The Empire Strikes Back: Sharon and Settlers Destroy the Infrastructure of Palestinian Existence
Nine Palestinian farmers were taken to the nearby military base. When they arrived soldiers jumped on them, tied their hands behind their backs and fixed a piece of cloth around their eyes. They were led to a deserted area in the base and told to sit on the ground, while the soldiers threatened, and cursed them, hour after hour. Whoever dared to ask why he was being held, requested to go to the bathroom, or complained in any way, was kicked, slapped, or held down with his head to the ground. The farmers, turned prisoners’ only offence was an unsuccessful attempt to plow their land.
This incident is part of the ongoing campaign carried out by the Israeli government and the Jewish settlers; a campaign whose major objective is to undermine the infrastructure of existence of the occupied Palestinians, so that they, in turn, will bow down to Israeli demands and give up the claims to their land -- it is a struggle against what the Palestinians call Tzumud, which means the "close and relentless attachment" to the land, their home.
Throughout this past summer, the settlers -- often aided by the Israeli military -- obstructed the harvesting of olives, grapes and other crops, and now that the time for tilling the soil has arrived, they are not allowing many Palestinians to reach their fields so that in the spring there will be nothing to harvest.
This particular incident began in late November when Palestinian residents from the South Hebron region started tilling their land. As soon as the farmers commenced plowing the fields located near a Jewish settlement, they were harassed by the settlers and detained for hours by the military.
It was then that they decided to contact the Israeli Civil Administration in order to try and coordinate the plowing, with the hope that the latter would protect them from settler harassment. The farmers also contacted members of Ta’ayush, Arab-Jewish Partnership, and requested that they intervene on their behalf. Time was running out, since the seeds need to be sowed before the rainy season.
Day after day passed; New Year’s Eve was quickly approaching, and there was still no word or sign from Lieutenant Colonel Tarek, the Civil Administration’s regional commander. Ta’ayush activists intervened on behalf of the Palestinians, and were told that the Palestinians should go to their fields, with their tractors in order to meet the Civil Administration. Every day the farmers came, and every day they were told: “come tomorrow, not today.”
Finally, after threatening the Civil Administration that if they did not set a date immediately, a Supreme Court appeal would be submitted, the residents were informed that on Saturday February 1 they could come to their fields and plow. Over two months had passed, and the plowing season was quickly drawing to a close.
Only at 10:00 in the morning, Lieutenant Colonel Tarek arrived on the scene. But instead of remaining to protect the residents, he told them they could plow and disappeared. Despite the late start, the Palestinians began working without interference. At about twelve noon, Jewish settlers from Susya, accompanied by soldiers, appeared. Wielding their guns, they forced the Palestinians to stop their work, while simultaneously beating a number of residents.
Ta’ayush members immediately called the Civil Administration and the police, demanding that they proceed to the fields at once; the activists decided concomitantly to enter the region in spite of the fact that the whole southern West Bank had been declared a closed military zone -- just to ensure that they would not and could not enter the area. The closure of the territories reaffirmed once again our suspicion that all Ta’ayush activities are under surveillance by the security services.
Using a roundabout route, one car with five activists managed to pass through just as the Civil Administration began detaining the nine Palestinian farmers and their four tractors; they were taken to a military base three kilometers away.
The remaining Ta’ayush members were stopped by the police about a kilometer from the fields. The activists immediately exited their vehicles and began walking towards the five members who had managed to reach the Palestinians. At this point there was only one police van on the scene, and although they could not stop all of the activists, they did manage to arrest three people.
Most of the group continued walking, however, while a few remained at the roadblock to make sure that those arrested would not be taken away. Those who remained sat down in protest, encircling the police vehicle.
Large police forces were summoned, including special units and armed vehicles. These forces rapidly advanced and stopped the activists who had continued marching forward, about 400 yards before they reached the Palestinian residents. The Ta’ayush activists negotiated with the police and reached an agreement that they would withdraw if the five Ta’ayush activists who had been arrested (two more had been arrested as they walked towards the fields) were released as well as the Palestinians and their tractors.
In the meantime, the five activists who managed to get through collected affidavits from the Palestinian residents, some of whom had been beaten by settlers. They related how they were suddenly attacked by a group of settlers while plowing and sowing seeds. One young Palestinian woman received a blow from a rifle.
The five members also contacted Knesset Member Zahava Galon who called Lieutenant Colonel Tarek. She was promised that the Palestinians and their tractor would be released shortly and that they would be allowed to plow the following day. Once again, as it would turn out, Tarek was lying.
In order to cover up his breach of the agreement, which specified that he would remain with the Palestinians until they completed their work and, in this way, protect them, Lieutenant Colonel Tarek decided to place the blame on the Palestinians. It is always easiest to blame the victims.
Instead of removing the settlers and taking responsibility for the fact that he had left the area, he concocted a story, claiming that the Palestinians had plowed in an out-of-bound area and were therefore to blame for what had occurred. Thus, the Palestinians who had been forcibly prevented from plowing their land for over two months, and who -- when they were finally given permission to plow their own land -- were beaten and detained, were blamed for the whole situation. And all this because a civil administration officer acted irresponsibly, wanted to cover his tracks, and did not want to upset the Jewish settlers, who are the real sovereign in the area.
Based on the promise given to Zahava Galon, as well as a promise from the police that they would release the activists who had been arrested, the Ta’ayush activists decided to withdraw. They waited about one kilometer from the fields for the release of the nine Palestinians; there was a large police and military presence waiting with them.
It was now about 2:00 pm.
After further negotiations and a promise from Tarek that within an hour he would release the Palestinians, part of the group retreated even further, while five members remained near the Susya settlement. There were also four police vans and 25 policemen waiting with them.
Two hours passed, and the policeman in charge, Moshe Moshe, notified the activists that the Palestinians had been taken to the Hebron police station. He also promised the activists that the Palestinians would be released very soon.
At around 4:30, the five Ta’ayush activists decided to drive to the Hebron station themselves to see whether they could find the Palestinians and to file complaints against Lieutenant Colonel Tarek and the settlers.
By the time they reached Hebron it was dark. They managed to file the complaints, but they saw no sign of the Palestinians. Moshe Moshe tried once again to find out where they were, and this time he informed the activists that the Palestinians were still being held in the military base near the fields, and that they were in the process of being released.
About twenty minutes later, the activists finally made contact with one of the Palestinians who had been detained. He related how they had been taken to the military base and placed in a corner with their hands tied behind their backs and a piece of cloth fixed around their eyes. They had sat in a corner on the ground for six long hours, while soldiers randomly kicked, threatened, and cursed them. Their four tractors, however, remained in custody.
As if this was not enough, the following day the Palestinians contacted Ta’ayush and informed us that settlers had taken over the fields and were beginning to plant trees on the very land that the farmers had been trying to plow for over two months. The very land that -- only a day before the Civil Administration had promised would be “available” and “safe” for tilling. Those that went back to the military base to take the tractors, were once again tied and blindfolded and held for hours before they were released. The military was determined to suppress all Palestinian efforts to live a normal life.
For more information on Ta’ayush and to support our activities in the South Hebron region click www.taayush.org
Neve Gordon teaches politics at Ben-Gurion University, Israel and can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org. Some of his articles recently appeared in The Other Israel: Voices of Refusal and Dissent edited by Roane Carey and Jonathan Shainin (The New Press 2002). Catherine Rottenberg is a PhD candidate at Hebrew University in Israel.