The Israeli Volunteers Who Set Out to Protect Palestinian Farms

To mixed results, residents of a Jewish community outside Jerusalem tried to protect neighboring Palestinian farmland from hikers, some of them armed and belligerent, during Passover

Wadi Fukin.
Emil Salman

A hot, dry wind – a heatwave – oddly accompanied by light rain, blew across the green expanses of Wadi Fukin, a farming village that lies in the ravine between the ultra-Orthodox settlement of Betar Ilit and the community of Tzur Hadassah, which abuts the Green Line on the Israeli side, southwest of Jerusalem. The heavy air painted the hillside in warm hues. From behind the smoke of a campfire, under a rickety lean-to, loomed the smiling face of Mohammed (not his real name). “Death to the Arabs” was scrawled in red marker on a faded wood wall next to him – a souvenir of a settler “price tag” act in June 2016.

Every year, the Wadi Fukin’s 1,300 inhabitants go on high alert ahead of the week-long Passover holiday. They’re fearful of the Israeli hikers who trample their fields and camp for the day near the lovely irrigation pools that glitter along the Judean Hills ridge. This year, some of Tzur Hadassah’s 8,000 or so residents initiated a project whereby they would serve as intermediaries between the Palestinians and the holiday visitors. Tsvia Horesh set up a schedule, organized shifts and flagged down every Israeli car that passed, while correcting the other volunteers’ embarrassing Arabic mistakes.

“Our ties with the [Palestinian] residents became intensive after their equipment was wrecked in a ‘price tag’ attack,” Horesh told me, referring to assaults on random Palestinians and their property by some Jews as retribution for actions they deem to be damaging to the settlement enterprise. “At Sukkot we placed signs in Hebrew and Arabic next to the pools, so the hikers wouldn’t go into the water and block the filters, but it didn’t really help. This time we tried to explain to them that it’s people’s private farmland.”

Members of one family, from the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba, adjacent to Hebron, got out of their car and made a beeline for an irrigation pool. The volunteers asked them politely to use a marked trail and not damage the agricultural areas. They got a bewildered look in response. The children, who were wearing matching blue shirts, weren’t sure whether the women volunteers were inspectors or “leftists who finance terrorism.”

Tsvia Horesh.
Shakked Auerbach

“It’s not their territory, it’s ours,” the father of the family asserted, in an angry tone tinged with apprehension.

Horesh’s efforts, which began with polite requests, ended with her backtracking into a hut, when the outraged father took pictures of her and the other volunteers with his mobile phone.

“You have to take it as a given that the ravine fills up with people,” she said. “Farmers who don’t want people entering their pools empty them.” At the same time, she admitted, the volunteers’ presence could have a “polarizing effect,” and nodded with her head toward the pistol-packing and somewhat belligerent father of the family, who wanted to know if we were planning to clean up the garbage they left behind “for the Arabs.”

A young blond man, wearing a keffiyeh and a T-shirt from the Kfar Etzion field school – part of a network of such establishments run by the Society for the Protection of Nature, this one situated in a settlement near Bethlehem – came over to the hut in the shadow of a large mulberry tree laden with green fruit. Uttering a bashful “Shalom,” he tried to find out whether it was alright to enter the pools. Mohammed, who was setting a pot of coffee on the fire, said the water wasn’t good, because it was filled with mosquito larvae. “They come all the time from the field school, but they don’t make a mess, so it’s alright,” he told us.

None of this was of interest to another farmer, whom we will call Nasser. Demonstratively ignoring the hikers who walked past him along moss-covered aqueducts, he went on hoeing his land, furrow by furrow, from which the remnants of dead radishes peeked out. “The Jews come here a lot, especially when there’s a holiday, but I have no problems with them,” he explained. “I emptied out the irrigation pools so they won’t go into them,” he said, and pointed to fresh mud that oozed around a succession of bare, sad concrete pools.

“Happy holiday,” Nasser said, putting on his hat and turned around to throw aside a dead radish.