Two days after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared, on Tuesday last week, his intention to annex the Jordan Valley after the election, forces of the Civil Administration carried out yet another brutal operation of destruction. The target this time was particularly remote: a rocky hillside adjacent to the village of Tamoun in the northern valley. The goal was singularly vicious: the uprooting of hundreds of olive trees that were about to yield their first fruit, and demolition of the cisterns holding the water that was used to irrigate them.
Four days later, on Monday, the groves’ owners stood next to their felled trees and their ruined cisterns, sadly rolling bits of olives from the felled trees between their fingers. The first crop of these seven-year-old trees was set to be harvested in another few days, but the Civil Administration’s terminators got here just before – as if to rub salt in the wound. The butchered trees are withering on the ground; their fruit is dying on the slashed branches. The Civil Administration also uprooted in full some large olive trees, about 50 years old, from this privately owned grove and buried them under the rubble of the reservoirs they had devastated, lest the farmers try to replant them, here or elsewhere.
Also on Monday, ministers of the symbolic Palestinian government left Ramallah and cruised east in their official vehicles, to hold a symbolic cabinet meeting in the village of Fasayil. They were protesting the meeting held a day earlier by Israeli ministers at the outpost of Mevo’ot Yericho, which they agreed to legalize on the spot. Few people took an interest in the Palestinian cabinet meeting.
The sign above the local council building in the small Palestinian village of Atouf says “State of Palestine,” but the reality on the ground tells a different story. There’s no state and no government – not even a security force to protect farmers from the violent dispossession of their land. The demolished cisterns on Mount Om Ekbesh and the whitewashing of the settlement of 175 residents north of Jericho are the real story of the Jordan Valley. They signify who is sovereign here, and the type of regime that exists under that sovereign.
But neither the possibility of annexation nor the Israeli election was of interest to any Palestinians in the Jordan Valley this week. All that remained amid the rubble was pent-up grief and a feeling of helplessness in the face of the crushing machine of occupation, whose engine no ruling party in Israel intends to shut down. Even Kahol Lavan’s Benny Gantz promised that under his government, too, Israel would remain here for all time. That’s a well-known fact among every last Palestinian farmer whose land has been plundered near the hill between the villages of Atouf and Tamoun, above the verdant, budding settlements of Ro’i and Beka’ot. Neither the results of the election nor the implementation of the outgoing government’s annexation decision will have the slightest effect on the lives of anyone here or make a difference vis-à-vis the flagrant apartheid here, as witnessed by the flourishing, illegal settlements of the Jews and the demolished water holes and fields of the Palestinians.
A steep dirt road ascends the mountain from the village of Atouf; it was cleared by the Palestinians over the course of several years and completed in 2018. Until then the farmers could gain access to their lands only on foot or with a tractor. The owners of these properties live in Tamoun, which can be seen from the summit. According to the documents they have, this is private land, officially registered as such since Ottoman times.
Last Thursday morning at about 7:30, local shepherds called Mursheid Bani Odah and Jihad Bani Odah, both residents of Tamoun, to say that large military forces were moving from the direction of Atouf toward the mountaintop. Arif Daraghmeh, a field researcher for the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem – who also serves, on a voluntary basis, as head of the Palestinian council of villages in the northern Jordan Valley – followed the Israeli troops in his car. He had no idea where they were headed, but it was clear from the equipment they carried that they were bent on destruction. As they approached Tamoun, he became increasingly concerned that they were going to raid the town. Daraghmeh counted four bulldozers, two power shovels and two excavators, escorted by three jeeps of the Israel Defense Forces and three more belonging to the Civil Administration.
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The two landowners and the B’Tselem field researcher tried to drive up the mountain but were blocked by soldiers on the pretext that the site had been declared a closed military zone. Instead, the trio climbed seven kilometers by foot and approached their land, whereupon the former two discovered that their olive groves and cisterns were that day’s wrecking project.
Mursheid worked for 20 years in the fields of Beka’ot for a settler named Ilan Tzach, until he became fed up with the exploitative wages he received – a mere 100 shekels ($28) for a long workday that began at 6 A.M. His daily expenses were 20 shekels for travel, plus another 20 shekels for food and cigarettes, so he was left with very little. Now he does odd jobs and devotes part of his time to tending his family’s olive trees on the mountain. Jihad is a carpenter who specializes in doors. Their world collapsed last Thursday, when they reached their land and saw the contract workers of the Civil Administration uprooting trees and wreaking destruction.
The sight on the mountain does not make for easy viewing.
Shallow graves in the thorny, rock-strewn area, where the young olive trees were buried; demolished concrete walls of the six reservoirs, each of which held 70 cubic meters of water. It’s a remote place, up here, far from any habitation. Signs alongside the dirt road leading up the mountain, put up by the Environmental Quality Authority of the Palestinian Authority and by the United Nations Environment Program, declare the area to be a nature reserve. The signs bear colorful pictures of local birds and plants.
“I worked here seven years,” Mursheid says, standing on his devastated property. “Why didn’t they come to me in the first year and tell me it was forbidden to plant here? Why did they wait seven years,” the period it takes for an olive tree to begin bearing fruit. To make the point, he picks up an olive branch torn off a tree, with its first fruits. “Here is a sapling, an olive tree just a few years old.” He speaks to the olives with compassion, as though he’s talking to his children.
On Thursday, he tells us, he asked the officer in charge of the demolition operation: “Why are you doing this? Whom are these olive trees bothering? If people want to hike around here, why shouldn’t they sit in the shade of an olive tree?”
His questions went unanswered, but Mursheid surely knows who’s bothered by the groves: the settlers in the valley, the lords of the land who are served by the Civil Administration, who is their contract worker.
Jihad and Mursheid initially began to clear the land here about a decade ago, and planted the trees in November 2012 after the PA’s Ministry of Agriculture helped them build the first section of the road. A month ago, a few dozen trees owned by Jihad were uprooted; Thursday was a repeat performance. Amazingly, a swath of land with about 30 trees on it was left untouched. So, in the heart of the darkness, there is still a blossoming grove, a remnant, a mute memorial to what was and is no more. The soldiers explained: “That is yours. It’s not ours.” But Jihad says the entire area of 20 dunams (5 acres), of which only one dunam remained intact, is registered in his name. He is convinced that they left him a small part of the grove “so that we will know what we are missing, so we will remember what was here.”
The Israeli forces also smashed the purple plastic chairs that were here, leaving us with nothing to sit on. As we speak, Jihad caresses an amputated branch, a man in mourning. Again he wonders why this happened. He said he hoped to rescue a few large trees that were buried beneath the ruins of a cistern, but was afraid to bring in a power shovel to pull them out, because he figured the machinery would be confiscated.
On Saturday, he says, he will plant a few new olive trees here.
All told, in the two rounds of destruction, a month ago and last week, about 240 trees belonging to Jihad were uprooted, along with about 250 of those owned by Mursheid. When the two reached their property on Thursday, they saw workers using electric saws on the trees while bulldozers laid waste to the cisterns they had built. Local people began to arrive to see what had happened. Now they’re worried in Tamoun that the Civil Administration will ravage more groves and reservoirs, such as those lining the dirt road up the mountain.
Three months ago, someone planted the Palestinian flag on the slope of the hill across the way. According to one theory, that is the root of the locals’ troubles. But Jihad tells us that he received a stop-work order a few years ago and waged an ongoing, losing legal battle for his land. Mursheid says that no one told him that he was prohibited from planting olive trees on his own land.
In response to a request for comment, Haaretz received the following statement from the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories: “On September 12, 2019, the supervisory unit of the Civil Administration undertook an enforcement operation at Mt. Tamoun against an illegal incursion that included planting of trees and creation of water-storage facilities on state lands, and a nature reserve.
“It should be stressed that, in contradiction to what is claimed [in the article], the illegal work was not undertaken on private lands but encroached on a nature reserve and state lands, as was determined by the High Court of Justice after it considered several appeals on the subject. The enforcement was executed in accord with the authority [of the unit] and proper procedure.”
“You took our land, you took our water, you took our food – what do we have left? You expect that after all this we will be your friends? Anyone who takes our food, land and water cannot be my friend,” Mursheid says.
Adds Jihad, “The olive branch is the symbol of peace. At Oslo we offered it to you” – a reference to the Israeli-Palestinian accords signed in 1993.
A young eucalyptus tree remains among the ruins. The terminators didn’t touch it. It stands erect, as though defiant, among the uprooted olive trees and decimated cisterns. Maybe it was left there to signify the Civil Administration’s love of nature and the land.
The caption of the main photograph accompanying this article originally misidentified the tree as an olive tree.