Moshe Ben-Zion Moskowitz from the West Bank settlement of Shiloh was asked in court whether, when he began farming a plot in the jurisdiction of the Palestinian village of Qaryut in 1980, he owned it. Twice, he responded that the plot’s owner was God. But attorney Jiat Nasser kept pressing him over whether he personally owned the land, and Moskowitz finally responded, “Not personally, but the Jewish people does.”
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Nasser then sought a clarification: “Is it true that you didn’t buy the land?” Moskowitz responded, “It’s the Jewish people’s land.”
But neither God nor the Jewish people helped Moskowitz in the suit he filed in 2010 against the Qaryut local council and some of its residents. The court didn’t accept the Bible as a deed of purchase.
Moskowitz had asked the court to prevent the Palestinian defendants from harassing him, as he put it, via police complaints about trespassing and attempts to farm that same land.
For 30 years, he complained, he worked the land without any problems, until in mid-2007 along came Rabbi Arik Ascherman (then of Rabbis for Human Rights, today of Haqel – Jews and Arabs in Defense of Human Rights) and demanded proof of ownership.
“I showed him the Bible. We’ve returned to our land,” Moskowitz told the court in December 2010.
But after an exhausting legal battle, Judge Miriam Lifshits ruled in April 2016 that Moskowitz failed to prove he had worked the land continuously since 1980, or even for the 10 years before the suit was filed. In contrast, the defendants proved their connection to the land and their use of it; Lifshits found no proof that the land was lying fallow when Moskowitz took it over. He never gave the court the documents he promised; what he told police contradicted what he told the court; and his witnesses contradicted him.
Yet even if the Bible and the Jewish people failed him, the law enforcement agencies – the police, the army and Israel’s Civil Administration in the West Bank – did not. One year after the judge’s ruling, they haven’t lifted a finger to remove the greenhouses Moskowitz built on the land while the case was in court. And this week, Col. Yuval Gez, commander of the Binyamin Brigade, barred the land’s legal owners from entering it for the first time since 2007.
Their attorney, Kamer Mashraqi-Assad, had been asking the army for a year to escort the owners to their land. True, it isn’t located in an area where the army requires a military escort due to fear of the settlers, but as the farmers testified in court, they have encountered threats and violence in the past.
The settlers “come there with their guns and their dogs, and we have no power to confront them,” Tareq Odeh of Qaryut told the court in December 2010. “I have two plots that I can’t get to for fear of the settlers.”
Moskowitz, he continued, “is armed. If he were to shoot five of us, nobody would ask him [anything]. But if one of us had thrown a stone at him, none of us would have escaped.”
Odeh died a year ago, so he never got to hear the court’s verdict.
Last weekend, the army’s liaison bureau told Mashraqi-Assad that an escort had been arranged for the farmers this Tuesday. True, it was only for a day, but they waited excitedly to return to their land.
But Monday night, Mashraqi-Assad told them the army had reneged. Gez, the brigade commander, wasn’t willing to provide the escort, because there are settlers around.
Tuesday morning, Haaretz asked the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit whether Gez is afraid of settler violence or identifies with their goal of taking over the land and evicting the people who have legally owned it since before Israel’s establishment in 1948. Wednesday evening, the unit replied that the escort had initially been approved, “even though the area doesn’t require such coordination. But during a preliminary tour of the area the day before the date agreed for entering the plot, we found that the plot contains agricultural greenhouses that don’t belong to the submitter of the request, and therefore it can’t be worked in practice. We decided to postpone the date agreed for working the plot so that this issue could be looked into by the relevant professionals. A response to this issue will be given promptly.”
The authorities are also letting settlers invade privately owned Palestinian land in the northeastern West Bank, near Tubas and Bardala, while barring entry to Palestinian shepherds in defiance of judicial rulings.
Decades ago, the part of the northern Jordan Valley between the border fence and the Jordan River was barred to the Palestinians who owned and worked it by a military closure. Settlers exploited this situation to take over some 5,000 dunams (1,250 acres) of privately owned land, with the authorities’ knowledge.
A petition to the High Court of Justice by attorney Tawfiq Jabareen led to the order’s cancellation in early 2016. Though the settlers are still working part of this land, the order’s cancellation at least enabled Palestinian shepherds to resume watering their flocks at the Ein Saqut spring.
On Monday, however, police and Civil Administration personnel barred Palestinian shepherds from watering their cows there. It turns out that a few days earlier, herds of “Jewish” cows had taken up positions there.
They were brought from an illegal outpost built in early January at the edge of the Umm Zuqa nature reserve, not far from an army base where the army’s ultra-Orthodox battalion is stationed. Despite the stop-work orders issued against the outpost, it continues to expand, and its residents are trying to evict the Palestinian shepherds from their pasture land.
Two weeks ago, the Machsom Watch organization discovered that the outpost was getting its water via an illegal connection to the nearby base. After checking into it, the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit confirmed it, adding that the commanders had no idea this was happening and the law enforcement agencies are investigating. Coincidentally or not, the herd of cows then moved to Ein Saqut.
On Wednesday, four soldiers ordered the Palestinian shepherds to leave and not come near the settlers’ cows. But when Machsom Watch activists arrived, “The solders changed their tune and let the shepherds stay with their flocks, but not approach the spring,” said one, Daphne Banai. “They claimed it was a nature reserve and cows were forbidden to enter. But when the soldiers moved away, I saw the settlers driving their cows to the spring.”
Haaretz asked the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, the police’s Shai (West Bank) District and the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit whether they know about the herd located on privately owned Palestinian land, and whether barring the Palestinian shepherds and their flocks from the spring was a one-time incident or a policy. No response had been received as of press time.