Palestinians Are Building a Village on Their Land. Armed Settlers From an Illegal Outpost Are Sabotaging Them

A farmers organization from the Jericho area is building a village in Palestinian-controlled Area A. Local settlers attack the construction workers almost daily, but the entrepreneur believes his group will triumph

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Muwafek Hashem, the moving spirit behind the new enterprise. On at least three occasions, he says, settlers have aimed rifles at his head.
Muwafek Hashem, the moving spirit behind the new enterprise. On at least three occasions, he says, settlers have aimed rifles at his head.Credit: Alex Levac

The view from the hilltop is spectacular. A valley in bloom, groves and verdant fields with a few buildings scattered among them, a chicken coop and a pigpen – all encompassed by what is otherwise arid, blanched earth. This is what making the wilderness bloom looks like. This is what Israeli apartheid looks like.

Sprinklers scatter water in circles in the broiling noon heat; there’s no water problem in these fields. It’s a sprinkler hora, dancing and spraying water. All around, however, is just sand and more sand. Peppering the slopes of the hill, like goats clinging to rocks, are the Bedouin shepherd communities of the Jordan Valley, from the Jahalin and other tribes. They make up a dense cluster of tents and shacks in which thousands of people live without running water or a hookup to the electric grid in the blistering heat.

Sheep’s bells rattle: The shepherds pasture their livestock here behind the hills because they are terrified of the settlers, who chase them away from almost everywhere. Occasionally the military government’s Civil Administration also issues demolition orders, and the Bedouin shacks are crushed under the treads of Israeli bulldozers, enforcers of the law.

The communities of Al-Kaabneh, Rashidiya, Al-Maajath and Ras al-Auja are fighting for their survival here. But no harm will befall the huge ranch in the heart of the flowering valley, with its houses, its fields, its groves and its animals. It is flagrantly illegal, but who cares?

This is Havat Omer (Omer’s Farm), aka Einot Kedem. It was established here in 2004 by Omer Atidiah, a then-newly religious settler from Moshav Ein Yahav in the central Arava, and his partner, Naama, on the ruins of an abandoned army base. It has spread out wildly at an amazing pace. Groups of visitors are now offered an odd variety of programs and activities. There is “Desert Lite” (“To hear our story + tea and munchies + walking tour of the farm”); “Tranquility in the Desert” (“Our story + a desert meal opposite the farm landscape”); “Naama’s Garden (“Site of workshops and hospitality for couples”); and even “The Red Tent” (“Women’s site under the moon”). Just choose.

A compound built as part of Havat Omer outpost.

But the real wonder, of almost miraculous proportions, is happening on the hills to the east of the farm, north of Jericho. A dream is assuming material form here: The Palestinians are building a new village for themselves, for their own farmers and the Bedouin shepherds in the area, on the hills that overlook Einot Kedem from the east.

Meanwhile, Omer Atidiah, with settlers from Mevo’ot Yericho and other nearby communities, are doing everything they can to stop and sabotage the construction work in order to prevent the Palestinians from building a village – God help us! – on their own land, in territory that is supposedly under their control. Yet, wonder of wonders, it looks as though this time the settlers’ violent hand will not win the day and the village will indeed come into being.

A few weeks ago, the Regavim organization, whose aim is “to protect Israel’s national lands,” published a sharp reaction to the Palestinians’ brazen tractors on its Hebrew Facebook page: “Disgraceful. When the people of the Palestinian Authority laugh in the face of the Israel Police.” Regavim claimed that the earthworks had extended beyond Area A (which under the Oslo II Accords is under full Palestinian civil and security control).

“This is of course first-rate effrontery of the Palestinian Authority, but it is being allowed to happen thanks to the State of Israel turning a blind eye, and to its serious lack of determination. So today we blocked the work. We will continue to be on the ground in order to prevent its resumption,” Regavim wrote.

It would be hard to think of a more impudent display of hypocrisy and lack of self-awareness when it comes to “turning a blind eye” to a Palestinian tractor, in the face of the intimidating Einot Kedem, stretching over at least 2,400 dunams (600 acres) – 4,000 dunams, by the Palestinians’ reckoning – against which no legal action has ever been taken.

As to the legality of farm, a spokesman for the unit of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories told Haaretz this week: “Regarding Havat Omer, the construction was carried our without the required permits and authorizations.” So when will the force of law be brought to bear on the farm? “Enforcement there will be carried out in accordance with the proper powers and procedures, and subject to the order of priorities and operational considerations.”

When we visited this week, huge bulldozers stirred up clouds of dust east of Einot Kedem, leveling the area and preparing it for the establishment of the new, as-yet unnamed village. The first 200 dunams will be divided into plots that are meant to accommodate hundreds of families. These families are members of the Jericho Association for Agricultural Aid, a kind of real-estate investment group of Palestinian fellahin and Bedouin shepherds who are building the new community with their own money and no outside help.

Deer at the site of the construction venture, in the Jordan Valley.

Deep in this remote, desolate place, a Wild West feeling hung in the air this week, against the background of the settlers’ attacks. It grew even more intense when a van with Israeli plates suddenly appeared in the area where the heavy earthmovers are parked, hidden behind the hills in this end-of-the-world place. From the vehicle emerged a plump, smiling young man wearing a wide-brimmed hat, who introduced himself as “Sufian Sawaad from Dimona.”

Now the fantasy was complete: An Israeli Arab, back from 13 years in exile in North Carolina, who operates the massive D10 Caterpillars owned by his father. What did he do abroad? “What all the Israelis do in North Carolina. I worked in mall kiosks and with cellphones,” he chuckles to the desert wind.

Sawaad, who grew up in Dimona, now lives in Shfaram, a mostly Muslim city in northern Israel. Together with engineer Tahar Hanani, from Nablus, he is now building a Palestinian village in the occupied and almost-annexed Jordan Valley. He, too, has felt the wrath of the settlers.

Armed with pistols and rifles, they frequently block his passage along the dirt trail that leads to the construction site, forcing him to turn back, he explains. “We have no problem with you, we have a problem with the others,” they tell him magnanimously.

The scene replays itself constantly. The settlers claim that the earthworks are illegal, summon the army and the Civil Administration, the engineer and the entrepreneur show them on maps that they are in Area A, and the settlers leave. Sawaad says he tries to avoid confrontations with them, but they frighten him, too.

Muwafek Hashem is the moving spirit behind this daring and ambitious enterprise. Fifty years old, a member of one of the Bedouin communities in the Jericho area, he heads the agricultural association that is building the village on Waqf (Muslim religious trust) land. Surveying began in 2017, and on-site work was launched on September 11, 2019. The wind snatches the maps and aerial photographs he brought to show us. He runs to retrieve the flying documents and finally manages to collect them all.

Bulldozers at the Palestinian construction site.

The settlers summoned the army on the very first day of work, but after Hashem proved to them that the project was confined to Area A, he was allowed to continue.

The unit of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories told Haaretz this week: “The construction work mentioned in your query is being carried out in Area A. As is known, the Civil Administration is responsible for implementing civilian powers in Area C only, according to the Oslo Accords. Palestinian construction that does not take place in that area is not under the responsibility of the Civil Administration.”

On at least three occasions, Hashem says, settlers have aimed rifles at his head. A dozen times they ripped out the steel posts put in place by the surveyors, and the workers had to start all over. Two containers of diesel fuel were vandalized and the four water containers were stolen. But Hashem’s spirit has remained undaunted throughout. Two Bedouin guards are at the site round the clock, to watch over the equipment. But when the settlers swoop down in their threatening all-terrain vehicles, the guards (who are of course unarmed) drop everything and flee for their lives into the hills.

The lots on the first 200 dunams cleared will range from 400 to 2,000 square meters (1 dunam is 1,000 square meters), based on the size of each family. The dwellings will not be made of stone – there is no money for that – but will rather be huts and mobile homes. A major challenge will be to hook up the new village to the water network and the power grid as soon as possible. There is no outside funding for the project, Hashem stresses, neither from the PA nor from the European Union. Financing is coming entirely from the association’s 600 families. The earthworks budget is about 2 million shekels (some $580,000), and laying the water line will cost another half-a-million shekels.

The plan for the next stage in the dream calls for the clearing of 3,800 dunams of Waqf land in Area C (full Israeli control), which Hashem will obviously never be allowed to do. In the meantime, he’s dreaming about the crops the new village will grow: papaya, oranges, pomelos, lemons and, of course, dates.

This week three huge D10s were working full-tilt. They’re leaving one last section of 10 dunams for the end. It’s the section closest to Omer’s Farm, and they’re afraid.

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