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.
Then, a Ta’ayush member named Amiel stepped forward with an Israeli high court ruling stating that the farmers must have access to their land without settler harassment. He warned the commander that he would be sued and held personally responsible if he enforced the illegal closed military zone order. The commander huddled with his troops, then retreated — a move that is often viewed within IDF ranks as a reprehensible display of weakness. The troops eventually vacated the scene and so did we, riding up the hill on a tractor to Safa. Joseph Dana, an Israeli Ta’ayush activist, told me the action was successful: there were no arrests or settler attacks (a regular occurence), and perhaps the farmers could work for the rest of the day.
I hung out with some Palestinian kids in Safa until our ride came, throwing rocks into a dumpster from a few yards away. This is what passes for pickup basketball in the village. The kids liked imitating me exclaim, “Nothin’ but net!” Then we were off to Hilltop 26, an illegal settler outpost near the uber-settlement of Kiryat Arba, which dominates the landscape above Hebron.
When we arrived, four teenage settler boys were waiting for us. They immediately called the army, who arrived like clockwork with a border police unit and two members of Kiryat Arba’s security force. The settler boys, who only last week attempted to set fire to a Ta’ayush protest outpost (now destroyed), went to greet the police commander and a few soldiers they apparently knew. It was a meeting of minds, a portrait of collaboration between fanatical Jewish colonists and the Israeli government. The army commander approached us with a closed military zone order, demanding that everyone leave the scene.
The army was aware of the media’s presence, however — I was filming and an Italian photojournalist snapped pictures. So the commander also asked the settler boys to leave. They protested angrily. “You can change the order to let us stay!” one of them shouted to the commander. “You’ve done it before a few times.” But when the army marched us off the scene, they also escorted the settlers towards Kiryat Arba. Of course, the police commander walked with his arm on the shoulder of one of the settlers boys, but the relatively even-handed enforcement of the order was unusual.
“Normally they force us off and let the settlers stay,” Joseph Dana told me. “This is the first time they’ve made them go too. But they will almost certainly let the settlers go back in a few hours. I think they only did this because the media was here.”
Whether or not the settlers returned that day, their illegal outpost remained intact. It is just another stake in the Occupation, a rickety shack that, with the help of the Israeli army and the encouragement of Netanyahu’s government, will someday be a neighborhood in Greater Israel.