by George Stein
Bir El Eid is a small village in the South Hebron Hills, located in Area C, which makes it exist under the administrative control of Israel. Because of this, if Palestinian residents want to build structures, they must seek permission from the Israeli authorities. The likelihood of receiving a permit is so low that residents are forced to build structures without one, which exposes their homes to the constant threat of demolition. This happened, for instance, on June 20, 2011, when the whole village was destroyed, with tents demolished, electrical wires cut and vegetables uprooted.[i] Bir El Eid is also surrounded by settlements on all sides, whose inhabitants are particularly aggressive and violent.
Residents have limited access to water, with water cisterns located near the settlement outpost of Mitzpe Yair. Attempts to bring water from the cisterns have been met with settler and army harassment, with the army on occasion confronting villagers with tear gas.
In 1999, the army declared Bir El Id a firing zone and residents were forced to leave their homes. At the beginning of 2000, the court decided that residents were allowed to return to their village, but they were forced out again by settler violence. At the end of 2009, people started to return to their homes and remain there to date.
I visited this village with the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI), who were interviewing Ismail Adara, a resident of Bir El Eid. He recounted a number of incidences involving both the army and settlers which clearly point to constant attempts by Israel to displace these villagers from their land, in an act of ethnic cleansing. Settlers in the area are extremely violent, and many of them are known by name to the villagers, such as Yaakov, Avidan and Ilad. These names have been passed on to the authorities, but no action has followed this naming and no process of accountability has been put in place.
The settler, Yaakov, lives on a settlement farm alone with his family, has been consistently abusive and threatening towards villagers, and claims that the land of on which the villages sit in this area belongs to him. His reasoning is that the villagers were absent for a period of time since the year 2000. The army frequently takes action to aid Yaakov, such as raiding the village and demanding the return of sheep that they allege the villagers stole. The army took a number of sheep, who promptly escaped and returned to the village, wishing to be reunited with their offspring. The sheep clearly did not belong to Yaakov.
Four days before I and EAPPI visited, at 12.30pm at night, Ismail was sleeping when he heard strange noises. He got up quickly, ran outside and found two men throwing stones at his tent. He pursued them, yelling after them and then saw another three men awaiting the two men up the hill. Ismail realized they were soldiers. Ismail asked why they had been throwing stones at his home, but they denied responsibility, claiming the perpetrators must have run elsewhere. These psychological games, employed to terrorize people, are all part of an Israeli strategy aimed at displacing people from their homes.
For psychological torment often turns into direct physical assault and abuse, as Ismail explains. He tells us about a violent incident that occurred in August this year, in which settlers from the outpost of Mizpe Yair beat him up, badly. Ismail explains that as an old man, he does not expect to be the victim of such abuse. However, one day when he was farming his land, four settlers (two of whom he recognised as Avidan and Ilad) approached him. The settlers attempted to wrestle his rake from him, but Ismail refused to let go. Infuriated by his defiance, another settler pulled a gun on him, but Ismail managed somehow to reason with the settlers and they left. Ismail knew that this was not the last he would see of these men.
Fifteen days after the initial assault, the settlers returned as Ismail was tending his land again, this time with scarves over their faces. Ismail could see Avidan and Ilad waiting in the car, ready to drive away if other Palestinians were around. One settler approached Ismail quickly, as if to greet him, but instead head butted him in the face. Ismail used the plastic pipe in his hand (which he carries to be used for the sheep) to defend himself by hitting the settler with it. The settlers had long, wooden sticks and began to beat Ismail with them. Then, one settler pulled out a knife, attempting to stab Ismail, but sliced off his finger instead (at this point, Ismail shows us his new finger). The settlers continue to beat Ismail, hitting him on either side of his head and then kicking him when he is on the ground. Some people saw what was happening and called the army, taking Ismail to Alia hospital in Hebron where he is treated. The army asks who beat him and he tells them the names of these settlers, but neither is held accountable for their actions.
Many parallels can be drawn between the situation in the Jordan Valley and South Hebron Hills, such as water scarcity, unemployment and poverty, as well as settler violence, all of which are strategies employed by Israel to pressure Palestinians off their land with the intention of annexing the areas. For residents in both areas, existence is resistance, and they will not leave their land.
(For more information on this particular attack, see this newspaper report.)