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Settler violence v Palestinian steadfastness

Farmers in the West Bank are cut off from their olive groves by laws to defend and extend illegal Israeli settlements – when they do go to harvest, they are attacked, sometimes by the army too. JENNY KASSMAN reports on the deteriorating situation

GHASSAN MANSOUR and his wife Zohaira (not their real names) were delighted when they received their permit from the Israeli Civil Administration allowing them their yearly four-day access to their grove to harvest olives.

If this year’s figures bore any resemblance to those for 2020, their application was one of the lucky 27 per cent granted in the occupied West Bank.

The permit did not apply to all their land. Some years ago, acres of land on which the Palestinian couple and their family used to cultivate wheat and sesame had been expropriated by the nearby illegal Jewish settlement of Har Brakha to form a barren cordon around the settlement.

The couple’s happiness was short-lived. On their arrival they found that all their trees had been burnt by the Israeli settlers during the long period when they had been prohibited from accessing their grove.

The destruction of Ghassan and Zohaira’s olive grove has been reflected in the experiences of many of their fellow farmers in the village of Burin where they live, as well as in numerous other places in the occupied West Bank.

Burin is a village in a traditional olive-growing area south of the West Bank city of Nablus. For centuries its economy, like other villages in the area, has been reliant on the olive, which has been cultivated there since Roman times. There are still trees dating from that period.

It is an area of undulating hills, once thickly clad in olive trees, with villages tucked away in the valleys. Nowadays the wooded hillsides are pocked with large bare patches, the scars of what were once olive groves.

Those groves were destroyed by Israelis who inhabit the three nearby Israeli settlements (Har Brakha, Rivat Gonen, Yitzhar and their outposts), all built on Palestinian land and illegal under international law.

Situated on the hilltops overlooking the Palestinian villages, these settlements are constantly expanding along the ridges as well as down the hillsides towards the villages themselves.

The Israeli residents of all three settlements around Burin engage in violence, theft and destruction against the Palestinian villagers and their lands. The area is known as one of the epicentres of settler attacks which occur throughout the year and which increase yearly.

Farmers like Ghassan and Zohaira whose groves happen to be located near settlements can only access their family land with an army permit — if they are lucky enough to be granted one. Most permits give Palestinians a few days a year during which to harvest their olives.

Some farmers may also be given access in the spring to plough the land and prune trees; otherwise they have to tend their trees at the same time as harvesting from them.

Those farmers who are not granted a permit have to choose between forgoing their harvests and accessing their groves anyway and risking the consequences.

For Palestinians, to access their land without permits means being attacked, not just by settlers, but by Israeli soldiers with tear gas and stun grenades, which is what happened in October to Ammar Hamayel and his family from Beita, near Burin.

“A week ago, my family and I went to go pick our olives; when we arrived near the base of the mountain, they started firing at us. There were women and children with us, so we had to run away. Why should I have to get co-ordination to pick my olives?”

The number of permits granted by the Israeli Civil Administration to enable Palestinian farmers to access their own lands has decreased over the years. 

In its report, Creeping Dispossession, the Israeli human rights organisation, HaMoked compares how 71 per cent of applications were accepted in 2014, while in 2020 only 27 per cent were granted.

These permits are not binding. Israeli soldiers have denied Palestinian farmers access to their groves on the dates granted to them, for example, in the event of settler attacks, when soldiers order Palestinian farmers off their own lands rather than the Israeli trespassers.

Gaining permission from the Israeli authorities to access their lands is just one of the problems faced by the 100,000 or so Palestinian farmers and their families in the occupied West Bank who rely on olives as a source of income.

During the harvest, settler attacks increase in frequency. Ghassan Daghlas, who monitors Israeli settler violence against Palestinians in the northern West Bank, described how attacks usually increase by the second week of the olive harvest. This year attacks started early.

Although the 2021 olive harvest started officially on October 12, the more intense Israeli settler attacks started on August 23 when settlers from Yitzhar torched dozens of olive trees belonging to Akram Omran from Burin.

In Burin alone, during the harvest period there were further attacks in which around 250 were burnt, uprooted or felled.

Some farmers lost trees on multiple sites. One farmer, Jamal Qadus, lost a total of 70 out of his 600 olive trees in five different locations through arson attacks or by trees being cut down.

Settlers attack Palestinian farmers with impunity. On one occasion, about 60 settlers from Yitzhar descended on Burin farmers and their families who were harvesting olives, attacking them with rocks. Israeli soldiers, who were in the vicinity, did not attempt to stop them.

The presence of Red Cross observers does not act as a deterrent either. On October 26 settlers from Givat Ronen pepper sprayed members of the Red Cross who had come to Burin on research. They were burnt on the face and hands. It appears no arrests were made.

In a statement issued the same day, the International Committee of the Red Cross stated that this was not the first time that their staff had been attacked while carrying out their work in the West Bank.

The army and settlers combine to intimidate Palestinian farmers. While Jamal Qadus, was harvesting olives with his wife and daughter, the security co-ordinator (“ravshatz”) from Yitzhar, Yitzhak Levy, arrived, ordering them to leave their grove containing 40 trees.

He then called in Israeli soldiers to ensure his order was upheld. When asked to comment later on this incident, the army spokesperson denied all knowledge of it, as did Levy.

Israeli settler attacks on Palestinian homes, with army support, have been merciless. A week into the harvest, 30 hooded settlers from Givat Ronen pelted a Palestinian home in Burin situated close to their illegal settlement belonging to the Eid family with stones and lit multiple brush fires on the parched land near the house.

Israeli soldiers arrived during the stone throwing, but did nothing to stop the settlers. Neither did they stop them from lighting fires.

However, when a group of Palestinians from the village came to chase the settlers away by throwing stones back at them, they were met with stun grenades and tear gas from the soldiers who also aimed them at the house.

Three weeks later, the Israeli settlers from Givat Ronen returned to attack the Eid family’s house as well as many neighbouring homes.

Again, they hurled stones, with Israeli soldiers looking on. A member of the family, Adil was hit by a stone and suffered a fractured arm while other Palestinians were badly bruised.

Some house owners and neighbours threw stones back at the settlers to defend their homes.

Finally, the settlers began to pull back up the hill, with the Palestinians chasing them. It was then that the Israeli soldiers started to fire tear gas at the Palestinians to defend the settlers.

Next, when more villagers started to arrive to help their neighbours the soldiers entered Burin, again firing tear gas and stun grenades.

On October 17, Daghlas reported that there had been 58 Israeli settler attacks in the northern West Bank relating to the olive harvest, nine of them in the village of Burin.

Settlement expansion, the creation of new settlements and more recently settler farms, all illegal under international law, serve the objective of enlarging the Israeli population in the occupied territory.

This increase in settlement building is one of the causes of the escalation in Israeli violence which aims to expropriate Palestinian lands and drive the Palestinian population away from their villages.

When Israel’s Defence Minister Benny Gantz was confronted by Israeli politicians from the Meretz Party who charged him with allowing the security forces to support the settlers during their violent attacks, he replied: “We will work to cut off the phenomenon with all the means at our disposal.”

Statements such as this have often been made by military chiefs, even though reality shows their intentions are to the contrary.

Gantz’s use of the word “phenomenon” to describe settler attacks invites comment. The violent Jewish Israeli settlers of Yitzhar, Har Brakha, Givat Ronen and of many of the over 280 settlements and outposts in the occupied West Bank do not see their presence and actions as a phenomenon, but as complying with the aims of their religion by reclaiming their ancient homeland which they believe was given to them by God.

Neither does the Israeli human rights organisation, B’Tselem see settler violence as a phenomenon. In its recent report State Business, B’Tselem argues: “The state aids and abets settlers in violently expelling Palestinians from their land and sometimes from their homes … to misappropriate Palestinian land in order to build new settlements, expand existing ones and take over pastureland fields and farmland.”

The report refers to “the participation of Israeli security forces in violent incidents, the disregard of Israeli authorities for their duty to protect Palestinians and the near complete immunity the state gives settlers who harm Palestinians.

“The state condones this violence, giving the settlers free rein to terrorize Palestinians … although soldiers have the authority and duty to detain and arrest them.”

Yesh Din, another Israeli human rights NGO, describes settler violence as a tool for achieving political aims that “serves the government policy of taking over land — and therefore it is flourishing…”

This strong reluctance to stop settler violence is due to the fact that most Israeli politicians, including ex-Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu and the current PM, Naftali Bennett (who, at one time, headed the Yesha Council, a settler organisation), favour annexation of the West Bank as part of the Jewish state in which, as stated in Israel’s 2018 Nation State Law: “The actualization of the right of national self-determination in the state of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.”

Meanwhile, the lives of the 2.5 million Palestinians living in the West Bank are seeing a steady deterioration in all aspects of their lives: their traditional livelihoods, their ability to look after their families, lands and properties, to move freely without fear, to study, to worship, to defend their rights as citizens in a political system that deprives them of their human rights, dignity and civil status.

However, most West Bank Palestinians choose to remain. Populations in villages like Burin are expanding as Palestinians live out the principle of “sumud” — meaning “steadfastness” — against their occupiers.

Like the olive trees which the settlers so vehemently wish to destroy, Palestinians’ deep-rooted attachment to their land goes back many centuries. Sumud in the context of the Israeli occupation means staying put and that is exactly what the Palestinians living in Burin and elsewhere in the occupied West Bank intend to do.

Jenny Kassman has visited Burin in the occupied West Bank on nine occasions and is a member of Jewish Voice for Labour, Palestine Solidarity Campaign and the Labour Party. She is a signatory of Jews for Justice for Palestinians.

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