Plowing season 2018, Ramallah District: Settler violence serves Israel
Settler violence against Palestinians – resulting in death, injury and property damage – has long since become part of daily life under occupation in the West Bank. In some cases, soldiers are present as the incidents unfold and do nothing to prevent the violence. In others, they protect the violent settlers, or join in. Whatever the level of involvement, in the vast majority of cases, the settlers and soldiers who take part in such incidents do not pay any sort of price for their conduct, and ineffective investigations (on the rare occasion that they are opened) are closed with no action taken.
Every year, these violent attacks intensify during the plowing and olive harvest seasons. At those times, settlers repeatedly assault Palestinian farmers who go to tend their land. Over the last few years, the military has put in place a “coordination mechanism.” It is designed, ostensibly, to allow Palestinians to access their land for short periods during these seasons, pursuant to coordination with the military which includes arranging for a soldier escort. This system, even had it worked flawlessly, would be no more than a pitiful response to the reality of violence facing Palestinian farmers. It serves as no more than a semblance of law enforcement both in terms of premise, since it accepts settler violence as a given which necessitates imposing restricting on the Palestinian farmers, rather than the perpetrators, and on the practical level, since it enables farmers to access their land only for a few days during the year. As is par for the course in the Occupied Territories, this absurd “solution” is backed by Israel’s High Court of Justice.
Moreover, the system itself and its cumbersome implementation by the military – which also involves a long list of conditions Palestinian farmers must meet before being granted permission to access their land (if permission is granted at all) – make it difficult for farmers to avail themselves even of this limited option, and often renders it completely useless.
Plowing took place in March this year. A review of what this year’s plowing season in Ramallah District clearly illustrates the system’s failings:
The coordination mechanism allows farmers to access only land that has already been cultivated. Access to privately owned land near which settlements were established is denied to the Palestinian owners who now wish to begin cultivating their previously uncultivated plots. In seven areas, where there are more than 300 hectares of farmland belonging to more than 150 families, farmers were given only three to four days to complete plowing, although given the size of some of the farmland, the time allotted was insufficient.
In three areas, around the villages of Sinjil, Turmusaya and al-Mughayir, settlers assaulted Palestinians under the protection of soldiers or with their help, despite prior coordination. The military did not stop at that, but decided to deny farmers access to their land on some of the very few days they had been given, preventing them from plowing what little they would have been able to plow in the first place. Testimonies given by farmers from Turmusaya and al-Mughayir about what took place during those days are given below.
Violence by settlers against Palestinians is part of a broader strategy which the state enables and in which it is complicit, benefitting from the end result. The assaults achieve a lingering sense of threat and deterrence far outlasting the attack itself. In many parts of the West Bank, Palestinian farmers are always fearful of accessing their land. In some areas, farmland that was vandalized by settlers and therefore went unproperly tended by fearful owners, crops have so dwindled that the farmers have given up making the effort to reach the plots. This process has resulted in unseen walls throughout the West Bank that Palestinians know they cannot cross because doing so would expose them to violence, even life-threatening violence. The removal of Palestinians from more and more of the West Bank makes it easier for the state to take over land and resources.
The settlement of Adei Ad was built near an area where ten families from the Palestinian village of Turmusaya own a total of about 50 hectares of farmland. The District Coordination Office (DCO) gave farmers four days – from 19 to 22 March 2018 ¬– to work the land. However, in practice, the farmers only had the opportunity to work one day. Testimonies collected by B’Tselem field researcher Iyad Hadad reveal that on the very first day allotted, when about twenty Palestinian farmers and farmhands were working the land near the settlement of Adei Ad, three settlers showed up there. The soldiers, who were there purportedly to protect the Palestinians and enable them to cultivate the land did not keep the settlers from attacking the farmers, and some even joined in the attack. The soldiers told the farmers to go home and return the next day. On the second day, while the soldiers did keep the settlers from attacking the farmers, they did not arrest any of the settlers who had taken part in the previous day’s assault. On the third day, the military never bothered to send any soldiers, and the farmers did not work for fear they would be harmed. On the fourth day, the military denied the farmers access, promising to give an alternate date, but never did. All told, the farmers had only managed to plow half the area.
‘Awad Hazmah, from Turmusaya, 51, a married and father of ten, related what happened in a testimony he gave on 21 March 2018:
After coordinating in advance with the Israeli DCO, we arrived at our land in the a-Dhahrat area, near Adei Ad, on 19 March 2018. We arrived at 8:30 in the morning, as instructed. I was with my brother ‘Odeh and about twenty farmers and farmhands. We had seven tractors. Four soldiers were standing at the guard post that was set up about three years ago because of settler attacks, although they don’t really keep them from attacking us. That’s what happened that day too. We started working, and at around nine o’clock, Husam, the Israeli coordination officer, came and said: “Star plowing. There’s no problem. Everything’s okay.” He left a few minutes later. About twenty minutes after that, three masked settlers arrived on horseback. We had seen them hanging around the area since the morning hours. Husam also saw them before he left. The settlers tried to scare us with the horses. They rode fast, close to us and threw firecrackers a few times. I took photos of them and then they retreated and waited in the trees.
Shortly before 11:00 A.M., a Civil Administration officer named Raz came by and told us to go ahead and plow and not to worry. Before that, he spoke to the settlers. I heard the soldiers asking him to confiscate my phone, but he wouldn’t. I asked him to tell the settlers to leave, but he said he couldn’t.
We saw more settlers coming from the direction of Adei Ad. We thought Raz and the soldiers would protect us from them. They were standing beside them and talking to them and we thought they’d keep them from attacking. But, at around 11:30, three masked settlers attacked us. They weren’t on horseback this time. When they got nearer, the soldiers just backed away. At first, the settlers threw firecrackers at us, then they threw stones. I had nothing to protect myself with except a stick. The settlers threw a firecracker at Suliman ‘Asfur, who operates a tractor, and I stood in front of them, shouting at them.
The settlers threw stones at us and the soldiers pointed their guns at us. Then two of them beat Suliman and pushed him to the ground. I tried to scare them off with a big stone I was holding, but then I was hit by a stone in the left side of my face. It really hurt. One of the soldiers stood right in front of me, shoved me to the ground and then walked away. Raz did nothing, just stood between us and the settlers. It was only after about two hours, at around 1:30 P.M. that the settlers went back toward Adei Ad, and Raz and the soldiers kicked us out of the area and said we couldn’t go on working that day. They said we could come back the next day, and that’s how we lost an entire work day.
I went to the medical center and I was x-rayed and examined, and they said I had no fractures, just bruising to the lower jaw and a swollen cheek. I went home about an hour later. Suliman was also mildly injured.
Suliman ‘Asfur, 24, a married and father of one, is a farmhand. He recounted what happened that morning in a testimony he gave on 22 March 2018:
At around 11:30 A.M., after breakfast, I took my cup of tea and walked about ten meters away from the other farmers to smoke a cigarette in peace. Then, from about seven meters away, I saw three masked settlers approaching us from among the trees. The soldiers were about 15 to 20 meters away. One of the settlers lit a firecracker and threw it at me. It almost hit my head, but I moved quickly. I shouted at the settler, and ‘Awad Hazmah came and stood next to me. Then the settlers started throwing stones at us.
When we tried to defend ourselves, the soldiers came over and two of them grabbed me and threw me onto a thorn bush. I was wearing a short-sleeved shirt and it hurt. The soldiers grabbed hold of me while a settler threw a stone at ‘Awad Hazmah, and one of the soldiers assaulted ‘Awad too. All of this was taking place while the settlers kept throwing stones, some of which hit the soldiers too, but they kept beating us without responding to what the settlers were doing. The other farmers didn’t step in. Maybe because they were scared.
A few minutes later, two soldiers picked me up off the ground and took me off to the side, while the settlers kept throwing stones. As they were taking me aside I asked one of them: “Do you come here to protect me or for the settlers to beat us up?”. He said: “Shut up. Don’t talk.” The coordination officer who had been there since the morning came over after the soldiers sat me down on the ground, at a spot about thirty meters away from where we had been. He asked me in Arabic: “Did the settler beat you?”. I answered: “You saw what happened. I see only with one eye. If a stone had hit my other eye, I would have gone completely blind. You’re okay with this?”. The officer asked me the same question again, and I said yes. Then he said: “I didn’t see him beat you. If you make more trouble, I’ll arrest you.” He threatened to arrest me if I said the settlers beat me. After about fifteen minutes, the settlers left and the soldiers kicked us out of the area, saying they couldn’t get the situation under control and there weren’t enough military forces to ensure order. We had no choice and we left.
Six families from the village of al-Mughayir own a total of 22 hectares that are also located in an area near the site where the settlement of Adei Ad had been built. The DCO gave farmers three days (19-21 March 2018) to work the land. But in practice, the farmers were able to work only on one day. On the first day, when the farmers reached their land, the DCO officer told them to go back home as there were no soldiers to protect them. On the second day, after they had begun plowing, settlers threw stones at them. The soldiers there did not protect the farmers and even aided the assault. The farmers resumed plowing after the settlers left some ten minutes later. The third day was canceled on the military’s orders. The DCO gave the farmers an alternate date, 25 March 2018, but they were afraid to return because of the violence they had experienced on the previous days. The farmers managed to plow only seven hectares and the remaining 15 went unplowed.
Akram Na’asan, from al-Mughayir, 44, a married father of four, spoke about the incidents in a testimony he gave B’Tselem on 22 March 2018:
On Monday, 19 March 2018, I arrived at my land at 8:30 in the morning with five people from my family and also three farmhands we’d hired. As soon as we got there, the coordination officer, Husam, and also the Adei Ad security guard, both arrived. Husam told us to leave because there were no soldiers to protect us. We had no choice but to go back home.
We came back the same time the next day, but before we started working, an officer and the settlement security guard came and told us to leave. I called Husam and he said we had agreed on nine o’clock, so we sat a little way off and waited for half an hour. The officer and the settlement security guard went back toward the settlement and watched us from afar. There were also three soldiers there, standing across from us, about thirty meters away. At 9:00 A.M., we started working, but then the officer and the settlement’s security guard came back, unfastened the harnesses used to hitch the three plows to the horses and told us to stop working because we had started without asking for permission. I told the officer we had come to work, that we had farmhands we have to pay and that we have to start as soon as possible because as it was, they had given us only three days to do work that requires at least ten days.
I called Husam and he said he was on his way and to wait for him. He arrived about twenty minutes later and only then were we able to start working. We went with the three soldiers into the Abu al-Mawas area, which is close to the settlement outpost, and started plowing. We had four tractors and we managed to plow 1.5 hectares. Then we carried on working in a different plot. While we were working there, we saw six settlers coming from the direction of the outpost. I called Husam again and told him they were coming and that we were scared. But he said not to worry because there were soldiers there. The settlers kept coming nearer, until they were about ten or twenty meters away. They weren’t wearing masks. One of them ran at me and tried to hit me, but I managed to back away and told the soldiers who were standing right next to us: “Look at him! You see he’s attacking us!”. The soldier answered there’s no problem. The settler kept getting closer, together with another settler. I picked up a stone and waved it about to scare them off, telling them to stay away from me.
Right then, the soldiers pounced on me and held me. They let the settlers beat me. I tried to run, but the soldiers kicked me. The other farmers were afraid and backed away a little. The settlers threw stones at them and they threw stones back at the settlers. I managed to free myself from the soldiers’ grip and they threatened us that they’d shoot anyone who threw stones. It wasn’t until five to seven more soldiers came that the settlers went back to the outpost. The soldiers let us continue working and two of them stayed with us. A Border Police car came by every so often. We worked until 3:30 in the afternoon and had to stop because that was all the time we were given with coordination.
On the last day given by coordination, we came to an area that is near the outpost, but there were no soldiers there. I called Husam, but he said he wasn’t responsible for us. We decided we couldn’t work because we were afraid of the settlers, and we switched to a plot that is farther away and doesn’t require coordination. I called the Palestinian DCO later to get them to help us reach the plot near the outpost and they said we could go on 25 March 2018.
I didn’t file a complaint. I don’t believe the court system serves our interests. The settlers assaulted us right in plain sight of the soldiers and with their consent. The soldiers even stepped in to help the settlers. I think they use this policy in order to force us to leave the land in order to expand Adei Ad, which started with a single caravan and is now a small village.
* Video filmed by B'Tselem volunteer Yasser Na’asan.