Analysis

Struggle Over Quiet Hill Claims Lives of Two Palestinians, Shot by Israeli Troops at Close Range

A West Bank antiquities site has become the focal point of a struggle by Palestinians to hold onto their land in the face of settlers' encroachment. During weekly protests there, two Palestinians were shot to death by IDF soldiers

Posters showing Ibrahim Shreitah and  Uthman Labawda plastered on a building in Al-Mazra’ah al-Qibliyah. The two villagers were killed, another seven were wounded.
אלכס ליבק

The traces of blood were washed away last week by the autumn rains. Here, on this hill, blood was shed of unarmed villagers fighting to retain their last remaining bit of land and the small space for rest and relaxation they had carved out at an unofficial antiquities site on a nearby hill. The settlers in the outpost across the valley coveted the site and, starting last July, began invading it every Friday, supposedly to pray but mainly to provoke the villagers, under the auspices of the Israel Defense Forces and the Border Police. Their aim was clear: to seize control of the hill, as they had seized control of other hills around the village.

A few Fridays ago, this ongoing struggle for their land exacted the lives of two villagers, when Israeli forces opened fire at close range. Seven other villagers were wounded. Since then, the hill has been declared a closed military area on Fridays. This temporary cease-fire is of course another victory for the settlers: The tiny antiquities park is closed to its owners on their day of rest.

This is one of a myriad of stories, a typical case of how the settlers are seizing land that is not theirs and of the brutal response by the IDF and the Border Police when the victims attempt to protest.

Khirbet Na’alan is a rock-strewn hill with oak trees and remnants of ancient stone walls from Crusader times. It’s located at the edge of Al-Mazra’ah al-Qibliyah, a Palestinian village of 3,000, north of Ramallah and close to Bir Zeit, which dates back to the 16th century, according to its residents. Talmon and its satellites – Dolev, Nachliel, Zayit Ra’anan, Nahalei Tal, Neria, Hirsha and also Kerem Re’im (the “Talmonim”) – are the settlements and outposts that surround the village.

This time the evil swept in from the direction of Kerem Re’im, a trailer-home site on the hill across the way, inhabited by some 45 national-religious families, with a large Israeli flag that’s flapping in the wind and dirt trails leading to it from all sides. The ordeals of al-Mazra’ah al-Qibliyah began here in 2007, when a settler planted a vine on the desolate hill across from Khirbet Na’alan. Following a failed legal battle, the villagers started to protest against the takeover of the hill. About 40 of them, including the head of the village council, were arrested on one day of demonstrations.

Sure enough, four years later, the Kerem Re’im outpost was established under the vine that had been planted there. At first it was two or three trailer homes, and then more and more in their wake. The villagers, realizing that the battle for that hill was lost, gave up. But early this year they discovered that the settlers weren’t yet sated. These uninvited neighbors started to build dirt roads to the outpost that crossed Al-Mazra’ah al-Qibliyah land. Once more the locals protested, in an attempt to stop the bulldozers, and this time their efforts bore fruit: After they appealed to the District Coordination and Liaison Office in Beit El, the roadwork came to a halt in May.

But in July the settlers developed a craving for Khirbet Na’alan, which lies on the hill opposite them. Each Friday they would climb up there to demonstrate their presence and lordship over land that is not theirs – yet another act of provocation under the aegis of the IDF and the Border Police, and under the cover of prayer, which is supremely pure, pristine and innocent.

Sensing the approaching danger, the Palestinians began to develop the site. They encircled it with simple steel fences, installed lighting, hung chains of lamps on the branches of the trees, repaired the dirt road running from the village to the site, placed signs calling on visitors to keep the hilltop clean and brought in picnic tables like the ones at sites belonging to the Jewish National Fund. A trailer home, like the ones used by the settlers, was even placed in a corner of the site, to function as a clubhouse and place to hang out. The battle for the hill had begun.

A video in the possession of the villagers shows the encroachment by the settlers. With soldiers and Border Police around them, they are seen standing in the site restored by the Palestinians – praying, their bodies swaying back and forth, some armed with rifles. Under the oak tree in the center of the hill they can be seen exchanging smug smiles while grim-faced Palestinians stand opposite, visibly humiliated and furious, helpless against the foreign interlopers.

That scene was repeated every Friday for a month. On other occasions, at night, the settlers would sabotage the fences and electrical cables, and puncture the large water tanks that the Palestinians had installed. On one occasion the villagers found an unlit firebomb, which had apparently been intended to burn down the trailer. The last time the settlers were here was on the night of November 17.

It’s quiet here on Fridays now, but the villagers have been barred from reaching their only outdoor recreational space. For how long? “The decision is made according to an operational assessment,” we were told by the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit.

A month earlier, on October 15, the settlers stepped up their terror tactics, entering the village in the dead of night and damaging no fewer than 28 cars, smearing Stars of David on them with an ominous inscription: “Death to the Arabs.” Iyad Hadad, a field researcher for the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, has visual documentation of all the cars that were attacked. Passions began running high in the village, with rage and frustration mounting.

And then came their Black Friday, October 26. A day earlier, the District Coordination and Liaison Office had informed residents of Al-Mazra’ah al-Qibliyah that the area of Khirbet Na’alan would be declared closed to the settlers, who would not be allowed to approach the site. But at around noon the following day, the villagers saw that settlers were gathering at the entrance to Kerem Re’im, along with a number of military vehicles. Dozens of village residents gathered at the antiquities site, watching the developments across the way with growing concern. The younger villagers began throwing stones into the valley that separates the village and the outpost, with the aim of preventing the settlers from reaching the hilltop site.

Vasim Ladawda, the village’s paramedic, got a phone call from the Palestinian unit in the DCL office: What are so many young people doing at Khirbet Na’alan? Ladawda tried to calm things down. He told his Palestinian interlocutor that the young people were on their own land, and that if the settlers stayed away things would remain quiet. But tensions continued to rise and at about 1:30 P.M., a large Border Police force, together with a small number of soldiers, began moving toward the hill from all directions, firing large quantities of tear gas. The villagers threw stones at them; the settlers remained at their outpost.

Smoke enveloped the hill as clashes continued between young Palestinians and the security forces. Under the tear-gas assault, most of the demonstrators withdrew toward the main part of their village. A few dozen young people and about 100 soldiers and Border Policemen remained, according to the villagers’ estimate. Gradually the distance between the two sides narrowed until just a few meters separated them. The young people descended into the valley and the Israeli troops climbed toward them. By now it was around 2:30 P.M.

And then, without warning, shots rang out. Live ammunition. Within minutes the valley became a battlefield. Nine Palestinians collapsed, one after another, bloodied and writhing with pain. The video taken by the villagers isn’t easy to watch: Border Policemen and soldiers shooting the young stone-throwers from zero range, round after round of live fire, and young people falling to the ground, casualty after casualty. Sounds of shooting – puk, puk, puk – and then the groans and cries of the wounded and their rescuers. War.

As usual at such demonstrations, a lone Red Crescent ambulance was parked on the Palestinian side, and with it five paramedics from the Medical Relief Society, led by Ladawda. At first, he relates, he was stunned by the large number of casualties – nine within just minutes – and by the unbridled use of live fire from such short range. Among the wounded was a medic wearing a high-visibility orange vest, and also a photographer. The young villagers carried the wounded up the hill, and filled the ambulance with four or five casualties, among them Mohammed Ibrahim Shreitah, a father of two, who was shot in the head. He died a few days later in a Ramallah hospital.

Ladawda saw his brother Uthman fall to the ground. Uthman was carried to the medic, who was convinced that he had swallowed his tongue and was choking; his face had turned blue but there wasn’t any blood on him. Vasim tried to resuscitate his brother, but apart from one breath, he did not react. Meanshile, the ambulance had already left.

Uthman had no pulse and Vasim couldn’t understand what had happened. He bundled his brother into his car and sped to the local clinic, where two physicians were also at a loss to explain Uthman’s condition. An ambulance arrived to take Uthman to Istishari Hospital in Ramallah; Vasim accompanied him.

After about five kilometers, Vasim realized that his brother was dead. His body was cold, his blood oxidation stood at zero and he had no pulse. They drove the remaining three kilometers to the hospital where Uthman was pronounced dead, and his body was taken to be photographed. Only then was a small puncture wound discovered in his rear hip – an entry wound with no exit. The bullet had apparently devastated his internal organs, slashing upward through his body – the soldiers were below him in the valley and he had been bent over when he was shot from behind.

Uthman Labawda was a construction worker, an expert in tile grouting, 33 years old, married to Maha and the father of four. Maha is in her ninth month and is due to give birth next week. Her new son will be named Uthman, of course.

What happened during those minutes when the troops began to fire live ammunition indiscriminately at the unarmed demonstrators? The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit told Haaretz: “In the wake of the event, an investigation was launched by the Military Police, in cooperation with the Israel Police. On October 26, a violent breach of order occurred with the participation of more than 100 Palestinians in the area of Khirbet Na’alan. During the demonstration the participants hurled burning tires and threw stones at IDF and Border Police forces, wounding three border policemen. In response the forces made use of riot dispersal means and live fire. As a result of the fire, two Palestinians were killed and others were wounded.”

In the meantime, the ground at the popular recreational spot-turned-war zone is covered with acorns, and velvet armchairs in scarlet and purple are scattered around the site. The pits that were dug for roasting chickens are filled with water. The wife of Vasim, the bereaved brother, prepared makluba and sent it here in pots. We’re sitting at a picnic table, as though nothing happened.