From August 18th, 2007 through to the 22nd, international Human Rights Workers (HRWs) in the Susiya region noticed an increase of activity on Palestinian land. The land in question, belonging to a family in the region, has been arbitrarily declared by the military as a “special security area,”. The essential meaning being that Palestinians are not allowed to be on the land. Along with this order, no one is to be allowed to build on or work the land.
At least one month ago settlers erected a tent on the hilltop of the land in question. The tent, a square, roofed structure, co-joined a rectangular garden surrounded by cut tree branches.
On August 19th, 2007 the settler erected a second, smaller, roof-less tent in the area of the first tent. The following day, he moved much of the contents of the first tent to the second, including: a mattress and alarm clock, a low table with many books, and several religious items. It was believed that the tent served as a synagogue and also that the settler was sleeping there.
According to Palestinians within view of the tents set-up, the settler arrived in the evening and left in the morning. The morning departure was viewed also by HRWs. The Palestinian witnesses also report seeing the settler working the land in the night.
During the last few weeks, approximately 25 olive and fig trees have been planted on the land between the two tents and recognized Palestinian land. The settler draws water from the cistern, also on the appropriated Palestinian land, to tend his trees. As with the land itself, Palestinians are unable to access this valuable water resource.
Wednesday August 22nd, four HRWs observed the settler’s van leaving the tents area early in the morning, shortly after 6 am. By the time they arrived at the tents, no one was present.
Shortly after 9 am the same morning, one HRW alerted the other three HRWs of the returned presence of the settler van at the tents. Arriving at the scene around 9:30 am, the HRWs were immediately approached by the settler who had been tending the trees. The settler told the HRWs to leave the area, claiming that it was his land: Israeli land. The settler continued to tell the HRWs to leave, continued to claim rights to the land, and continued to block passage of the HRWs to the land beyond him. The settler was zealous in his declarations, fervently repeating: “Father, this is your land, this is my land,” in Hebrew, while throwing his arms up to the sky. HRWs found it impossible to discuss legal aspects of the land with someone whose entire claim was based on religious fervor, and spoke no English.
Approximately 20 minutes later, a soldier arrived to discuss the situation. The soldier maintained that he had no authority to decide whose land it was, that he was only present to prevent violence from occurring. He left after a few minutes, saying that he had called senior military officers to the scene and that both parties- the settler, and the HRWs- were allowed to remain in the area.
At 10:20, HRWs tried to contact the Kiryat Arba police, requesting their presence in Susiya.
A jeep of about four officers later arrived who told the HRWs that they also could do nothing to prevent the settler from working or living on the land, as well as that they had no authority to decide who the owners of the land are. They also showed little interest in pursuing the matter, seeming to side with the settler. They did, however, coerce the settler away from HRWs and over to the tents area.
During this time, HRWs continued their presence on the land, standing and sitting in the area where the settler trees had been planted. HRWs erected a small tarp structure as protection and shade against the sun. At one point, the settler broke away from the soldiers, running at the HRWs and tearing down their shade structure, attempting to steal the tarp from them. Soldiers eventually intervened, long after HRWs had struggled, non-violently, to keep a hold of their tarp.
A second military jeep arrived, with three more soldiers. Among these reserve soldiers, one who speaks very English quite well explained that, for the soldiers, the situation and jurisdiction is complex and that ownership of the land in question is difficult to determine. He repeatedly recommended just waiting for the Israeli court system to decide on who has property rights. HRWs contested that while the case is in courts, a very long and drawn-out process, Palestinians are prevented from accessing and using the land, while at the same time the settler is cultivating the land, establishing grounds for future attempts at claiming ownership. The HRWs continued to reiterate that the land has been declared a “special security area” by the military and that the settler should not be cultivating the land or living on it.
At approximately 1:00 pm, the police arrived, hours after having been called. The main officer maintained an aggressive posture and displayed a blatant lack of concern for the law he was supposed to be enforcing. As with the soldiers, the police also passed on responsibility for making decisions and enforcing law. And as with the soldiers, the police contradicted themselves by stating that while ownership of the land is unclear, the settler may remain on it while the Palestinians may not.
The main police officer continued in his aggressive posture and questioning, asking irrelevant questions about HRWs thoughts on September 11th and avoiding the issue at hand. He collected HRWs passports for ID and visa checks shortly after arriving. These were not returned until approximately over 2 hours later, in an unofficial sort of detention.
HRWs continued their presence on the land, alternately discussing the illegality of the settler’s actions and the military and police complicity in stealing Palestinian land, as well as raising the issue of the blatant and gross unfairness of the legal system in Israel for Palestinians.
Police eventually returned the four HRWs passports and departed the scene. Soldiers reported that the police had phoned the land administration police and asked them to come to the scene to discuss the disputed land and resolved the issue of territory and blurred boundaries. Soldiers reported that the land administration police refused to come to the scene.
Shortly after the police left the soldiers also left, telling HRWs that they would return if violence occurred and the entire process would begin anew.
HRWs stayed on for another 15 minutes before deciding to leave for the time being, deciding also to make their presence on the stolen and disputed land a regular one, visiting on a daily basis.