Beit Ommar Farmers Under Attack by Violent Bat Ayin Settlers

Jabber Soleiby in his blackened field near the violent Bat Ayin settlementDead plum trees in Safa valley

Beit Ommar is a Palestinian agricultural village roughly fifteen minutes north of Hebron and fifteen minutes south of Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank.  With 15,000 inhabitants and surrounded by rich farmland, Beit Ommar is largely composed of farmers who grow everything from cucumbers, squash, tomatoes, apricots, plums, berries, grapes, olives and grains.
Among these farmers are the Abu Jabber, Abu Mohammed and Abu Fahed Soleiby families which share the edenic valley of Safa just to the south of town, where they cultivate grapevines, and plum and olive trees.  Yet, when you look just up the hill from the valley, opposite the town, you notice a group of houses that do not resemble the Palestinian town where they live.  This is the Bat Ayin settlement, a 1980s extension of the massive Gush Etzion block that juts deep into the West Bank.  One of the most violent in the West Bank, and former home to the “Bat Ayin militia,” the extremist residents of this outpost are known for their attempted bombing of a Palestinian girls’ elementary school in 2002.
While the Palestinian families who cultivate the valley just below have frequently been victim to settler expansion and harrassment over the last decades, attacks in the last few months have intensified as the settlement’s inhabitants attempt to intimidate the Palestinians to give up their land for settlement use.  These attacks climaxed in April when Hamad and Abdullah Soleiby took their donkey down to their fields to tend to the orchards.  Sixteen settlers descended into the valley and beat them with rocks, fracturing Abdullah’s skull.  Hamad, also beaten, lifted his 81-year old unconscious brother onto his back, onto the donkey and out of the valley.
Rather than arresting the settlers or preventing the attacks, the Israeli military responded by issuing several “Closed Military Zone” orders in which farmers and activists – but not Bat Ayin settlers – were prevented from entering the valley under penalty of arrest.  Despite an Israeli Supreme Court ruling declaring these orders illegal after being presented overwhelming evidence that the military used the orders to prevent farmers from cultivating their land, the army has ignored the decision and continued to implement the “Closed Military Zone” orders.  After a certain period, this would allow the settlers to claim the land under the notorious Absentees’ Property Laws with which Israel has reappropriated thousands of acres of Palestinian land over the decades for the use of Jewish Israelis.
In the past month, farmers and activists have been frequently brutalized by the Israeli soldiers, during which 47 Israeli activists and 5 international activists have been arrested.  Repression reached its high point two weeks ago when 26 Israelis and 2 international activists were arrested before reaching the valley.  While the use of direct action and media attention temporarily pressured the Israeli military into stopping the settlers and allowing the farmers to access their land for a certain period, events once again degenerated last week when settlers set fire to the valley destroying hundreds of trees on several acres.  As the fire quickly spread across the valley due to unfavorable wind conditions, Bat Ayin settlers stood on the hillside cheering and shouting in Hebrew.  Two Israeli fire trucks sat idle in the settlement to ensure that the fire did not affect the settlement land as Palestinian residents and farmers used a tractor carting a water tank to control the fire before it could be brought under control by a Palestinian fire truck from Hebron.  Combined with the cutting of 125 trees in June and an earlier fire, this act of arson destroyed 1/4 of the land that provides income for 125 extended family members.  And while dozens of activists have been arrested for attempting to help the farmers maintain their right to cultivate the land that has been in their family for generations, not one setter has been arrested for their acts.
Descending into the valley on the back of the tractor with Hamad and Jabber Soleiby to document the destruction was like entering into a moonscape.  The earth was black and the valley was filled with giant dead plum trees.  Hamad leads us around yelling “chouf!” so that we look at every object destroyed by the settlers.  Motioning how they cut the trees several weeks ago, asking “why why why,” Hamad vents his frustration.  He shows us a torn jacket under a tree.  He points to the tears on the jacket, and points to his arms, lower back and ankles where the settlers held him down and beat him with rocks.  The bruises on his arms and legs are still clearly visible.  Yet despite all this, Hamad is resilient and will never cease coming to work his land in Safa valley.
Out of roughly 1000 trees and plants, over 300 are now dead – including the enormous plum trees at the bottom of the valley.  Plans to build a fence to keep out the settlement’s sheep, which are periodically brought down to eat the ripening fruit, are in the works but costly.  The thousands of dollars it would cost to replace the destroyed fauna are beyond the families’ means as they are currently more worried about making ends meet in the present.  Even if the fence is built and the destroyed land is replanted, what would prevent the “victorious” and unpunished settlers from striking again?  While a broader political change is obviously necessary, the goal of Palestinians at the moment is to continue to maintain their daily lives as best as possible under a foreign occupation that wants them to leave.
To help the farmers replant the land in the valley, go to palestinesolidarityproject.org and click on donate.  Specify that the donation should go toward trees for Safa farmers.  Stay up-to-date on the status of Safa farmers and the village of Beit Ommar on the same site.
To see disturbing Bat Ayin propaganda go to: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2gMMy2zJy3s

Cut olive trees in Safa valleyMohammed and Mahmoud Soleiby gather some of the remaining grapes

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