In His Cave, a Palestinian Farmer Makes a Stand

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Dan Balilty / AP

Construction of a new housing development at Gilo, on the southern edge of Jerusalem

Abed Abed-Rabbo doesn't want to live in a cave, but its the only way he can stay on his farm. The Palestinian farmer, 48, inherited the property in the village of Wallajeh, on the southern edge of Jerusalem, from his father and his grandfather but had to flee amid the 1967 Six-Day War, when Israel occupied the place. In 1999, he returned to Wallajeh and the farm, risking constant arrest and defying an Israeli decision to annex it to Jerusalem. Most nights of the week, he says, he spends in the cave he slept in as a child. But now, he may even lose the cave.

The planning committee of the Jerusalem Municipality last week approved the expansion of Gilo, an Israeli suburb that straddles the pre-1967 West Bank border. The decision threatens to cover the green valley that includes Wallajeh with a new housing development. That would destroy Abed-Rabbo's dream of returning to his farm full of olive trees overlooking the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo and most likely deprive him of his patrimony forever. "I am one small man," Abed-Rabbo tells TIME. "All I want is to live on my land in peace."

The decision to expand dismayed the Obama Administration. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said, "At a time when we are working to relaunch negotiations [between Israelis and Palestinians], these actions make it more difficult for our efforts to succeed. Neither party should engage in efforts or take actions that could unilaterally pre-empt, or appear to pre-empt, negotiations." The Palestinians and the United States say the status of Wallajeh and the rest of East Jerusalem should be held open pending negotiations on a final peace deal.

What is called Plan No. 13157 includes a private development known as Givat Yael that will cover Wallajeh's fields with Israeli homes for more than 40,000 people. Israeli planners arrived on Abed-Rabbo's land recently and began taking measurements for the new development. The 450-mile-long Israeli security barrier that is planned to run through the area will permanently cut off Abed-Rabbo and his fellow villagers from their fields.

Sarah Kreimer, associate director of Ir Amim, a left-wing Israeli pressure group, says that Plan No. 13157 will complete a chain of development projects designed to prevent any possibility that a Palestinian state gains a toehold in the southern part of East Jerusalem bordering Bethlehem. There are a lot of large projects that are now moving through the planning process, Kreimer tells TIME. "They create an urban wedge between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. It closes off the option of any kind of negotiations on the whole southern border."

On the same day the municipality approved Plan No. 13157 and opened it for public discussion and debate, Abed-Rabbo was arrested by Israeli police and held until late in the evening. It was his seventh arrest in recent months. Israeli officials explained that in visiting the property, Abed-Rabbo had crossed the Israeli municipal boundary and entered Jerusalem illegally from his legal residence in the refugee camp of Dehaishe, deeper in the West Bank. (There is no checkpoint blocking off the farm from Dehaishe; the Israelis recently granted Abed-Rabbo a permit to visit his land, a permit that has since expired.)

By Wednesday evening, Abed-Rabbo was back in the cave, playing host to dozens of Israeli and Palestinian friends who arrived to celebrate his release. "Many, many Israelis come, and Europeans and many Palestinians," Abed-Rabbo tells TIME. "Here we have meetings of love, of peace, for a new way. We don't just need to talk about peace on television. We also need to sit with people, to get to know them, my kids, their kids, to bring them so they can play with each other. That's what love is. You bring people together. That's how you make peace."