BEIT FURIK, Israeli-Occupied West Bank - For centuries, the Arab farmers of Beit Furik have made the two-hour donkey ride from their hillside village in the Samarian ridges down to the Jordan plains to plant corn, wheat and barley.
"We were born like that. Our fathers used to do this," said Amhed Assad Johar, who for most of his 70 years has made the long, hot journey to the village tucked in the hilly Jordan rift. "It's all we know how to do."
But because of the harsh realities of war and occupation, the 6,000 residents of Beit Furik have discovered that farming the valley is not all they know how to do. They have become construction laborers, carpenters, plasterers, jitney taxi drivers and auto mechanics, occupations that a dozen years ago seemed as remote to most villagers here as the mysterious and unseen Jewish state on the other side of the Shomron hills.
Beit Furik, typical of rural Arab villages occupied when the Israeli Army rolled across the West Bank during the 1967 Six-Day War, is becoming a community of landless farmers.
It is a farming village without farms, groping tentatively and reluctantly toward a non-agrarian economy but clinging to the hope that the political winds will shift and they can return to the simple, unchanging way of life they had for generations.
Villagers and their council headmen interviewed in Beit Furik say they have lost 1,800 acres of cultivated land since 1967 as a result of expropriation for the Mekhora Jewish settlement about eight miles east of here, and that another 2,500 acres has been "closed by the military government in anticipation of expropriation, meaning that the farmers are not allowed to till the land or graze their sheep on it.
By their own accounting, that is nearly two-thirds of the farmland owned by the villagers of Beit Furik.
As with most West Bank farming villages, Beit Furik's farmland lies in the cultivatible plains of the Jordan Rift. The rift is where the former Labor Party government, following the settlement plan advanced by then Foreign Ministe Yigael Allon, built two picket lines of civilian outposts as a defense against attack from Jordan.The government of Prime Minister Menachem Begin, adopting a new settlement policy altogethe, has been building outposts along the Judean and Samarian highlands further to the West, while connecting all of the settlements with new lateral roadways cutting through the West Bank.
Village elders said that Beit Furik farmland historically has been divided into 96 shares, with each of the village's four major clans owning 24 shares. The clans are the Nasasserh, El Hannani, Khatetbeh and Imletat families. The Haj Muhammed Clan of Mukhtar Hussein Ahmed Jaber owns an additional share.
Jaber said that soon after the 1967 war, Beit Furik farmers were told by the military governor to stop farming the land in the rift, and that soon after that a nahal , a paramilitary settlement, was constructed by the labor government. It later became a civilian settlement.
About 10 Beit Furik farmers, meeting recently with a reporter, explained in elaborate detail - with much arguing among themselves - the immediate economic impact of the land seizure.
They also produced, in the middle of the interview, a pile of worn and tattered deeds collected hastily by youths sent house to house. The deeds covered a large table and ostensibly proved ownership, with most dating to the early 1900s when Palestine was controlled by the Turkish Ottoman Empire.
The farmers calculated, based on the pre-1967 price of wheat, that their 7,500 dunams in the valley yielded a per capita income equivalent to about $375 a year. A dunam is about one-quarter acre.
The farmers recalled that most of the yield was consumed locally, and that the lowland farming, coupled with their livestock and some cultivation in plots near the village, was enough to sustain Beit Furik economically. They said that very few of the village's men had traveled to Nablus, about five miles west, to find work.
Now, according to Mukhtar Jaber, approximately 800 laborers from Beit Furik go to Nablus or into Israel proper to find work. Scores of other villagers have left Beit Furik altogether, moving to Jordan and othe Arab states in search of jobs.
"They [the Israelis] have killed the spirit of the village. They have taken away the spirit of work, and the respect for the land. This has destroyed our village," said Jaber.
Muhammed Hamed Saleh rummaged through the pile of old deeds and said, his voice cracking with emotion, "When I go there [the Mekhora settlement] and see the Israelis cultivating my land, I feel like I'm going to go mad. If I had the power to tkae the life of those who took my land, I would do it."
Ahmed Assad Johar, the oldest, cut him off.
"Listen. I'm an old man. I lived through Turkish and British occupation, and now the Israelis. All my life I've lived in occupation.
"During the British occupation we had better times, but there was chaos. Jordan didn't improve it much, but at least it did away with the chaos. But the Israelis, they did the worst thing of all. They try to make us strangers to our land," Johar said, as the elders and mukhtars looked at their watches and rose in unison to go to Beit Furik's mosque for noon prayers.