily leads to bread and oil, made from wheat and olives grown on the spot. In this case, a teenager was the inviter; his mother brought the coffee and made the bread in her own outdoor oven, fired with sheep dung. Her mother-in-law cast a skeptical but silent eye.
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