New Version of Old Self-defense Group Guards Jewish Farmlands

Activists of New Shomer team up to protect Lower Galilee grazing land from harm caused by Bedouin herders.

On a hill overlooking the Lower Galilee town of Kiryat Tivon, some 40 teenagers and adults were working to rebuild fences around grazing land that had been cut by persons unknown. Just a few kilometers away, a statue of Alexander Zaid, who founded the Shomer self-defense organization in the early 20th century, was recently toppled and destroyed. The workers were from New Shomer, whose members see themselves as Zaid's successors in protecting the grazing lands of the Lower Galilee and the Jezreel Valley.

Their struggle highlights the conflict between Jewish and Arab herders in the area. Because of the increasing numbers of both Jewish and Bedouin ranchers and the decrease in grazing land, disputes have been on the rise between them in recent years. Herds invade neighboring pastures, fences are cut and fires started. Many Jewish cattle farmers say that the authorities, especially the police, are not doing enough to protect them from Bedouin herders, and therefore they have to protect themselves. New Shomer, made up mainly of farmers, is a way for them to do so.

Thursday's "operation" was organized by students and graduates of the pre-army preparatory program at Kibbutz Ma'ayan Baruch. Before they got started, Y., a member of the organization from Moshav Tzippori (who asked that his name not be used), said his father's livelihood had been hurt by residents of the neighboring village, Rumat al-Haib.

"There is major neglect by the state. One person has to stand up and do something, and after him, thousands will come to help a farmer in trouble," he said.

"We'll be the Tel Hai," he added, referring to a Jewish collective farm in the Upper Galilee whose losing battle against Arab marauders in 1920 has become a metaphor for Jewish resistance.

A few months ago, Y. put a cart filled with books on the hill overlooking his family's grazing lands. Travelers stop by, and every two weeks, the organization's supporters gather there to hear lectures. Most of the time, there is a guard on the hill; according to Y., this has led to a decrease in the number of rustled calves in the area.

"I came up to the hill to show a presence. I am a scout, like they are," Y. said, pointing to Rumat al-Haib. "This area is mine, and it will belong to my sons, my grandsons and my great-grandsons."

Y. said he wants neighborly relations with the Bedouin farmers, and that New Shomer has no nationalist elements, but only "love of the land and the country."

Y.'s father, Hyman Zilberman, said that several Jewish farmers have given in to pressure from their Arab neighbors and either abandoned their land or paid the Arabs not to harm their livelihood. Haaretz could not confirm his claims.

Zilberman also denied that Jewish farmers had received lands taken from Arabs. "The fact is, there are Arab cattle-growers who get land [from the state]," he said.

One of New Shomer's supporters is the Im Tirtzu ("If You Will It") association, which says its goal is to defend Zionism. "The authorities are doing nothing here. We are acting instead of the state, before it's too late," Im Tirtzu activist Noam Aharon said of Thursday's activity.

The police do not reject New Shomer out of hand. "There's nothing wrong with individual initiative ... that serves the public interest, within the bounds of the law," said a spokesman for the Amakim District Police.

However, the police and Border Police also said they could deal with the agricultural theft, which has been greatly reduced in 2007. The Cattle Growers Association recently complimented the police and the prosecution on the decrease in agricultural crime.

The head of the Jezreel Valley Regional Council, Eyal Betzer, did not deny the tension between Jewish and Arab farmers, but nevertheless said relations were "excellent." He said that if law enforcement were lacking, "there are private citizens' organizations," but urged people to obey the law.