A tragedy in 3 parts.
by Hans, South Hebron Hills team
Khaled Al Najar is a simple, but proud and dignified Palestinian farmer from the small village of Qawawis in the South Hebron Hills. But today I saw him wipe a tear off his cheek. On May 22, two Israeli settlers torched Khaled’s entire harvest. Months of labor, 3 tons of wheat, several tons of animal fodder and the 3-4 monthly wages his family of fourteen was to live on for the summer disappeared in an inferno fueled by hate and the misinterpretation of God’s promise.
I was woken by a call at 5 am. Our good friend and driver, Abed, had received a call from his brother who is a Palestinian contact in the Israeli human rights watchdog organization B’tselem.
“Khaled’s harvest is burning. Should we go?” Abed sleepily said.
He is all too used to the occupation; he has never seen anything else. I immediately called our Italian colleagues in Operation Dove who live nearby. They were already at the scene, and there was nothing for us to do but to come back in the morning to write yet another report. Everything was lost. But nothing prepared me for the story I would hear.
When my three colleagues from EAPPI and I arrived at 3:00 pm, a group of Israeli settlers on tour were making their way back into their bus. Apparently the misfortune of Palestinians is the newest attraction on their sightseeing tours in the West Bank. Khaled stood in the middle of his field, watching what once was his livelihood reduced to a pile of ash, with tiny flames still sparking up wherever they found some remnants to devour.
The day before we had seen him finish the harvest of his 25,000 square meters of wheat, and everything was done painstakingly by hand. He had left it on the field to dry.
At about 3:45 in the morning, a worker from his village had seen a car with two settlers circling the area. But the car was already late for the checkpoint crossing into Israel, where you have to be at 4:00 am to be in time for work, and the driver was unwilling to stop.
10 minutes later another worker saw the two settlers torch the pile and make for a quick escape. That’s when Khaled was called.
“I couldn’t do anything”, he says. “When the army arrived they didn’t help, but told me to shut up and stop being so agitated”.
The police came and asked the army to move away but did little else. Khaled’s field is in Area C, where only Israeli forces have authority. They are less than inclined to use it in favor of the Palestinians. He watched it all burn, while a single fireman took his time to extinguish the, by now, diminishing flames. He reported the crime, but without video evidence we all know nothing will happen.
Khaled runs his fingers through the ashes and despairingly tells me something in Arabic.
“It was worth a fortune”, Abbed translates. “What is he going to do now?”
And this is when I see it. A solitary tear runs down his face.
I go through our standard questions, and have never felt so bad doing it. “Can I interview you? Can I take pictures? Can I use your full name?” He looks me in the eyes. “Use what you want. What more can they take from me now? I only hope Allah has mercy”. Despite the gravity of the situation, I find it surprising. The Palestinians I know are not the ones to give up.
Khaled lifts his shirt, and we gasp. His stomach is hanging over his belt in a grotesque manner.
“It hurts for him to work”, Abbed says, “He was shot by a settler in 2001”.
I humbly ask him to tell the story.
“I was out with my sheep over there”. He points toward the nearby outpost called Mitzpe Yair. “The outpost wasn’t built yet, but the settler tours in the area had already started. I was on my own land when a group showed up about 50 meters above me. They were protected by army. I was keeping my distance, because I knew how extreme they could be, even though I couldn’t see anyone armed. But suddenly one of them grabbed the gun of one of the soldiers and started firing at me. I felt a sharp pain. When I woke up I was in hospital. I stayed for seven months and ten days”. We are shocked. But surely the settler must still be in prison? Not only did he shoot Khaled in front of the soldiers, he grabbed one of their guns to do it. “The settler turned out to be an American citizen. He spent three days in jail before he was sent home. Free.”
The memories, on top of his lost harvest, are too much. He becomes quiet, sits down and lights his cigarette from some still glowing coal.
While we stand there in silence, a small bus pulls up. Out climbs a large set Jewish man, but this is not a settler. We immediately recognize Yehuda Saul from Breaking The Silence, who has devoted the last 10 years to tell Israel and the world of the atrocities he and other soldiers have committed while serving in the occupied Palestinian territory. He has a group of internationals from different organizations with him, and starts to tell yet another story.
“In 2004 this man (Abed) came to farm his land, but found settlers planting vine ranks here. He told them it was his land, and they replied it had been given to them by God. With the laws the Israeli Civil Administration applies for Palestinians in these cases, proving what is your land is like proving that you don’t have a sister. But Rabbis for Human Rights took the settlers to court. You know how long it lasted? Seven years. And for all those years, the settlers grew their grapes here. But Khaled actually won.
And in 2011, for the first time in all of the West Bank, the settler’s grapevines were uprooted for a Palestinian to take back his land. That’s when the settlers slashed the tires of your car, right, Abbed? While the army was watching?” Abbed nods. “He lost 7 harvests. Then he had two good ones. And then this happens”.
The other internationals are as baffled as we are, but Yehuda, Abbed and Khaled has seen it too many times. They just shrug. How long does it take to live under these conditions to just shrug off such injustice?
Khaled was shot by a settler. Settlers took his land for 7 years. Now they have torched his livelihood to the ground, and there is absolutely nothing we can do. We express our sympathies, and they feel so hollow. We shake his hand and he smiles back at us while we all walk away; him back to his family of fourteen, us to write our report.
As we get in the car I feel more than a solitary tear pressing. There is no way I, who am going back home in three months, am going to cry while Khaled walks away so proudly, carrying all his tribulations on his shoulders.