The hummer and the jeep screeched to a halt on the path in the olive grove. The soldiers bravely climbed out of the vehicles, and proceeded toward the unknown. Armed and determined, they cleared their way through thorns, stones and rusty barrels; they headed toward the suspicious figures. Within a few minutes, the soldiers received reinforcements. Another hummer appeared on the scene, and its soldiers climbed out of it, armed and determined. Behind them the Swiss red rooftops of the Nachliel settlement jutted into the skyline. Standing before them was a group of thirty people.
“What are you doing here? Who are you?” one of the soldiers asked. “Don’t approach us,” he added. His comrades didn’t really know what to do with themselves. Aim their rifles? Leave them dangling on the sides of their bodies? Look sideways? Or perhaps they should gaze directly at members of this unusual group, which stood between the thorns, stones, mutilated olive and fig trees, and gleaming teeth of a barbed wire fence.
That the mysterious group which stood between the barbed wire fence and the chopped trees seemed both unusual and somewhat threatening to the soldiers is no surprise. The soldiers are not accustomed to seeing people who are not Nachliel settlers in that area. (The settlement, according to the Mate Binyamin regional council website, was established in October 1984, and has 80 families. Located close to Modi’in, it is a “warm, Torah-centered community, a place where it is fun to live.)
Staff Sergeant Yair Bukubzah asked twice, “What are you doing here?” and twice received the answer, “My job, as a journalist.” He, or some other soldier, announced on the army field radio that “most of the people are journalists.” But, in fact, that was not precise. On hand were also many owners of lands and groves, residents of the Beitilu village, located 19 kilometers northwest of Ramallah.
Were they to have made a bit more of an effort, the soldiers would have known that the journalists’ excursion was preceded by a press conference in Ramallah organized by UNICEF, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI), and the human rights groups B’Tselem and Al-Haq. Had they wanted to know, the soldiers would have heard speakers at this press conference warn about the authorities’ lack of response to mounting settler violence. “The violence aids the expansion of the settlements,” dozens of international journalists were told. And they were about to witness it first-hand.
“Thanks to you [journalists] I can at least see my land,” one Beitilu resident told the journalists, in a tone laced with cynicism and pain. For these journalists, this encounter was an apt illustration of what land owners who try to reach their assets go through. They immediately find themselves face-to-face with soldiers, or, worse, settlers (with dogs) who impede their path. This has been going on for years. Gradually, ever-expanding rings of grazing land and rows of groves have become inaccessible to residents of the Beitilu and Deir Ammar villages.
On the foot of the mountain, beneath the Swiss roofs, there is an entire olive grove. Its owners are allowed to work on it just a few days each year. Ask any moshav or kibbutz member whether he would agree to such an arrangement. To the north and east of the warm, Torah-centered settlement there are lands which have not been visited by their owners since the late 1980s. “I have 200 olive trees, 500 fig trees and 300 vines there. I can’t even pick a single fig,” stated a Palestinian farmer who looks older than his age; he spoke without cynicism, and with much pain. “They aren’t killing me, but they are killing my heart.”
The valley that connects the Nachliel and Talmon settlements, residents say, features a flowing spring. Village children no longer know what it feels like to splash in its water. Two years ago, someone uprooted olive saplings that had been planted in a plot west of the forbidden grove. No one bothered to search for a suspect. Barrels that had been used to protect the saplings remain, as memorial tombs.
We proceed westward, from the stretch located at the foot of the hill with the Swiss red roofs toward the mountain on whose western side the Beitilu houses are built. Were it able to do so, the hill’s east side would weep. Trees are chopped down and damaged; thorns and thistles abound. Farmers point toward stubborn, vibrant leaves that jut out of the earth and indicate that a fig tree once thrived at the site. Two or three weeks ago it’s hard to know exactly when, since people are afraid to approach the mountain’s slopes barbed wire was unfurled here. The message was clear: Palestinians should not dream of setting foot upon the lands and groves on the other side of the jagged fence.
Iyad Haddad, a B’Tselem field worker, holds a thick file filled with complaints lodged by Beitilu residents. Count, he says, and begins to read from each complaint the number of trees reported to be damaged by unknown culprits: 9, 150, 40, 30, 102, 30, 60. All this in just the past six months.
Shortly before our visit to the area, 18 more damaged trees were discovered. In many cases, such sabotage conveys a message to brave Palestinians who dare to come to their plots and plow them. You want to plow and to work your land? Uproot your weeds? Our proud Zionist response: uprooted trees.
Here and elsewhere in the West Bank, this is the method by which people are stopped from plowing and working their land. Thus, the weeds flourish; summer comes, the weeds dry out, and thorns and thistles abound; fire can easily erupt on the ground. Fire from the sky or from the hands of arsonists. And then it is so easy to say: The Palestinians don’t cultivate their lands. They don’t deserve them.
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