EAPPI has maintained a round-the-clock presence in Yanoun since early 2003. The presence of ‘internationals’ as witnesses to document and record incidents has largely acted as a brake on further settler attacks but the situation is still volatile.
by Ken, Yanoun team
It’s 06.00 on a chilly morning in Yanoun as we begin our daily morning walk between the upper and lower villages. The sun is slowly rising over the Jordanian hills bringing warmth to the valley; the old olive trees stand sentinel in the fields as both human and animal life begins to stir. Suddenly the tranquility is shattered by two Israeli military vehicles that roar towards us, slowing only to make a quick appraisal of these new incomers before continuing on their way. This is a stark reminder that we are in Area C of the West Bank, fully controlled by the Israeli army and subject to military law. The walk is part of our protective presence in the village, designed to reassure the villagers and to deter the Israeli settlers, who occupy the ridges overlooking the village, from carrying out acts of harassment and intimidation.
Upper Yanoun is home to seven households of 30 persons. It’s only 300 metres from the boundary fence of the Itamar settlement outpost of Giv’ot Olam. A very short distance across the valley outposts ‘836’ and ‘777’ named after the contours of the hills they occupy, look down on Middle Yanoun, which now is no more than one house occupied by a household of six the other two houses having been abandoned. About a kilometre down the valley Lower Yanoun is home to a further seven households of 44 persons. The muezzin’s call to prayer from the Lower Yanoun mosque often accompanies our evening patrol as far as the old Nablus road; we have been warned by the settlers not to go any further.
In the late 1990s Itamar settlement began annexing the nearby hills and establishing outposts on Palestinian land along the ridge above Yanoun. The settlements in Palestine are illegal under international law but the Israeli government continues to promote and support their development with impunity. Settlement outposts are even illegal under Israeli law but they’re spreading across the land. Yanoun is in a strategic position and is blocking the advance of these settlements towards the Jordan valley.
With the settlers came violence: the villagers repeatedly experienced physical assaults, threats of shootings, vandalism of personal and community property, and theft of land and crops. The violence escalated to the point that in October 2002 the villagers decided to evacuate their homes. This was the first exodus in recent times of a Palestinian community from its village in the wake of settler attacks. The village was mostly reoccupied a few days later but only because of intense interest from the international media and with the support of Israeli peace activists.
Rashid Murar, head of Yanoun, says of EAPPI’s continued protective presence, that “if the internationals leave the village in the morning, we will leave in the afternoon”.
The villagers’ troubles don’t end there. In 2012 the Israeli army declared part of Yanoun’s land as a closed military zone, denying the villagers access to cultivate their fields but allowing the settlers to confiscate it, establish outposts and to cultivate the land. This action prompted a violent clash between the villagers and the settlers; the army sided with the settlers.
Altogether the villagers have now lost more than 70% of their land to Israeli settlers. The villagers are now confined to grazing their sheep on the lower slopes and farming in the valley bottom. The hilltops and fields beyond are off limits; the villagers risk being shot on sight if they attempt to reclaim their land. The steadfastness of the villagers in spite of the difficulties they face is truly awe inspiring.
As I’m writing this article, I receive a phone call: the settlers have attacked Lower Yanoun! We race to the scene to be met by a heartbreaking sight. In a field just beyond the boundary of our evening walk 45 out of 115 olive trees, aged between 100 and 200 years old, have been cut down by Israeli settlers sometime during the night; many of the other 70 have suffered severe damage from a chain-saw.
On the opposite hillside a lone, armed settler watches the crowd that has gathered. A representative of the Israeli Civil Administration (staffed by army personnel) and a contingent of army and police arrive to assess the situation. A prolonged and heated discussion takes place. In the middle of all this Avri Ran arrives on the scene: he’s a dedicated Zionist alleged to have been the inspiration for the fanatical ‘hilltop youth’ movement, and he’s also our neighbour. None of us knows what he wants but a short while later he drives away.
I ask one of the farmers what the Israeli authorities will do about the incident. He replies, with a fatalistic shrug, “they will take photographs and then ‘Khalas’ [finished]”.
This sad story doesn’t have a fairy tale ending but the Palestinian Ministry of Agriculture has told the villagers that it will replace all of the trees and others lost in a recent storm. But it will take between five and ten years for the trees to be become commercially productive; in the meantime the families will lose a much needed income. The settlers know this. Some Palestinian farmers even believe that such attacks are part of a coordinated strategy to undermine the Palestinian rural economy. Our part in this story hasn’t ended either: we’ve been asked and agreed to provide a protective presence during the tree planting. The work starts next week.