Protective presence still needed to keep Yanoun alive

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

Two EAs on their morning walk for protective presence. Photo EAPPI/K. Hodgson.

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.

Outpost Hill 777 through binoculars. Photo EAPPI/C. Schelbert, 2012.

Outpost Hill 777 through binoculars. Photo EAPPI/C. Schelbert, 2012.

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.


Israeli settlers cut down olive trees in Yanoun. Even if replanted, it will take 5 to 10 years before this family can bring in their current income from these trees. Photo EAPPI/K. Hodgson.

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. 

Our most shocking facts from 2013

A huge part of the work of an EA is actively engaging in monitoring and reporting human rights violations that they witness. We report these incidents to the United Nations and other local and international humanitarian and legal organizations so that they can provide the necessary assistance.  Many of these incidents find their way into the stories our EAs write on this blog and share back home as part of their advocacy for a just and peaceful resolution to the conflict.

Here’s an infographic summarizing EAPPI’s 2013 reports on human rights violations:

EAPPI Incident Reports 2013 Final

Yanoun, the Valley of Shadows

“I see what I want of love…I see
horses making the meadow dance, fifty guitars sighing, and a swarm
of bees suckling the wild berries, and I close my eyes
until I see our shadow behind this dispossessed place”
– from Mahmoud Darwish’s poem Rubaiyat

It’s 6AM. We are overlooking the Jordan Valley while the sun rises and throw it’s sunbeams over an olive tree covered landscape. It’s quiet. We have no need to talk to each other. We just look. Enjoy. The view over the Jordan Valley takes your breath away. Beautiful. I can’t find other words that can describe the small village of Yanoun.

An EA photographs Israeli settlement outposts on the hills surrounding Yanoun. Photo EAPPI/A. Aguilar.

An EA photographs Israeli settlement outposts on the hills surrounding Yanoun. Photo EAPPI/A. Aguilar.

The morning sun lights up the entire valley. But a shadow still covers Yanoun like a lid. Our eyes move along the horizon. We see some buildings on the hilltops that surround us. They are Israeli outposts. Outposts are expanding settlements on Palestinian land that the Israeli government has not legally approved.  They are illegal according to both Israeli and international law. Two such outposts surround Yanoun. Givat Olam and Hill 777. The reason we do morning walks is not to take in the beautiful scenery of the Jordan Valley, but to provide protective presence.

The settlers from the outposts are known to be extremely violent. They were so violent against the villagers in Yanoun that the whole village was evacuated in 2002. The Mayor, Rashed Murar, explains:

“They came with dogs and weapons every Saturday night. The settlers climbed on top of the roofs in our village. They beat up the men in front of their children. One Saturday they said that they didn’t want to see us there the next week. The whole village left that week.”

This created strong international reactions, and since 2003 EAPPI has been present in the village. Unfortunately, settlers and soldiers keep on harassing the villagers and make life difficult.

A flock of sheep in Yanoun. Photo EAPPI/A. Aguilar.

A flock of sheep in Yanoun. Photo EAPPI/A. Aguilar.

We feel the tense atmosphere in Yanoun. It is a strange mix of peacefulness, unpredictability and fear. On the hilltops around the village, the settlers constructed watchtowers and huge spotlights that light up the village every night. Freedom of mobility is limited. Settlers wash their dogs in the village’s drinking water. They attack the village regularly. And the duty of the Israeli soldiers is to protect these settlers. As a result, there are only 70 villagers left in Yanoun.

It is recess at the village school. The seven pupils play with a ball while I drink tea with the teachers. We joke about each other and about the neighboring village. Life goes on and it is important to keep your head up.

Before I leave a teacher says pensively:

“Why do the Israelis look down on us? We are all equal. We are all humans. We are all brothers. Why?”