It's the Pits

Humiliated farmers, angry landowners, human rights activists and army personnel: A confrontation in an olive grove

Four frightened farmers emerged from the old Renault that screeched to a halt in the center of the path. "The settlers didn't let us get to our grove," they told their fellow villagers of Akrabeh, who were picking olives along the sides of the path. It was Monday afternoon, four days after the majority of the residents of the neighboring village of Yanun deserted their homes, unable to bear the harassment of the settlers any longer.

The car's passengers turned down the proposal to join two television crews, one foreign and one Israeli, and return to the site where, they said, "an armed settler in an off-road vehicle and another three" people had threatened them with their rifles and taken their car key - returning it only after ordering them to leave.

The reporters continued driving on the path, which winds its way toward Nablus between fields and hills planted with olive and almond trees. In the middle of the path was an off-road vehicle with an Israeli license plate (number 01-478-69), and astride it was a young bearded Israeli wearing a khaki hat and with a rifle slung over his shoulder. In the field next to the path, another young man sat on a tractor (Israeli license plate 57-000-37) that was hitched to a plow. Two young men, both wearing large skullcaps and one of them armed with a rifle, walked alongside this vehicle.

"No photographs," one of the drivers snapped. "I say no pictures. This is my private land and you will not photograph my house." He refused to say whether it was he who had blocked the Akrabeh residents from getting to their olive grove. "I don't answer you. I don't talk to you," he said. "This field is mine all my life - no, for 2,000, 3,000, 5,000 years. Since Hashem [God] created the world." He and his armed friend produced wireless radios and began talking into them.

In short order, activists of the Ta'ayush Arab Jewish Partnership group, Rabbis for Human Rights, foreign nationals in the Solidarity movement, and a few of the grove owners in the area arrived. They stopped their convoy of cars opposite the off-road vehicle and its armed driver. The activists and the farmers began to speak about the right of the tillers of the land to harvest their crops. The driver of the off-road vehicle listened and then told the Palestinians: "You are dead people."

In the meantime, another off-road vehicle (Israeli license plate 12-452-76) and another few Israelis wearing skullcaps arrived in the field. An Israel Defense Forces jeep also pulled up, parking across the width of the path, and an officer with the rank of captain emerged from it. He huddled with the driver of the off-road vehicle, and spoke with representatives of the Ta'ayush group and of the Palestinian fellahin, who complained that they were unable to get to their olive groves.

"Why is he plowing my land and you say nothing to him, but you do not let me harvest olives?" one of the Akrabeh group - the father of a youngster who was wounded by gunfire on October 6 - said bitterly. On October 6, a few young people had gone to their grove to pick olives. A group of armed Israeli civilians showed up and, from a distance, opened fire; one of the Palestinians, Hani Beni Maniyeh, 24, was killed. The police are investigating allegations that Israelis murdered him.

Awaiting the verdict

The field that was being worked by the Israeli tractor is owned by the Bushnak family, from Nablus. It has leased the field for decades to residents of Akrabeh and Yanun. In the past two years, the farmers say, Israelis have prevented them from planting wheat in this plot, as they have traditionally done.

The origins of the Bushnak families that live in Palestine are in Bosnia. They were Muslim soldiers who were brought here to reinforce the Turkish army at the end of the 19th century and settled in various places in the country, including Yanun. Although they were not originally from one family, they adopted a common surname that attests to their extraction. When they moved to Nablus from Yanun, they leased their land to the residents of Akrabeh, who gradually began to leave their village and settle in the wadi, the plateau and the hill of Yanun. Payment for leasing the land could be made in the form of wheat, olive oil or cash. About three-quarters of Yanun's 16,000 dunams (4,000 acres) of land is leased.

"We have a law that a leaser is forbidden to remove the tiller of the land," says a Yanun resident, who on Monday was one of those awaiting the verdict as to whether they would be able to harvest the olive crop.

The army captain explained to Ha'aretz: "There are places where they can harvest the crop and places where they cannot. Those are army orders - not demands of settlers - in order to prevent them from approaching a settlement and perpetrating a terrorist attack."

The settlement of Itamar is northwest of Akrabeh and Yanun. Over the years, its residents expanded their homes onto hilltops in the area. A few mobile homes on each of these hills, along with observation towers and water reservoirs, surround Yanun from the east, the north and the west. The groves of Akrabeh and Yanun abut on the settlement's ever-expanding boundaries.

The captain related that his soldiers had told the olive harvesters that they were prohibited from working the groves "on the left" (that is, the many hundreds of trees on the north side of the path). Those "on the right" can be harvested. "We are letting them harvest in most places," the captain continued, explaining the policy. "That is also in the army's interest. There is a great deal of humanity here. You can ask. They are even guarded." And what about the Israelis on the off-read vehicle and the tractor, who blocked the Palestinians from getting to the right of the path? "That is a different matter, a matter for the police," the captain said.

In the meantime, another jeep arrived, bringing a major, who wanted to talk to the Palestinians and their supporters. Rabbi Arik Ascherman, from Rabbis for Human Rights, was sent to negotiate with him. He returned with a proposal: "If we work on the south side, they will separate between us and the settlers," he said. "Their duty is to protect us if we work on this side." And one more condition: The "boundary" demarcated by the off-road vehicle can be crossed only on foot.

`Softened version'

The villagers decided to take advantage of the presence of the Ta'ayush group and harvest their crops, even though they thought the terms were humiliating and discriminatory. The closure is causing economic bankruptcy and these days, every liter of oil than can be extracted from the olives is worth its weight in gold. "The only reason the army is letting us work is that you are here," someone remarked. "If you weren't here, the army would tell us to call the police and in the end, it does what the settlers want."

"You were witnesses to a softened version of what we have been going through for the past five years," Abd al-Latif Bani Jaber, the head of the Yanun village council, said afterward. He sat at the entrance of one of the homes whose owners left, walked past the abandoned houses on the deserted streets with the Ta'ayush activists - who had come to stay over - and related the history of the abandonment of the small village, which consists of three groups of buildings on the plain and the Yanun hill.

"In the past few months, some of the residents left the village and moved to Akrabeh. They couldn't take the fear anymore. We were 150 residents, which gradually decreased to 100, then 87. Last Friday, only eight families were still here." The occupants of the homes closest to the hills and the mobile homes were the first to leave. At first Bani Jaber and other villagers filed complaints to the police about assaults (at the Civil Administration base in Hawarah). "Causing damage to private land, uprooting trees" is recorded under "confirmation of the filing of a complaint" in February 1998; "building a road on land owned by you," the police wrote in July 1998. However, in time, "we saw that there was no point to complaining. No one came to our aid," Bani Jaber says.

Armed Israelis showed up outside houses in the village, preventing the residents from getting to their crops and intimidating them. Sheep sometimes disappeared. One Saturday last June, Bani Jaber was sitting with his wife and children at the entrance to their home. "Those who attacked us in the past are used to us locking ourselves in our houses. That day they came down from the hill and told me to get inside. I said I will sit here wherever I want." He and a few neighbors threw stones at the Israelis in order to scare them off. More Israelis showed up and some of them fired in the air, he said.

Dozens of young people from Akrabeh rushed to the neighboring village to help. The army and the Civil Administration were also summoned. The IDF Spokesman confirmed at the time that there had been an "incident" and that the security forces had separated the "combatants."

In the middle of the night on April 17, someone set fire to the building that housed the village's power generator. The United Nations Development Program financed the installation of a generator to supply electricity to the village and to pump water from the local well into two large tanks that were placed on a cliff at the edge of the village, from which pipes were laid to the houses.

The repair will cost $17,000, but a new generator has not yet arrived. According to one of the residents, it was made clear to the villagers that the new generator would also be torched. The upshot is that since April, the village has had neither electricity nor running water. At the end of July, a group of Israelis toppled the tanks, which in any event were empty.

Since April, the villagers have been going down to the spring and filling jerricans with water, which they store in a concrete reservoir that they built. Nine days ago, two days before the abandonment of the village, they were astounded to discover three Israelis swimming in their drinking water. In the past few weeks, Israelis have harassed fellahin from Akrabeh and from the villages north of Itamar.

"It is known in the village that the assailants operate on Saturdays, in a different place each week," Bani Jaber said. "`When does Saturday come?,' our children ask their parents in fright. People thought that we were next on the list, so last Friday those who were still here decided to leave."

The Nimr family - the father, who is a teacher, his wife and their eight children - left their home together with most of the village residents that Friday, taking their sheep. Two days later, the mother returned with three of her children - her grown-up son and daughter and a three-year-old boy. "We came back when we heard that people came to protect us," she said. "We felt a bit of security." The mother, Umm Nizar, had to reassure the little boy that the Hebrew speakers around him "are not settlers." He watched with frightened eyes and wouldn't say anything.

Umm Nizar said that four Israelis, two of them armed, had surrounded the house a few days before the family left, had fired in the air and demanded that she open the door. "It is a continuing saga. They come over and over," she said. "Whenever there is noise outside, the boy says `the settlers came.'" He doesn't say "Jew," which is the word used for the army. "The army is normal, we are not afraid of them," she said.

Two brothers, Faiq and Ralub Bani Jaber, both around 70, live in a stone house that was built during the period of Jordanian rule. They and their children, totaling about 25 people, refused to leave. Ralub Bani Jaber summed up: "When I saw my neighbors leaving, I felt death."