By Haitham Tamimi
SOUTH HEBRON HILLS, West Bank, Jan 24 (Reuters) - Home sweet home for Suleiman Hawamdeh, a 73-year-old father of 10, is a deep cave in a barren West Bank hillside separated by a barbed-wire fence from a modern Jewish settlement.
Hawamdeh and 120 other Palestinians inhabit the cluster of caves known locally as Quina Foq, which straddles the so-called "Green Line" that separated the Jewish state and the West Bank before the 1967 Middle East war.
They draw their water from wells and gather wood for cooking much like their ancestors, who first settled here during Ottoman rule more than a century ago.
Quina Foq’s inhabitants eke out a living farming and herding sheep in the rocky hills about 40 km (25 miles) south of the West Bank city of Hebron. Many of the children go to school in the nearest Palestinian town, As-Samu’: an hour’s donkey trek.
The cave dwellers share a satellite dish and a television set, which is powered a few hours each night by a car battery.
Israeli authorities prevent them from building on the land, and the barbed-wire fence, which separates Quina Foq from the Jewish settlement of Shani, limits their access to a nearby forested area where wood for cooking is plentiful.
Hawamdeh and other residents complain about the Israeli restrictions, but say they live in these caves by choice and have no intention of leaving.
"We belong to this land. It’s the land of our ancestors," Hawamdeh said.
His cousin, 31-year-old Ahmad, said: "I can’t live in the city — it’s a big jail. I prefer to be here next to my livestock."
A few hundred yards away, Jewish settlers live in red roof-topped homes, some with backyard swimming pools.
One of the oldest residents of Quina Foq, 70-year-old Yusef Kailil, said his grandfather was among the first Palestinians to settle in the caves in the 1800s.
"I was born here and I will die here," added 60-year-old Mohammad Rawashdeh.
Israel erected the barbed-wire fence about a year ago — an extension of the barrier being built by the Jewish state in and around the West Bank.
In other areas, the barrier — which Israel says helps stop suicide bombers but which Palestinians call an attempt to grab land, is made of concrete.
Palestinian residents of Quina Foq say they have mixed feelings about the fence. On the downside, it prevents them from freely accessing the forested area below Shani as they have for generations.
But it also keeps the settlers at a distance, which has helped reduce the occasional hostilities which took place before it was erected.
60 METRES DEEP
The typical Quina Foq cave is 60 metres (197 feet) deep. The opening is carved from stone.
The caves are divided into three areas: a living space, a storage area and a kitchen.
Residents of the caves sleep on blankets and mattresses on the rocky floor. There is no running water and no electricity. They have no furniture and, apart from the shared television, no modern appliances.
In winter, they keep warm in the caves with small wood fires.
They say they sleep outdoors during summer to avoid snakes and scorpions that seek shelter from the heat.
Quina Foq has four water tanks, one for the people and three for their animals, which live in the caves during winter.
"We have water problems during the summer. We don’t have other alternatives," said Mosa Rawashdeh, 27.
Beside the caves, the only permanent structure is a tent that serves as the television room. The Israeli army has told them to take the tent down because building on the land is prohibited.
"They are living in crisis," said Abdul Hadi Hantash, who handles land issues for the municipality of Hebron.
An Israeli army spokesman said the army was working with regional planning authorities, issuing orders to remove "illegal structures" in the West Bank built both by Palestinians and Israelis.
Israeli authorities occasionally allow one Palestinian with a donkey cart to cross the barbed-wire fence and gather branches that have fallen from the trees near Shani.
The Palestinians complain that they are required to gather all of the fallen wood, whether it is good for cooking or not.