An Unholy Land Grab: The Story of a Palestinian Farm and Settlers

By Janine Roberts
Special to PalestineChronicle.com

No matter what was promised in Annapolis, a Two State Solution for Israel and Palestine now seems utterly impossible, judging from what I have just seen during a 3-week visit to the West Bank.

Its hills, terraced with olive groves, are now totally dissected by fortified highways and crowned by luxurious illegal housing developments – the latter occupied by nearly a half a million Israelis. Seized Arab land has clearly provided a bonanza for investors who think their money secure. What remains is a shredded West Bank from which it will be near impossible, in my view, to construct anything truly independent of Israel.

I went to the West Bank at the invitation of a Fair Trade Palestinian olive oil company, Zaytoun.  I expected a healthy break from chilly English weather; to pick olives, eat with farmers and learn from them how 60 years of military occupation has affected their lives.  But it turned out to be far more dramatic a visit than ever I had envisioned.

One morning I went with three olive pickers to help Omar, a Palestinian who farms in the northern part of the West Bank. Leaving our car on what was then a quiet main road, we met him on the farm on which he had 250 olive trees.  The police just evicted the Israeli settlers who had illegally occupied it. They had done so at the behest of a judge who ruled in favour of the Palestinian owners of this farm of fig, olive and almond trees. It is managed for her family by the 61-year-old Dadriya Amar who lives, as does Omar, in the local Palestinian village of Kafr Qaddum. She had filed her complaint when the settlers first occupied the farm in October. This led to the eviction of the settlers by the army – not once but three times. But every time they were expelled, the army did not stop them from returning hours later. When she came to pick the olives, the settlers had chased her away with stones.

We had not yet started picking the olives when suddenly a large armoured army truck arrived and soldiers massed by the farmhouse. They clearly had foreknowledge of something about to happen – and sure enough, a bus load of Israeli settlers minutes later disembarked and charged to the farmhouse. However it was a gentle, almost ritual, clash.  No tear gas, no arrests.  The settlers retired after some pushing and chatting with the soldiers. The army then declared the farm a ‘closed military zone’ and we had to leave.

It was only when we started to drive away that we realised our front tires had been slashed. The young settlers waiting nearby for us to discover this, jeered and laughed and came towards us. My companions ran back to ask the army to protect us while nervously I stayed with the car.  The youths that then surrounded the car were all wearing the tzitzit, the tasselled under-shirt of Orthodox Jews.  But there was nothing religious it seemed in their behaviour. I was seriously scared. I feared they would discover that I could not lock my doors. Stories of Palestinian cars torched by settlers came back to me. Our crime seemingly was that we had just spoken to the Palestinian farmer.

When my companions returned minutes later that seemed like hours, I learnt the army had refused protection on the grounds that we had driven a few feet out of their ‘military zone.’ They said we were now the responsibility of the absent police. When passing motorists slowed to ask if we needed help, the settlers ordered them not to stop.

 When a police armoured jeep approached we thought we were safe, but a policeman said; ‘We don’t speak English’ and drove on. But ten minutes later they returned. This time they mounted an armed protection of us, ordering the settlers off the road, guarding us until a tow truck arrived.

But that night the army and police withdrew from the farmhouse, just as they had done after every other eviction, and the young settlers reoccupied it as they had done every other time, planting the Israeli flag upon its rooftop. The army evicted them once more but the settlers again returned at night. Two days later the farmhouse had a Hebrew sign on it, the settlers were picking Omar’s olives and wires strung to the farm from Mitzpe Ishai, the Jewish settlement across the valley that is part of the larger illegal Israeli settlement of Kedumim (also spelt as Qedumim), to make the farm part of an ‘Eruv,’ a Rabbi-authorized area in which Orthodox Jews can travel to and fro on the Sabbath. Normally this requires permission, a ‘kinyan kesef,’ from landowners but apparently not in this case. The farm was also renamed – it was now “Shvut Ami,” meaning ‘The Return of the People.’ There was however one very small victory for Omar. He used photographs we had taken to persuade the police to arrest one of the settlers for stealing his olives. He got a bucket of his olives back. This was a very small return for losing the many sacks of olives produced by 250 trees.

Thus we witnessed another small part of the West Bank passing into Israeli hands. The farmer Omar swore he would never give up but with nine children, and access to several hundred olive trees lost, the task had just become much harder.

We soon discovered that behind this occupation were the guiding hands of Daniella Weiss, a former Mayor of Kedumim to which the farm had now been added as an ‘eruv’ – and joined to its water mains. The New York Times has called her “one of the leading ideologues of the outpost movement.”   The settlers documented their takeover of the farm by posting videos to U-Tube. These showed a Rabbi leading rituals at the farmhouse with Weiss prominently in attendance.

After the Annapolis conference, the Israeli National News reported: ‘Daniella Weiss, the head of the Kedumim regional council  … stated this [the West Bank] is holy land that is temporarily inhabited by non-Jews.’ The Guardian also reported, in an interview published on June 5, 2007, that she believed the land of Israel should be the Biblical Promised land, stretching from the Nile to the Euphrates.  She also warned, in an interview published in the Washington Post: ‘Anyplace in Israel where we do not reside, is the home of terrorists.’

She now stated: ‘Most of the people singing peaceful Shabbat songs in the new settlement of Shvut Ami didn’t know much about Annapolis – its location or its agenda. They did know that their persistent hold on the new hill west of Kedumim in the heart of Shomron [Samaria] will affect politics, will affect the Israeli agenda and will have a lasting influence on the morale of Israeli society.’ She reported that that, simultaneously with its occupation, some five other outposts were being established. All these are illegal under international law for military occupations.  Much of Kedumim itself is built on land confiscated from Kofr Qadum – although some was part of a pre-1967 Jordanian army base. When we went to stay in Kafr Qaddum to help with its olive harvest, we soon discovered it had no regular electricity, despite having a generator since 1999, installed as a gift of the Belgian government.   The Israelis will not permit its use since it is sited ‘too close’ to the Israeli settlement of Kedumim – a weak excuse as this is a quarter of a mile away! This action has crippled the local industries. We went to see the site of the unused generator and found it is in a building adjacent to the houses of the village – on the former main road to the regional capital, Nablus; also out of use since 2000 since it passes through a new extension of Kedumim. It seems to be Israeli policy to only allow Palestinian villages and small towns a single road into them – for this makes it easy for the army to isolate them.

The next day we went to pick olives there, to our disappointment the Israeli army came to stop us – on the grounds that they were evicting the settlers from the previously mentioned farm and that this might make the settlers angry enough to attack us.  The farmer had an Israeli permit to pick for 7 days – but needed 20. He also knew he might not be able to come back next year – for the Wall is planned to permanently cut him off from his trees.

His land was rich – bringing in a summer crop of wheat as well as olives in the autumn. It will be stolen by Israeli settlers despite being in a quiet valley 7 miles inside the legal boundary of the West Bank. Kafr Qaddum’s Deputy Major told us: ‘The wall will cut us off from about 35% of our olive groves. We will do everything to stop them building it.’ The Israelis planned to build the wall through the olive groves alongside the town hall.  It was going to be a tough fight.

Omar, to illustrate that the wall is essentially a ‘land-grab,’ took us to visit nearby Qalqilya, a sizeable West Bank town already closely encircled by the Wall with only one main entrance allowed into it, one with a checkpoint adjacent to an Israeli army base. It was a rich market town – but its fertile lands now lie beyond the wall and are now used by Israeli farmers. The nearby town of Jayyus has similarly lost 68% of its lands to Israeli farmers. UN aerial photographs show the greenhouses beyond the wall that Palestinians can no longer use.

Today Kedumim with just over 3000 Jewish settlers is equal in size to Kafr Qaddum – although the latter has many empty houses from which the owners fled at the time of the Israeli invasion. The Israelis will not allow them to return to live on the West Bank – but the village elders ensure their homes are kept ready for them.

On our last visit there we found much harder to get into Kafr Qaddum. The remaining main road into it, the bus route, had just been blocked with a high rock and earth wall by the Israeli army. The villagers dug it away at night to let the buses through – but after our visit the army returned to make it impenitrable. It now takes the residents some 3 hours to get to Nablus, including the time needed to walk the fields past this blockage and pass through army checkpoints. It used to take 20 minutes.  Olive pickers from overseas who had been coming here for 3 years told me they had observed the situation for the Palestinians sadly deteriorating every year.

A few days after our visit, the army again temporarily evicted the settlers from the farmhouse. This time it was reported that ‘right wing activists at Shvut Ami caused damage to two police cars.’ The police arrested 32 of them – but apparently soon let them go. They reoccupied the farmhouse and pinted it pink – and up went the small orange flags marking the wire of the ‘eruv’ making it one with the nearby Jewish colony. The road passing by the farmhouse became littered with stones thrown at Palestinian cars by the squatters at the farmhouse, according to Zakaria Seda of nearby Jit. ‘The settlers threw stones from five metres above the road’ smashing car windows and causing injuries. They could tell the Palestinian cars because they have green number plates. Israeli cars have yellow plates and pass through checkpoints with scarcely any need to slow down. (as we found with our hired car.)

Then the mounting Palestinian fury and frustration took its toll.  A 29-year-old Israeli, Ido Zolden, was killed in a drive-by shooting. He had links with the seized farm and lived at Kedumim, building settlement homes ‘throughout the West Bank’ according to the New York Times.  He was shot on the Qalqilvah-Nablus main road between the seized farm and the Arab village of Funduk where our slashed tires were replaced. The Al Aksa Martyrs Brigades, a militia affiliated with the mainstream Fatah movement, claimed responsibility for the attack. Apparently it had been the only such attack in this area in recent months.

In the UK, the lobbying group ‘Labour Friends of Israel’ reported this incident in its regular briefings to Prime Minister George Brown – but they did not say what happened next.   ‘Hundreds of settlers rampaged, smashed windows, demolished cars, destroyed a lot of property’, according to Feras Beileh, the mayor of al-Funduk. Some 18 cars had their tires slashed. The townspeople reported that some 400 settlers were involved – and members of the army. Beileh added: “I understand very well why the settlers were angry at the killing of their fellow, but they know very well that his killer did not come from Funduk. [the police had already established this] They attacked and caused an enormous damage, just because we are Arabs who happen to live near the place where it happened.’

The owner of a local marble factory, Hani Salman, reported. ‘Settlers broke in and started to smash marble slabs – the most expansive kind, imported from Italy, costing between 130 and 150 dollars apiece.’ He watched while ‘besieged in the factory office’ and saw ‘a settler girl, 17 or 18 years old, tried to push over a marble slab and smash it, but it was too heavy for her. Then soldiers smashed it for her.’

Gus Shalom, an Israeli peace organisation, investigated and reported:  ‘Throughout the pogrom, soldiers demanded of the villagers to remain in their homes and threatened to shoot anyone who would go out. The owner of a carpentry told: “We live above the workshop. The settlers broke into the lower floor and intended to set the woodpiles on fire. We might have all been burned. My wife was hysterical with panic… I was arrested and kept in detention for four days, just because I tried to protect my wife and children. Now my wife went back to her parents’ home in another village, she is afraid to come home because she thinks the settlers might come again.’

But the most terrifying of the threats made that night was not reported until Gideon Levy, a writer for the Haaretz newspaper, spoke to Naama Masalha whose home in Funduk was ‘stormed’ by the settlers when she was at home with three young children.

While the settlers rampaged, she hid with her children in the bathroom. Her brother Mohammed managed to join her – and recorded on his phone what the settlers were shouting. Levy reported: ‘Now he plays the recordings for us: “Erase this village – erase this house,” one can hear a woman screaming in Hebrew, in a hoarse voice. And then one hears the sound of blows. The soldiers and policemen stood by and watched. The woman continues to scream on the recording: “People of Funduk, pay attention: You will suffer, this village is erased. In blood and in fire, this village will be erased. Come out, come out of your homes.” The settlers had sticks and iron poles in their hands and were smashing windows – but none were arrested. On the contrary, Levy reported the settlers were protected and assisted by the army.

Two days later the police reported they had arrested the men suspected to be responsible for the shooting. They were Palestinian policemen resident at Kfar Kadum, a township of 4200 inhabitants, bigger than Kedumim, but with access only over hillside tracks. A hundred settlers set off on foot from Kedumim to carry out a similar revenge attack there – but what happened next seems to be unreported.

There has long been tension between these towns. Kedumim was illegally founded on the only paved road to Kfar Kadum and settler security guards have for years prevented traffic from passing through to this Palestinian town. After the killing the army imposed a total curfew over the local Palestinian towns and villages region – including Kafr Qaddum, so that no one could leave their homes for days.  The army also carried out town patrols every night during which they throw ‘sound bombs’ that woke up all the children, terrifying them. They also sealed more of the roads used by Palestinians – but not the track to the stolen farmhouse; now painted pink by the settlers. 

The al-Funduk Town Secretary, Jaber, declared: ‘Collective punishment is not just. We have children, wives, infants, ill and elderly people. If they want to arrest someone, let them. To close off Al Funduk is to close off one-third of the West Bank. All the traffic between the north and the center of the West Bank passes along our road. It’s the only road. We hear every day about the peace process, but on the ground we don’t feel a thing. When I’m in my house and they come to demolish my home and my car, what should I do?’

Omar Shari, a local contractor whose tractors were badly damaged, added: ‘The settlement of] Kedumim has been here for 20 years, and it wants to dominate the entire area. It’s the army that allows the settlers to dominate.’ About 500 people live in Al Funduq. It is a village that has not suffered any casualties and is almost without prisoners in Israeli jails. It is home mostly to stonemasons, grocers and garages that serve both the settlers and the Palestinians in the area. But Shari had a warning to give: ‘There are no shaheeds [martyrs] in Al Funduk, but [after] what they’re doing now to the children, in another 10-15 years, when they grow up – you’ll be hearing what happens here.’

The main food store here, the one where we did our shopping while at Kofr Qaddum, has long stocked kosher food for the settlers who buy on credit – but after this rampage most of them are staying away. The shopkeeper, Sakr Bari, suspects that many of his Israeli customers had taken part in the rampage. A new road block has now been installed by the army – blocking traffic past the auto-repair shop in the neighbouring village of Jinsafut. No one in this village knows why they are being punished. It seems to have been picked out at random.

Everywhere I travelled around the West Bank, from Nablus in the north to Hebron in the south, from Jerusalem to Jericho, I heard much the same.  Israeli’s army aggressively patrols every Palestinian town and village seemingly at least once a week – and everywhere the Israeli settlements were busily expanding and establishing new outposts on Palestinian agricultural lands.

They have now occupied strategically chosen areas through out the West Bank. Keddumim boasts of its own position on its website, saying its settlers have seized the tactical high ground overlooking routes from the Jordan towards Tel Aviv. In October this year the UN reported that over 38% of the West Bank is now occupied by Israeli settlements and by Israeli military areas. Since the West Bank and Gaza Strip only amount to 22% of the historical land of Palestine – it means that, in the current Two State negotiations, the Palestinians are expected to settle for just 13.2% of the land, despite having a population equivalent to Israel’s, or greater.

All the Palestinians I met were adamant that they would not let Israel force them to emigrate. This is their answer to what Weiss and others in the settler movement are trying to achieve. They say Palestinians can either vow allegiance to a Jewish Israel or leave their homes and emigrate.

The 16-year-old Yedidya Slonim at the occupied farm told the New York Times that its Palestinian owners should move to Jordan or Egypt or some other Arab state. ‘God gave this to us.’ In saying this, he reflected the views of the Zionist Orthodox Jewish movement well established in Kedumim known as the ‘Ne’emanei Eretz Yisreal’ [The Land of Israel Faithful].

One of its leaders, Rabbi Uziyahu Sharbaf, stated recently: ‘Neither the Torah, secular law nor morality can condone any past, present or future Israeli government conceding any part of Eretz Yisrael anywhere.’ ‘Precisely now is the time to establish new settlements and outposts throughout the Land, especially in Judea and Samaria, and concurrently to build thousands of homes in every existing settlement …  We must feel once more that this is truly our land, and that other peoples are only here temporarily.’

His claims are based both on seeing the Bible as a title deed and the Palestinians as not of equal ancestry in these lands. But recent archaeological findings have seriously questioned this. The answer, if strict scholarship is the criteria, seems to be that both are partly descended from the ancient race of the Canaanites, just as both speak related Semitic languages. 

It is in other words, a family quarrel of very great and tragic proportions in which one partner occupies the other’s home and then spends billions to suppress or prevent any ensuing protest or revolt.

But I reflected as I drove past the seemingly endless walls of the vast castle that Israel is creating in the West Bank that surely Israel was thus creating a most impractical gigantic folly that would prove impossible to maintain and garrison for decades – and might even eventually cripple it?

I also visited the large ever-expanding Israeli West Bank settlements of Ariel and Ma’ale Adumim  – and found they are made up of luxurious housing developments reserved nearly entirely for Jews only. Surely this in itself is a grave affront to the Muslim majority of the West Bank? Ariel, to add insult to injury, has now declared itself the capital of Samaria – despite it only being accessed on its hilltop by a road from which Palestinian vehicles are banned.

The West Bank is now riddled by such colonialist and exclusive housing schemes. I observed such housing developments, marked by their ‘European’ red tiled roofs, on hilltops throughout the West Bank, all laced together with expensive highways, all with privileged access to scarce water resources, and I have to ask: surely these expensive schemes have already totally undermine the feasibility of a Two State solution, leaving only one outcome possible – the one Israelis say they do not want – that of the One State Solution in which the great effort is put, not into building a wall, but into building a society in which both peoples can live together?

But I fear, the way to this now probably inevitable outcome, the Palestinians will have to continue for years to live in apartheid-like Bantustans, with over four million people subjected to cruel controls and millions more former residents with their keys and title deeds waiting in refugee camps.

Israel likes to pretend it is part of Europe, with its membership of European football and singing contests.  One day perhaps it will learn that if it wants to build a state of which it can truly feel proud, and all feel secure, it must be more like Europe in outlawing all forms of racial and religious favouritism. Currently it would not meet the legally required standards for E.U. membership

– Janine Roberts investigative features have been widely published in the major Australian newspapers as well as in the Independent and Financial Times in the UK. Her investigative film "the Diamond Empire" was shown on Frontline WGBH in the USA and on the BBC – it was researched partly in Israel.

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