Burning country: Israeli settlers torch Palestinian fields over Eid holiday
As the families of al-Mughayyir village prepared to celebrate the start of Eid al-Fitr, Israeli settlers set fire to their fields, twice.
On the first day of Eid, 5 June, the families, who largely depend on their livelihood from farming and shepherding, rushed to the scene only to find their lands northeast of the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah engulfed in flames.
Rather than rejoice over the holiday, the village’s residents spent the morning putting out the blaze.
A day later, Ayham Abu Naeem received a dismaying call from a friend in the nearby village of Kufr Malek, informing him that his fields, too, had been torched.
In less than an hour, Abu Naeem’s months of hard work became a worthless pile of ashes.
Standing on his scorched field in distress, Abu Naeem, a man in his late 50s, described the abundance that once stood around him: 80 olive trees and 70 dunums (7 hectares) of land rich with barley. The crop had been set for harvesting in a matter of days.
“The settlers are spiteful, and they try to harm us in every way possible,” he told Middle East Eye.
“We have no choice but to repair and restore the land to make it fit for farming again - we will not abandon our fields and leave.”
Abu Naeem grows barley and wheat to feed his sheep, which consume about two tonnes every 10 days - worth some 3,000 shekels ($840). The farmer could only sustain his flock by growing his own crops, which cover four months of food for the livestock.
Settler attacks on the village have noticeably increased since March 2017, when residents of al-Mughayyir began weekly peaceful marches against new homes for Israeli settlers being built on their lands. Israeli forces have responded violently to the demonstrations, including with live ammunition.
In January, a large group of armed Israeli settlers descended on the village and opened fire indiscriminately on the Palestinian residents, killing Hamdi Naasan, a 38-year-old father of four, with a bullet to his back. Thirty others were wounded.
'We’re not leaving, even if they kill us. We will remain steadfast on our lands - there is no alternative'
- Adel Ibrahim Abu Alia, farmer
Residents of the village said that when Israeli soldiers arrived to the scene, they also started firing live bullets.
Adel Ibrahim Abu Alia, a father of five, was one of the survivors of the attack. He took a bullet to his chest, which has caused permanent paralysis in his right arm.
Shortly after the Eid arson attacks, Abu Alia gathered his family and rushed to harvest his wheat early, fearing their fields would be the next target.
Despite the negative effects of early harvesting, he says it is a price he is willing to pay.
“We’re not leaving, even if they kill us. We will remain steadfast on our lands - there is no alternative,” he tells MEE.
‘I would have died’
The settler fires spread to fields belonging to Kamal Abdullah al-Naasan’s family. On 8 June, he went to harvest what remained of his crops.
Nassan’s fields, which have been repeatedly torched by Israeli settlers over the past three years, lie just off the Alon Road - a route that Palestinians are forbidden from driving on, unless with a special permit.
Once he got to his fields, however, Israeli settlers intentionally rammed their car into the 65-year-old as he stood by the side of the road, breaking his foot.
He told MEE that over the past few years he has victim to violent physical assault by settlers, who would beat him unconscious.
“Two years ago, a settler beat me on the head with a sharp object and I fell to the ground. Then other settlers joined in the attack, kicking and beating,” he said.
“I would have died if residents of the village didn’t come to my aid.”
'We have suffered great losses, and this continues to happen every year. There is nothing to deter the settlers from attacking us and our fields'
- Kamal Abdullah al-Naasan, farmer
A member of the farming committee in al-Mughayyir village, Kathem al-Hajj Mohammad, said settler attacks are clearly “aimed at inflicting heavy losses on the farmers and coercing them to leave their lands”.
He told MEE that Israeli settlers have burned some 1,500 dunums (150 hectares) of wheat and barley fields, as well as 150 olive trees, since the start of June.
“We have suffered great losses, and this continues to happen every year. There is nothing to deter the settlers from attacking us and our fields,” he said.
The escalation in attacks coincides with an Israeli court’s decision on 13 May to clear an Israeli settler of murder charges he faced after he and other settlers allegedly set a Palestinian home on fire in the nearby village of Duma in 2015.
An 18-month-old baby, Ali Dawabsheh, and his parents were killed in the attack. The sole survivor was Ali’s brother, Ahmad, who was four years old at the time. He sustained severe burns to over 60 percent of his body.
And in January, an Israeli court released to house arrest four Israeli settlers suspected of killing a 47-year-old Palestinian mother of seven, Aisha al-Rabi. They allegedly threw a rock at her car near Nablus, inflicting a fatal head wound.
Abdullah al-Hajj Mohammad, head of the nearby Jalud village council, told MEE that “the decisions of the Israeli courts have given more incentive for settlers to escalate their attacks against Palestinians”.
Jalud is surrounded by 10 settlements built on much of the village’s land. It also regularly falls victim to Israeli settler abuse.
On the morning of 5 May, settlers torched about 300 dunums (30 hectares) of fields that were home to some 900 olive trees and 100 fig and almond trees, said Mohammad. The nearby school cameras caught the attack on tape, he added.
“The Israeli army came and collected all footage of the attack under the pretext of intending to launch an investigation,” Mohammed said.
“Every time these attacks happen, the army claims it is ‘opening an investigation’ but nothing has ever come from it, and we do not expect that anything will.”
‘Let us handle them’
B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights group, released a video showing armed settlers torching fields in the Palestinian villages of Burin and Asirah al-Qibliyah on 17 May . The settlers also threw rocks at residents’ homes and fired shots into the air.
“Thousands of testimonies, videos and reports, as well as many years of close monitoring by B’Tselem and other organizations, reveal that Israeli security forces not only allow settlers to harm Palestinians and their property as a matter of course – they often provide the perpetrators escort and back-up. In some cases, they even join in on the attack,” the group has said.
Ghassan Daghlas, a Palestinian official who monitors Israeli colonial policies in the northern occupied West Bank, said that the lack of accountability or an international monitoring mechanism allows settler attacks to continue.
'It is evident that the army has given settlers a green light'
- Ghassan Daghlas, Palestinian official
The support for Israel by the United States had only encouraged settlers to carry out such crimes, he added.
According to Daghlas, settlers have destroyed 2,570 olive trees, and burned hundreds of dunums of farmland since the start of May, in addition to physically assaulting Palestinians, throwing stones at them and vandalising their property.
“While videos document settler assaults, they are of no use. The attacks are not being investigated,” he said.
“It is evident that the army has given settlers a green light.”