A Fire Racks a Palestinian Village. Israeli Firefighters Act Only When It Nears a Settlement

The Palestinian family that suffered the most suspects that the fire is linked to the masked people, possibly settlers, who broke into the nearby schoolyard

Mahmod Haj Mohammed in his family's burnt olive grove, June 6, 2019.
Olivier Fitoussi

A week ago Wednesday, the first day of the holiday Eid al-Fitr, a fire broke out in the olive groves and fields of a few Palestinian families in the village of Jalud northeast of Ramallah. The fire broke out in the morning and spread toward noon, then rekindled in the afternoon. The residents of this West Bank village first tried to put it out with their hands, because the Palestinian fire station is in Nablus and the fire trucks were busy with another blaze. Later on Palestinian fire trucks arrived: one in the late morning, one in the afternoon. But in the absence of an access road to the groves, they couldn’t help much.

Only a few minutes before the fire began, nine masked people passed near the village’s school and threw stones at four youths sitting in the courtyard. The youths fled through the back entrance while five of the masked people entered through the front.

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Footage of Jalud attack

The school’s security camera captured the interlopers’ horrifying appearance: All were wearing dark clothes, except for one in a white shirt with tzitzit hanging down. The youths, village residents, told me they had come to relax after the month of fasting during Ramadan. They sat on the steps, ate and talked – until the unknown people broke in.

Two days later, when I visited, I saw that a window in the guard booth in the courtyard was broken, exactly in the area where the masked people were seen nearing the building. It’s hard to break the windows by throwing stones from afar; the windows of the school and the ground-floor corridor alongside the classrooms are covered by iron screens, because this wasn’t the first time masked people threw stones at the school – and when students were inside, too.

The footage shows how at 10:20:16 A.M., a young man with his face exposed runs through the courtyard, and a few masked people burst out from the trees south of the school. At 10:20:57, an unidentified person hurls in a stone: very irresponsible, as his fellow masked people were in the yard. After a few seconds they run out, hand out something to each other, disappear to the east of the camera’s range and reappear – the last one at 10:22:13. They all return to the trees beyond the school and wait there.

Then at 10:23:34, the camera records smoke being carried toward the southwest and thickening, and its shadow advances and becomes darker on the road. A different camera catches smoke a few seconds earlier, with its darkening shadow cast on the empty courtyard. It also catches what’s on the east side of the road: an uncultivated field with stones and a few small trees, and behind it, a grove.

The burnt olive grove in village of Jalud, West Bank, June 6, 2019.
Olivier Fitoussi

On the Friday I was there I saw the burned, empty field. “The fire here was easy to put out,” said Mahmoud, one of the sons of Fawzi Haj Mohammed, whose groves suffered the worst damage from the blaze.

At the same time of the morning on the holiday, Haj Mohammed’s family sat in the house and waited for guests. They live in an impressive house built during the Ottoman period: arches, high ceilings, thick stone walls.

Before 10:30 A.M., someone phoned and told them about the children who fled the unknown masked people. Mahmoud immediately called the family of one of the children, and the father said in amazement: What, you don’t know, a fire broke out there. Everyone concluded that the masked people were settlers and they started the fire.

The five brothers of the Haj Mohammed family ran after the flames, which skipped from the uncultivated field and went south to the ridge of the stoney hill across the road and the olive grove that slopes down from it. Dozens of village residents broke off branches and beat at the flames.

“That’s how we stifled them,” said one of them, but the attempt was only partially successful. According to the residents of Jalud, the Israeli fire trucks that had already arrived began to put out the fire only a little before noon, when the blaze was coming close to a nearby plot planted with the trees of the settlement of Shvut Rachel.

A drone overhead

One might have concluded from the initial reports in the Israeli media that the Palestinians were the ones who set the fires in the orchards of Shvut Rachel and Ahiya. Shvut Rachel, which is southwest of Jalud, was established in 1991 as an unauthorized and illegal outpost that has since been “legalized.” The outpost of Ahiya was built in 1997 on a hill southeast of the village and is in an accelerated process of being “legalized.”

Both are built on Palestinian land that Israel declared state land (that is, land for Jews) in the 1980s.

While they were fighting the fire, the residents of Jalud noticed a drone hovering over them. They don’t know if it belongs to the army or the settlers. At 2:30 P.M., the fire began again, this time in the eastern part of the valley. Once again, the residents of the village fought the fire with their hands. One of the brothers, Mohammed, was burned on his back.

The fire left the grove and climbed between stones and trees toward Ahiya. Only then, said members of the Haj Mohammed family, were two firefighting helicopters called in, in addition to a few fire trucks.

Asaf Abras, the spokesman for the Israeli fire service in the West Bank, wrote to Haaretz that the organization “does not choose what area it puts out fires based on ownership. In addition, we operate in cooperation with the Palestinian fire service.” (By the way, on its website, the Israeli fire service in the West Bank writes that it serves 450,000 people – the number of Jews in the settlements.)

The first report on the fire, according to Abras, was received at 10:37 A.M. The first firefighting teams left for the area at 11:02, and the rest of the forces by 11:15. The firefighting units were made up of a team of volunteers from the settlement of Shiloh and a trailer (firefighting equipment in a towed trailer) of the Binyamin settlements’ regional council. They were joined later by fire trucks from the settlements of Ofra, Ma’aleh Adumim, Matityahu and Ariel. Firefighting planes from the Elad squadron – the aerial firefighting unit – took part in a couple of rounds.

Abras added that according to the investigation a number of centers of arson were investigated to the west of Ahiya on the ridge connected to the community, and that the principal water main was damaged. “We have evidence of arson” about the later incident, he said.

Residents of Jalud in the burn olive grove, West Bank, June 6, 2019.
Olivier Fitoussi

Dror Etkes, who studies Israel’s settlement policy, toured the area a day later. He estimates that about 90 percent of the trees damaged were in the Palestinian grove.

It’s easy to distinguish between the two, he said. In the Israeli grove the trees are young and closer together, and it’s equipped with drip irrigation. Only a few dozen of the settlers’ trees were damaged, Etkes said, and less severely than the trees of the village of Jalud.

Blocking them from their land

Haj Mohammed’s olive groves are spread out in the valley that slopes gently from the gentle hills’ peaks. The fruit trees that were damaged that week were planted over 50 years ago by Mahmoud’s grandfather. In 1998, I met Mahmoud’s father, Fawzi Ibrahim, when I documented for the first time the severe damage to many dozens of trees in his grove – wild uprooting and sawing off of the branches with the olives on them. The two previous vandalism attacks on his groves were in 1997.

During those years there was a wave of other vandalism attacks against Palestinian groves in the northern West Bank, as outposts popped up and multiplied in the region. Because of the increase in the number of attacks and vandalism by settlers, including arson, the army forbade Fawzi Ibrahim and hundreds of other farmers between 2000 and 2007 from reaching their lands, with the justification that this would prevent friction.

As a result, the olives weren’t harvested. The fields weren’t plowed and weren’t planted. Under the aegis of the military ban, the settlers took over large parts of the Palestinian land for agricultural purposes. These were the lands for which the process of being declared “state land” nearly 20 years earlier failed.

In 2007, after an exhausting legal battle, the Palestinians were allowed to enter their groves and a small part of their fields – but only after coordinating with the army and only twice a year for a few days. “Five days isn’t enough for me for one tree. How will I have time for all the trees?” said Mahmoud about what his father – who died two years ago sick and brokenhearted – used to say.

The limitation on the number of days to work the land reduces the amount of fruit and lowers its quality. Over the years I have reported on Mahmoud’s obstinate battles, and those of others from the nearby villages – mostly with attorney Qamar Mashriqi-Assad – to get back land that settlers took over.

I followed and sometimes reported on the cases in which the army didn’t keep its commitments to the High Court of Justice, and even canceled, time after time, the approved date for going to plow or harvest. As a result, much of the crop went to waste, or the season for planting was missed out on. In 2013, I reported on another incident of arson in Haj Mohammed’s grove that coincided with an attack on the school.

The fire that damaged hundreds of trees of Haj Mohammed family 10 days ago were largely in the area that requires coordination with the army for them to be worked. In a smaller grove that doesn’t require coordination, the family could weed the dried-out weeds at their convenience, and the fire didn’t damage it.

“Since 2000, we have only lost money on our land,” said Mahmoud Haj Mohammed. “This year, which was blessed with much rain, we expected a large crop. Now our hope of at least covering the expenses is gone, too.”