Wadi Al Quof Through Salvation Century

A cluster of wooded, limestone hills near Hebron became a testing ground for British Mandate forestry policy and in the decades since has accrued the shifting histories of soveriegnty in Palestine.

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When rainwater streams across the surface of limestone, its acidic flux follows tiny channels etched by prior acidic showers, deepening the conduits and attracting future streams. In an area like Wadi Al Quof (Valley of the Rocks), where the topography is mainly limestone, this process drives the formation of terracing and pathways. Droplets of rain have sculpted the valley over millions of years, resulting in impressive cave formations and water springs.

Chalky layers of limestone flank the busy asphalt road that connects the city of Hebron to the mountain villages of the Hebron governorate. As the road winds through the four hills of Wadi Al Quof Forest, like a canal through the limestone, it gently slopes upward, and the air becomes heavy and wet. The glaring white of the rock formations fuses into tan as the limestone approaches the surface, covered with a thicket of pine and cypress trees, with hints of sage and oregano in the breeze. Rarely do visitors tread through this forest. Passersby and the occasional speeding truck stir up pine needles on the muddy soil before they land again on the earth and a new epoch of stillness begins.

Rainwater has softened the edges of the rocky hills over the years, before it trickles down into an aquifer 40 million years beneath the spot where I’m standing. The aquifer contains 80 percent of Palestine’s underground water and extends under what is referred to on the surface as the West Bank. Due to the porous nature of the permeable underground rock, water can filter through the continuous mass of this stretch of land, its surface an archipelago, territory fragmented into sovereign islands through which movement is more complicated. While the serenity of the forest suggests that little more than water and wind or the occasional passerby has shaped Wadi Al Quof, its history, particularly in the last hundred years, reveals that the marching of troops has been not only a familiar sound in these hills but also a force no less formative than nature in shaping topography.

The Politics of Disappointment

The characteristic that, to the European eye, most distinguishes the typical Palestinian scene, is its absolute bareness of trees … Compared with the extensive wooded tracts of Europe the forest area in Palestine to?day is negligible. The Turkish Government gave no thought to the woodland, and in the World War what was left of the forests was largely destroyed.

      Herbert Samuel, then high commissioner of Palestine, in his Report on the Administration of Palestine (1925)

As they set about instituting sovereignty over Palestine, the British berated the Ottomans for their alleged “neglect” and “destruction” of Palestine’s forests. It is said that Ottoman authorities mandated that every tenth fruit- bearing tree be felled to support the war; most of the lumber fueled the wartime traffic of the railway network. But to reduce the arboreal legacy of the late Ottoman Empire to chopping down trees is imprecise, for it was the Ottomans who implemented the region’s first forestry laws, focused on conservation, back in 1870.

Seven years before the publication of Herbert Samuel’s Report, British troops were advancing through Palestine, heralding the dawn of a new colonial era. The Sykes-Picot Agreement, freshly inked in 1916 by the governments of the United Kingdom, France, and Russia, formalized the partitioning of Ottoman Arab provinces (excluding those of the Arabian Peninsula) into areas of British and French control. Palestine thus fell under the British Mandate, ending about 400 years of Ottoman rule.

The British imaginary of Palestine had its own particularities. The army and officials were familiar with the land, either through descriptions found in the Bible, travelers’ paintings, or other forms of mass communication in which the Holy Land was presented as a lush paradise. Expectations were frustrated, however, when the British encountered and had to come to terms with the semiarid landscape of Palestine. Depictions of the land by those on the ground are tinged with a sense of disappointment that colors official correspondence as well as soldiers’ diaries. For instance, an extract from the Chronicles of the White Horse (1917), a journal of an English cavalryman, reads:

Jerusalem the Golden

With milk and honey blest;

Where is that milk and honey?

It seemed to have gone west.

This disappointment in the landscape soon informed forestry policy, and the concept of the Mandate as a League of Nations trusteeship induced a pointedly paternalistic approach to governing Palestine’s landscape. As we see in reports by Herbert Samuel and his confreres, the British Mandate discourse conveyed a sentiment of salvation, a deliverance from the environmental damage wrought by Ottoman ineptitude.

The Mandate government considered the condition of Palestine’s landscape, then, as a man-made “scene.” The “absolute bareness of trees” was not natural, and its condition could be reversed. The British could restore the allegedly destroyed landscape inherited from the Ottomans. They could cultivate the land to match landscape realities with their imaginaries of the Holy Land, rich with fertile biblical imagery.

From 1927 to 1947, British authorities implemented afforestation programs, established tree nurseries, and formulated forestry laws. Wadi Al Quof was one site where these laws, influenced by the political discourse of disappointment, were put into effect.

In 1927, around six dunums (6,000 square meters) of land, including a water spring, were leased from their owner by the nearby Beit Kahel village council to establish Wadi Al Quof’s nursery. The council oversaw the construction of a water reservoir fed by a spring, Ein Wadi Al Quof, in addition to a warehouse and cabins for forest rangers. That same year, the British Mandate authority afforested an adjacent and much larger plot of land of around 280 dunums, known as Shams Sheab Al Ein (The Spring’s Sun). According to Roubina Ghattas, a researcher at the Applied Research Institute – Jerusalem, the authority planted mainly pine and cypress trees. Some species, such as carob, terebinth, and oak trees, grew naturally afterward.

My father once told me that aging trees are of a darker shade of green than younger ones. Since my childhood, I have found myself, whenever driving through the wooded areas of Palestine, visually decoding the accumulation of time through variations and shades of green. Wadi Al Quof has many.

The other larger part of the forest, Jabal Al Kabra (Kabra Mountain), with an area of 700 dunums, was forested in intervals between 1927 and 1960. The “scene” in this part is dominated by oak, terebinth, mastic, and azarole trees in addition to Palestine buckthorn and natural shrubs like Cistus incanus.

In the aftermath of the 1948 Nakba, the West Bank, including Hebron, fell under Jordanian rule. Forestry activities were suspended for three years before they were resumed in 1951 by the Jordanian administration, which conducted afforestation programs and updated silviculture laws.

On a recent visit to Wadi Al Quof Forest, I met a young ranger who told me that, according to his grandfather, a troop of the Jordanian Army forested a swath of this land in the sixties. That area is still called Al Hussein Camps because Jordanian soldiers used the military camp for training and hiding weapons when caves, often used as military storage facilities, proved inadequate. The Jordanian administration had ambitious forestry plans, many of which were left unfinished upon Jordan’s defeat in the 1967 War.

By the end of the Six-Day War in June 1967, Israel had occupied the entire West Bank. Israeli soldiers were stationed at territorial boundaries, guarding mountains and water sources: the Suez Canal, the Jordan River, and the line of volcanic mounts in the Syrian Golan Heights.

The West Bank occupies the central portion of a mountain range that, starting at the Syrian Golan Heights in the north, folds and wrinkles, extending beyond imposed political and territorial borders, and extending to the northeastern shores of Africa, with elevations ranging from 500 to 1,000 meters above sea level. The six main Palestinian cities of the West Bank (Jenin, Nablus,
Ramallah, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Hebron) straddle a north-south axis along the ridgeline connecting drainage basins.

The location of water-extraction points has determined the location of Palestinian towns and villages, later that of the Jewish settlements, and most recently the meanderings of the path of the Separation Wall in this region.

In the wake of the 1967 War, the Israeli occupation government in the West Bank suspended all Palestinian forestry activities, including nurseries, afforestation programs, and agriculture education. Israel became the only party entitled to afforest land, which they actively did to reserve land for their West Bank settlements to come. Afforestation became a mechanism of laying claim to new territory, for forest reserves were essentially considered to be state land.

Had Palestinians been permitted to forest bare tracts of land, they would have threatened Israel’s expansionism. Many Palestinians were reluctant to plant pine and other non-fruit-bearing trees on their private property, for instance, for fear that it would
be confiscated as state land.

Of the five nurseries in the West Bank before the 1967 War, Wadi Al Quof was the only one to continue operating, though its annual production of seedlings dropped from 200,000 to 60,000. In 1974, the Israeli administration mandated the suspension of its activities, but the head of the Hebron municipality proposed a solution: the municipality could buy Wadi Al Quof and maintain responsibility for its operation. The order to suspend activities was rescinded, most probably because that particular area was not seen as strategically crucial in the Israeli government’s future plans.

Due to Israel’s suspension of nursery activities, the period from 1971 to 1999 witnessed a great deterioration of West Bank forest areas, 23 percent of which was destroyed. The destruction of forest areas was largely due to the building of Israeli settlements and marginally due to Palestinian logging and privatization of parts of the reserves. The Palestinian Authority (PA), established in 1994, pursued forestry projects that remained of limited impact due to the restrictions imposed on the PA’s sovereignty over land and resources, to say nothing of limited funding. Still, just five years after the PA’s forestry initiatives, Wadi Al Quof nursery was rehabilitated, and its annual production of seedlings increased to 250,000.

Forests on Hold

The work of landscape configuration seeks to erase the very fact of its social production, thereby making a scene appear unworked. In this sense, a landscape is both a work and an erasure of that work. This erasure is in itself a form of hegemony.

Don Mitchell in The Lie of the Land (2006)

The different stages of Wadi Al Quof’s life reflect the milestones in the history of Palestinian landscape and borders. The benevolence commonly associated with forests intertwined with the ruthlessness of politics, and the significance of the forest exceeded that of a national or natural resource. As history pressed forward, forests – and an eclectic assortment of silviculture policies – were used to rewind time: British afforestation policies aimed at reversing the damage they believed the Ottomans had caused, and the Jewish National Fund (JNF) has subsequently deployed afforestation programs to cover the remains of Palestinian villages destroyed in 1948 and to hide any trace of their existence.

The British Mandate’s Woods and the Forests Ordinance aimed (first enacted in 1920 by the Mandate government’s Department of Agriculture) was formulated in the period when Palestine’s borders were being crystallized. The Mandate government had initiated land demarcation projects to define the borders and ownership of land parcels. In Ottoman legal code, parcel borders were loosely demarcated, often expressed as written statements describing which tree, house, road, or “landmark” delineated the land. The kushan, or Ottoman land deed, depended on local knowledge of the place, and there was a strong sense of communal property. The Mandate government wanted to claim state land by strictly defining its borders, and the classification of areas as Closed Forest Areas in addition to Closed Military Zones or Safety Buffer Zones was among the mechanisms that transitioned parcels to state ownership.

The forests ordinance aimed mainly at protecting economically important trees (such as the olive tree), reserving land for potential state forests, forming a conservation unit, and alleviating fuel shortages. In 1926, an amendment to the law stipulated that any land not classified as private property could be proclaimed as a forest reserve; any parcel of land, wooded or not, could be proclaimed as such. Even the Mandate authorities acknowledged this perplexity. For example, in Survey of Palestine (1946), the research dossier prepared by the Mandate Government of Palestine for the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP), the authors write:

There is perhaps room for confusion between the proclamation of a forest reserve and the declaration of a closed forest area […] From time to time a certain forest reserve or part thereof is declared a closed forest area. The land is thereupon closed to entry and no licenses for grazing and cutting therein are issued […] The Department plans to develop some areas as production forests and thereon to grow forest as high and as dense as possible, in order to provide timber, firewood and charcoal for the neighborhood. Other areas are closed in order to improve the vegetation with a view to collecting soil, so as to make the land fit for terracing and subsequent cultivation […] The closure of a forest is thus a means of active development.

What this paragraph about the law does not address is the issue of property. For instance, to alleviate the overcrowding of seasonal laborers in 1936, around 5,000 dunums of Closed Forest Area in Balad El Sheikh near Haifa were seized by the Forest Department to establish housing developments. Declaring land to be a Closed Forest Area was, in other words, declaring it to be state property. The Survey of Palestine authors continue:

The system of reservation has more than fulfilled all expectations … Near Tiberias, Nazareth and Haifa, there are many newly registered State Domains with precisely the same boundaries as the old forest reserves, while all the land outside those boundaries has been occupied and claimed by private owners in whose names it is now registered. From the point of view of ownership, then, the practice of reservation has proved its value.

Isolated parcels, or large islands of state property, that originated during the Mandate period – with subsequent alterations – laid
the foundations of today’s map of Palestine, for they were adapted and expanded by the Israeli occupation government. Since its establishment in 1901 for the purpose of developing land for Jewish settlements, the JNF has planted more than 240 million trees all over occupied Palestine. Moreover, JNF forests have replaced around 53 destroyed Palestinian villages in what seems to be an act of rewinding time.

Voids in the Landscape

The borders of, within, under, and above Palestine are by no means static or even one-dimensional. Islands of sovereignty scatter, intersect, and overlap at different altitudes – deep beneath the surface, on the surface, and in the air.

Just a few meters from Wadi Al Quof’s northern boundary lies a stone quarry; part of the hill is scooped away, leaving a boxy void enclosed by freshly cut rectangular stone, glaring white in the sunlight. While the forest is a remnant of a diminishing “scene” in Palestine’s contemporary landscape, its neighboring quarry is an example of a strikingly more common one.

The eclectic urban planning laws, currently applied in the Palestinian territories, include residues of Ottoman, British, and Jordanian planning regulations. They require stone cladding for all buildings within municipal areas. Stone quarrying currently comprises the largest portion of Palestinian industry, with a total of nearly 1,100 quarries in the West Bank and Gaza; Israel buys half of the production. Many, if not most, of the quarries operate within Area C, where Israeli regulations are applied and no building permits are given to Palestinians.
In such areas, since it’s not possible to build on the surface of the land, people seek value by digging. As a Hebronite quarry worker once said to me, “Stone is white oil. We don’t have petrol, but we’re blessed with mountains.”

No longer silent and still, Wadi Al Quof reverberates with the sound of mechanical digging and hammering. The sound echoes through the hills, some of which continue to absorb and store rainwater, rain that polishes and reshapes rock over centuries, while other hills fall to the jackhammer and end up as slabs clinging to building facades.

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 Yara Saqfalhait is an architect and writer based in Ramallah, Palestine, who also works as a researcher at The Palestine Museum.
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A 40 million-year-old aquifer beneath Wadi Al Quof contains 80 percent of Palestine’s underground water and extends under what is referred to on the surface as the West Bank. Wadi Al Quof, Hebron governorate, Occupied Palestinian Territory Photograph by Tanya Habjouqa
Teenagers from Hebron often roam in the woods of Wadi Al Quof, a site relatively free both of the society's watchful gaze and of Israeli surveillance. Wadi Al Quof, Hebron governorate, Occupied Palestinian Territory Photograph by Tanya Habjouqa
Ottoman authorities implemented the region’s first forestry laws, focusing on conservation, in 1870. Wadi Al Quof, Hebron governorate, Occupied Palestinian Territory Photograph by Tanya Habjouqa
British expectations of Palestine as a lush paradise were frustrated when they encountered its semiarid landscapes in the early twentieth century, and administrators blamed the Ottomans for allegedly “neglecting” and “destructing” its forests. Photograph by Tanya Habjouqa
The Wadi Al Quof nursery was established in 1927 when the nearby Beit Kahel village council leased 6,000 square meters of land. After the 1948 Nakba, it fell to the Jordanian administration and then to Israel with the 1967 war. Wadi Al Quof, Hebron governorate, Occupied Palestinian Territory Photograph by Tanya Habjouqa
A quarry lies a few meters from Wadi Al Quof’s northern boundary. In areas where Israeli regulations are in effect and no building permits are given to Palestinians, people seek value by digging. Quarrying currently comprises the largest portion of Palestinian industry. Photograph by Tanya Habjouqa
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