'If the Settlement of Elon Moreh Wasn't Here, We'd Be Living in Paradise'

Unknown individuals - probably settlers from the nearby settlement - have started working land that belongs to Azmout, a Palestinian village near Nablus. A protest has been launched.

Waal Alawna, the head of the local council of the West Bank village of Azmout, was not surprised by the phone call he received a few days ago. An official from the Palestinian coordination and liaison administration informed him that unknown individuals were plowing land that belongs to the village. A resident from a nearby village had heard the sound of tractors from the distant, hillside plot of land, and informed the Palestinian Authority. Alawna, who is toothless and whose usual attire is an old safari suit, convened the village council urgently in the ramshackle building that serves as its headquarters. Several tractors of mysterious origin had begun to plow the village’s 120-dunam ‏(1 dunam = .25 acre‏) tract of land in Bloc 1, in the region of Habis al-Sharka, three kilometers away, as the crow flies.

The village council decided to set up a popular committee and to launch a protest. Last Friday, the villagers, accompanied by Israeli and international volunteers, went to the site, prostrated themselves on the ground and prayed. Afterward, they used stones to block the dirt trail that descends from the Jewish settlement of Elon Moreh to the field, on which the tractors probably traveled. They vowed that if the trespassers were to dare to plant seeds as well, they would uproot the field and defend their land.

The villagers lost about 1,000 dunams of their land when Elon Moreh was established. They are determined not to lose this plot as well. They have no doubt that it is settlers from Elon Moreh who are working the land, without having bothered to get their permission, of course.

“Land, my land, merciful until my death, a great wind churned your ruins, we are betrothed in blood,” the poet Alexander Penn wrote. No blood is likely to be shed here, nor will Azmout become a new Bil’in, Nabi Salah or Na’alin − villages defined by resistance − but this tranquil place is now distraught over land, their land. For years the villagers have been unable to get to some of their fields because of the settlers, and now the settlers have begun to work the land, too. Past experience has taught the villagers that what begins with a tractor usually ends badly: sowing the wind and reaping the whirlwind.

A hill-and-valley vista is visible through the window of the room in which the council meets. The houses of Nablus inhabit the west, the red-tiled roofs of Elon Moreh loom intrusively on the hill to the east. The village’s 3,000 residents, members of four clans, are either farmers or are employed in the PA bureaucracy. They have 13,000 dunams of land, less 1,000 plundered from them.

‘Bone in the throat’

This is an ancient Canaanite village − people here believe it might be 3,000 years old − whose name, deriving from the Arab words for boldness and death, is meant to attest to the inhabitants’ resilience. The village takes pride in the fact that some 50 of its residents have obtained advanced academic degrees, including 10 physicians. No one here is ostentatiously rich and no one is dirt poor. Only a few of the villagers have permits to work in Israel.

The village, which is largely pro-Fatah, has buried a few of its sons in the wake of confrontations with the army and with settlers. They still remember the shepherd Hamdallah Alawna, whose herd returned to the sheep pen without him on a cold, rainy winter night in 1991. His body was found the next day in the old tomb compound of Sheikh Bilal, his hands tied behind his back, his head bashed in by blows from rocks. The first to fall in the village was a 16-year-old boy, shot in the summer of 1988 by soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces, during the first intifada.

A few village activists − farmers and elderly landowners − met this week in the council building. Also on hand was their spokesman, Hamdallah Afana, the director general of the Palestinian Ministry of Culture in Nablus, who speaks fluent Hebrew: He’s a “graduate” of seven years in an Israeli prison and of studies in government and politics under the auspices of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem during his prison term. “We are looking for someone to protect us from the settlers,” he says.

The problem is particularly acute during the olive harvest season, when the settlers harass the olive pickers. The last harvest actually went by more quietly than in previous years. Visitors to Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus also sometimes pass through the village and cause havoc; shepherds are occasionally attacked.

“If Elon Moreh wasn’t here, we would be living in paradise,” Anafa says. “It’s like a bone in the throat. It cuts us off from our land and reduces the value of the real estate. Because of the settlers, you can get only NIS 1,500 for a dunam of land here, no more, and there are no buyers. Who wants to buy land next to a settlement, land you can’t work? I have a plot that I have never even seen. I visited another plot once, and it looked like a jungle: Thorns are climbing over the olives. In 1980, when the first settlers came, with mobile homes that were flown in by helicopters, they were nice to us. We could go through Elon Moreh to get to our land. But the situation changed very quickly.”

From the roof of the council building we view the land that surrounds Azmout; none of it is being worked. The villagers say that every time they try to approach their land, an army unit or a security unit’s jeep from the settlement chases away the landowners or the shepherds. ‏(The newly plowed plot of land lies on the far side of the hill on which Elon Moreh is situated and is not visible from the village.‏)

The PA official who phoned Alawna to inform him about the plowing advised him and the other landowners to submit a complaint to the Palestinian police. From a shelf Alawna takes a file containing the ownership deeds to the land.

It’s a hard place to get to. A rocky trail, which the settlers probably used, leads down to it from Elon Moreh. It can also be reached circuitously, by circling the hill from the other side, the eastern side, and then proceeding by foot for about an hour. That was the route the villagers took last Friday, to hold their demonstration. The land there hadn’t been worked for years, because it is so hard to reach. Now it has been plowed.

“Why am I not allowed to get to my land?” asks one of the landowners, Faraj Alawna, a pensioner of the Israel Police from the period in which Israel controlled Nablus. After 17 years of work as a desk sergeant, today he receives a pension of NIS 600 a month. He asks us whether there is some way to get a raise.

This week the villagers filed an official complaint with the Palestinian coordination and administration body and now they are waiting for a response. Their newly founded committee will monitor the developments. If the settlers sow the land, they will file another complaint. The village now has two options, Afana says: the way of protest and the legal way.

“But we don’t have much room for maneuver,” he notes. “We will try to carve an agricultural path to the plots, so that we can get to them. The committee will have to decide how to work the land, without coming into contact with the settlers or generating violence against them.”

In the meantime, the villagers are not planning another demonstration.

“The ball is in the settlers’ court,” Anafa says. “They will decide the scale of the response. We will not give in. That is only natural. Azmout is surrounded on all sides by a valley, by the houses of Nablus and by Elon Moreh. Only the north is open to us. We will not forgo this hill. When I was a little boy I used to climb it and see Jordan, Galilee and the sea from there. It is such a beautiful place. It might possibly develop in the future − if Elon Moreh goes away. I remember [Prime Minister] Yitzhak Rabin saying that Elon Moreh cannot protect Tel Aviv, and with God’s help it will be evacuated.”

The spokesman of the Civil Administration did not provide a response to Haaretz by press time. We reached the plot of land in question by going around the hill, a drive of at least a quarter of an hour on the road that descends from Nablus to the Jordan Valley. The area is perched on the ridge of the hill. After Elon Moreh, the settlements end and the land of the Palestinian cucumbers starts. Indeed, the fields are lushly green now because it is cucumber season, and their fine scent is borne on the breeze. Hundreds of farmers, men and women, are hunched over the plants, picking one cucumber after another. It’s a sight that makes you forget all the suffering, and reminds you what this country could be like ... if only. 

Alex Levac