Israeli guard: ‘Go from this land or I will kill you’
Palestinian farmer describes struggle to prevent Israeli settlers from taking over his fields and his livelihood.
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Burin, occupied West Bank – The olive harvest has come and gone in the occupied West Bank village of Burin, where Palestinian farmer Nimer Tirawi says he has carried out last-ditch efforts to prevent an Israeli guard from the neighbouring Yitzhar settlement from taking over his fields and devastating his livelihood.
Tirawi has been unable to complete his annual harvest for the past two years due to repeated death threats from the guard, he said. Last year, Tirawi said he was with his son on their farmland when the guard ran towards them.
“He came with his weapon and said: ‘Go from this land or I will kill you,'” Tirawi told Al Jazeera. When Tirawi refused to leave, he said the guard left and returned shortly afterwards, along with some 20 settlers who began to physically assault him by hitting, kicking and throwing stones.
When he sees farmers going to their land, he comes and kicks them off. He doesn't want anyone in Burin to work or live from this land.
Like the majority of farmland owned by Palestinians in Burin, Tirawi‘s land lies in Area C, the 60 percent of the West Bank that is under full Israeli military and administrative control. Tirawi has documentation of land ownership, but can access it only on certain days pending approval from Israeli authorities.
Sitting in front of his home near a settler-only road that separates him from parts of his land, Tirawi explained the metamorphosis that Burin has gone through since Yitzhar was built in the early 1980s.
Initially established as an Israeli military base in 1983, Yitzhar’s outskirts have since become home to five illegal outposts. More than 2,500 dunams (2.5sq km) of land belonging to Burin residents have been confiscated by Israel for settlements, military bases and settler-only roads in the area.
Threats have led Tirawi to fear that his land, around four kilometres from Yitzhar’s Israeli-recognised municipal border, will eventually be appropriated for Israeli use too.
“When [the guard] sees farmers going to their land, he comes and kicks them off. He doesn’t want anyone in Burin to work or live from this land,” Tirawi said.
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Despite systematic impunity granted by Israel’s military and police to Israelis who execute attacks on Palestinians and their property, Israeli human rights organisation Yesh Din has been attempting to hold this guard accountable.
The guard in question, whose name Yesh Din could not disclose for legal reasons, is a Civilian Security Coordinator (CSC), appointed by fellow settlers to protect the settlement on behalf of the army. Yesh Din filed a complaint in December 2015 to General Adviser of Judea and Samaria (West Bank) Colonel Doron Ben-Barak on behalf of Tirawi and two other Burin residents who reported criminal offences by the guard during last year’s harvest.
Exchanges that took place in the ensuing months laid bare what the group argues is Israel’s systematic refusal to effectively investigate or prosecute CSC transgressions.
When lawyer Michal Pasovsky wrote to the general adviser that the guard named in Tirawi‘s case – as an employee of the army – should undergo military investigation, advising officer Benny Winston asked that the farmers file complaints with the Israeli police.
While the commander in charge could conduct an investigation, the tools available to him were “limited … compared to the tools available to the Israeli police”, Winston wrote.
Pasovsky said that Palestinians who face criminal abuses by Israeli guards typically avoid filing complaints with police due to well-founded fears of further harassment by the guard, as well as the ineffectiveness of police investigations. Filing a police complaint was not necessary for a military investigation to take place, she added.
The final correspondence from the general adviser’s office in April stated that the investigation would be carried out. An Israeli army spokesperson later told Al Jazeera that the probe “did not substantiate the claims, but rather refuted them”.
“The reason no further action was taken against the security coordinator is that the allegations were found to lack basis,” the army spokesperson said.
Israeli researcher Eyal Hareuveni said that investigations allowed by military law into CSC actions – referred to as administrative investigations – are inadequate, as Palestinian complainants are absent from the process, which consists solely of a commander questioning a CSC guard about allegations against him.
“No one really wants to investigate it seriously and Yesh Din knows that they are climbing on a wet wall, but they are still trying to do the legal dance,” Hareuveni said.
Despite the failure to prompt disciplinary measures in the Burin case, Pasovsky said she hopes that the army’s investigation “will make [the guard] feel that someone is watching, that he can’t do anything he wants”.
Tirawi‘s case underscores what Yesh Din says is state support for “ideologically motivated” offences carried out by settlers, who use violence to expand settlement borders.
Yitzhar, in particular, has a violent history. Israeli security forces in 2014 reported that a majority of some 100 perpetrators of “price tag” attacks – committed in response to actions by the Israeli government perceived to be against settler interests – were followers of Yitzhar’s Rabbi Yitzhak Ginsburg.
Ginsburg is the president of what University of North Carolina professor Motti Inbari refers to as “the most extreme rabbinical institution in the West Bank”, Od Yosef Chai Yeshiva, located inside of Yitzhar and headed by Ginsburg’s former student, Yitzhak Shapira.
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Inbari told Al Jazeera that the dismantling of Israeli state institutions to make way for the implementation of a Jewish monarchy across the biblical land of Israel is integral to Ginsburg’s theology, which has supported the use of violence to obtain these goals.
Former Yitzhar spokesperson and current settlement resident Ezri Tubi told Al Jazeera that the number of residents fully aligned with Ginsburg’s teachings was small, and he rejected Yesh Din’s claims that the guard in the Burin case carried out violations due to “ideological motivations”.
“I’m not saying these kind of things can’t happen. They can happen,” Tubi told Al Jazeera, noting that since settlers moved to Yitzhar in 1984, at least one attack has been perpetrated inside of the settlement by Palestinians who entered through adjacent fields.
“I sleep with a pistol under my pillow … If a Palestinian gets too close to a settlement, it is considered a threat.”
Tirawi, who said that he and other Burin farmers have no intentions to carry out attacks of any kind in or around Yitzhar, estimates a loss of some 5,000 olive trees over the past three years due to settler attacks on Palestinian farmland in the area, adding that some 20 families in the village have lost access to their land.
The slow removal of Burin farmers from fields surrounding Yitzhar through CSC-enabled violence reflects long-standing state support for the illegal takeover of land in the occupied territory through violence or threats against local Palestinians, in violation of international law, Palestinians say.
“The aim of sending this guard here is to steal all of the land of Burin … The settlement is getting bigger every year,” Tirawi said, as he motioned towards a portion of Yitzhar that he can see from his front yard.
Hareuveni said that the developments in Burin could be crucial to bringing a larger case that could have “an effect on security coordinators all over the West Bank”.