This morning, on our walk out of Haris, we met a farmer named Essam who said he had just been harassed by settlers from Revava settlement when he tried to reach his land between Revava and Haris. We offered to accompany Essam back to his land, and he led us to where his family was waiting with a donkey. Essam asked that just a few of us come along, including two Israeli activists. He said he was not interested in causing a scene; he just wanted to plow his land.
Revava settlement was founded in early 1991 in the face of a suggestion by world leaders that the illegal Israeli settlements be evacuated. A few dozen religious Israelis snuck onto the land at night with trailers and set up camp. They refused to move, claiming the land belonged to them.
Settler trailer camps, like Revava once was, are called outposts. They are not recognized by the government, at least not at first. However, although Israeli law prohibits the government from subsidizing outposts the way it subsidizes most settlements, a majority of the 120 or so outposts in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem are illegally funded by the Israeli state or public authorities. Strengthened by the state, the outposts welcome more settlers to move in, and the illegal establishments grow.
With time, the illegal cluster of trailers becomes akin to a small village or town. Soon the inhabitants need a marketplace, a road to get around, and maybe a fence to “protect” them from neighboring Palestinians. Eventually, the place is no longer an outpost; it’s a settlement. Like many outposts, Revava grew into its own settlement, now recognized and financially supported by the Israeli government. This strategy has produced many of Israel’s settlements.
Settlers recently set up trailers for a school in Essam’s olive groves outside of Revava. One can’t help but wonder why settlers who frequently complain about the threat of Palestinians would build their children’s school away from the settlement itself, in the middle of Palestinian land. These trailers are not development; they are a new outpost. In another few months, the settlers will explain to the army that they need security around their children’s vulnerably-located school, and they will annex the rest of Essam’s and other Haris farmers’ land.
But the government is one step ahead of them. If the Wall continues as projected, the villagers of Haris will lose most of their land anyway. The settlers know this, but they are impatient. While Essam and his family tried to plow, a settler drove up and asked if they would sell him their land. Essam said that this is not the first time settlers have asked. The Israeli activists told the settler in Hebrew that the farmer really was not interested in selling his land. The settler replied, “If he is smart he will sell. I will buy it now for a tenth of its value. It will belong to Revava anyway in a few months. At least this way he can make some money off it.”
The settler drove away, but before the family could return to plowing, a group of schoolgirls from the new outpost began to yell across the school’s “security” fence at Essam and his family. The children were singing a song in Hebrew about “my Israel.” It was disturbing to watch the youngsters, so confident in their immunity as they taunted the farmers. I waited for their teacher to come out and stop them until I realized the teacher was standing in the middle of their group, singing along.
Two Israeli activists walked towards the group of girls to talk to them, but settler security stopped them. Essam asked the activists to let it go; he and his family preferred to leave rather than risk provoking the settlers further. We walked up to Haris roadblock, where we found the army had set up a temporary checkpoint. All traffic in and out of the village was being checked. Some of my neighbors were being detained. When the soldiers realized the activists with us were Israelis, they pulled them aside to warn them not to trust the Palestinians. “It could be very dangerous for you,” they said. “We are concerned for your safety.” Both activists said the only time they had ever felt threatened in the West Bank was by ideological settlers.
Indeed, the religious zealots living in illegal settlements and outposts scare me more than soldiers or Palestinians ever could, because I don’t understand them. I believe the vast majority of the violence on the part of Palestinians comes from fear and trauma. The same could be said for most soldiers as well. This does not mean I condone the violence or excuse it, but on some level it does not surprise me. Ideological settlers, however, do not threaten or kill out of fear. Their actions are motivated by religious fanaticism.
Nobody has been more traumatized by violent settlers than the villagers of Yanoun, where I headed later that day with my IWPS colleagues Jamie and Fatima. Jamie’s friend Adnan picked us up from the town of Aqraba and drove us the rest of the way to the village. The road to Yanoun was bumpy and slow, but the view was spectacular: to the left we saw hill after hill of blooming olive groves, while on the right the hills dropped off into a gigantic misty abyss. It was the Jordan Valley. We could vaguely make out Jordan on the other side.
As we drove, Jamie told us about the history of Yanoun. More than 80% of the village land is olive groves that inhabitants rely on. When we remarked on the beauty of the landscape, she explained that it is in fact the richness of Yanoun’s land that renders it such a target for the right-wing settlers of Itamar settlement, four miles away. Living in outposts surrounding Yanoun, Itamar settlers have been attacking and terrorizing the small village for years. They have murdered villagers who were peacefully picking their olives; they have burned the village’s only generator and smashed its only water tank; they have swum in the village water supply, and when villagers complained, the settlers invited their dogs in, too; they closed the only road into the village while shepherds were away with their goats; and they have stolen 90% of the village’s land, on it more than 27,000 ancient olive trees. The settlers say the olive trees were planted by Jews 2,000 years ago, so they belong to the Jewish people today.
The mayor of Yanoun has been attacked by settlers seven times in the last five years and has a large scar above his eye from one incident. Another old farmer had one of his legs broken and one eye poked out by a violent settler. Another villager lost his sight after offering an approaching stranger a cigarette. The stranger turned out to be a settler, who beat the old man with his own walking cane. Adnan, our driver, was shot in the foot. Every family has a story: a mother throws her body over her child under a shower of stones from the settlers. Shepherds watch settlers poison 128 sheep but can do nothing to stop it. Even international volunteers are not immune; they have been beaten with clubs and rifle butts for accompanying farmers and shepherds to their land.
The Israeli government and army have done nothing to stop the settler attacks on Yanoun, in fact Israel continues to subsidize Itamar (in part with American tax-dollars). The Palestinian Authority couldn’t do anything if it wanted to, because, like most of rural Palestine, Yanoun has so-called “Area C” status, which means that Israel is in charge of security. It also means that Palestinians are not permitted to construct any new buildings, or even to build onto their own houses. Meanwhile, settlers continue to put up trailers on every hilltop around.
The violence in Yanoun climaxed in 2002, when things became so unbearable that Yanoun’s residents were forced to evacuate. Fearing for their lives, the entire village packed up and left their ancestral homes and lands for nearby Aqraba. For a few days, the settlers had won. But Israeli and international activists quickly mobilized and committed themselves to maintaining a constant presence in the village if the inhabitants decided to return. About 90 of the original 300 inhabitants have now come back, but many homes remain empty.
When we arrived in Yanoun, Adnan’s wife Mariam welcomed us into their home and we relaxed in the living room, drinking tea and watching the couple’s ten-month-old son Rafi struggle to take his first steps. Although Jamie had been in Yanoun during the weeks before and after Rafi’s birth, this was her first time seeing the baby. When Mariam went into labor, the couple took an ambulance to the nearest hospital, in Nablus. The ambulance was stopped twice along the way, at both Zatara and Huwwara checkpoints. At the latter, Adnan was told he could not enter Nablus. He was forced to say goodbye to his screaming wife, who gave birth shortly afterwards while still in the ambulance. Shortly thereafter, the army closed Nablus completely, allowing nobody in or out, and Mariam waited for several days in the hospital with her newborn infant before being able to leave. Meanwhile, back in Yanoun, Adnan was beside himself with worry and frustration. When Mariam was finally allowed to return home, Rafi was 10 days old. Adnan has missed the first week and a half of his son’s life.
After we said goodbye to Adnan and his family, Jamie took us for a tour through the village. Children at every house ran outside to greet us and their parents smiled from doorways. Jamie knew everyone by name and politely played the game of refusing tea until finally there’s no point and you just have to give in. In one house, there was a little curly-haired redhead named Alima. “Alima’s one of my favorite kids in Yanoun,” Jamie told us. “When she first saw me, she thought I was a settler coming to take her family away and started screaming hysterically. It took the family fifteen minutes to calm her down and explain who I was. I’ve finally earned her trust.”
Yanoun is divided into two parts, separated by fields and olive groves. Lower Yanoun is populated by only two families: Adnan’s and Alima’s. The rest of the population lives in upper Yanoun, which was built on the slope of a hill now crowned with a particularly violent outpost. On the path up to upper Yanoun, Jamie pointed out several houses that have remained empty since the evacuation. I could hear in Jamie’s voice that she regretted the families’ not returning to defend their lives and land, but that she also understood why they had left. As resilient and determined as the human spirit can be, it has its limits. These families weren’t willing to fight any longer.
We visited house after house all the way up to the top of the village. When we arrived at the mayor’s house, he welcomed us in, served us tea, and had us sign a guest book. Another family had a child anxious to learn English, so I gave her an improvised lesson. We ate dinner at the International House, where a group of Canadians had taken that week’s shift as international observers in Yanoun. They were from the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI), an initiative of the World Council of Churches to work with Palestinians and Israelis towards nonviolently ending the Occupation. After dinner, we made a fire under the stars and chatted with locals who stopped by to say hello.
Sitting by the fire, I asked Dave, an EAPPI volunteer, to tell me about his experiences in Hebron. He described Hebron as a full-time war zone, with a few hundred settlers living among hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. The settlers consider their presence a sacrifice to God, calling their settlement “God’s bunker.” He described graffiti on the walls of the local girls’ school, stars of David drawn around phrases like “Death to Arabs,” and “Arabs to the gas chambers.”
Dave shuddered as he spoke. “There were bars on the windows, but settlers came and stuck in pipes to break the glass. There was no money to fix them, so the girls shivered through the winter. After school, settler kids would hide and wait for the girls to walk by, throwing stones and eggs at them as they passed. The other EAPPI volunteers and I walked with them sometimes, trying to shield the attacks. Once as we were walking I saw the mother of a settler child that was throwing stones at the young girls. I pointed and said, ‘Look! Look what your child is doing!’ Her eyes fixed on me and her expression said clearly that she approved of her son’s behavior. She hadn’t come to discipline her child; she had come to watch.”
I could not help but compare Dave’s story with my recent experience watching the Revava teacher taunt Palestinian farmers along with her students. There’s nothing more disturbing than watching adults condone or encourage inhumanity and cruelty in their children. How will settler children learn to distinguish right from wrong? Perhaps a stronger human instinct will someday surface to guide some of them towards transcending their deeply ingrained prejudices. Heroes remain to guide the way: Essam refuses to sell his land to Revava. Yanoun returnees continue to live on their remaining land. But for how long while the world stands by and does nothing?
Information about the founding of Revava was collected through interviews with Revava settlers.
Government participation in financing illegal outposts was confirmed by a former senior government attorney Talya Sason, who was commissioned by the Prime Minister to examine the phenomenon of illegal outposts. Her full report released in March 2005 can be found on the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs website. Entitled “Opinion Concerning Unauthorized Outposts,” the report revealed a sizable criminal conspiracy amongst state and public authorities for whom “law violation [has become] institutionalized.” The State of Israel continues to finance construction of new outposts in blatant violation of Israeli law.
According to the Alternative Information Center, Israel will occasionally dismantle an outpost, often choosing “uninhabited structures or a few caravans,” and then “advertise their symbolic [act],,, while simultaneously supporting the ongoing expansion of much larger settlements. The settlers quickly return to the outposts that were supposedly evacuated, construction (protected by the army) continues..., and the bottom line is always the steady expansion of the settlements” (AI, p. 27).
Descriptions and geographical specifics of Areas A, B, and C as designated by the Oslo Accords can be found on the West Bank map at the beginning of the book (p. ***). Extensive “Area C” status is what Israel referred to as “giving the Palestinians exactly what they wanted” at Camp David II. See [***] for more information on Barak’s supposed “generous offer.”