Friday, November 1

MCC Palestine Update #64

MCC Palestine Update #64

November 1, 2002

This update simply comprises of two news pieces which I wanted to pass on before two weeks' worth of visitors and MCC regional meetings. The first, by Ha'aretz journalist Amira Hass, looks at the plight of frustrated and harassed olive farmers in the northern West Bank. The second, from Palestine Report, provides glimpses into the lives of taxi and truck drivers plying the makeshift dirt roads throughout the West Bank. Regular updates will resume in the second half of November.

--Alain Epp Weaver

1.It's the pits
Amira Hass
Ha'aretz, October 27, 2002

Humiliated farmers, angry landowners, human rights activists and army personnel: A confrontation in an olive grove Four frightened farmers emerged from the old Renault that screeched to a halt in the center of the path. "The settlers didn't let us get to our grove," they told their fellow villagers of Akrabeh, who were picking olives along the sides of the path. It was Monday afternoon, four days after the majority of the residents of the neighboring village of Yanun deserted their homes, unable to bear the harassment of the settlers any longer.

The car's passengers turned down the proposal to join two television crews, one foreign and one Israeli, and return to the site where, they said, "an armed settler in an off-road vehicle and another three" people had threatened them with their rifles and taken their car key - returning it only after ordering them to leave.

The reporters continued driving on the path, which winds its way toward Nablus between fields and hills planted with olive and almond trees. In the middle of the path was an off-road vehicle with an Israeli license plate (number 01-478-69), and astride it was a young bearded Israeli wearing a khaki hat and with a rifle slung over his shoulder. In the field next to the path, another young man sat on a tractor (Israeli license plate 57-000-37) that was hitched to a plow. Two young men, both wearing large skullcaps and one of them armed with a rifle, walked alongside this vehicle.

"No photographs," one of the drivers snapped. "I say no pictures. This is my private land and you will not photograph my house." He refused to say whether it was he who had blocked the Akrabeh residents from getting to their olive grove. "I don't answer you. I don't talk to you," he said. "This field is mine all my life - no, for 2,000, 3,000, 5,000 years. Since Hashem [God] created the world." He and his armed friend produced wireless radios and began talking into them.

In short order, activists of the Ta'ayush Arab Jewish Partnership group, Rabbis for Human Rights, foreign nationals in the Solidarity movement, and a few of the grove owners in the area arrived. They stopped their convoy of cars opposite the off-road vehicle and its armed driver. The activists and the farmers began to speak about the right of the tillers of the land to harvest their crops. The driver of the off-road vehicle listened and then told the Palestinians: "You are dead people."

In the meantime, another off-road vehicle (Israeli license plate 12-452-76) and another few Israelis wearing skullcaps arrived in the field. An Israel Defense Forces jeep also pulled up, parking across the width of the path, and an officer with the rank of captain emerged from it. He huddled with the driver of the off-road vehicle, and spoke with representatives of the Ta'ayush group and of the Palestinian fellahin, who complained that they were unable to get to their olive groves.

"Why is he plowing my land and you say nothing to him, but you do not let me harvest olives?" one of the Akrabeh group - the father of a youngster who was wounded by gunfire on October 6 - said bitterly. On October 6, a few young people had gone to their grove to pick olives. A group of armed Israeli civilians showed up and, from a distance, opened fire; one of the Palestinians, Hani Beni Maniyeh, 24, was killed. The police are investigating allegations that Israelis murdered him.

Awaiting the verdict The field that was being worked by the Israeli tractor is owned by the Bushnak family, from Nablus. It has leased the field for decades to residents of Akrabeh and Yanun. In the past two years, the farmers say, Israelis have prevented them from planting wheat in this plot, as they have traditionally done.

The origins of the Bushnak families that live in Palestine are in Bosnia. They were Muslim soldiers who were brought here to reinforce the Turkish army at the end of the 19th century and settled in various places in the country, including Yanun. Although they were not originally from one family, they adopted a common surname that attests to their extraction. When they moved to Nablus from Yanun, they leased their land to the residents of Akrabeh, who gradually began to leave their village and settle in the wadi, the plateau and the hill of Yanun. Payment for leasing the land could be made in the form of wheat, olive oil or cash.

About three-quarters of Yanun's 16,000 dunams (4,000 acres) of land is leased.

"We have a law that a leaser is forbidden to remove the tiller of the land," says a Yanun resident, who on Monday was one of those awaiting the verdict as to whether they would be able to harvest the olive crop.

The army captain explained to Ha'aretz: "There are places where they can harvest the crop and places where they cannot. Those are army orders - not demands of settlers - in order to prevent them from approaching a settlement and perpetrating a terrorist attack."

The settlement of Itamar is northwest of Akrabeh and Yanun. Over the years, its residents expanded their homes onto hilltops in the area. A few mobile homes on each of these hills, along with observation towers and water reservoirs, surround Yanun from the east, the north and the west. The groves of Akrabeh and Yanun abut on the settlement's ever- expanding boundaries.

The captain related that his soldiers had told the olive harvesters that they were prohibited from working the groves "on the left" (that is, the many hundreds of trees on the north side of the path). Those "on the right" can be harvested. "We are letting them harvest in most places," the captain continued, explaining the policy. "That is also in the army's interest. There is a great deal of humanity here. You can ask. They are even guarded." And what about the Israelis on the off-read vehicle and the tractor, who blocked the Palestinians from getting to the right of the path? "That is a different matter, a matter for the police," the captain said.

In the meantime, another jeep arrived, bringing a major, who wanted to talk to the Palestinians and their supporters. Rabbi Arik Ascherman, from Rabbis for Human Rights, was sent to negotiate with him. He returned with a proposal: "If we work on the south side, they will separate between us and the settlers," he said. "Their duty is to protect us if we work on this side." And one more condition: The "boundary" demarcated by the off-road vehicle can be crossed only on foot.

‘Softened version’

The villagers decided to take advantage of the presence of the Ta'ayush group and harvest their crops, even though they thought the terms were humiliating and discriminatory. The closure is causing economic bankruptcy and these days, every liter of oil than can be extracted from the olives is worth its weight in gold. "The only reason the army is letting us work is that you are here," someone remarked. "If you weren't here, the army would tell us to call the police and in the end, it does what the settlers want."

"You were witnesses to a softened version of what we have been going through for the past five years," Abd al-Latif Bani Jaber, the head of the Yanun village council, said afterward. He sat at the entrance of one of the homes whose owners left. He walked past the abandoned houses on the deserted streets with the Ta'ayush activists - who had come to stay over - and related the history of the abandonment of the small village, which consists of three groups of buildings on the plain and the Yanun hill.

"In the past few months, some of the residents left the village and moved to Akrabeh. They couldn't take the fear anymore. We were 150 residents, which gradually decreased to 100, then 87. Last Friday, only eight families were still here." The occupants of the homes closest to the hills and the mobile homes were the first to leave. At first Bani Jaber and other villagers filed complaints to the police about assaults (at the Civil Administration base in Hawarah). "Causing damage to private land, uprooting trees" is recorded under "confirmation of the filing of a complaint" in February 1998; "building a road on land owned by you," the police wrote in July 1998. However, in time, "we saw that there was no point to complaining. No one came to our aid," Bani Jaber says.

Armed Israelis showed up outside houses in the village, preventing the residents from getting to their crops and intimidating them. Sheep sometimes disappeared. One Saturday last June, Bani Jaber was sitting with his wife and children at the entrance to their home. "Those who attacked us in the past are used to us locking ourselves in our houses. That day they came down from the hill and told me to get inside. I said I will sit here wherever I want." He and a few neighbors threw stones at the Israelis in order to scare them off. More Israelis showed up and some of them fired in the air, he said.

Dozens of young people from Akrabeh rushed to the neighboring village to help. The army and the Civil Administration were also summoned. The IDF Spokesman confirmed at the time that there had been an "incident" and that the security forces had separated the "combatants."

In the middle of the night on April 17, someone set fire to the building that housed the village's power generator. The United Nations Development Program financed the installation of a generator to supply electricity to the village and to pump water from the local well into two large tanks that were placed on a cliff at the edge of the village, from which pipes were laid to the houses.

The repair will cost $17,000, but a new generator has not yet arrived. According to one of the residents, it was made clear to the villagers that the new generator would also be torched. The upshot is that since April, the village has had neither electricity nor running water. At the end of July, a group of Israelis toppled the tanks, which in any event were empty.

Since April, the villagers have been going down to the spring and filling jerricans with water, which they store in a concrete reservoir that they built. Nine days ago, two days before the abandonment of the village, they were astounded to discover three Israelis swimming in their drinking water. In the past few weeks, Israelis have harassed fellahin from Akrabeh and from the villages north of Itamar.

"It is known in the village that the assailants operate on Saturdays, in a different place each week," Bani Jaber said. "`When does Saturday come?,' our children ask their parents in fright. People thought that we were next on the list, so last Friday those who were still here decided to leave."

The Nimr family - the father, who is a teacher, his wife and their eight children - left their home together with most of the village residents that Friday, taking their sheep. Two days later, the mother returned with three of her children - her grown-up son and daughter and a three- year-old boy. "We came back when we heard that people came to protect us," she said. "We felt a bit of security." The mother, Umm Nizar, had to reassure the little boy that the Hebrew speakers around him "are not settlers." He watched with frightened eyes and wouldn't say anything.

Umm Nizar said that four Israelis, two of them armed, had surrounded the house a few days before the family left, had fired in the air and demanded that she open the door. "It is a continuing saga. They come over and over," she said. "Whenever there is noise outside, the boy says `the settlers came.'" He doesn't say "Jew," which is the word used for the army. "The army is normal, we are not afraid of them," she said.

Two brothers, Faiq and Ralub Bani Jaber, both around 70, live in a stone house that was built during the period of Jordanian rule. They and their children, totaling about 25 people, refused to leave. Ralub Bani Jaber summed up: "When I saw my neighbors leaving, I felt death."

2. Road warriors
Atef Saad
Published at, October 23, 2002.

Also in this week's Palestine Report: Everyone is worried about transfer, but Palestinians inside are already quietly on the move, PR reports. The full magazine is available upon subscription.

RA'AF DARAGHMEH climbed out of the ditch where his truck had buried its nose. Fine white clay covered the twenty-five-year-old from head to foot.

"My truck got stuck after the tire blew out. It was shot out by Israeli tank fire preventing us from going on," Daraghmeh explained as he dusted the dirt from his face and hair.

Without warning, a tank and military jeep carrying four soldiers had rumbled onto the scene, Daraghmeh recounted. The soldiers disembarked, brandishing their guns, and chaos broke out. Drivers traversing the stretch of road abandoned their lorries of merchandise, fruit and flour and raced for cover behind the nearest tree or gully. But Daraghmeh was not able to escape the random gunfire and his truck lurched to a halt between a rock and a ditch.

The truck was carrying three tons of straw and had already made the difficult three and a half hour journey from Tubas to Nablus - a trip that once took just forty minutes. Daraghmeh found shelter between two boulders until the tank completed its "security operation" and departed. Timidly, the drivers ventured out to inspect the damage, and the lucky ones with usable tires went on their way.

But Daraghmeh's truck was immovable, and it took a tire repairman, two new wheels, and the strength of five men to finally budge it from its hole. "I was forced to sell my load for the first price I was offered -half of what I should have gotten," Daraghmeh says. "I spent two nights in the truck because I was afraid to leave it until an armored patrol fired into the air, warning me to get out of the area. I tried to convince them that I couldn't leave my truck stuck like this and they replied with a shower of bullets. And so I left my truck and retraced my steps to Tubas."

The next day, Daraghmeh tried to return to the area, but again the army headed him off. "The day after that, the road - if you can still call it that - was filled with ditches dug by the tanks." Finally, twelve days later, Daraghmeh succeeded in pulling his vehicle out of the ditch. The cost of the required repairs was roughly equal to the value of the straw that the Palestinian had hauled.

Napoleonic measures Incredibly, Daraghmeh's travails are not atypical among the hundreds of Palestinian drivers trying to deliver goods on now nearly impassable West Bank roads. Because the Israeli army has blocked the modern network of highways connecting Nablus to other West Bank population centers, truck drivers are forced to use paths forged by animals. Nasir Yousef, president of the public transportation workers' syndicate in the West Bank, says that the Israeli army is taking the advice of French general Napoleon: an invading army must control the roads.

Before the army clamped down on the traffic routes in late September 2000, the Nablus department of transportation had recorded nearly 14,000 licensed trucks and taxis in operation in the areas of Nablus and Salfit. "Only a few dozen of these are left now, and they work under dangerous circumstances," says Yousef. "Taxis can be destroyed or their drivers wounded, or their vehicles may be severely damaged on the rough roads they are forced to travel." With the exception of a few dozen trucks employed by international humanitarian organizations and carrying permits to cross Israeli checkpoints, most trucks and taxis are simply "out of order."

The measures have decimated the transportation sector and cemented the fracturing of Palestinian communities. A report by the Ministry of Transportation indicates that from the start of the Intifada to September 28 this year, the industry had lost nearly $2 billion and declined to a mere ten percent of its previous capacity. Of the nearly 9,000 taxis in all of the West Bank, only forty percent are now running. While buses used to make a decent day's work of $250, they now average $38 a working day.

Bullets for bread Inside the cities, public taxi drivers aren't faring much better. In Nablus, the twenty-four hour curfew has reigned for over 100 days on end. Even when the curfew is lifted, the city remains divided in half, the split enforced by a makeshift military checkpoint of a Merkava tank and two military jeeps, located just across from the destroyed Palestinian Authority headquarters. During the extended curfews, taxis play a deadly game of cat and mouse with Israeli military patrols that tour the streets and enforce the stillness.

Taxi drivers are always on the lookout for roaming tanks, because if caught unawares they can be lucky to escape with their hide. Unfortunate drivers or those who receive incorrect information can be chased down, sometimes with live gunfire. Occasionally these encounters turn tragic, as in the case of 12-year-old Ibrahim Al Madani, who was shot in the head by an army patrol chasing a taxi. The child was visiting his uncle's home in the Askar Refugee Camp, and remains in a coma today.

"Under such circumstances drivers find themselves with only two choices," says Yousef. "They can either stay in their homes under house arrest and without any freedom to move, work or earn money, or they can risk driving their cars through the city streets in the hopes that they come across passengers."

To navigate the dangerous streets, the drivers in their distinctive yellow cars swap information on the movements of armored patrols. They also benefit from the boys found lingering at the entrances to streets and alleys.

A few days in early September, the Israeli army seemed to ease its grip on the movements of students and teachers on their way to school. The city exhaled slowly. But it wasn't long before the armored patrols "changed their minds" and the strict curfew was reinstated. In just a few days, four children between the ages of 10 and 17 were killed in Nablus, Balata, and Al Ayn refugee camp. Another child lies in a coma at the local Rafidiya hospital.

Hosni Dweikat, 32, drives a shared taxi and was "caught" by a military patrol as he was "breaking" curfew orders. His punishment, meted out by the Israeli soldiers, was to have his keys confiscated and to sit for six hours in the sun.

"Aren't you afraid that they will catch you?" I asked Dweikat when I encountered him on the very same street one day later. He didn't hesitate. "What do you mean? I can't die of worry at home. I am responsible for a family of five. Who will support them?"

A matter of life Making these risky rounds with the taxi drivers, it is easy to see how local merchants have adjusted, too. New businesses have sprung up anywhere there is traffic and passersby. Cafes, sweet shops, mechanics, clothing stands and tiny movable groceries line any remaining thoroughfare, tempting the travelers. At the Ayn Al Faria junction, nearly all of the merchants once had full businesses in the curfewed city of Nablus. They, too, are trying to survive.

Fifty-three-year-old Atef Ashour is one of those who has given up. He sold his old truck for lack of work. "I have driven trucks for more than thirty years and I don't remember ever going through circumstances like this in the past," he says. "Truck drivers find work even in the worst of times. We transport food, vegetables, medicine and other things that people can't go without." Ashour worked all through the Intifada of the eighties, he says, but now he can't afford to maintain his truck. "Trucks and taxis are built to move. Without work, they die."

Several weeks ago, the Nablus curfew was lifted for five hours and truck driver Mahmoud Marzouq was asked to deliver shoes and baby towels to a Hebron merchant who was waiting at a nearby crossroads to pick up the merchandise. The Al Bazan intersection is some fifteen minutes from Nablus, but Marzouq and six other drivers were forced to take rough back roads that locals have dubbed "Tora Bora," after the vast intimidating Afghani mountains pictured on television over the last year.

On this road, the trip to Al Bazan takes three hours. But, as luck would have it, not far from Beit Fureik, the six trucks were stopped in their tracks by an Israeli military patrol.

"They didn't speak to us," says Marzouq. "The soldiers just opened fire on my front tires. My colleague's truck stopped when they shot out his back tire, and it flattened immediately. The goods he was carrying, pants and shirts, fell to the ground. The soldiers ordered us to remove our clothes to make sure that we weren't wearing explosives belts. Then they confiscated our keys and identification cards and left."

"We spent the night in our damaged trucks, and the next day began to look for a tire mechanic," continued one of the six drivers. "Then the patrol came back and took us to the army camp in Hawareh where an officer questioned us, asking 'Are you breaking the curfew?' We immediately admitted to doing so, and then he asked us, 'Why are you breaking the curfew when you know it will cost you dearly?'"

Marzouq picks up the story, saying, "We told him that we have gone without work and income for six months." The officer let the truck drivers off with a warning. Next time, he said, each would be fined the equivalent of $1,000 and their vehicles impounded, not counting the $60 a day for storage every day the car remains in dock. Released for now, the group finally found mechanics in Beit Fureik who brought them new tires - at a fee of $250 a pair.

Would they do it again? "By god," says Marzouq, "I don't have even a sack of rice, and I can't find anyone who will give me a loan. No one has surplus money to loan to those who need it." Over the last three months, Marzuq the father of two has only hauled four deliveries. "We are only living because we are not dead," he says.

Published 23/10/02

No comments: