Of fences and neighbors
The ongoing saga of a Jordan Valley moshav and the barrier it is trying to erect on lands abutting - and encroaching on - the encampment of 170 beleaguered Palestinians.
On the one side lies the Jordan Valley settlement of Massua with its greenery and blossoms, electricity, water, hothouses and an abundance of land. On on the other, a tent encampment of 170 souls without any of those things. There, among sheep, dogs, chickens, donkeys and swarms of flies, children in rags live in a small collection of tents, after the Civil Administration last week destroyed the pitiful tin shacks that had housed the villagers.
We had planned to go to neighboring Khirbet Yarza, where Israel last week demolished a mosque, but were prevented from doing so by soldiers at the roadblock; telephone calls also did not help. So we made our way instead to the Abu al-Ajaj compound, which neighboring settlers have surrounded with a fence. The 70 members of the families of the three Adais brothers now live here in a tent encampment, with a few other families. The Adais clan owns 1,500 sheep, their sole source of income.
The collection of tents is situated a few hundred meters west of the Jordan Valley road. Massua - which started as an outpost of the Nahal paramilitary brigade in 1969 and became a moshav affiliated with Haoved Hatzioni - lies further west.
Sitting on plastic chairs, brothers Shahdi and Adnan Adais, aged 52 and 47 respectively, told their tale of woe. Kate Allen, the director of Amnesty International in the United Kingdom, had left just before we arrived. In the past few weeks, a number of young volunteers from abroad have been living in the compound, in a show of solidarity and to document the goings-on there.
The members of the Adais family arrived at this site in 1979 from the nearby village of Al-Jiftlik, after being evacuated from there. In 1999, the brothers said, the settlers of Massua built a small hothouse at the site of the village and forbade them to approach. Two years later, the settlers set up another hothouse and closed off the area to the Palestinian shepherds. That land, claim the former residents, is public property that belongs to the village.
In 2008, the settlers expropriated more land for a hothouse and also tried to close off the dirt path that leads to the Jordan Valley road, along which the sheep are taken to pasture. The police were called in then, and kept the road open.
Shahdi Adais says he misses the earlier neighbors - the first generation of Massua. "The members of the old generation were like friends. We lived together," he says. "We had special relations with them. But the young generation is so arrogant. In the past, they used to pick us up with their cars for work and drop our children off at school. Now times have changed. The new generation is violent and extremist. The youths attack us."
About a month ago, the people living in Abu al-Ajaj built a few shacks for the winter. The neighbors from Massua appeared immediately when the work started and threatened them. The Palestinian residents called in the police, and a large contingent of policemen, soldiers and Border Policemen arrived. A man named Itzik from the Civil Administration told the people in the compound that they must demolish the shacks. Adais says he showed them a High Court of Justice ruling from March of this year, responding to a petition filed by him and his neighbors, that prohibited any demolition of structures at the site until a further injunction was issued.
"I want to keep living here. I have lived in the area for 30 years and we never made any problems," Adais continues, adding that Itzik then told him: "All the Arab states have not succeeded in stealing even one meter from the State of Israel - so you think you can?" - and the shacks were indeed destroyed.
A few days later, the settlers reappeared and began building a fence around the compound. The residents once again telephoned the police, who again arrived on the scene. The fence pegs remained in place, but the settlers left. Two days later, they returned and resumed building. Though the Palestinians called in the police again, eventually the settlers erected their fence, which made the area of the compound even smaller.
An investigator on behalf of the B'Tselem human rights organization, Atef Abu al-Rub, arrived on the scene then and saw that soldiers and policemen were helping to put up the fence, after which they affixed an Israeli flag on the fence and started to dance. Itzik warned the residents not to dare touch the barrier; two of the Palestinians were arrested and then released.
On Wednesday of last week, the Civil Administration official returned to Abu al-Ajaj, accompanied by a large police force, Israel Defense Forces soldiers and two bulldozers. Shahdi Adais tried to show them the court ruling, which he had kept in his pocket, but to no avail. "I am the law," he says that Itzik told him, in excellent Arabic. Adais explains that the children were still asleep, and he stood in front of the bulldozer. Someone shouted: "Where are the soldiers? Bring in the soldiers." Adais was knocked down and beaten. Now he has a scar from the beating near his ear. What disturbs him most, he adds, is that he was beaten in front of the settlers "who came to watch the show."
Adais was handcuffed and taken to a nearby army base. By the time he was released, a few hours later, the shacks had been demolished. One of them, 500 square meters in area, belonged to Shahdi Adais, and three others belonged to his brother, Adnan. B'Tselem's al-Rub reports that he saw six young goats being crushed to death under the debris; family members say the number was closer to 30. Two young relatives are still being held at the Hawara lock-up.
"What will we do? We'll stay here and we'll build again," the Adais brothers say. "We don't have anywhere else to live. They can dig us up from under the ground, but we have nowhere to go."
The Civil Administration spokesman said in response that the Abu al-Ajaj structures were demolished in accordance with the law, after all the required legal steps were taken, including summoning residents to the sub-committee that deals with overseeing and carrying out demolition orders. The administration is not aware of any High Court order forbidding carrying out demolitions at the site, he said. The agricultural fence was erected on state land allocated to Massua, he added, and it does not enclose the homes of the Palestinians, as described in this article, but rather partially separates the fields of Massua from the homes of the Palestinian residents.
David Elhayani, head of the Jordan Valley Regional Council, responding in writing to questions from Haaretz, says: "Moshav Massua, one of 21 communities in the valley, received an allocation of agricultural land from the state, which included the area under discussion. In 1998, stop-work orders were issued to five tent encampments in the area earmarked for agriculture , across from the community [moshav]; some of them were also demolished that year. In July 2008, the Civil Administration's inspection coordinator handed another two orders to the residents to stop the work on two new tent encampments in the same compound on state land, including the encampment next to the hothouses and agricultural land of Massua, and situated 150 meters from that community itself.
"Despite an interim injunction forbidding [the village residents] from continuing construction and moving into the buildings, they continued the building process without a permit and in contravention of the law. Residents of the village who took over the area from the community of Massua testify that relations between them are excellent, and that is indeed so. The erection of the fence by residents of Massua was carried out according to the law, with a permit, and in the presence of army personnel and officials of the Civil Administration. There is no basis to the claims of the village residents that they were treated violently. They are the ones who acted violently and we have documentation of that.
"The settlement intends very soon to submit to the courts a demand that the orders be enforced immediately against the buildings that were erected without a permit, and in contravention of earlier court orders, on the outskirts of Massua."
Doron Yisrael, the community coordinator of Massua, says he is familiar with the Palestinians' petition to the High Court, but says it is based "on false claims." The land in question "was allotted to Moshav Massua legally," Yisrael explains, "for development of agriculture. The shepherds in question are members of the Adais family, a wealthy family from the village of Yatta in the Hebron District, which has trespassed on our lands in recent years."
According to him, the petition was filed after the Civil Administration "started carrying out enforcement actions against construction done without a permit." He adds that under the interim order issued regarding the petition, "The structures will not be demolished on condition that the situation on the ground is frozen, both with respect to construction and with respect to occupancy of the buildings - until such time as there is a ruling on the petition. However, despite the stipulations of the order, the trespassers have been building without a permit at a faster pace, they have tenanted the buildings and have even started the construction of new ones."
The fence was erected, according to Yisrael, because of the "Civil Administration's helplessness" and based on authorization from the regional council. "The fence," he says, "is intended to prevent damage caused by the entry of flocks onto our land and to prevent the spread of the illegal construction onto additional lands."
The construction of the barrier, he claims, was stopped time after time "in the wake of the rampages by the Palestinians, who were accompanied by leftist foreign activists." He adds: "In both incidents in which the Palestinians and the leftist activists rampaged, violence was not employed on the part of the settlers."
Meanwhile, the fence is not yet complete, and looks like more of a physical declaration of intentions. In the afternoon, when the sheep start to return from pasture, a large cloud of dust rises behind them. For a moment one could think this was a scene of idyllic peacefulness in the countryside, somewhere in the Jordan Valley.