A Trip to “Settler-Land” – July 3rd 2008

I’ve learnt something new today.

I’ve learnt that I’m not an Israeli citizen equal to other Israeli citizen, that there are people that have more rights than me…

You think I’m kidding?

Well, I’ll tell you about a trip I made today to see some settlements and outposts in the Occupied Territories organized by the Peace Now’s Settlement Watch Team and guided by Hagit Ofran, its Director.

Hagit Ofr

Hagit Ofran

 For a detailed interview with Hagit Ofran, please click HERE.

(Below this post you’ll find a number of links to web-sites and documents that can give you more information about the settlements and the Occupied Territories.)

The trip started at 11am in Jerusalem’s Liberty Bell Garden. We were a bus full of people of all ages, not all of us members of Peace Now. We were bound to meet a second bus that came from Tel Aviv at a parking lot just before Hizme Checkpoint.

There we were also joined by a police car that should accompany us on our trip. One cannot make such a trip into a military zone without clearance from the police and the army. And in our case, we were potential “trouble makers”, so the police was supposed to keep us from “provocations towards settlers”, although Peace Now had made sure that the busses were in no way decorated by fliers and banners – and Hagit had told us to stay calm in all situations. We could see that the policeman wasn’t pleased at all by his duty – he seemed rather annoyed, concerned and unhappy about what he had to do.

In advance I must say that nothing of what happened on the trip really surprised me – I’d seen all of it before on TV and heard many witness accounts about the different things we saw and heard. But I had never experienced it live and by myself… – except for the one thing that I didn’t know until now: that as a non-violent non-settler I have far less rights than a violent resident of an illegal outpost – or any settler at all.

After a few negotiations with the policeman and the policewoman charged to accompany us – mainly to tell them which way exactly we were about to travel, we started out: the police car in front, the 2 busses following.

We were heading for the settlement of Beit El, passing by an (illegal) outpost called Meron which should be evacuated in 3 weeks. Hagit explained to us the long and complicated court case about this outpost, which the State of Israel must evacuate by decision of the High Court of Israel. It should have been evacuated at least a year ago (if not more) but each time the Ministry of Security came back to the court asking for a small delay of just 3 month for some reason, then another 2 month for another reason, 6 month here, and 4 month there… In short: last delay of evacuation is July 31st 2008.

We could see very clearly that the outpost was sitting there quietly and there was absolutely no sign of anyone preparing move, dismantle installation or the like. We all wondered how they would manage to move it all in the next 3 weeks.

Migron outpost - to be evacuated by July 31st, 2008

Migron outpost - to be evacuated by July 31st, 2008

On the way, when nothing particular was to be explained, Hagit told us about the basic status of the Occupied Territory and its inhabitants.

The whole of the West Bank is Military Zone and under Military Law. The settlers though are treated according to laws valuable for the State of Israel – which is not the case for Palestinians. The same act committed by a settler or a Palestinian is treated and judged VERY differently – for instance throwing of stones – to which I’ll come back later.

We arrived at Beit El.

Beit El - old picure

Beit El - old picure

We didn’t intend to enter the settlement, which obviously would have led to violence, just stop in front of the usual yellow iron gate and hear Hagit telling us about the history of this settlement and its outposts.

Arriving at the settlement we saw that we were expected and awaited by a “welcome committee” of youngsters (adolescent girls and boys) from the settlement. The “crème de la crème” of Jewish youth, as we immediately saw and heard when we left our busses. Before we got out of our busses, Hagit had to choose a safe and neutral place to speak to us, in accordance with the policeman who at that time was already seriously concerned and unhappy.

As soon as we came out of the bus, the wonderfully religious “welcome committee” greeted us immediately with insults, telling us that we should be sent back to Germany, that we were traitors, that we had forgotten our bulldozer (meaning clearly that they considered us as creatures of the same kind as terrorists), that they were the core of the Jewish People, the only ones who secured the existence of the State of Israel, and many other things that I don’t remember now.  They also shouted and whistled as loud as they could as to make it difficult for us to hear what Hagit was saying over a loudspeaker. We didn’t approach them – but they approached us, menacingly.

At that time our unhappy policeman wasn’t alone any more. Out of nowhere 3 different kinds of police forces had appeared and where trying to stop the God-fearing youngsters to approach and beat us.

I only recognized one kind of uniform – the grey uniform of a special “Arab unit”. There were others in an entirely blue uniform, which indicates (for me) that they were normal policemen, but probably more trained for “action”. And the third type of policemen – at the beginning only ONE, later more, wasn’t in uniform and had a normal looking car, and took pictures of us. My guess is that he was from the Shabak (Internal Israeli Security Service).

Don’t tell me that I’m probably “imagining” things. They’re known for such things and its normal (not only here in this country, by the way) to photograph and register demonstrators – although we weren’t “demonstrators” in any way…

After Hagit had finished her speech and after new discussions with our policeman, we went back into the busses, still under shouting and insults. We traveled off – now in a much bigger convoy – to see an “illegal outpost”.

The question of what is legal or rather what is less illegal than something else is very tricky concerning the Occupied Territories. Please don’t “get me” on that! I’m using here general Israeli “speech” – were we differentiate so to say into State authorized settlements, settlements like Ofra that are big and important now, but grew without any formal authorization. The State acknowledged them implicitly, but not formally. The State built roads, water supplies and all other needed infrastructure, but didn’t formally authorize the settlement. It couldn’t really do that, in fact, as Ofra for example is entirely built on privately owned Palestinians land. And “illegal” outposts are places where there isn’t really a settlement, where there are only a few houses (minimum one!) and which are attempts to create completely new settlements, especially after the government has agreed several times not to do that any more (but still does, in fact).

Ofra - old picture

Ofra - old picture

red = private Palestinian land 93.2 %; green = Jewish land 2.9.%; State land = 4 %

Ofra - colored areal view: red = private Palestinian land 93.2 %; green = Jewish land 2.9.%; State land = 4 %

So now we were on the way to an illegal outpost where 12 or 13 families live. Now not only guided by our police car, but followed by another police car with more policemen, the Shabak car and 4 or 5 cars of settlers from Beit El who seemingly hadn’t insulted us enough.

We wanted to drive through the outpost to see how it looks like. For this illegal settlement of 12 or 13 families the State has built 2 roads – one to access it from one side and one exit it on the other side. A great privilege compared to the Palestinian village we visited just afterwards, where the main access road (a dirt road, by the way) that would link them from a distance of one kilometer to the main road is totally blocked and instead, they have to drive 24 km each way to reach the same spot.

But when we arrived at the access road to the outpost, two police cars blocked the road – obliging us to pass our way and not to approach the tiny settlement.

At this point I began to wonder seriously who is making “law” there. Who is allowed to do what?

Not only we were driving on a road reserved for Jews only and forbidden for Palestinians, but even as Jews and Israeli citizens we were not allowed to continue on a Jewish road — most probably because the police was afraid the settlers would throw stones on us (what they did later, anyway).

That means for me that these people are allowed to be violent, and in order to protect us, we mustn’t approach them… Frankly, in other circumstances I would have expected that people who throw stones at others would be arrested – especially if already so many policemen were around…

But no: WE were the ones who couldn’t go the way we wanted; WE seemed to be the troublemakers…

Unable to continue our program (which would have consisted in driving through a State tolerated settlement), we continued straight away to a meeting with two representatives of the nearby Arab village of Kariut (close to the huge and very well developed settlements of Eli and Shiloh).

We needed to stop our busses on road no 60 (famous for its variations of status – sometimes reserved for Jews only, right now – as I could see – open to Palestinian cars as well, but as Hagit explained, only Palestinian cars with special permit to drive on that road..). We had to negotiate with the police again to be allowed to cross the road and walk five minutes on the sun-exposed dirt road to the spot where the road was blocked by big mountains of earth and stones – the meeting spot with the two Palestinians from the village of Kariut.

The settlers also got out of their cars and intended to follow us. By now we were joined by soldiers as well! Everyone (except of us) seemed to be very unhappy that we insisted to meet the two Palestinians. We wanted to hear what they could tell us about their living conditions in midst of the settlements. We walked ahead, while the police allowed us to cross the road, and behind us, the settlers were stopped from following us by a rather heavy line of policemen and soldiers. One of the settlers had his little girl (a toddler) with him, without sun protection and without water supplies for her. To insult us seemed to be more important for him than to care for his little daughter – all in all they (and we) were out in the high noon sun, unprotected (except for what we had brought ourselves) for at least half an hour.

We finally met the two men from the village. To see them approach I had to climb onto the mountains of earth. They approached by car, and then got out of the car, climbed over the mountain to speak to us. While we were speaking with them we saw a Palestinian family come home from some shopping, climb over the mountain and walk off the one kilometer that was left to reach the village.

On our questions, the men explained to us that the village of 2700 inhabitants had NO RUNNING WATER at all, and the only water source available to them was a single water pipe we could see reach out just behind the mountain blocking the road. One kilometer away from the village. They had to come to this point with tanks to get water to drink, cook and clean!! – There had been a natural source a little closer to the village before, but the settler constructions destroyed it. The Israeli Water Authority refuses to invest there and build normal water supplies for them; while the much bigger settlements of Eli and Shiloh which were close by had running water in every house (even the 12-13 families in the illegal outpost have regular water supplies).

They explained furthermore the hardship of driving 24 kilometers more than necessary in order to go to work (most of them work in Ramallah). 70 % of the village’s agricultural land was partly fenced off and used by the surrounding settlements, and they were not allowed to go there any more. Even the little spot of land around us – between the main road the road-block and the two surrounding hills were kept off-limits to the farmers owning the land.

Sometimes, we were told, settlers would come to their village at night, beat people up and vandalize property. We didn’t ask if they complained about this – because we already knew that this wouldn’t make any sense: they were under Military Law, and would have to complain to the Military Authorities…

Many families have already left the village to go to live in Ramallah or Nablus or abroad at all. This is obviously the aim of the treatment they receive from the State of Israel, its Military Forces and the settlers living there.

Time was running short, we were all hot and thirsty – so we departed and entered the busses again – to drive home to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, where we had come from. Preceded by a police car, then the two busses, a military jeep, another police car, 2 Shabak cars and still some settler cars following us.

After about five minutes of driving we suddenly heard an impact on the bus. (At least) one of the settlers had preceded us, awaited our passing by and prepared to throw stones on our two busses. The two busses were touched by three impacts of stones and one of the stones had smashed a window, but thankfully at it’s edge, and the boarding metal prevented it from coming through the window and injuring the passengers of this bus.

Smashed bus window

Smashed bus window

We all stopped, examined the damage and discussed the incident. At least a dozen of us had clearly seen the terrorist and could identify him. But now came the most amazing part of our journey…

I still can’t believe it, but this is what happened. Most of us were out of the busses, policemen and soldiers around us – and here they came and joined us again: the settlers who had followed us for about 2 hours already – and among them the terrorist who had thrown the stones!!! Quietly they stopped there cars beside our busses, got out and continued their insults, telling me, among other things that the army should shoot us all!!

settlers cursing us

settlers cursing us

settlers cursing us

settlers cursing us

We asked the policemen to arrest the man. No reaction… “Yes, that will be done” was the reply I got when I inquired personally why they didn’t proceed to arrest the stone-thrower. “Don’t worry, we’ll do that later” I was told.

I admit that it’s hard for me now to continue my report of that trip. We had to drive off, seeing that the man was NOT arrested!!

Even harder was to hear what Hagit told us afterwards. That if a Palestinian had thrown the stones he would be treated very differently. And she told us two events that were witnessed by close friends of hers. One was the attempted evacuation of a very tiny outpost inhabited by particularly violent God-fearing young men. When the police arrived at the outpost, they were greeted by stones. Theses stones can kill – anyone who has seen such incidents knows that (and I have experienced it myself). They aren’t very dangerous to soldiers with helmets, but for unarmed civilians and regular policemen in normal uniform, they can no doubt be fatal.

So 7 or 8 of these “God-fearing” men were arrested – for 24 hours before being judged, as it is the law in Israel. Then they were sentenced to stay away from the outpost for 7 days and to sign a declaration to never do that again.

When you know, like me, a Palestinians peace activist who was sentenced to 7 years in jail for throwing stones at helmet protected soldiers at age 17 or 18 – hearing something like this leaves you speechless…

Another story told to us by Hagit – just to keep the balance: A close friend of hers from Bn’ei Avraham has witnessed a settler in Hebron coming towards a Palestinian family the friend was talking to and shoot at them. After hearing the shots, the soldiers protecting the settlers of Hebron appeared. The man said that the son of the Palestinian family had thrown a stone at him and that he shot to defend himself. Hagit’s friend and other members of Bn’ei Abraham present there told that this was wrong, that no stones were thrown by anyone. Nevertheless, the soldiers who came only after the incident testified that the son had thrown stoned and thus he was arrested. Not for 24 hours before being presented to a judge – but for 3 days according to the Military Law applied to Palestinians. After three days – at that point Hagit was at the court to witness what happened – the boys arrest was extended for another eleven days. Besides that, the father was told to complain against the settler, but was arrested at his arrival at the military office. Reason: he might throw stones in the future. He too spent at least 2 weeks in a military jail in Hebron.

I don’t know the end of that story; we arrived at Hizme at some point and had to speak of other things as well. It was enough for me, anyway. I didn’t need to hear more – I had heard and seen enough for one day.

__________

 

For the site of Peace Now (in English) click For the site of Peace Now (in English) click here

 

For the Settlements page of Peace Now click here.

 

Breaking the Law in the West Bank – One Violation Leads to Another: Israeli Settlement Building on Private Palestinian Property – A Report of Peace Now’s Settlement Watch Team (in pdf) – click here

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