Until recently, the agricultural land belonging to Ilan Rona in the Upper Galilee looked like a pastoral dream; ancient olive trees grew on the steep slope alongside almond and pomegranate trees. The remains of the grayish water of the well that refused to dry up were visible even in August. But in recent months the land has looked more like a battlefield, with practice hand grenades, bullet casings and grenade launchers lying scattered in the area, besides cardboard targets and stick lights. A close look at the trees reveals that they have also been pulled into the fight. Dozens of trunks are scratched and full of bullet holes, and two are completely broken.
The damage to the trees was a result of Israel Defense Forces training exercises conducted there in recent months. The Ronas, from the community of Amuka, say they were conducted without any coordination or information. The army responded that the area has been used for training for decades. Yet, an examination by Haaretz of the official Israeli maps website revealed that while some of Rona’s plots are adjacent to Firing Zone 100, which is used by the Golani reconnaissance battalion, there is no overlap between the firing zone and the groves of fruit trees, with the exception of a strip of several meters where there are no trees. The Israel Lands Authority also said that an initial examination indicates that the area is not part of the lands that belong to the military.
When the first seven families arrived in Amuka, nearly 40 years ago, each of them received five dunams (1.25 acres) for cultivation. The Rona family received a small olive grove near the grave of Rabbi Yonatan Ben Uziel. Years later, Rona requested an additional plot of land, which had become available north of his plot, through the Defense Ministry Rehabilitation Department. A farmer who had grown up on a kibbutz, he went through that department because he had been gravely wounded toward the end of the War of Attrition, when the command car in which he was traveling drove over a mine.
He says that “nobody” wanted the land, part of which is adjacent to the firing zone. And so, starting in 1995, 24 dunams of olive trees about 100 to 150 years old became a part of his family’s livelihood.
The leasing contract with the Israel Lands Authority is renewed every year, and the olives are picked on the steep and challenging plot. From there, they are brought to an olive press in the Galilee and turned into oil. Now, the family fears the contract won’t be renewed and their land will be taken due to his dispute with the army.
“It’s a livelihood but it’s also a way of life, which they’re about to destroy,” says Hani, Ilan’s wife. “We recruit every November workers, family, friends, and everyone comes to harvest the olives.”
A third of the trees
The farmers’ first encounter with the army took place several years ago. Tai, Ilan’s son, who started working in the grove about 10 years ago, says that it happened while they were harvesting in the area. “They asked us to leave,” he recalls. “We continued to work. They were sort of aggressive. Since then, we haven’t come across any soldiers physically, but we’d regularly find grenades, targets, parts of mortars in the area.” However, emphasizes Tai, during that period, “No tree was harmed.”
Tai and Ilan used to pick up debris and clean the area quietly after the soldiers’ training exercises, without complaint. This situation changed in late December when they started seeing other signs of live fire in the area. Tai says there is evidence of “vandalizing trees, breaking branches, putting targets on trees and firing at them. At the same time, fellow Amuka resident Gal Nofar, a colonel in the reserves and commander of a unit in Northern Command, also noticed the damage.
“There are veteran trees here that were here before us and will be here after us, and in this situation there won’t be a grove,” says Nofar. “Several elite army units, Golani special forces and others decided that it suits them to train in a wooded area. I’ve been living in Amuka for 35 years and neither Ilan nor I have ever seen people shooting at trees. They used to do training exercises here, but without firing. Even when I trained as a company commander and a brigade commander in Lebanon, we never harmed trees and nature in order to simulate a wooded area, no matter how important it was to the unit. We suggested to the army that they continue training in the area, but without live fire, and do the shooting in their own firing zone. There are boars, porcupines, even yeshiva students walking around here. It’s dangerous.”
Tai says about a third of the grove’s trees have been damaged. Ilan, who guards his emotions throughout the conversation, explains: “I’ve been cultivating this area for 38 years. I’m tied to it with my feet, my entire body has fallen apart on it, I’m in love with this place. It’s occupational therapy. We’re familiar with every stone. They could come and give us an alternative plot, but I wouldn’t want that.”
Tai explains that after they turned to the army, they were told that the soldiers were training there under a general’s order, “but nobody showed it to us.” He notes: “We can prove the area is ours. We didn’t hear from anybody or receive any message from authorities. In contrast, he says, “the army informed Nofar about the training exercises, because they take place near Amuka, and he had served as community counsel chairman.”
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Still, “up to about a month ago Nofar didn’t even know that the area is leased to the Rona family – who weren’t kept informed,” he declares. “I’m an example of what they’re training to protect: ‘a farmer in the north.’ And in the end we’re fighting against the entity that wants to protect us.”
With Nofar’s help, there was a meeting about a week and a half ago with army representatives in the area. The Ronas proposed they continue to train there without live ammunition. Tai says that one of the officers “repeated that he understands us, but it’s more important if the army has to train here.”
At one point, recalls the family, one of the officers tried to claim that the area under discussion is part of Firing Zone 100, but they say this isn’t logical since there is a barrier between the olive grove and the army’s training area. “One of the female officers repeated that they know about everyone who leaves and enters the area,” adds Tai. “My father was never told that anyone was entering the area. People hike there. It’s not really an empty area.”
Nofar recalls that at the end of the meeting with the Ronas, they were once again told that the army would review the matter. An NCO in the Northern Command, who is in charge of statutory authority, told him, “‘I’m going to ensure they cancel the leasing agreement with the farmer from Amuka,’” recalls Nofar. “I said to him: ‘Do you know that there’s a man here who’s been earning a livelihood from this plot for 40 years, a disabled IDF soldier?’ and he told me: ‘That’s not my problem.’ That’s a declaration of war against us, the civilians in the north, and against Ilan Rona. Plus, it’s terrible vandalism on the trees.”
The IDF spokesman commented: “The area has been used as an IDF training area for decades. Training both with and without live fire takes place there. The Northern Command is presently discussing the firing zones with the local authorities and the Israel Land Authority. There has been no change in the nature, location or scope of the exercises, only administrative.”
The spokesman added: “In light of Mr. Rona’s request, we conducted a joint tour with Northern Command representatives to examine the claims of unusual damage or dirt in the area. There will be as much coordination as possible to reduce damage to the area, without harming the quality of the exercises.”
The ILA commented: “From an initial examination of the maps, we found that the area under discussion is not included in the IDF firing zone. At the same time, there will be a thorough examination of the area in light of the issue’s importance and in order to ascertain that there is not even a partial overlap between the areas of the olive harvest and the area declared a firing zone. There will also be a meeting with the IDF on the subject. In addition, the ILA has asked the army to enable the farmers to harvest the olives until completion of the examination of the facts in the area.