Opinion

The Sadists Who Destroyed a Decades-old Palestinian Olive Grove Can Rest Easy

Another Palestinian village joins the popular protest, its inhabitants no longer able to bear attacks by settlers. Vandals have butchered a grove of 35-year-old olive trees in the village. The tracks led to a nearby settler outpost

Vandalism in an olive grove in the West Bank village of Al-Mughayyir.
Alex Levac

Who are the human scum who last Friday drove all-terrain vehicles down to the magnificent olive grove owned by Abed al Hai Na’asan, in the West Bank village of Al-Mughayyir, chose the oldest and biggest row, and with electric saws felled 25 trees, one after another? Who are the human scum who are capable of fomenting such an outrage on the soil, the earth, the trees and of course on the farmer, who’s been working his land for decades? Who are the human scum who fled like cowards, knowing that no one would bring them to justice for the evil they had wrought?

We’re unlikely ever to get the answers. The police are investigating, but at the wild outposts of the Shiloh Valley, and Mevo Shiloh in particular, where the perpetrators’ tracks led, they can go on sleeping in peace. No one will be arrested, no one will be interrogated, no one will be punished. That’s the lesson of past experience in this violent, lawless, settlers’ country.

The story itself makes one’s blood boil, but only the sight of the violated grove brings home the scale of the atrocity, the pathological sadism of the perpetrators, the depth of the farmer’s pain upon seeing that his own God’s little acre was assaulted by the Jewish, Israeli, settlers, believers, destroyers – just three days before Tu B’Shvat, the Jewish Arbor Day, the holiday of the trees celebrated by the same people who destroyed his grove. This is how they express their love for the land, this is a reflection of the encroacher’s fondness for the earth and for nature.

And on a boulder at the far end of the grove they left their calling card, smeared on a rock: a Star of David smeared in red, shamefaced, shameful, a Mark of Cain that stigmatizes everything it stands for, and next to it, the word “Revenge.” Revenge for what?

The 25 felled trees lie like corpses after a massacre on the fertile brown, plowed earth. Twenty-five thick trunks stand bare and decapitated, their roots still deep in the earth, their tops gone, the work of a malicious hand – now mere dead lumber after years of having been tended, cultivated and irrigated. It was the most impressive row of trees in the grove; the destroyers moved along it with satanic deliberateness, sawing mercilessly. When, walking amid the stumps in the grove, the distraught owner Na’asan said that for him the act was tantamount to murder, his words made perfect sense. When we were just arriving there, his wife had phoned and begged him not to visit the grove, for fear he would not be able to abide the sight. Na’asan has cancer.

In the briefcase of documents he always carries with him is a copy of the official complaint he submitted to the Binyamin district station of the Israel Police, despite the fact that he knows nothing will ever come of it, that it will be buried like every such complaint. Anyone who wanted to apprehend the rampagers could have done it that same day: Mevo Shiloh, where the tracks of the all-terrain vehicles led, is a small settler outpost – violent and brazen.

The way to Al-Mughayyir, located south of Jenin, passes through the affluent town of Turmus Ayya, many of whose residents live most of the year in the United States, only visiting their splendid homes in the summer. The village, with a population of 3,500, is separated from the town by pasture land where sheep are now grazing. Everything is lushly green.

Abed al Hai Na’asan, with a butchered olive tree. The people of Al-Mughayyir say their problems have never been with the army, only with the settlers.
Alex Levac

In the center of Al-Mughayyir, a few men are standing next to an official vehicle of the Palestinian Authority. Personnel from the Palestinian Ministry of Agriculture have arrived to assess the damage suffered by the farmers; at best the ministry gives them a symbolic amount of compensation. Such is the deceptive semblance of a government that supposedly protects helpless farmers.

Everyone in the village knows that the PA can do nothing. So, about two months ago, the residents launched a popular protest, just as citizens of other villages before them have done – from Kaddoum, Nabi Saleh, Bil’in, Na’alin and others. Every Friday, they gather on their land, which lies on the eastern side of the Allon Road, and are confronted by a large number of army and Border Police forces, who disperse them with great quantities of tear gas that hangs like a pall over Al-Mughayyir, and with rubber bullets, rounds of “tutu” bullets (live 0.22-caliber bullets). Then come the nighttime arrests. Overnight this past Sunday, the troops arrested another seven villagers who took part in the demonstrations; 35 locals are currently in detention. This is the method Israel uses to suppress every popular protest in the territories.

According to the villagers, their sole demand is removal of the Mevo Shiloh outpost, which was established without a permit on a half-abandoned Israel Defense Forces base that overlooks their fields. The settlers burn the Palestininans’ fields, allow their sheep to graze on their land without permission, chase away the villagers’ flocks and perpetrate various “price tag” operations – hate crimes – against them.

In the previous such assault, on November 25, eight cars were damaged. The graffiti, documented by Iyad Hadad, a field researcher for the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, leave little to the imagination: “Death to the Arabs,” “Enough administrative orders,” “Revenge,” “Price Tag” – and also the unfathomable “Regards to Nachman Rodan.”

The people of Al-Mughayyir say their problems have never been with the army, only with the settlers. Here the war is for control of the land. It is a primeval, despairing war in which law, property rights and ownership play no part – what counts is the violence that can be perpetrated, under the aegis of the occupation authorities. When, one day, these people are forced to give up their land in the wake of the violence, the settlers will chalk up yet another impressive achievement in their effort to chop up the West Bank into separate and disconnected slices of territory. This week, when we drove across village land toward Mevo Shiloh, the villagers who rode with us begged us to turn around at once. So great is their fear of the settlers, that even when they crossed their fields in a car with Israeli plates, accompanied by Israelis, they were seized by dread.

The home of Amin Abu Aaliya, head of the village council, is perched atop a high hill, overlooking all the houses in his village and the fertile valley where his lands lie. In the winter sun that shines on the holiday of the trees, he serves a local pastry stuffed with leaves of green za’atar (wild hyssop), baked by his wife, who doesn’t join us. When we ask him to “Tell her it was delicious,” he replies, “She mustn’t get a swelled head.”

The view from the roof of his elegant home is indeed stunning. Scratchy music that blares from an old Citroen Berlingo down below heralds the arrival in the village of a vendor selling the sweet cotton candy known here as “girls’ hair.” In the middle of the village, young people are decorating one of the houses with flags of Fatah and Palestine: A resident of the village is due to return home today after serving two years in an Israeli prison, and a festive welcome is being prepared for him.

The West Bank village of Al-Mughayyir.
Alex Levac

The Allon Road, which was paved in the 1970s and runs north to south in the eastern part of the West Bank, with the aim of severing its territories from the Kingdom of Jordan, also separated Al-Mughayyir from most of its land, about 30,000 dunams (7,500 acres), located east of the road. The villagers grew used to that over the years. They also forgave the expropriation of land for the road and afterward for its widening. There is no safe place for them to cross the Allon Road with their herds, to access their land but they grew used to that, too. Sometimes the army blocks the dirt road that leads from the village to their land and they are cut off from it, unless they decide to take a long bypass route there. A matter of routine.

The people of Al-Mughayyir also learned how to live with the former existence of the military base of Mevo Shiloh, which dominated their land. They even came to terms with the Adei Ad outpost, whose members also assaulted them. But then the IDF evacuated the base and the settlers seized it. An internet search reveals that the settlers were ostensibly removed from this outpost a few years ago. But mobile homes sprout from the high hill that overlooks the village’s fields, and alongside them, large structures used for farming. Mevo Shiloh is alive and kicking.

The villagers say that the Civil Administration, a branch of the military government, promised them in the past that the outpost would be evacuated, but that didn’t happen. Lacking the funds to wage a legal battle, and not believing it would produce results anyway, they embarked on their Friday demonstrations.

I asked whether they had first consulted with other locales that have waged similar struggles. “There was no need to,” the council head said. “You don’t need consultation when you are in the right. We feel unsafe on our own land. How are we to protect ourselves and our lands? It’s a natural reaction: Either to turn to violence or to popular protest. We chose the path of popular protest.”

The dirt path that leads east from the village toward the Allon Road reflects the events here in the past two months. Empty canisters of the tear gas fired at the demonstrators hang from electrical cables, the ground is strewn with the remnants of scorched tires and with stone barriers. During the Friday protest two weeks ago, 30 villagers were wounded by rubber-coated metal bullets. The troops film the demonstrators and raid the village at night to arrest them – standard procedure in the villages of the struggle. Close to 100 residents have been detained during the past two months.

A dense cloud of tear gas hangs over Al-Mughayyir during the demonstrations and, according to council head Aaliya, even wafts upward to his house high on the hill. In some cases the settlers join the security forces to disperse the demonstrations, throwing stones at the protesters.

Na’asan, whose trees were ravaged, arrives at Aaliya’s house and shows him a copy of the complaint he filed with the Binyamin police: “Confirmation of submission of complaint.” The space for the details of the incident is empty. The space for the place of the event contains the following, word for word: “Magir RM in the forest, nursery, grove, field.” The charge: “Damage to property maliciously.” Hebrew only, of course. “File No. 31237.”

The police arrived at the grove last Friday, two hours after Na’asan discovered what had happened and reported it to the Palestinian Coordination and Liaison office. They said the ATV tracks seemed to lead to Mevo Shiloh. According to Na’asan, while the police were in the grove, a few settlers stood on the hill opposite and watched. The police are now investigating.

About 20 members of Na’asan’s extended family subsist thanks to this grove, which before the attack boasted a total of 80 trees of different ages, all meticulously cultivated. Standing here now, he says he’ll have to clear away those that were felled and bandage the stumps against the cold. That’s the only way they will perhaps sprout new branches, which he will have to tend. It will take another 35 years for the grove to return to its former state. Na’asan is 62. This grove grew together with his children, he says. He knows there’s little chance he’ll be around to see it recover.