Armed and Entitled, Israeli Hikers Sow Fear in Palestinian Farming Village

Israeli visitors to an idyllic West Bank village walk around with guns, swim in the nude, generate fear and wreak havoc – either accidentally or intentionally. And these aren't even the biggest problems facing the local Palestinian farmers.

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Wadi Fukin.
Wadi Fukin. Credit: Emil Salman
Amira Hass
Amira Hass
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

Smoke from the generous slices of red meat being grilled on coals curled through the leaves of the olive trees. Seven children and adolescents of various ages bit pleasurably into sandwiches painstakingly prepared by two men in caps. Hiking equipment lay there, too, in the natural lean-to created by the rich foliage of the vine lying on steel rods and a makeshift storeroom fashioned from tin sheets and wooden planks. Soon, one of the youths would strip and enter the glittering, greenish water of the irrigation pool at noon on that mid-August Friday.

They didn’t know that Majed (the names of the villagers mentioned in this article have been changed), a lawyer and the son of the land’s owner, had just passed by. Furious. He didn’t stop to tell them what he told us afterward: “This is our pool. It irrigates our corn and squash. My father made the lean-to and storeroom, and planted the vine. This land financed the schooling of all his children. And now, when he is too old to work, I come in the morning before work and in the afternoon, and on Fridays, to tend to it.”

Majed didn’t tell them all that, but not because he acknowledges the right of Israelis to picnic in the fields of his village, Wadi Fukin – which lies about 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) west of Bethlehem, smack up against the eastern side of the pre-1967 borders of Israel (also known as the Green Line). He didn’t dare confront them because, in the past, when he and other villagers asked Israelis not to enter their man-made pools, their response was to nonchalantly wave the weapons they bore.

Armed hikers at the Palestinian village of Wadi Fukin, in the West Bank.Credit: Amira Hass

Incidents like that instill fear in Majed and the other landowners that their children will not be able to work the fields. The working of the land requires a long breath and a view which stretches both to the future and the past. But in Wadi Fukin, it is becoming an expression of attachment to the here-and-now, a cry of defiance against the immediate threat. That immediate threat, though, and the profound contempt it betrays, is possible only because of the existence of major long-term threats.

All told, we encountered six different types of Israeli hikers on the village’s land on that hot August day. These included a friendly young motorcyclist from the settlement of Kiryat Arba (adjacent to Hebron), unarmed, wearing a Givati Brigade T-shirt. There were also two soldiers in civilian garb, very young looking and armed, who walked amid the vegetable patches and groves, but apologized when they were told they were on private land. There was a couple with a large number of children, from the settlement of Kibbutz Kfar Etzion. The father said they had just split off from a group of the Kfar Etzion Field School (which is run with the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel); he added that other hikers were picnicking next to another pool in the area.

Israeli hikers in the Palestinian village of Wadi Fukin in the West Bank. Credit: Amira Hass

Feeling the squeeze

In the vine leaf lean-to, Ezra – one of the men wearing caps – was upset that I had infiltrated their private picnic area and photographed them. “Why is she sticking her camera in here?” he complained to Tzvia Horesh from the town of Tzur Hadassah, which lies opposite Wadi Fukin on the western side of the Green Line. Patiently, she explained to him that this was private land worked by local residents. “It doesn’t say it’s forbidden,” Ezra said. “I don’t feel like I’m doing something wrong. Anyway, maybe he [the landowner] seized this land?

“The Arabs who passed by didn’t say a word,” he continued. “There was a hike here organized by the field school. The guide said they [the Arabs] are hospitable and nice. I wasn’t told this is private property. It looks like open land to me.”

Horesh said there are clear definitions of what constitutes private property, to which her interlocutor replied, “Maybe there’s a problem. Do some explanatory work. Before us, people entered the pool and splashed around in the water. There was a group from the teachers’ federation. I didn’t feel we did something wrong. This is my first time here. Possibly, after the meeting with you, I will change my approach. But Boaz [the other man in a cap] was here on a Jeep trip and said it was a beautiful place. We’ll leave it clean. Cleaner than what we received.” Ezra hesitated and corrected himself. “We didn’t ‘receive.’ We will leave it cleaner than it was.” Backing him up, one of the teenagers said, “A few hikers came here and picked dates, and Boaz told them that that was stealing.”

Tamar Gridinger, also from Tzur Hadassah, joined the conversation. “It’s been pleasant talking to you,” she said, “but I saw the pistol under your shirt.”

“I regret that I don’t feel safe in the Land of Israel,” said Ezra. “I go many places with a pistol.”

He pointed at Boaz, who was stuffing more pitas with steaks for the children. “This guy you see here, his workers are Arabs,” said Ezra. “They need him and he needs them. I am aware that they get up at 4 A.M. for work and are squeezed in at the checkpoint, but that’s out of my hands. My wife’s family is from Samaria and, despite the fears, they go to their [the Arabs’] garages for car repairs.”

Horesh brought the conversation back to Wadi Fukin. “The people in the village are afraid to go to their soccer field,” she said. “They don’t allow their children to go down to the playground here on Fridays, for fear of armed Israelis.”

Ezra: “It’s clear to me that they’re afraid, but I take the pistol for my sense of security. I feel more secure. I didn’t pick one grape, even though they’re tempting. I have my values.”

The narrow, cultivated valley of this small Palestinian village with a population of 1,300 is indeed captivating: a mosaic of plots of land already seeded or waiting their turn, alongside blanching net houses, fruit orchards, vegetable patches, olive groves and pools holding the water from the springs bubbling from the earth. Beehives are laid out amid the boulders to the west; barley and wheat grow on the rocky terraces.

Fewer farmers are working the land these days, but those who do continue to uphold religiously the ancient method of utilizing the water, which is based on cooperation and mutual trust: According to its size, each plot is entitled to a few hours to fill its irrigation pool using pipes that extend from the spring.

The West Bank settlement of Beitar Illit overlooking the Palestinian village of Wadi Fukin. Credit: Emil Salman

But the village is being crushed between the two giants on either side. The homes of Betar Ilit, an ultra-Orthodox settlement, are lurching into the wadi (valley in Arabic) and its plots in the east, and a new neighborhood, now under construction, is drawing the large settlement even closer to the village’s fields and groves. To the west, a new neighborhood being built in Tzur Hadassah (which lies within Israel proper) is also encroaching.

“Once there was a large rock on the hill – we called it the rock of time,” a villager named Atta told me. “Back then, there were no clocks or cellphones. When families divided the water between them, they calculated the time according to the light and shade on the rock. We had thought to make a kind of historical monument to our culture out of the rock, but now there’s a large building from Betar Ilit on it.”

Whether because of Israel’s deep drilling for water, or the planned detonations at construction sites nearby, four of the valley’s 11 springs have been laid waste, and the flow of water from a fifth has been severely depleted. The invasion of uninvited, armed guests is heightening the sense of claustrophobia.

The phenomenon of Israelis entering the pools started a few years ago – some say a decade ago, others less. “Often they go into the pools naked,” said local residents. In conversations held beneath a large mulberry tree in August and one Friday in September, four villagers who own plots of land in the valley told me they differentiate between hostile interlopers and the regular hikes organized by the Kfar Etzion Field School.

“The field school behaves impeccably,” Mohannad said. “I have often heard the guides instructing the hikers to be respectful, not to stray from the trail, not to pick anything.” However, Mohannad’s neighbors and colleagues, Ibrahim and Nabil, took a different view about the interlopers: “Let them come, but without firearms. A weapon is a provocation. If he’s not thinking about attacking today, he’ll attack in the future.”

“We never caused them problems, so why are they coming armed?” asked Majed. “Their coming armed always leaves us fearful.”

Yaron Rosenthal, director of Kfar Etzion Field School.Credit: Noam Moskowitz, Walla News

Yaron Rosenthal, director of Kfar Etzion Field School, said in a phone conversation: “We’ve been hiking in the valley since the school started to operate, for almost 50 years. We do about 100 walks a year, around two a week. There’s a marked trail of the Society for the Protection of Nature, along public paths and without entering the private plots owned by fellahin (agricultural workers). We obtain the army’s authorization before every hike.”

Asked whether they also obtain the villagers’ authorization, Rosenthal replied, “Nowhere in the country is authorization requested from farmers before hiking on marked trails on farmland.”

Mohannad, who started to work the land at age 6 – he’s now 46 – makes his entire living from farming, by choice. He doesn’t remember the field school’s hikes starting that long ago. But that’s not the crux of the matter for him. “Hospitality is part of our tradition; we can’t tell people not to hike here,” he reiterated. Then he added, with a bitter smile, “I asked them in the field school whether we Palestinians could hike freely in the settlements. Obviously not.”

A variety of obstacles – checkpoints, closed military zones, army patrols, fear of armed settlers and broad security areas around every settlement – deter Palestinians from hiking in most of the West Bank.

Rosenthal has a different take. “Ahlan wasahalan – welcome,” he replied, when asked whether Palestinians can hike in the Etzion Bloc of settlements. He added, “Legally, Israelis are not allowed to enter Area A [where the Palestinian Authority has policing powers], and Palestinians are not allowed to enter settlements. The total area that Palestinians are allowed to enter in Judea and Samaria is greater than what Israelis are allowed. In Kfar Etzion, at any given time of day, there are more than 100 Palestinians working [for us]. Some of them have been working with us for more than 30 consecutive years.”

He confirmed that his groups come armed to their hikes. The hiking website Maslulim: Falling in Love with the Country Again (Hebrew only) also recommends that hikers in Wadi Fukin “should come armed, because the site is close to an Arab village.”

“In April we planted squash,” said Majed. “Three settlers from the Etzion Bloc showed up. The pump in the pool was working. When there’s movement in the water – such as when people jump into the pool – sediment and other kinds of dirt get into the pump and wreck it. My brother, who knows Hebrew, asked them not to go in. Two of them undressed. He asked them again. The third one went to the car, took out a rifle and stood next to the pool while the other two were in the water.”

Suffering in silence

The villagers have suffered the phenomenon in silence. They have bigger problems to deal with, such as the construction debris spilling into the valley from the building sites that are edging closer on both sides; the dust and dirt that have descended on the valley; and the sewage from Betar Ilit, which flowed into the cultivated valley and contaminated it and the crops.

In their efforts to minimize the damage, the residents found Israeli allies: Rosenthal and the field school, and a group of friends and acquaintances from Tzur Hadassah, Horesh and Gridinger among them. In August, the problems of the construction waste and sewage appeared to have been solved, thanks to a vigorous public campaign initiated by Rosenthal, including talks he and the Tzur Hadassah group held with officials at the Betar Ilit Municipality.

Then, on the afternoon of June 29, three farmers discovered that intruders had sabotaged two net houses, tearing the plastic sheets and allowing pests to enter. The intruders uprooted and trampled cucumber and pepper plants, damaged corn and poured about 20 sacks of chemical fertilizer into two pools, which meant they had to be emptied and refilled twice. The vandals wreaked havoc in the farmers’ storerooms and stole beekeeping suits. They scrawled hate messages (in Hebrew) on one of the storerooms and the sheeting, along the lines of “A Jew is a soul, an Arab is a son of a bitch” and “Death to the Arabs.”

Rosenthal was the first person the farmers called. He summoned the police. The document confirming submission of a complaint to the police states, “Malicious damage to property, offenses from racist or hostile motive.” The incident itself was captured by the farmers’ security cameras and this week, the police announced that a 15-year-old boy has been charged with damaging agricultural products.

The financial damage continues to burden the three families. “If this had happened to Jews, the government would not have waited a minute to compensate for the damages,” they said.

Thanks to their friendship with the Tzur Hadassah group, the farmers quickly made contact with a Defense Ministry committee that’s supposed to compensate non-Jews who suffer hate attacks. There is no procedure for negotiating the amount of the compensation, no right of appeal and the committee doesn’t recognize “mental anguish,” which is a key element in regular compensation suits.

Horesh and Dudi Tsfati, who is also from Tzur Hadassah, appealed to the committee chairwoman, Avital Shenbal, seeking compensation for the three farmers. It is a “common interest for them and the residents of Tzur Hadassah, as well as for the State of Israel,” they wrote.

A spokesperson for the ministry told Haaretz the request would be discussed “in the next meeting of the committee, at the end of October.” But in the meantime, it turns out the panel hasn’t met for some months, due to disagreements with the Finance Ministry. It’s not clear whether the meeting will deal with that situation or the request to compensate the injured parties from Wadi Fukin.

The emotional damage is at least as great as the material loss, perhaps greater. The feeling of insecurity lingers. Hence the villagers’ request that their real names not be used here.

“Every seedling that’s hurt is like a son’s wound,” Mohannad said. “I am afraid of tomorrow. There are settlers who are planning something worse than this. They bring small children who grow up on talk like ‘This is the land of our fathers.’ What will they do to us tomorrow? A while back, a young settler wanted to enter the pool. I told him it belongs to someone and he said, ‘So bring me a document of ownership.’” That wasn’t the only time Israeli hikers have made that demand, the villagers said.

Another group of young Israelis arrived at one of the pools that August day; they set up camp between the fruit trees and arranged a picnic. One had a rifle slung over his shoulder. The youngest entered the water, and another stripped down to his underwear, which is how Horesh and Gridinger found him, on the edge of the pool. They were from the settlement of Elazar, the youngster said. “We saw the kids swimming so we went in, too. Why, are only they allowed? Because they’re Arabs and we’re settlers? We come here to hike. This is the Land of Israel, we’re not like those who came to sabotage.”

The young settler also said he thought people like us, “meddlers,” caused “agitation and create chaos.” The man with the rifle added, “There’s a concept in Judaism: one benefits, the other loses nothing. In the end, it’s water. Not drinking water. We are not stealing water. We are wading.” Horesh and Gridinger explained to him about the damage caused to the pipes. “If that’s true,” he responded, “then it changes the picture.”

On the top part of the trail, two kippa-wearing men, one carrying a guitar, and a young couple with a pistol who said they were from Efrat (a large settlement) were relaxing next to another big pool.

Tsfati asked them, “Did you ask permission from the locals? This is private property.” One of the skullcap wearers, wearing only boxer shorts, replied, “We are the locals.” Tsfati insisted that the land and pools belong to people, and the bather replied that they belong to the Land of Israel. He warned me that he would break my camera if I took his picture. He was later seen entering the pool, naked.

The 2 percent

According to Rosenthal, this is not a problem that’s confined to Wadi Fukin. “There’s a problem related to the ethics of bathing in springs – they enter naked, and it makes no difference if a 7-year-old girl from Kibbutz Tzova is present or a 7-year-old Arab girl from Wadi Fukin. It’s a problem everywhere in the country, and it’s heightened when it collides with a place like Wadi Fukin and its traditionalist community.”

He believes that “about 2 percent of the hikers who come independently don’t understand that these are the private areas of Arabs, and argue that the Land of Israel is all ours. I agree, but it’s ours [as a Jewish nation]. The fact that this is our land doesn’t authorize us to pick grapes from an Arab’s private vineyard, or to enter the pool of a fellah who doesn’t give his consent. The fellahin in Wadi Fukin, and in other places in Judea and Samaria, are preserving the heritage of this land – husbandry, agricultural terraces, ground springs that flow into collection pools, and garden beds. I think that we, as a people whose history is enfolded between the wadis, should make a big effort to ensure that this culture remains intact.”

The existence of the “2 percent of hikers” prompted the Tzur Hadassah group and Rosenthal to conceive a pilot program for mass education: With a few Wadi Fukin farmers, they agreed on signs in Hebrew and Arabic that would be placed next to the pools, explaining that permission to enter them is required. “If you’ve received permission to bathe, please maintain modesty. Swimming in the nude is prohibited,” stated the makeshift signs put up next to the pools in late September.

A sign placed near a pool in the Palestinian village of Wadi Fukin informs hikers they are on private land. Credit: Emil Salman

Three weeks ago, Mohannad and Majed noted that the number of armed, provocative hikers had indeed fallen off lately. But in the meantime, the sewage from the Betar Ilit settlement was again streaming into the valley and the fields. Again, the farmers call Horesh, who repeatedly calls the municipality officials. Her, they listen to.

After the sewage problem is solved – at least temporarily – and there are no armed hikers in the wadi, thoughts will turn to the problem of all problems: the disappearing land. According to British mapping from pre-1948, the bloc of Wadi Fukin’s historic land totaled 9,936 dunams (2,455 acres; the villagers say the original area was 12,000 dunams). More than 6,000 dunams remained on the western side of the Green Line after 1948. The new neighborhood in Tzur Hadassah is being built on that section of Wadi Fukin’s land, according to Dror Etkes, who monitors Israeli settlement policy for the Kerem Navot NGO.A small part of Betar Ilit and its new extension are also cutting into village land. Of the 3,565 dunams that remained of the village in the West Bank, Israel declared about half – 1,748 dunams – “state land.” “That is land on which we plant wheat and barley, it is our pasture, it is land we could have built on,” said Mohannad, pointing to the upper part of the rock-strewn hill west of his berry tree.

During the Oslo negotiations in the 1990s, only 258 dunams of the village’s remaining land was classified Area B, on which the villagers were permitted to build. The rest was designated as Area C, under full Israeli control. Not all the residents have available land in Area B, but Israel refuses to allow them to build in Area C.

“We feel that Wadi Fukin is disappearing, drowning,” said Atta. “If no one wakes up, we’re afraid we will drown – that in another few years, we will no longer exist.”

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