I met Hajj Sami from the northern West Bank village of Zawiyyeh in August. A joint acquaintance called to tell me that Hajj Sami was “stuck” for three hours in the blazing sun in front of a gate in the separation barrier that serves local farmers, and that soldiers who were supposed to arrive to unlock it had not shown up. I called the Israel Defense Forces Spokesman’s Office, and the gate was unlocked within 15 minutes. There was some sort of security alert near the barrier in that area that had kept the soldiers busy, I was told.
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Two days later, around 2 P.M., Hajj Sami’s number appeared on my cellphone display. It was the same story all over again. The designated opening time had long passed and the soldiers had not arrived at the gate. I called the IDF spokesman again and the response was again swift. I was told again of some problem along the barrier which the soldiers were checking out.
Since then, this cycle has been repeating itself every few days, always ending up with a belated opening of the gate. Sometimes I’m unavailable and sometimes Hajj Sami is too embarrassed to bother me. He told me once of a caravan some Israelis wanted to place on his land, to which he objected. The Civil Administration said there was no intention of building there, since the land is deemed to be 100 percent privately owned by Palestinians.
Hajj Sami explained that his property is trapped within the bounds of the settlement of Elkana. I found this hard to picture, so I promised to come and see for myself, in order to understand and write about it. In the meantime, October came along with its cycles of violence. He says that soldiers demanded several times that he leave his olive grove earlier than planned – before he and his wife had finished collecting all their olives.
Last Thursday he called to say he was in Ramallah. “On Monday I was beaten in my grove,” he told me. I rushed over to meet him. He is a 61-year-old man wearing a large white skullcap and sporting a white beard. His eyes are green and slanted. There was a bandage under one eye, covering some cuts.
While he was busy picking olives two Israelis showed up, demanding that he leave. They beat him with a club, he said. He fell and lost consciousness. When he woke up and saw the extent of his bleeding he crushed some olives and smeared oil on the wounds, then rode his donkey to the gate where he had to wait for the soldiers to unlock it (late again).
Hajj Sami is convinced that the two Israelis did not come from Elkana. Its residents behave differently, he said. There was in the past another attempt to kick him out, he told me. Once an Israeli claimed that the land was his, and policemen were summoned to prevent the Palestinian farmer from working his land. But when that person could not prove his claim and Hajj Sami produced his title deeds, the whole affair ended.
I offered to bring Hajj Sami back to his village. On the way I told him that I had no family connections in the army or the Shin Bet security service. My phone calls help, I explained, because they bypass the bureaucracy and because in some cases, there is still some impact to writing in a newspaper.
In his living room Hajj Sami related his woeful saga dating back to the establishment of Elkana in 1977, along with its land expropriation, construction of roads and fences, prohibitions, and more land grabs and more prohibitions.
“These have been 40 years of torture,” he says. “And all I want to do is plow, clear dead brush, weed, remove stones and pick olives, grow vegetables and grains like I used to – to be on my land as I choose and as I desire.”
I went to see his plot the next day. Hundreds of acres of groves belonging to the village of Zawiyyeh lie in the vicinity of Elkana, and in between some of its neighborhoods. Even before the separation barrier was built, these lands and groves were disconnected from the village by the trans-Samaria highway and by the fence that surrounds the settlement.
Hajj Sami’s extended family owns three of these plots (12.5, 15 and 4.5 acres in size). An asphalt path was paved around them, and cut into the groves. A thick grouping of prickly-pear cactus plants in the yards of the settlers’ houses, abutting a playground with swings and slides, next to the post office and gas station, show the past, original natural borders of these plots land.
In my imagination I envisioned this past: Hajj Sami as a child running between the rocks and trees, learning from his parents and grandparents how to loosen the earth, to weed, to pick olives and to identify plants by their medicinal uses.
Add to this a bright blue hummingbird flitting over a rock, some smiling dandelions and carpets of yellow flowers and you could forget Hajj Sami’s pain, but only until you see the olives darkening on many trees, unpicked, or the unturned soil, the stones and the overgrowth of weeds and thistles.
He and his wife – this elderly couple – try to get to their beloved groves daily. The younger family members only make it for the olive-picking season, and they have practically despaired. It’s a half-hour walk to the gate, and from there another half-hour to their plot. This doesn’t include the hours of waiting for the soldiers, who never arrive on time.
Several villagers are working in Elkana, right next to their own land. A distance that once took five or 10 minutes by car has now become a lengthy and expensive journey. They leave home at 3:30 A.M., heading north to a checkpoint for Palestinian day laborers near the town of Qalqilyah. Then they go south to Kafr Qasem (in Israel). There they take transportation that brings them back to the settlements, arriving at work at 6 A.M.
“Maybe you could ask someone in the army or the settlement to let you take the short route,” I suggested. “It won’t help,” they answer.
They’re younger than Hajj Sami. That is why they have lost any hope of being treated decently.