Farmers Work Independently in Saffa

4 July 2009

Another success! For the first Saturday since the beginning of April, the Soleiby family has worked their land in Saffa, Beit Ommar, without the accompaniment of Israeli or international activists. This temporary victory comes on the heels of 3 months of Israeli and international activists accompanying the farmers into the valley to protect them from settler attacks, a job which until now the Israeli military has failed to do.

The Abu Jabber, Abu Mohammed and Abu Fahed Soleiby families are farmers and long time residents of Beit Omar, a village half way between Hebron and Bethlehem. Their farmland is located in Saffa, directly
below the illegal Bat ‘Ayn Settlement. The settlement is one of the most violent in the West Bank, former home to the “Bat ‘Ayn militia,” who are infamous for their attempted bombing of a Palestinian girls’ elementary school in 2002. Israeli and international activists began accompanying the Soleibys after a series of vicious settler attacks in early April. The attacks climaxed when settlers bashed in the skull of Abdullah Soleiby, an 81-year old farmer. Settlers regularly throw stones at the farmers and activists, and on June 22 cut and burned over 125 of the Soleiby’s fruit trees and grape vines.

Rather than arresting the settlers or interfering with the attacks, the military has responded by issuing a series of “Closed Military Zone” orders that prevent farmers and activists (but not settlers) from entering
the Saffa valley. The orders have put a tremendous financial strain on the Soleibys, who rely on the Saffa harvest as their primary source of income. The Israeli Supreme Court has declared the “Closed Military Zone” orders illegal, after hearing overwhelming evidence proving that the Israeli military has used these orders to prevent Palestinian farmers from cultivating their land. This in turn allows settlers to claim the land under Absentees’ Property Laws. The army has ignored the supreme court ruling, and continues to issue and implement the orders.

Every Saturday morning since April activists have accompanied the Soleiby family into the Saffa valley, where they are confronted and evicted by the Israeli army. Activists and farmers are often brutalized by the soldiers, and in the past month 37 Israeli activists and 5 international activists have been arrested. Repression by the Israeli military peaked last Friday, when 26 Israeli activists and 2 international activists were arrested before reaching the fields.

In response to activist pressure and media attention, the Israeli army has promised to protect the farmers from settler attacks. They have erected a tent in the road between the settlement and the valley, and claim to be guarding the fields. For the past week a group of three to four international activists have been going down into the fields with the farmers every morning, and have only encountered the soldiers once. There have been no settler attacks. This morning is the first Saturday that activists have not accompanied the farmers to the fields, and the farmers experienced no difficulties though the Israeli military was out in force, creating a temporary checkpoint at the edge of Saffa to prevent any international or Israeli activists from reaching the area. A small area of trees was damaged by military vehicles which were parked in the agricultural fields as part of the checkpoint.

The Israeli military seems to have realized that it is easier to allow the farmers to pick than to confront 40 activists every week. No one is not counting on them to continue protecting the farmers indefinitely, but the use of direct action and media attention seems to at least have temporarily pressured the Israeli military into restraining the settlers and allowing the farmers to access their private land.