By EA John, Northern West Bank.
Recently, a group of us accompanied the wife of Mahmood Samarra Ghassam as she went to plough her land near the settlement outpost of Hayovel. This older woman, in her traditional Palestinian dress, was very determined to work her fields. Her village of Qaryut, in the northern occupied West Bank, has already lost 80% of its land to the surrounding settlements – communities of Israeli citizens (known as settlers) who have moved into occupied Palestine. The settlements are illegal under Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention which prohibits the transfer of an occupying power’s own civilian population into occupied territory. The settlements in this area were first built around an ‘archaeological zone’ Israel declared on the Old Testament site of Shiloh. Some of the settlements’ names refer to the story of the boy Samuel (First Samuel, Chapter 2) like Shilo and Eli.The villagers started ploughing their land on May 23 at 8.00am less than 100m from the settlement’s perimeter fence. While her hired tractor driver worked the main field, the old woman attacked the thick growth of weeds fertilised by the settlement’s sewage discharge which runs freely onto the Palestinian land. Soon there was a mingling of smells as the fetid stink of untreated sewage water contrasted with the aromatic perfume of Mediterranean herbs crushed by the wheels of the tractor. The activity soon disturbed a family of wild boar who emerged from the undergrowth to see what was happening. There were at least ten of them from large adults to small striped piglets. They were clearly not happy and grunted with annoyance.
Farmers in the hill country of Palestine are complaining of wild pigs causing damage to their crops. This is a recent experience and some theories suggest a conspiracy involving the deliberate introduction of these animals by settlers. A farmer in the Jordan Valley with a keen interest in wildlife suggested that the disturbance of the original Jordan River habitat of these animals had caused them to migrate to colonise new areas. Whatever their origins the pigs decided to depart, for the time being at least.At 9.10am a white van from the settlement’s security team arrived on the other side of the fence near where the ploughing was taking place. A guard from the van shouted through a loud hailer at the tractor driver, “Abeita” (Go home). The Ecumenical Accompaniers (EAs) stood prominently in his line of view so that the guard could see there was an international presence. The shouting stopped. The ploughing continued. The van just stood stationary. At 9.30am the ploughing was finished. The tractor and the EAs trundled down the hill back to Qaryut.
We asked the woman if the protective presence of EAs had been helpful. “One hundred percent,” she said. “Last year I was unable to plough and the [Israeli] soldiers sent me away.” When asked if her story could be told she said, “Yes, and tell them about the sewage”. She gave the EAs a small gift of orange juice and biscuits.
Yesh Din (an Israeli human rights organisation) had asked us to go with these villagers. They had established the woman’s legal ownership of the land and said there had been an Israeli court order prohibiting the settlement from disposing of its sewage water by discharging it onto the Palestinian land downslope. Despite this, the practice continues.
This was a small example of the protective presence EAs carry out, and our day with the villagers highlighted some of the particular issues they’re facing.
- Illegal settlements are squeezing the life out of rural Palestinian communities through the loss of land and the denial of access to land near settlements for ‘security reasons’ – as happened here last year.
- As has happened in Qaryut, archaeology and biblical history are sometimes used to confiscate Palestinian land for settlement use.
- Sewage water from settlements is causing serious harm on the land of Palestinian farmers. In the case of Qaryut only human waste was involved. In other settlements toxic industrial waste is also involved.
- There are ecological issues as well. Clearly the growth of thick scrub next to the sewage outlet provided cover for the wild boar.
For the problems faced by the wife of Mahmood Samarra Ghassam there must be an end to the taking of land by the settler movement and, ultimately, an end the occupation of the West Bank by the Israeli government. There is a need for international pressure to ensure that the Israeli government complies with various United Nations resolutions to withdraw from land occupied in 1967. We can all lobby our elected representatives to press for this to happen.