Last week, I witnessed my first settler attack.  ‘It was nothing,’ my friend Arafat told me afterwards, and I know that he was speaking in comparison to other attacks, when people have been injured and even killed.  Here, the Palestinian farmers were simply forced off their land. Too simply.  Too easily.  But what can they do?  They don’t have any weapons (unless you count their farming tools, as one woman joked to me); only the Israeli settlers and soldiers have real weapons.

We went to AsSawiya (not to be confused with AzZawiya) because the farmers needed to plow their land that they haven’t been able to plow for four years, and they had permission from the army to go on Sunday.  The entire situation is absurd.  The village has been here for centuries, and in the past couple decades they’ve seen Israeli

settlers move onto their land, destroying or stealing it and preventing farmers from continuing with their lives.  In the past three years they’ve seen this new outpost from the settlement of Eli encroach even more upon their land, with the help of the Israeli

government who, even according to their own expansionist laws, should stop new outposts from being built.  When Palestinian farmers try to go to their land that is anywhere near any settlements or outposts, they are attacked, beaten, and forced off their land by settlers.  No settler from this area has been prosecuted, and the police consistently refuse to accept statements and evidence, or to follow up on cases.

Now the Israeli army has decided to ‘protect’ the Palestinian farmers.  The way they do this is to give them permits to reach their land for a few days a year (why do people need permits to go to their own land, and what about the rest of the year?), and they promise to protect the farmers while they are plowing (why don’t they remove the settlers from their illegal dwelling place instead of trying to minimize the effects of the predictable settler violence against Palestinians?).  Even the army’s protection is questionable.  What happened to us on Sunday is similar, apparently, to what usually happens: settlers come and threaten or attack Palestinians, and the army responds by telling the Palestinians that they should leave their land in order to avoid being attacked.

But let me start at the beginning.  We (four people from Rabbis for Human Rights and I) arrived in AsSawiya and met my friend Arafat, his mother, and a few other farmers.  We walked up the mountain to the land, with Arafat pointing out their new water pipes that carry water to the village, and also pointing at the fresh water spring that the settlers had contaminated a few years ago by bathing and swimming in it.  We reached the place where people wanted to work and could see the outpost in the distance.  The army was nowhere to be seen (even though it was a designated army protection day).  The farmers spread out and plowed for about 20 minutes before two armed settlers approached and began yelling at the families to stop working, to go down, to leave their land.  Most of the farmers, knowing the danger, began to pack up right away.  It wasn’t quick enough for the settlers, who kept yelling and running from family to family.  A couple minutes later two more settlers approached, and more followed.  These settlers were armed only with binoculars, not rifles, but their behavior was more aggressive and violent than that of the settlers with guns (who were apparently some sort of outpost security force, though they had no uniforms and were clearly self-appointed security guards).  Some of the settlers began pushing the farmers.  I saw one of them kick a donkey pretty hard, but the donkey seemed unperturbed.  One man later showed me his ripped shirt and told me a settler had hit him on the shoulder.  There were no witnesses, so the police would not take a report.

The farmers began walking down the hill, followed (chased) by the settlers.  Finally, an army jeep pulled up.  Most of the settlers temporarily left (although some came back later), and the Palestinians were relieved.  The armed settlers approached the soldiers and began chatting.  Their arms were on each other’s shoulders as one soldier asked where another settler was; clearly they knew each other.  Arafat tried to talk with the soldiers, to say, ‘Where were you? This is our designated day to plow, and we were on our land plowing.  Can we go back now and continue work?’  The response was truly baffling: ‘You have to wait for the army to get here.’  Weren’t they the army?  Apparently there were other soldiers and commanders assigned to this task and they hadn’t yet arrived, so the Palestinians had to continue moving down off their land, because God forbid these soldiers would actually ask the settlers to walk up back towards their (illegal) homes.

When ‘the army’ and police finally arrived, the settlers, Palestinian farmers, and Israeli accompaniers began negotiating.  I sat with the women and talked, and time passed.  We must have sat there for an hour before the army finally announced (or rather, asked Arafat to announce) that they would be allowed back to their land to plow for what was left of the day.  Two catches: 1) They could not go to the land they wanted to plow, the land they had begun working earlier.  They had to stay in the lower area, even further from the outpost.  2) All men (except children and old men)

had to have their IDs checked.  One soldier stepped forward and said he would check IDs, but the job was immediately taken over by a settler.  That’s right, an armed Israeli settler from an illegal outpost of an illegal settlement held a notepad in his hand and proceeded to write down the ID numbers of every Palestinian man who had come to plow that day.  Other settlers began taking pictures of the farmers.  All of this was probably just a way to scare them, but who knows what they could try to do if they wanted to hurt the people – they have connections, and there are generally no repercussions to their actions.

Finally the farmers were able to plow on some of their land.  I chatted for several hours with a couple Palestinian boys, one of whom told me he spoke fluent Hebrew.  Usually only the Palestinian men who have worked in Israel speak Hebrew, so I asked him about it. ‘My brother is married to a Jewish Israeli,’ he said, ‘and she taught me.’

One army jeep drove up to the outpost, and soldiers patrolled there for the next several hours, making sure settlers did not come down again.  The farmers were relieved, and it was a minor victory, but I was disgusted that the ability to hurriedly and frightfully plow land, in a place that is not the place that most needs the work, is a ‘victory’ in the context of occupation.

Perhaps the most difficult part of the day for me, on a personal level, was listening to attitudes of some of the Israeli accompaniers and watching one of them interact with all the parties there.  Most people who come with Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR) are fine, but not everyone has the same political analysis or familiarity with the land and the people as Arik, the RHR director.  At one point, after the men had all packed up their equipment and gone to where the army told them to go, a few women were still trying to stay on their land and argue with settlers and soldiers. 

One of the Israeli accompaniers (a man) said to me, ‘The women don’t understand the situation. The most important thing today is to plow the land, not make a political statement. If they don’t plow for three years, an old Ottoman law says that the land is not theirs anymore.’  ‘I think the women understand better that rules don’t get Palestinians anywhere.  Just because they work their land does not mean the settlers won’t build another outpost and steal it.’  I heard the man talking with someone on the phone later, probably a man, and speaking in a condescending and amused tone about the women.

In a far worse example, another Israeli accompanier was acting exactly like the army – telling Palestinians not to go to the land where they wanted to go because that would be ‘provoking’ an attack; stepping in the middle of an attack by facing Palestinians and yelling at them to move down the hill, rather than asking the settlers to move up; ordering farmers to go to certain places for their ‘protection’ – even pushing Arafat at one point in the direction this man wanted him to go.  I told him I thought he was being completely inappropriate, that Arafat knew exactly what he was doing and had far more experience with settler attacks than this man did, etc.  He did not change his behavior.  He came to me later and said, ‘I have seen too much death and tragedy in my own family, so I’m here to stop violent confrontations no matter what it takes.’  ‘That’s fine,’ I said, ‘and a completely appropriate attitude when you’re in Israel.  But when you’re here, your job is to follow the lead of the Palestinians and do what they ask you to do, not push them around and tell them what to do.  If you don’t want to listen to Palestinians, you should continue your work at home, not here.’  I don’t think he had any idea that the farmers would perceive him as more of an oppressor than an accompanier.  And honestly, I don’t think he really cared. His work had nothing to do with Palestinians; it was for himself. 

It’s the same thing that happens in so many situations of oppression, when a member of the oppressor group comes in and tries to dictate to the oppressed how they should act, to tell them what’s best for them.  People can’t or won’t step out of their own heads. It reminds me of an e-mail I read last week that is more amusing than offensive.  Someone had sent a message to an activist Israeli list serve entitled ‘Israeli presence needed in Yanoun on Sunday’ (Yanoun is a small village that has been consistently terrorized by settlers from Itamar settlement).  One Israeli responded to the whole list saying, ‘That e-mail title was a bit ironic, and almost funny.  In fact, Israeli presence is absolutely what is NOT needed in Yanoun on Sunday.’

Where does all this leave us?  More and more I’ve been hearing about settler attacks recently – rounding up men and threatening to kill them, poisoning land, unleashing wild boars in Palestinian gardens, and more.  ‘And they call us the terrorists,’ so many Palestinians have said to me recently.