August 20, 2007
Shortly after 4 pm, local Palestinian residents alerted four international human rights workers to the illegal presence of Israeli settlers working on Palestinian land off the main highway between Susya and Karmel settlements.
Ownership of this land has been an on-going dispute between the legitimate Palestinian land-owners, who have filed complaints against the settlers for illegally planting grape vines and constructing fences trying to lay claim to the land, and the military and police-backed settlers themselves. The issue has been brought before Israeli court with the last date for a decision set for September 25th. The court will then decide who exactly the land will belong to, though the land can only legitimately be declared Palestinian, as they are the original landowners. The settlers have, at every point, made illegal claims to the land with backing, at alternate points, by the Israeli army, police, and slow-moving Israeli justice systems.
Israeli groups, including Ta’ayuush and ACRI, as well as international groups Operation Dove, Christian Peacemaker teams, and the International Solidarity Movement have had multiple interactions and disputes within the past few weeks with Israeli settlers, soldiers, and police over the ownership and legitimacy of this land.
The HRWs were told, en route to the land, that a court order had been passed on September 9th, which specifies that only one particular settler man, Musi Deutsch, is allowed to the work the land for one hour every day in order to maintain the health of the grapes and to water them. Any other persons working or entering the land are illegal, according to Israeli courts.
Upon arrival, HRWs witnessed two teenage settler males and one Thai worker, employed by the settlers, illegally working on the land. The Thai worker was tending the crops and upturning weeds, while the teenage settlers were erecting posts to finish the fence surrounding the cultivated area. The HRWs immediately began filming the settlers as they worked, and entered the land in order to ensure they got pictures of the workers’ faces. The HRWs also made sure to tell the settlers that their working on the land was illegal, and asked them if they were aware of the Israeli court decision recently passed forbidding them from entering the land. The settlers however ignored the internationals questions. One settler teenager was constantly on his phone, very likely calling other settlers, while HRWs alerted the local DCO to the settlers present.
At 4:59pm four Israeli soldiers arrived and told the HRWs to leave the land, but allowed the settlers to remain. The HRWs repeatedly told the soldiers of the recently passed Israeli court decision in order to be sure that the soldiers were aware that every second the settlers were working the land it was illegal for them to be doing so, and that they, the soldiers, were ignoring an Israeli court decision. The soldiers, however, said that they were not the judges of the decision but had to wait for the police.
During this time, roughly around 5:12pm, a car of three settler women, with two settler girls and one young boy arrived at the scene. Two international members of Operation Dove and one from Christian Peacemaker Teams also arrived. Shortly after the settler in question, Musi, also arrived and immediately began to work on the land, securing more fence posts, with the two settler boys. The soldiers did nothing to stop them from working, though by this time they were well aware that the settlers were committing an illegal act. Throughout the entire time, the Thai worker continued working on the land in plain view of the settlers.
In fact, during all this time the soldiers, instead of removing the settlers from the land, were instead harassing the HRWs, asking them to show them their IDs. Meanwhile three other soldiers, who had also just arrived, actually entered the land in question and began taking pictures of the internationals.
Shortly after, at approximately 5:20pm, another group of soldiers arrived with a commander who began showing the settlers the court document forbidding the settlers, except for Musi, from working the area and declaring it a closed military zone. The commander took the time afterwards to explain to the HRWs and other internationals the legality of the document, and also allowed them to take pictures of it.
The commander said repeatedly that Musi was the only person legally allowed to enter the land, and work on it, but when he was reminded of the Thai worker and two boys working on the land, in plain sight he said that he would remove them later, thus contradicting the legitimacy of the court decision. In fact, every second after the commander had presented the document rendered the Israeli army complicit in not upholding a legitimate Israeli court decision.
Although the commander was reminded that it was actually Palestinian land and it was internationally illegal for the settlers to stake any claim to the land and build a fence on and around it, the commander is quoted as saying “as a lawyer, [I say that] he can build a fence in order to maintain the grapes.” He would not admit that planting the grapes, and working the land, was the initial problem as the settlers should not be legally allowed to be there.
The soldier commander then asked the HRWs to move across the road so that he could “do his job” and remove the settlers from the land. The HRWs complied so as not to prolong the settlers’ working of the land, but continued to film.
After about twenty minutes the soldiers had still not removed all the settlers from the land. Instead, they had been talking with Musi the entire time, while the Thai worker was still on the land working. The soldier commander then crossed the road and began to speak with the HRWs telling them that they reason he was not removing the settlers was because of the internationals presence in the area and that the settler, Musi, refused to leave the land until the internationals had left.
The absurdity of this logic struck the internationals, who reminded the commander that the army should be giving orders to the settlers and not the other way around. They also reminded the soldiers that the land was a closed military zone and that they were obligated to remove the settlers.
The soldier commander said that he knew he was the army, and that it was a closed military zone, but that he preferred to remove the settlers peacefully rather than forcefully which is why he would rather comply to settler demands rather than do his job and remove the settlers. The HRWs reminded the soldiers that every second he did not remove the settlers he was breaking the law, and also refused to leave the area.
The soldier commander began to say that only the police could remove the settlers (that was also completely ridiculous) when, luckily, two Israeli policemen arrived, and began looking at the court documents, presented by the army commander, and speaking with the settlers.
The HRWs remained on the other side of the road while the police told the settlers they could not enter the land, or work on it, and also, finally, removed the Thai worker from the land. The time was by then 6:00 pm, two hours after the soldiers had first arrived, and one hour to forty five minutes after the IOF commander had arrived declaring it a closed military zone.
The Israeli policemen then began requesting the internationals passports. One HRW became aware that the Thai worker was still standing on the land, and told the policeman that he was there. The view of the Thai worker was obstructed by a settler van, and policeman would not go around the van to look. It took the HRW actually crossing the road himself and pointing at the Thai worker to make the policeman come and tell the Thai worker to leave the land.
None of the soldier or police complicity with illegal land practices of the settlers, including the theft, cultivation, and continued working of the land in question- Palestinian land- is new or surprising. What is surprising is that the soldiers and police continue to use the useless rationale to support their inadequate enforcement of Israeli court decisions. It truly takes internationals armed with a strong sense of conscience to make the Israeli police and soldiers comply in the slightest with the law when issues relate to Palestinians.
The Israeli court decision, set for September 24th, regarding the legitimacy of the land, and whether it will remain Palestinian land or go to the settlers, is an important decision as it could influence future court decisions in the region.