TEL AVIV–Violence erupted in the Palestinian town of Safa today as fanatical masked settlers from the Jewish settlement of Bat Ayin set upon a group of activists from the peace group Ta’ayush, destroying their cameras and badly vandalizing one of their cars. According to Ta’ayush member Joseph Dana, the Israeli army scrambled to the scene with a “closed military zone order,” allowing the masked settlers to remain while ordering the activists to leave under threat of arrest. When the activists failed to leave rapidly enough, the soldiers also turned violent, forcing several of them into a jeep and hauling them away to prison. The army’s action directly contravened an Israeli Supreme Court decision ruling the army could not used closed military zones to prevent Palestinian farmers from working their land. The West Bank is apparently a legal gray zone where even high court rulings are voided by the whims of soldiers and settlers working hand-in-glove.
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On Saturday I traveled to the South Hebron Hills, to the Palestinian village of Safa, with an Israeli group called Ta’ayush that works to protect Palestinian farmers from settler violence and documents the proliferation of illegal settlements (Ta’ayush is Arabic for partnership). Things were peaceful when we arrived in the verdant grove of grape trees below Safa. A tractor plowed the land, a few farmers picked grape leaves, and the Ta’ayush activists greeted members of Anarchists Against the Wall, and the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) volunteers were already on the scene.
Within minutes, however, a group of settler children clad in white tsitsis assembled on the hill high above the valley, rolling tires down the hill and chanting in a single, piercing cry, “Death to Arabs!” The children were residents of Bet Ayn, one of the most fanatical Jewish settlements on the West Bank and home to a terrorist underground that planned to bomb a Palestinian girls’ school in Jerusalem. Recently a Palestinian resident of Safa killed a 13-year-old boy from Bet Ayn, setting off a series of violent reprisals that culminated when a masked mob of 30 settlers attacked two elderly farmers with clubs, breaking one man’s skull and seriously wounding the other. Since then, the farmers of Safa have been reluctant to work their fields without international and Israeli activists present.
The government of Benjamin Netanyahu has lined up firmly on the side of the settlers of Bet Ayn. This means that the army is a de facto arm of the settlers and responds to their every command. As soon as the settlers became agitated by our presence, they called an army unit to remove us. Four soldiers rushed to the scene in a jeep, a commander ambled down the hill — he seemed tired and unhappy about leaving his air-conditioned vehicle — and presented the farmers and activists with a closed military zone order. We had five minutes to leave the scene or be arrested.