On Monday morning, 12 October 2020, about 50 residents of Burqah, a village in Ramallah District, set out to harvest olives in groves belonging to some of them about a kilometer north of the village’s homes.
The farmers of Burqah and of Beitin, a neighboring village to the north, have had difficulty accessing their land since 2001, when settlers established the outpost of Givat Assaf on land between the two villages that belongs to Beitin. Since then, the settlers have consistently tried to take over olive groves from village residents and have attacked farmers who dare enter their own land. The settlers put up a hut and a trailer on the farmers' land south of the outpost in 2015, and man them most of the time.
This harvest season, the farmers enlisted the help of village residents and other volunteers to pick their olives due to the settlers' aggression.
In a testimony he gave B'Tselem field researcher Iyad Hadad on 20 October 2020, 'Adnan Barakat (57), head of the Burqah village council, described the impossible situation that the settlers' violent presence creates:
Ahead of this season, I coordinated the harvest in the area of Ras al-‘Aqaba, north of Burqah, with the Palestinian Authority and with the village of Beitin, whose residents also own land there. The idea was to enlist volunteers to help the harvesters and protect them. We have to do that because the settlers set up huts on this private Palestinian land and have been living illegally on it for years. The Israeli Police evicted them several times, but they always come back. They attack farmers and damage their crops without answering for it.
The settlers' presence is dangerous for the farmers and stops them from going to their land. The farmers have filed many complaints with the Israel Police, the military, human rights organizations and the Red Cross, all to no avail. People have no choice but to insist on going to their land, no matter what.
The Civil Administration doesn't require the residents to coordinate their arrival, nor do they want to. It’s their private land and no one has the right to tell them when to go there.
We agreed to gather on Monday, 12 October 2020, at 08:00 A.M., by the big mosque near the land. About 40 to 50 farmers and relatives came – men, women, children and elderly people.
When the farmers reached to the groves, they encountered about 15 settlers carrying clubs. The settlers began throwing stones at the farmers. The latter threw stones back in self-defense and called other residents for backup. Three residents were injured lightly by stones and the windshields of three cars were shattered. About half an hour later, soldiers arrived and instead of protecting the landowners, hurled stun grenades and fired tear gas canisters and rubber-coated metal bullets at them. At around 10:00 A.M., an officer arrived and ordered the residents to go home. He promised that the military would protect them and allow them to harvest their olives in the following days.
In his testimony, 'Adnan Barakat went on to describe the clashes that broke out between the settlers, the soldiers and the farmers:
We set out at around 8:00 A.M. to the land, about half a kilometer away. Midway, near a place called Bir Rabhi, we saw about 15 settlers carrying clubs and stones. The residents didn't want to confront them. There were women and children there, and they just wanted to pick their olives. The settlers had placed rocks on the road to block our access to the land. The residents removed them, and then the settlers started pushing people and throwing stones at them. Things escalated quickly, and the residents started throwing stones back at the settlers to keep them away. The settlers kept on throwing stones, and two or three farmers were injured in the legs. The women and children were terrified and people were shouting. The settlers managed to get to the cars of several residents and smashed windows and windshields in three of them with clubs and stones.
After 30 to 40 minutes of this, about eight soldiers who are usually stationed near the Givat Assaf outpost arrived. They came to protect the settlers. Around the same time, about 20 young Palestinians arrived along with Walid Assaf, head of the National Commission against the Annexation Wall and Colonies, and Laila Ghannam, the governor of Ramallah District. After the backup arrived, the young guys managed to keep the settlers at bay. But then the soldiers stopped the guys by firing stun grenades, tear gas canisters and sometimes "rubber" bullets to disperse them. The clashes with the military continued, while the settlers went back to their huts and watched from there.
At around 10:00 A.M., a senior military officer arrived and said he was the area commander. He asked me to tell the farmers to go home and said that he'd arrange for a force large enough to protect them the next day. We accepted his offer, and the farmers went home without reaching their groves.
The next morning, a group of five farmers, five volunteers and Israeli Channel 12 reporter Ohad Hemo went to the groves. Dozens of settlers were lying in wait and attacked them with clubs and stones. In the ensuing confrontation, which included stone-throwing and shoving, farmer Jamal Mu'tan (47) and volunteer Muhammad al-Khatib (48) sustained head injuries. Journalist Ohad Hemo was also lightly injured. Mu’tan was rushed in a Red Crescent ambulance to hospital in Ramallah, where he was given first aid and discharged.
About an hour later, at around 9:00 A.M., several farmers gathered at the village center and marched towards the land whose owners were attacked. Dozens of settlers who had remained there threw stones at them, while about 10 soldiers watched from a nearby hilltop without intervening. About half an hour later, dozens more residents came to the farmers’ aid, and then the settlers drew back towards the hut and the trailer they set up on the land. At that point, the soldiers started firing tear gas canisters and rubber-coated metal bullets at the farmers in order to protect the settlers.
Around midday, a military officer arrived and demanded the residents go home and give up again. He promised the military would protect them and allow them to harvest their olives another day.
In his testimony, Barakat described his negotiation with the officer:
An officer I didn't know arrived. I don't know what his rank was. He intervened like the previous time and asked me to send everyone home. He promised he'd arrange for them to harvest the following Friday and Saturday, and that he'd make sure there was enough security. I told him it's our right to go to our land whenever we want and that we don't need coordination. I also said they’d already promised us protection and hadn’t followed through. After a long argument, we agreed to leave so that no one else would get hurt. We went home and decided that, as the officer requested, we’d only go to the groves again on Friday.
Three days later, on Friday morning, 16 October 2020, the military blocked all the entrances to the village to prevent volunteers and other supporters from helping with the harvest. That morning, more than 100 farmers and other villagers went to the groves to harvest the olives.
Dozens of soldiers spread out along the slopes of the hill, while dozens of settlers gathered near the hut and the trailer in the groves. When the harvesters were about 200 meters from the groves, the soldiers opened massive fire at them with tear gas canisters, and many fled towards the village. After the shooting, clashes broke out in several areas around the village. Residents threw stones at the security forces and the latter hurled stun grenades and fired tear gas canisters, rubber-coated metal bullets and live bullets at them. In the clashes, which lasted about two hours, several residents were injured by rubber-coated metal bullets or gas inhalation and treated on the spot. Munitions fired by the soldiers started several fires in the groves. Soldiers allowed some residents to try and put out the flames themselves, even as other soldiers continued to shoot tear gas canisters and hurl stun grenades. A Palestinian fire truck arrived but could not reach the fires due to the clashes, and about 10 mature olive trees burned down.
At around 1:00 P.M., after a brief hiatus in the clashes, during which residents attended noon prayers, some of them tried to go back to the land to pick the olives. The soldiers once again fired tear gas canisters and stun grenades at them. Clashes erupted again, with young village residents throwing stones at the soldiers. Several farmers were lightly injured by “rubber” bullets and dozens from the tear gas. They were all treated in the field. At 2:00 P.M., more troops arrived and rained tear gas canisters down on the residents, forcing them to flee the area. The settlers stood on a nearby hilltop and watched throughout the incident.
That evening, the following evening and on Sunday, 18 October 2020, a Burqah resident who lives near the groves saw settlers who live in the trailer torch trees in the groves. As the landowners are afraid of going there, the extent of the damage is unknown.
On Tuesday afternoon, 20 October 2020, B'Tselem field researcher Iyad Hadad and a Red Cross representative visited the village. They went to the groves to inspect the damage but when they were about 150 meters from the trailer, the settlers noticed them. Four masked settlers started running towards them and they were forced to flee.
In a testimony he gave B'Tselem field researcher Iyad Hadad on 20 October 2020, Burqah resident N.M. spoke about the torched trees:
I live on the northern outskirts of Burqah. The olive groves are about 500 meters north of my home, midway between my house and the settlers' trailers. For years they’ve been attacking us in the groves and inside the village, including torching the mosque. I filed a lot of complaints about it, but finally gave up. I don't even try to go to my land any more. That's why I didn't join the residents on any of the days they tried to reach their land for the harvest. On 16 October 2020, I decided to take my flock to graze far away from there, to avoid the settlers’ attacks and the soldiers' tear gas that could harm the sheep.
After 2:00 P.M. I was told that things had calmed down, so I went home with the flock. Around sunset, I suddenly saw a fire raging in the groves. There were tall flames, about four meters high, rising above one of the trees. I kept watching what was happening, and I saw several settlers setting fire to trees here and there in the grove. I couldn't figure out whose plot it was, but a lot of trees burned down in a fairly large area and I'm afraid some of it was my land.
The next evening and on Sunday, I saw settlers torching trees again. It was in a pretty large area, so it's hard to estimate how many trees burned down – anywhere between 20 and several dozen. Since the clashes started no one has dared go there, so no one has checked. I'm afraid to go there myself, with the way settlers suddenly appear from behind trees. I can’t describe what it’s like. All we have left is to trust in God.