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A Palestinian farmer reclaims his land, for now

Chaim Levinson
January 8, 2013 - 12:00am 

Making use of a controversial army order that forces settlers off land they have seized illegally, a 60 year-old Palestinian last week was able to return to his family's field for the threshing season. The next tussle over the plot, however , amy nor go so smoothly.

Fawzi Abed-Haj

The plot of Fawzi Abed-Haj, 60, was at the epicenter of violent clashes last week. Photo by Moti Milrod

Early on a cold morning last Friday, Mahmoud Abed-Haj stood at the edge of his village of Jalud in Samaria and observed the nearby Esh Kodesh outpost. After three days of clashes with the settlers, he was tense. At 10:30 A.M. he saw a tractor driving down from the outpost, and was seized with fear. Only two days earlier, he and his father Fawzi had threshed a field, and it looked as though the tractor, driven by settlers, was on its way to destroy it.

He called for help, and a car made the rounds of the village to alert the adult men among the village's 500 residents to be on alert. The tractor, however, stopped when it reached the edge of the settler's plot, the invisible boundary between the Palestinian and Jewish areas, and Abed-Haj was able, briefly, to relax.

He had reason to be anxious. The plot of Fawzi Abed-Haj, 60, was at the epicenter of violent clashes last week, spurred last Tuesday after the elder Abed-Haj returned to thresh his 100-year-old family plot following a year and a half of legal battles.

Almost immediately, a clash with settlers ensured. Border Policemen were called to the scene, and they thrashed several settlers with abandon, going to so far as to use a cudgel to beat a handcuffed one. They also fired tear gas at the Palestinians.

Act Two in the bloody saga came the following day. A group of settlers descended from the nearby outpost of Ahia, which sits 150 meters from Jalud, and started to riot: They smashed windows and they wounded two Palestinian villagers, one of whom, 4-year-old Farah Mohammed Farah, sustained a head injury. Farah has since been walking around the village wearing a large white bandage on his head, embarrassed by the attention. The next day, seven Jewish girls from the extreme right went on a "hike" in Jalud. Border Policemen detained them before another clash could begin.

Fawzi Abed-Haj won the right to return to his family's field thanks to the army's use of a controversial order preventing settlers from seizing Palestinian land. Israeli rightists are infuriated by the order, and chances are it will be struck down following the Jan. 22 elections. The order originated with the Civil Administration and grants the army the right, in cases of invasion of privately-owned Palestinian land in the West Bank, to remove the interloper even if the landowner has not filed an official complaint.

This is a legal innovation. Without such protection, the landowner's only option is to turn to the court in order to remove the interloper.

Last march Haaretz printed an angry exchange of letters between the head of the Civil Administration, Brig. Gen. Motti Elmoz, and the former legal adviser of the Judea and Samaria region, today the Deputy Military Advocate General, Col. Eli Bar On. Elmoz claimed that he did not have the legal wherewithal to weigh in on land conflicts, and therefore had no intention of implementing the order any further. Bar On accused him of shirking responsibility and called his approach illogical.

Both sides are being bolstered by a different, important legal body. On the side of the military prosecution stands the High Court of Justice. In march, former Court President Dorit Beinisch, with the support of Justices Edna Arbel and Miriam Naor, ruled that the order "provides tools" to the army commander to fulfill his duty and to protect the residents of the region. Elmoz's viewpoint, on the other hand, was supported by the report by former Supreme Court Justice Edmond Levy, who wrote that the order was "draconian" and recommended it be abolished.

As a result of the legal dispute, the Civil Administration has significantly clipped the use of the injunction. Even when it was utilized, the administration held off from implementing it. The case of Abed-Haj is an exception. In 2011 he turned to the High Court of Justice, through attorney Kamer Mashraqi Assad of Rabbis for Human Rights, and asked that the army be instructed to help him cultivate his land. In response the state declared the space a closed military area, issuing an order that blocked settlers from entering. Last week, when threshing season began, the army allowed Abed-Haj to enter the field.

The settlers, for their part, are fighting a battle against the order that blocks them from the land. The battle strategist is Orit Struk, who currently holds the number 10 slot on the Habayit Hayehudi slate. Struk has a personal investment in the issue. The plot just next to Abed-Haj's was cultivated by her son Zvi, who since October has been serving as 30-month prison term for deliberate serious assault and the kidnapping of a boy from Jalud.

In an interview with the Arutz Sheva radio station, Struk said that immediately after the election she and her cronies, along with other Likud MKs, will demand that the government adopt Justice Levy's report.

"The Levy Committee ruled that decisions involving land conflicts will be made only in court and not by the authorities," said Struk. "To date, the report has not been adopted, with the strange argument that this is a transitional government. We're convinced that immediately after the election the report will be adopted by a huge majority. But to come now and to carry out such a brutal move, and to let the Arabs to enter fields that were sown by the hands of settlers, is shocking. It's a procedure that will disappear in another month and a half. Such a wildly underhanded move should not be carried out before the election."

The next time settlers take over a plot of land, it's unclear how easy it will be disperse them. But Abed-Haj is hopeful.

"Do you see my field? My grandfather planted those olive trees," he said. "After that there were battles here between the British and the Ottomans during World War I. After that there were the Jordanians and the Israelis. But my father was here too. I worked in the field, my son works in the field and my grandson will work here. I'm optimistic."