Moussa and Issa Ktash open their mouths: Each of the brothers is missing three or four front teeth. Two months have passed since the brutal attack they endured at the hands of seven settlers, who were armed with clubs and chains, threatened them with a submachine gun, and beat them until they were bloody. The two are still badly shaken. Their children, who were with them on the land they own during the assault, are also traumatized. Now, whenever Israel Defense Forces troops enter the Jalazun refugee camp, north of Ramallah, where they live, 9-year-old Salah, Moussa’s son, and 8-year-old Hamzi, Issa’s son, go into panic mode and become wild. They both also wet their beds at night.
Moussa, 38, and Issa, 41, are two work-weary men whose only dream – to spend some relaxing time in nature on their own property, on weekends – has been violently shattered by settlers. Issa has five children; Moussa has three. They are both woodworkers at GM Profile, a large carpentry enterprise in the El Bireh industrial zone near Ramallah. Issa has worked there for 17 years; Moussa for 14. Descendants of refugees from Inaba, an Arab village that was situated between Lod and Ramle, they were born and bred in Jalazun.
With sawdust on their faded shirts the two met us in the offices of their employer, from which we set off to the scene of the crime, amid the olive groves between the settlements of Halamish and Ateret.
About a decade ago, Moussa bought a plot of land in the village of Jibiya, in the Ramallah area – about 10 kilometers from Jalazun: two-and-a-half dunams (almost two-thirds of an acre) on which there are some 20 olive trees.
Moussa: “We are refugees. We were expelled from our lands in Inaba, we live in Jalazun, and if we manage to save up money, we will build a house for our children on the land [that we bought]. The refugee camp is crowded and stifling; there’s no air there. When we go out to our land, we just feel wonderful. The nature and the fresh air. It is the first time [in the family] since my grandfather, in 1948, that we have land of our own. I feel free there.”
The brothers’ dream of building a home for their children is a very distant one indeed: The land in question is in Area C – meaning it’s under complete Israeli control – where, in the present reality, the prospect for a Palestinian to build anything is nonexistent. Meanwhile, the men are able to extract four to six large containers of oil each year from the olives, which they divide among friends.
With his cell phone, Moussa shows us photos of wildflowers and other sights that he took on his land. He’s a nature lover. Each weekend, he likes to go out to the grove with his family, tend to the trees and collect za’atar (wild hyssop) and Greek sage.
Both Halamish and Ateret are just a few kilometers away, but they never used to have problems with the settlers. In recent years, however, amid the Palestinians’ olive groves, telltale huts of the so-called hilltop youth have begun springing up out of nowhere. The young settlers use these illegal locales as their bases for attacks on Palestinian farmers who have the effrontery to approach their own land; indeed, they are gradually taking over the area by force. A herd of dozens of cows belonging to settlers is already pasturing without interruption in some Palestinian fields in the area, as if they were the settlers’ property.
The coronavirus period has been a bonanza for these ruffians. With everyone’s attention focused elsewhere, they have carried out 21 attacks on Palestinian farmers in the vicinity, wounding some of them each time.
Iyad Haddad, a field researcher for B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights organization, compares the settlers here to wild animals: They lie in wait for those who are weak – the farmer, the shepherd, the lone passerby – and pounce on them with savage violence in order to frighten them and force them off their land. That’s what happened on Thursday, April 16.
It was after some 40 days of coronavirus confinement in Jalazun, when no one was allowed to enter or leave. The brothers Ktash decided to go with their families for a first post-lockdown picnic. Their wives made maklouba (a dish of meat, rice and fried vegetables) and they set out from Jalazun at around 11:30 A.M. It was a hot day. Eight members of the family – Moussa, his wife and three of their children, Issa and one of his sons, and Moussa and Issa’s mother – squeezed into one car.
Once they arrived, the two brothers went to collect spices and herbs on the slopes of a nearby hill, while the others remained in the shade of the olive trees. Issa and Moussa ventured about a few hundred meters away from the site, each heading in a different direction. They planned to return for lunch in the outdoors.
Moussa was attacked first. Two settlers who had been lurking behind some oak trees suddenly confronted him. One was holding a club, the other had a knapsack on his back. The land they were on is privately owned by residents of Jibiya. The settlers were young, one looked to Moussa to be about 19 or 20, he tells us now; the other was around 25. Both wore large skullcaps; one was bearded and had long earlocks.
Without a word, the bearded man, who was wielding the club, immediately started to bash Moussa on his head, his face and all over his body. The other one stood to the side. Moussa collapsed to the ground, but the blows continued unabated. The worst pain was inflicted on his right knee, which had been operated on in 2008. At one point the settler who was pounding Moussa told his accomplice to bring a chain in order to tie Moussa’s hands. He threatened to kill him.
Even now, as he recalls the event, Moussa is distraught: “I love life. The first thing that went through my head was that I was going to die. The second thing was what would become of my wife and children after I died. I begged God, I recited verses from the Koran, I felt that my death was approaching.”
The episode lasted for about 15 minutes, he estimates. A quarter of an hour in which his body was pummeled. Did you try to resist, we ask.
“I was scared that they were armed,” he says. ‘They were two and I was one. There was nothing I could do. Very quickly I realized that I had two options: to try to make a run for it or to die.”
When the settler doing the beating got a phone call and the other young man was off looking for a chain, Moussa managed somehow to get to his feet and escaped. They didn’t give chase. Apparently, they had made their point.
Moussa hid behind a tree. He’d left his phone with his family and had no way to summon help. He fell to the ground and with his remaining strength managed to crawl to get as far from the assailants as he could. He was overcome by thirst and drank from a discarded bottle that he’d found. Then he felt he was losing consciousness and lay down on the ground. His whole body ached.
When he woke up his family was standing next to him, frightened; they had no idea what had happened. When he hadn’t returned, they began to think that the settlers had perhaps killed him. Issa did not respond to phone calls.
Sabar Shalash, a member of the Palestinian security forces who lives in Jibiya, told the family to come to his village with Moussa, so that nothing else would happen to them. Local residents then launched a search for Issa.
By now it was somewhere between 3:30 and 4 P.M. Issa finally phoned: “Come and rescue me. The settlers have left.” Moussa, still aghast at what had happened to him, refused to allow the family to return to the area, and asked young people from Jibiya to go get his brother.
It emerged that Issa, too, had been attacked by settlers who ambushed him from behind an oak tree. At first he was confronted by two: One of them, with long earlocks and a large skullcap, asked him in Arabic, “What are you doing here?” “This is my land,” Issa replied, to which the man retorted, “No, this is our land, it’s not yours.”
Issa tried to run for his life but the settler blocked him and knocked Issa down. Then three more settlers emerged, one of them brandishing an M-16 rifle. “Call the police,” Issa shouted. The settler replied, “Here, we are the police.”
With the rifle trained on him they started to beat Issa with clubs, and kicked and punched him as he lay helpless on the ground. He felt faint. One of the settlers bound his hands behind his back. Issa says now that he felt like a sheep being led to slaughter. They went on kicking him for some time and dragged him for about 300 meters.
An IDF jeep arrived to the spot where he had been dragged, and five soldiers got out; a pickup truck belonging to the settlers also pulled up.
One of the soldiers gave Issa water so he could wash off his bleeding mouth and nose. “Why did you come here?” the soldier asked. Issa tried to explain that this was his land and land belonging to Jibiya. The soldiers wanted to see his ID card, but he’d left it with his mother at the picnic site. The phone in his pocket rang, but the soldiers wouldn’t allow him to take the call from his worried family. One settler emerged from the pickup truck, grabbed the phone and threw it to the ground, cracking its screen. The other settlers resumed beating Issa until the soldiers finally stopped them and ordered them to leave. The soldiers did not summon an ambulance and just released Issa, who managed to call his family and was rescued by locals from Jibiya.
They had to carry him; Issa was hurt more seriously than his brother. A Palestinian ambulance took the two brothers to the Ramallah Government Hospital, where they were treated for their wounds and discharged after a few hours. Unfortunately for Issa, he was sent into coronavirus quarantine in a facility run by the Palestinian Authority for two weeks, because he had come into close contact with both his assailants and the soldiers. His suffering and pain were compounded by his isolation from his family.
The two brothers identified the settlers in photographs shown them by friends in Jibiya. Residents there say they know the violent hilltop youths who often raid their lands without anyone to stop them. We saw the photos, too.
Issa and Moussa chose not to file a complaint with the police, fearing retribution from the settlers, of whom they are terrified. They also know that if they did, no one would take their claims seriously, just as hundreds of similar ones submitted over the years haven’t been dealt with. The police, the settlers and the army are all one body, the brothers say. Moussa says that the soldiers should have detained his assailants, or at least summoned the police to take them into custody.
Of course, it’s not hard to imagine how the soldiers would have behaved if it had been Palestinians who were attacking Jewish settlers.
We asked the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit whether the soldiers had acted properly by allowing the attackers to leave, and how soldiers are expected to behave in situations of this kind. The response: “On April 16, a report was received of friction between a number of settlers and Palestinians near the community of Halamish. IDF fighters who arrived at the site conducted a preliminary clarification with one of the Palestinian residents of what had happened and thereafter passed the details of the case to the authorized law enforcement bodies.”
The two brothers with the missing teeth still wake up in fright at night, and their children, who saw them returning bruised and bleeding, are haunted by the images. Issa needs an MRI, but his request to have it performed in an East Jerusalem hospital was rejected. “Maybe you could help me?” he asks us in a quavering voice. They haven’t been back to their land since the incident. Nor do they have any intention of going back any time soon.
Another victory for the settlers.
At the end of our visit, we drove to the Ktashes’ plot of land. From the highway between Ateret and Halamish there was a fine view of olive groves dotting the hillside. Only on second glance did we see isolated huts between the trees, scattered on the ridge, threatening and boding ill.