Settlers stoned and injured a 73-year-old Palestinian in his grove, others vandalized another farmer’s 200 trees. A journey during the season of harvest – which is also clearly the season of settler violence
At home on the outskirts of the West Bank village of Na’alin, an elderly farmer, Khalil Amira, is nursing a head wound he suffered when settlers stoned him while he harvested olives in his grove – in front of his daughter and grandchildren. About an hour’s drive south, in the village of Jab’a, two other aged farmers are lamenting the damage wrought to their olive trees by other thugs. And these are only three recent examples of the dozens of Palestinian harvesters who are being assaulted on their lands on an almost daily basis.
It’s autumn, with its clouds and its howling wind, as the old Israeli song goes, and it’s also the season of the olive harvest – and with it settlers who go on a rampage every year at this time, across the West Bank. It’s not autumn if there’s no olive harvest, and there’s no olive harvest without settler rampages. And the start of this season bodes ill.
Several weeks into the harvest, which began this year on October 5, the Yesh Din – Volunteers for Human Rights NGO has already documented 25 violent incidents, and no one apparently intends to put a stop to them. The police accept complaints and take down testimonies, but that seems to be the extent of their activity.
According to Yesh Din, between 2005 and 2019, only 9 percent of the complaints filed by Palestinians over Israelis’ violence against them ended with the alleged perpetrators being brought to trial. Fully 82 percent of the cases were closed, including nearly all of the complaints about the destruction of olive trees.
Amira is surrounded by family in his fine house in Na’alin, west of Ramallah. His head is bandaged, concealing 15 stitches; his family envelops him with concern and warmth. Since being wounded last week by a stone thrown at him by settlers, he’s returned to the hospital twice, because of possible intracranial bleeding. A working man of 73, Amira was employed for 20 years as a welder in the predominantly ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, in Israel; he also worked for years at Elco, an industrial conglomerate. His father left him, his two sisters and his six brothers 100 dunams (25 acres) of olive trees, which he has been cultivating since his retirement, after becoming ill with a heart ailment. He speaks Hebrew fluently, and he and his family are gracious hosts.
Amira’s access to his land was cut off in 2008 by the construction of the West Bank separation barrier – a fate that befell many Palestinian farmers. Part of his property was also expropriated for the establishment of a settlement called Hashmona’im, which is on the other side of the barrier, yet another annexation-type stunt. Recently, settlers ruined the two wells that were his on land adjacent to Hashmona’im. They would descend into one of the wells with a ladder and wash themselves in it, contaminating the water. The settlers also made a breach in the fence that encircles Hashmona’im and dumped garbage and construction debris on another part of his land – the evidence is still there. Amira filed a complaint with the Binyamin District police, and the dumping stopped for a time, but it resumed last February. It was clear that the perpetrators of the recent assault on him also set out from Hashmona’im, even if they were not necessarily residents of the settlement.
For 11 years, the farmer was unable to visit the land he owns, adjacent to the fence surrounding Hashmona’im – others were able to work it for him – until last fall, when he was able to harvest his olives with no interference. He wanted to do the same this year. The Israel Defense Forces allow him four days to pick olives – with advance coordination. Amira was supposed to start picking Monday last week, but because of a doctor’s appointment, he didn’t arrive until the following day.
They set out early in the morning: Amira, his son Raad, 47, his daughter Halda, 35, and three young grandchildren. The IDF does not permit them to arrive at their lands by vehicle, so they had to walk about a kilometer from the gate in the separation fence. By about midday they had collected enough olives to fill a large sack. Raad hoisted a bag with half of the olives onto his shoulder and carried it to the gate, and then returned for the other half. Seeing that Raad was tired, his father told him he didn’t have to come back again.
At 2:30 P.M., Amira hid the tools he had used in the grove, before his departure. When he returned from the hiding place, he saw that his daughter and grandchildren had already left. On his way to the gate he saw his grandson’s knapsack on the ground. He picked it up and continued to walk, when suddenly he heard shouts.
In a nearby grove, he saw four masked young people throwing rocks at his nephew, Abd al-Haq, and his son, Yusuf, who were working there separately. Spotting Amira, the masked men began hurling rocks at him as well. The fact that he was elderly apparently made no impression on them. According to Amira, they had large rocks that they had brought with them. Otherwise, they were not armed and did not wield clubs. He tried to evade the onslaught but could not escape. At one point, he was struck on the left side of his head, and he collapsed to the ground. He doesn’t know how long he lay there, nor does he remember any more about the person who threw the rock that hit looked like.
“They didn’t look like people to me, but devils,” he tells us now.
Soldiers appeared out of nowhere and administered first aid. His wife and the three grandchildren, also arrived, and were distraught. Blood streamed from his head, and an army paramedic stanched the wound. The soldiers summoned an Israeli ambulance to meet them at Hashmona’im. Amira managed to walk with the aid of the soldiers, but the Druze guard at the settlement’s gate refused to allow any of them to enter.
“Your dogs attacked me and you guard them and don’t let me in?” Amira said to him angrily, in Arabic.
An IDF jeep arrived and took him to the Nili checkpoint, where he was transferred to a Palestinian ambulance and taken to the Ramallah Governmental Hospital. There Amira was stitched up and held for three days to check for possible intracranial bleeding. After he was released at the end of the week, however, he started to suffer from headaches and vomiting. He returned to the hospital this past Sunday, was checked and released again. He was still experiencing headaches and continuing to throw up this week when we visited.
Amira tells us that he feels even more determined than he did before the incident. Of course he will return to his land, there’s no question, he asserts. It’s his property, no one is going to stop him. He has already filed a complaint with the police, and handed over an Israeli ID card that his nephew found at the site of the attack. It belongs to a Y.C., born in 2003, resident of Ganei Modi’in, a neighborhood in the ultra-Orthodox settlement of Modi’in Ilit.
Mohammed Abu Subheiya, 63, a father of eight, is waiting next to his house in Jaba, north of Hebron. For 24 years he worked in Ashdod for Ashtrom, an Israeli construction company. Lately he’s been working in construction in Israel with other employers.
In 1990, Abu Subheiya’s father planted 22 dunams of olive trees, which Abu Subheiya tends in his spare time.
We walk with him down a precipitous, rock-strewn trail to his plot of land, which lies in the valley that runs between Jaba and the settlement of Bat Ayin, which gained notoriety in 2002 when a terrorist underground was uncovered there. Some of the settlers there are newly religious, including some from the Bratslav Hasidic sect. Bat Ayin is where the assailants of the Jaba groves come from.
Abu Subheiya hadn’t visited his grove since early March, because of the coronavirus crisis, which forced him to remain in Israel and not go back and forth to the West Bank. At the beginning of October, the International Red Cross informed him that days had been set for him to harvest the trees in his grove, which lies in a danger zone because of the Bat Ayin settlers. Arriving there on October 4, he was stunned to see that only about half of the 48 trees he has here were still intact. The assailants had gone from tree to tree and sawed off the branches or uprooted the trunks completely. It will take five years for the damaged trees to recover and bear fruit again, he tells us.
We walk from one tree to the next, examining their battered branches, and reflect on the malice of people who are capable of wreaking such destruction upon the fruit of the earth and upon those who work the land. An aroma of sage wafts from bushes along the edges of the grove. Across the way, the mobile homes of Bat Ayin are perched on the slope of a hill. Abu Subheiya says that when the settlers approach his land he flees in fear. After the incident early this month, he too filed a complaint with the police, at the station in the ultra-Orthodox settlement of Betar Ilit; some officers even came to see his grove, but since then he has heard nothing from them. Nor will he. Five years ago, settlers spread a chemical substance on the ground that poisoned 13 of his oldest trees, whose jagged trunks still stand as a silent monument in the grove.
“They work very slowly,” he says of his attackers. “That’s their politics. To destroy slowly, every time somewhere else, so we will remain without olives.”
We descend the hill on the other side of the village, opposite Betar Ilit. The road leading to the olive groves was demolished by the Israeli Civil Administration six years ago, because this is Area C (under full Israeli control). Access now is possible only in a 4x4 vehicle.
“Why does a road bother anyone,” asks Abu Subheiya. “You want to take our land – take it. But why does a road bother anyone? We paved an asphalt road. They came and smashed it to bits.”
We are now making our way on foot to the grove belonging to Khaled Mashalla, 69, on the lower slope of the steep valley. The remains of the ruined road are still evident under the dirt. Only the section near the village was demolished, the rest was left paved as it was.
Last week, assailants came here, too, and uprooted dozens of trees; trunks and broken branches are strewn along the way. Mashalla estimates that he lost 220 trees. He’s an amiable, colorful man who works in the improvised parking lot at the Gevaot checkpoint for Palestinian laborers who cross into Israel, Together with his business partner, he takes 7 shekels ($2) protection money per car per day to guard it against theft. Plump and gleeful, he wears a tattered felt hat that he removes in a theatrical gesture to reveal his bald head. He and his brothers own 400 dunams of olive trees in the area.
The vandalism occurred on the night between Tuesday and Wednesday of last week. The Bedouin who live on the edge of the village called Mashalla to say that they saw headlights in his grove that night. The next afternoon, when he got there after working at the checkpoint, he couldn’t believe his eyes. Dozens of branches had been sawed off. When we visit, we see that the younger trees were spared. They had been wrapped in plastic tubing, to protect them from the gazelles.