Oded Shalom and Akiva Novick | Yediot Friday Political Supplement | May 10 2013

[Hebrew orginal here]

We counted eight hilltop youths. All of them were masked, the string fringes of their fringed undergarment were flapping in the wind, and all were carrying clubs in hand. They were walking at a deliberate pace down the hill and through a ravine, followed by a small unit from the Givati Brigade that was trying to get in between them and a group of Palestinian demonstrators who had gathered on the hill on the other side of the ravine. No one was in pursuit [to arrest] them; no one tried forcibly to prevent them from provoking the Palestinians. A Border Police team that was on a different hilltop and was engaged with the Palestinian demonstrators was busy firing tear gas at the Palestinians. The Jewish boys were of  no interest to them. Three policemen stood on a hill not far away, a few dozen meters from the site of the clashes, and did nothing except gaze on at the developments with interest. Two of them stood there munching away at sunflower seeds. Judea and Samaria Division Commander Brig. Gen. Tamir Yadai was also watching the turn of events while he was eating sunflower seeds. After all, it was a Friday afternoon, the weather was rather pleasant, and before us a number of young Jews and Palestinians armed with slingshots were clashing, hurling stones at one another. Come on, admit it: isn’t that a classic situation for sunflower seeds?

There isn’t any point describing the landscape. This isn’t a color story. Hill 904 is a hill like any other in the Binyamin district of the territories. It is situated roughly a kilometer to the east of the last houses in the settlement Ofra, and beneath it lies the settlement outpost Amona, just a single kilometer away from the Palestinian village Deir Jarir. That hill is covered with the olive and fig trees, which belong to farmers from Deir Jarir and the town Silwad, which is also near Ofra. The residents of Ofra have always granted them [the Palestinian farmers] free access to their plots, even during the worst years of the Intifada. Up until a month ago access to that hilltop was completely free, not only to the Palestinian farmers in the area, but also to the residents of Ofra, who would hike or bike there, brew themselves a pot of coffee and enjoy the beauty of the landscape.

All of that changed roughly two months ago, at which point a number of Jewish boys took to that hill and established there the Netzah Binyamin outpost. They brought a few mattresses, blankets, Torah scrolls, boxes full of canned food and put them inside the stone structure that is used to store crops after the harvest. They frightened off the Palestinian farmers with metal rods, and the farmers have barely come to the area since. Weekly demonstrations on Fridays began about a month ago, the day after Mohammed el-Zeir from Silwad was attacked on the site. El-Zeir was hospitalized in serious condition in Ramallah, and the fact of the assault on him was covered extensively by the Palestinian media. He perhaps owed the media coverage to his fame as one of the people who was released in the Jibril deal [in 1985], while he was serving a sentence for murdering a German tourist in 1973.

Ever since then the hill has been declared a closed military zone. The fact that the OC Central Command issued a special order closing the area hasn’t stopped the boys from returning there time and time again. Neither the police nor the army has done anything to stop them. The security forces’ inaction has upset even the residents of Ofra, which is one of the flagships of the settlement enterprise in Judea and Samaria. Community leaders have contacted the police and army repeatedly with a request that they deal with the hilltop youth on the site.

Some people in Ofra even took the matter up with the GSS! The exclamation point is deliberate. For settlers to contact the General Security Service to ask them to deal with other settlers is considered to be almost sacrilege, something that is taboo. But that didn’t produce any results either.

This is an outrageous story about absurdity and impotence. It is about how a handful of teenage Jewish boys have managed to place an entire sector in the grip of tension and strife. It is about security forces that prepare every Friday to face off against a group of Palestinians and fire huge quantities of tear gas at them, while at the same time standing right in front of them are a handful of Jewish teenage delinquents who pelt the Palestinians with stones, but no one tries to stop them—not even for the sake of semblance.

Spikes on the Road to the Hill

The Friday demonstrations on the hill to the north of Ofra begin immediately after the afternoon prayers end in the mosques in Silwad and Deir Jarir. Yaki Fried, a 65-year-old veteran resident of Ofra, can hear the muezzins’ calls through the windows in his home. To the best of his recollection, Ofra never had any trouble with the Arabs who live in the area. “We’ve never had anything with Deir Jarir. With Silwad we had respectful relations. Up until the first Intifada some of our people would go there to do their grocery shopping. They would turn to us in cases of medical emergencies. One time they had a child fall into a pit, and they came to us to ask for help—and of course we did help. There haven’t been relations ever since the second Intifada, but there haven’t been problems either. That is, there’s been stone-throwing on Route 60, but that isn’t directed against us personally, the residents of Ofra. Now that those fellows have come to the hill, the quiet has been disrupted.”

Yossi Schusheim, Ofra’s security coordinator, said that the outpost had been established without the knowledge of Ofra residents. “The boys who went there didn’t grow up here. They didn’t ask our opinion and they didn’t ask for permission. They simply showed up one day. That outpost has set the ground on fire here. Many years of relative quiet have come to an end. In the last month we’ve had to cope every Friday with riots in the area of the outpost and at Silwad junction, 80 meters’ distance from the houses in the settlement.”

Q: Are you saying that Ofra, a settlement of 700 families, doesn’t bother the Palestinians, but an outpost that was built by a few punks does bother them?

“From their point of view there’s been a violation of the status quo. The entire area there was perceived as a free area, an area that could be tilled. Had they asked me, I wouldn’t have permitted the boys to go there. Those impertinent boys have only made trouble for the Arabs. They put spikes and stones on the path leading up to the hill, and Ofra’s security vehicles got stuck on the way up. They’re a load of trouble.”

Q: Have you taken this up with anyone?

“With everyone possible. The army, the police, the Civil Administration, even the GSS.”

Q: Why the GSS?

“Because as far as I’m concerned, I don’t want them there, period. They’ve set the ground on fire. They won’t let me protect them and they attack me, so I’ve asked the GSS to help both in protecting them and in protecting me from them.”

Q: And have any of the security forces done anything?

“Reality proves that not enough [has been done].”

Standing outside Ofra’s situation room is a group of men who have collected pamphlets about the weekly Torah portion so that they’ll have reading material for synagogue in the evening. Everyone who hears what the article we’re writing is about insists on stressing to us just how unwanted those boys are by the residents of the settlement.

Yaki Fried says that the boys need to find themselves in a situation in which they’re the ones who beg to leave the hill themselves. “They need to be harassed until they get out of here,” he says. “Their lives need to be embittered so badly that it’ll get them to run and go looking for a different hill. They don’t care about anything [the literal idiom used in Hebrew for this last phrase was ‘they have no God’—INT]

Q: Isn’t it slightly ironic that you’re speaking out against boys who want to settle the Land of Israel here, when you came more than 30 years ago and built a settlement here?

“How can you compare? Shimon Peres came here to plant a tree. He did it so as to screw Rabin, but still. I get the pioneering attitude that says we need to settle everywhere but, on the other hand, the situation today is different. Ofra today is a big, well-established settlement. We don’t need that kind of trouble. Those boys aren’t interested in settling, but in provoking. They want to stir up a provocation? No problem. Why don’t they go and set up an outpost inside Silwad. Let’s see them. Tactically, I identify today more with the Arab from Deir Jarir or Silwad in the face of this problem. I’m not a big fan of Silwad, but I’m prepared to sit down with people from those villages and to see how we can solve this problem together. It’s important that they understand that those boys are a problem for us too.”

A Road from Before 1967

If one wishes to drive from Ofra to Deir Jarir there is an old road that was paved before 1967 that is named after the British officer Abu George. Deir Jarir, a village of 5,000 residents that is 17 kilometers northeast of Ramallah, is a village that lives off of agriculture. Hassan Abu Hashayesh, aged 60, is a falah [farmer] from a family of falahin. His family owns a few thousand dunams of land that are filled with olive, fig and a few apple orchards, as well as crop fields and grazing land. At the bottom of Hill 904 he has 2.7 dunams of land with olive and fig trees. We found him sitting with his neighbor, Khairi Hamdan, who is also 60 and who also owns three dunams of fig and olive trees on the hill.

Hamdan says that the hilltop youth receive public support in Israel. “Where did they come from? The entire Israeli army, your GSS—they don’t know who they are and can’t stop them? You caught Eichmann, you assassinated Mabhouh, but you’re incapable of solving this? Yalla!”

Q: The residents of Ofra say that this is trouble for them too. They’re prepared to cooperate with you in order to get rid of those boys.

Abu Hashayesh: “We’ve got nothing to cooperate with Ofra about. It isn’t only the settler on the hill that are a problem. Amona and Ofra are also problems. I’m not prepared to hear from settlers. They say that this is their problem too? So fine, let them handle it. Those outlaws took over the hill about two months ago. Up until then there was no problem going there, but now it’s a mortal risk.”

Q: Why?

“They don’t have guns, but they do have metal rods and there are always a few of them and they are always masked. At first we still tried to go, but they attacked a few of us. On April 11th they attacked el-Zeir from Silwad. They broke his bones and his skull with metal rods, and he hasn’t recovered since.”

That same night dozens of residents of Deir Jarir and Silwad went to the outpost and set fire to a shack. The boys had fled well in advance, of course. “That same day,” said Abu Hashayesh, “we decided to start a regular protest on Fridays in order to make it clear to the Israelis that we weren’t going to give up our lands and our right to till them. Our people don’t like demonstrations and uproar. Our profession is farming, not demonstrating. But those boys cut down 40 of my  olive trees last week, and I can’t stay silent any longer.”

Hamdan: “And I had 30 trees cut down two months ago. It’s become routine. Nearly every night they cut down a fruit tree of ours. Ten days ago they set fire to a car in the village and spray-painted (“price tag”). They’re trying to provoke us. Not only do they violate our fields but they come into the village and set fire.” Three of the boys who live on the outpost were arrested after the incidence of arson, but they were released after having provided a credible alibi.

“Listen,” Abu Hashayesh says to Firas, the interpreter for Yesh Din, “We’re getting dragged to a place we don’t want to reach. A handful of your criminals might make someone here do something that we’re all going to regret. And he isn’t going to go to the hilltop, but to Ofra or Tel Aviv. The people in Ofra are right not to want those boys. It isn’t because they endanger us, but because they realize that they endanger them.”

We returned to Ofra on foot, walking the kilometer the spans between the village and the settlement within a matter of a few minutes. The outpost on the hilltop was empty. We found in the stone storage room a bag of relatively fresh sliced bread and a blue couch. The entire area was filled with empty canisters from stun grenades and tear gas, a sign of the violent clashes that had unfolded in the area in the past number of weeks.

Meanwhile, staring out of his window in Ofra at the hill was Sami Carsanti, the former security coordinator in the settlement who is supposed to be appointed as the settlement’s secretary. The settlement’s leadership, he says, went all the way to OC Central Command Maj. Gen. Alon Nitzan. “We said to him, to the brigade commander, to the division commander, to everyone possible: Gentlemen, this isn’t going to end well over there. Kick them off! They’re the ones who’ve brought down on us these Friday demonstrations. I’m ashamed that they attack innocent people. It’s disgraceful. On the other hand, with all of my understanding of our neighbors with respect to this problem, they need to know that we aren’t suckers. There is no way that this hill is going to turn into Bilin or Naalin. No way.”

The Mukhtar’s Word

The day advanced and it was almost noon. The security forces began to prepare near Hill 904. We left our car in Amona so as not to driver over any of the nails that the boys from the outpost have planted on the road. On a nearby hilltop we saw three masked boys sitting on rocks. Two soldiers approached us and presented us with the OC Central Command’s orders declaring the area a closed military zone.

Q: What about those boys up there. Don’t they need to leave too?

“We showed them the order too,” replied the sergeant, “and we called the police. The police will come and remove them.”

A spokesperson for the association [presumably the Journalists’ Association] arranged for us to remain on the scene. Ten minutes later a row of Palestinian demonstrators began to climb the hill opposite us. Facing off against them was a small Border Police contingent. A dozen soldiers from the Tzabar Battalion of the Givati Brigade were deployed near the outpost. A few minutes later an armored police vehicle came up the hill, out of which climbed three policemen in freshly-pressed blue uniforms. They didn’t look like they were going to be able to chase after the Jewish boys with much success. The deputy commander of the regional brigade, Lt. Col. Itamar Koheli, also showed up on the hill, as did Judea and Samaria Division Commander Brig. Gen. Tamir Yadai.

The Givati Brigade’s intelligence officer briefed the troops and urged them to remain alert. The Palestinians are believed to be “upset.” That morning they discovered that another 14 olive trees and two fig trees had been chopped down near the outpost. The Druze liaison officer phoned the village mukhtar and informed him how far the demonstrating villagers would be allowed to advance. The mukhtar gave his word that they wouldn’t cross that line.

Suddenly, one of the officers discerned a few people moving along in the distance in the direction of the Palestinians. “Jews,” he said, pointing in their direction. “Send out a team to repel them.”

Six soldiers began to run down the side of the hill in the direction of the boys. But another five boys suddenly materialized out of nowhere, and there were now eight of them. They were dressed in jeans, their fringed undergarments dangling out from beneath their shirts, and they all were masked. The Palestinians were in the middle of their prayer services on the hill they had climbed. The battalion commander got on the radio and urged his troops to advance quickly in the direction of the boys so as to prevent a clash. A few dozen young Palestinian men began to yell out threats and curses. The soldiers ran and perspired, the Border Police fired blanks—which make noise but have no lethal capacity. The opening shot had been fired, and all hell broke loose.

In a single moment the entire area became a surreal battlefield. The Jewish boys drew near to the Palestinians and began to pelt them with stones. In response, Palestinian youths began to descend in their direction from the hilltop, and the Border Police began to fire tear gas at them. “Why?” cried out one of the officers from the Givati Brigade into the radio. “What do we need that for? My troops are down there.” It looked like everyone was inhaling the tear gas—the Palestinians, the Givati Brigade troops and the masked hilltop youth.

When we asked one of the military officers why tear gas was being fired at the praying Palestinians, he provided the following laconic answer: “We don’t fire tear gas at Jews.” Meanwhile, the Givati Brigade troops caught up with the Jewish boys and began to push them. But the boys dodged the troops and continued to attack the Palestinians. “Produce a [signed] order,” they taunted the soldiers, who heard the order coming over the radio: “You’re forbidden to touch them without a [signed] order. That’s the law.”

Young Palestinian men began to make their way down into the ravine from the hills in the area, until the two groups—the hilltop youth and the young men form Deir Jarir and Silwad—were standing a few dozen meters away from one another, pelting the opposing camp with stones. Huge quantities of tear gas were fired down into the ravine from above, and an acrid cloud covered the entire area.

Three policemen stood on the slopes of Hill 904 and gazed on at the developments. Everything was in a state of complete uproar, but none of them took any action whatsoever. They were less than 100 meters’ distant from the Jewish boys. Two of them cracked sunflower seeds. Judea and Samaria Division Commander Brig. Gen. Tamir Yadai begged them: “Arrest them. Not even two boys, just one!” But the police explained patiently that they were members of the community police force, and that they were there only because of a shortage in personnel. “All the policemen are in Yitzhar,” said the three and shrugged.

The hilltop youth went up and down, coming within just a few meters from us, always moving at a comfortable pace. They weren’t fleeing and they weren’t running. No one was chasing them.

We followed the boys, and after about 200 or 300 meters we found them sitting and resting, wiping the sweat off their faces, which were still masked. We asked them why they were doing what they were doing.

“Because we’re protecting the Land of Israel.”

Q: Aren’t you afraid?

“No. God is with us.”

They had driven the entire sector crazy for about an hour, had prompted the massive use of weapons, had pinned down a large number of military troops—but no one even threatened to stop them. The police stood by and continued to eat their sunflower seeds. Yadai was stunned to see them return to their police vehicle so as to perform what they explained was “routine police work.” The commander of the IDF division said to an officer who was standing beside him: “They’re only interested in securing their pensions.”

A spokesperson for the Samaria and Judea District Police refused to answer questions that we posed, but an officer with the district said that the police had been deployed that day in large numbers around Yitzhar in order to prevent price tag activity, and the IDF was deployed in the Binyamin district. “The soldiers could have detained the boys and brought them forcibly to the police cars,” said one high-ranking Samaria and Judea District Police officer. IDF officers denied that that was the case, and claimed that they lacked any authority to use force against the boys.

After the army and police traded accusations in response to our questions, we ultimately received a joint response that failed to answer even a single one of the questions that had been asked. “The challenges in Judea and Samaria are complex and require full cooperation in the face of the security challenges, which also include the enforcement of law and order. That is how the forces operated in these incidents and that is how we will operate in the future as well.”