Today, when one goes through the front door of Idris Abdullah’s house, one is confronted by an iron fence, its closely fitted bars topped with snarls of barbed wire, part of the fence that surrounds the nearby settlement of Leshem, in the central West Bank. Until a few years ago, what greeted one instead on departing the house was an olive grove. On the hilltop beyond the fence, a new neighborhood of villa-style homes is under construction, being built by workers from Hebron. A truck from the Shomrat Hazorea furniture company is already unloading merchandise in the yard of one of the new dwellings, and next door some trendy garden furniture has already been set up.
When the Palestinian construction workers finish building these designer homes, the iron gate in the fence will be shut, and farmer Aamar Abdullah, who is one of the owners of this land, who is accompanying us as we drive around, will no longer have access to the remnants of his olive grove. Meanwhile, sewage from plastic pipes that emerge from under the Leshem villas is seeping into the grove and forming a puddle there.
Deir Ballut, a large Palestinian village of 5,000 residents, is visible on the hill across the way. From every window in Deir Ballut, you have a view of the settler suburb that’s going up on what local folks say is their private property – and which Israel declared “state land” in 1981, as per its usual plundering method. Deir Ballut’s fields of wheat and vegetables lie in the fertile valley between the Palestinian village’s hill and the settler hill where Leshem, an extension of the nearby Alei Zahav settlement, is growing apace. On every high hill, and even on those that are of lower elevation, wherever you look in the West Bank, there’s a settler suburb for people who are seeking “quality of life” close to Metropolitan Tel Aviv. It’s very crowded here, in this part of the territories, not far from the Green Line. From here one can see Peduel and Bruchin, two more settlements where construction is booming; on the road nearby is the Palestinian-owned Peace Car Wash.
Leshem’s new homes are increasingly encroaching on the iron fence surrounding it, approaching the first houses of Deir Ballut. Two months ago, the villagers were informed by the Palestinian Authority’s Colonization and Wall Resistance Commission, that Israel intends to expropriate a strip of land 100 meters deep along the entire length of the Leshem fence. Ever since then, emotions have been running especially high in Deir Ballut.
Sitting in the café being built at the entrance to Deir Ballut – where WiFi is available but the falafel is brought in from elsewhere – some of the owners of the land next to the fence are bemoaning their troubles. Aamar Abdullah, who is 48 and the father of six, launches into a monologue that starts with events that took place two years ago – he doesn’t remember the exact date – and ends with the appalling, recent seizure of the 100-meter swath. Because of those events, says Aamar, a cousin of Idris’, he lost his permit to work in Israel.
In his rudimentary Hebrew, he tells his story of dispossession in elaborate detail, describing the collaborative relationship between the settlers, the Israel Defense Forces, the Civil Administration and the police – something that is evident in almost every settlement. Abdullah explains that he and his family own 82 dunams (20.5 acres) of 50-year-old olive trees, of which 12 dunams were taken away.
“One day we were standing on our property and Avi – who’s in charge of the tractors working in Leshem – came over and asked: What are you doing here? This is my land, I told him. You are not allowed to be here, he said: There is a plan and we are working according to the plan. I said: There are olives here, growing in the soil for 50 years. He told me to leave and threatened: If you come back I will set the tractors on you and uproot the olive trees.
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“After 20 minutes he returned with two jeeps with soldiers. One of them seemed to be about to hit me, and asked: What are you doing here? Look what the tractors are doing, I said, pulling the trees out of the ground. The soldier stood there, taken aback, and said: What can I do? After he talked to Avi, he said: I can’t do anything, I don’t know where the boundaries are here because of the trees, it’s a problem. Later he called up a settler, also named Avi, from Alei Zahav or Peduel, who came and said: Aamar, there is a plan here. I explained that I had a Turkish tabu [land registry deed] Then he told the other Avi, with the tractors, to stop working, and said that the next day he would call the Civil Administration.
“When the guy came from the Civil Administration, he asked me what I wanted. I said, Who has been here longer, the Israeli government or the Jordanian government? The olives were planted during the time of the Jordanians. The guy from the Civil Administration who came said he hadn’t told the men to work here, and he shouted at the tractor operator: Stop. Don’t work. But a day later, they were at work again.
“When the police from Ariel [a large Jewish West Bank city] came, I told them that there was a boundary here, and that the tractors were 20-30 meters inside it. Afterward, an engineer working with the settlers showed up along with people from the Civil Administration. One of them told the engineer: You’re right about one thing – if there is nothing on the land, no olives or people, it’s okay to go in. I said: Look, there are olives and people! The man from the Civil Administration said he would be ashamed if the tractor were to destroy the grove, and told the man driving it to stop working.
“The next day I saw Avi from the tractors measuring the land; his tractor was inside, 20 meters further in. When I wanted to know why he thought he could work there, he laughed and ignored me, so I sat on the shovel of his tractor. He then raised it up, about 10 meters – and I’m in the air maybe five minutes. After he saw I wasn’t scared, he lowered me to half a meter from the ground and then tried to rock the shovel to knock me off. You want to kill me, I said to him. Be a man. People are coming now from the village. He called Avi from the settlers and told him to bring in troops.
“After 10 minutes maybe a hundred people from the village showed up, and then some settlers and two army jeeps. When the soldiers asked me what I was doing there, I said: There is a court of law, wait until the court decides.
“The Ariel police came, grabbed me, tied my hands up and told me I was going to jail, and put a soldier there to guard me. After about an hour, an officer from the Civil Administration came and asked the settlers why they were making such a fuss. They said that they weren’t, there was a boundary and they were walking along it. But my cousin Jaber Abdullah was there; he knows Hebrew and he heard [the officer] say to them: Turn off the tractor until the people leave, and afterward, turn it on again. Jaber asked the officer: Are you trying to trick us – telling them not to work until after we go away? The man from the Civil Administration said: You are not allowed to be here. I will put a soldier on every rock here and we will expel you by force, and then he told me: You’re going to prison.
“They put me in a jeep, my hands were tied. After going a few meters the jeep flipped over. I pulled something in my back and it froze up. The settler Avi came and opened the door and the soldier and policeman got out. Then they realized there was another person in the jeep – and came to get me. They wanted to pull me out by force, but I said my back hurt and not to move me. Later, an ambulance came and took me to Tel Hashomer [Sheba Medical Center, Ramat Gan]. I pissed blood and stayed there at night with a policeman. They did tests and told me nothing was wrong, and I was taken to the police [station] in Ariel, where they told me to sign something saying I was forbidden to be on the land. I signed and went home.
“A month later, I got a phone call from a private number, and someone said it was the police, and they wanted me to come in. I was afraid to go alone, so people wouldn’t say I had sold the land. I went to our police, and they told me not to go. And then they did what they wanted to do. I spoke with our lawyer and asked about the Turkish tabu. Every four-five months, he said, a court date is set, and every time they [the Israeli authorities] push it back another four-five months so they will have time to build, and then they say: Where were you? Now everything is built.
“So now they are building on all the land, and they have also put in a sewage pipe. And erected the fence. And two months ago they gave the village government a new plan and said: We need to take another 100 [meters] around the fence we made.”
A sign has been posted at the entrance to a road that parallels the Leshem fence, with a message from the Shomron (Samaria) Regional Council’s engineering department: “Construction work and development of a kindergarten, four classrooms in Leshem settlement. Financing: Ministry of Education, Shomron R.C., Leshem local committee: ‘With the resident in mind.’ Signed, Yossi Dagan, council head.”
The dirt path along the edge of the the farmland, which runs parallel to a security road on the other side of the fence, has now been blocked off with massive concrete cubes to keep the Palestinians from having access to what remains of their groves. Next to the checkpoint there is a sewage-purification facility.
Abdullah peers at his property through openings in the fence, and points to the sewage pipe and a few uprooted olive trees. A female settler wearing a head-cover is innocently pushing a baby stroller on the other side. Here, too, the struggle has been decided.
In response to a query from Haaretz, the unit of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories provide this statement, written in the standard meaningless bureaucratese: “With respect to any work where the Taba [acronym for national and municipal zoning plans] is concerned – the work being done in the Leshem region is being carried out on state lands in Area C, on the basis of approval by Taba. We emphasize that, as is the practice in law, and as part of the proper disclosure process, the plan was published, including the possibility of submitting objections.”