Last Wednesday Yonatan (A rabbinic student on the RHR OT staff.) and I were on our way to the Nablus region when we received a telephone from our field activist to divert quickly to Mreyer, where the Israeli DCO had informed the mayor that they discovered that 130 of the village’s olive trees had been cut down approximately100 meters from the Adei Ad outpost. (Just one of the many acts of theft and tree destruction we have discovered this olive harvest season.) Adei Ad is a fierce competitor with the Khavat Gilad outpost regarding who is responsible year after year for the most violence and destruction. Last year the regional brigade commander told us, “It’s a pity, but after all of the poisonings and uprootings over the years, there is nothing left to harvest or defend next to Adei Ad.” It turns out that there was something left to destroy, given the fact that brave farmers from Mreyer refuse to give up.
We arrived after a stomach churning ride on rocky paths that can scarcely be called roads. If the ride was stomach churning, I wanted to be sick to my stomach when I saw an entire olive grove destroyed at the foot of Adei Ad. “Khilul HaShem (A desecration of God’s Name.) There are no other words for it. This week we read in the Torah of the dove with an olive branch in her mouth, an image that became a symbol of peace. Here the olive branches felled to the ground were crying to the heavens. If a dove had arrived toward evening she would have found no resting place for her foot or her soul, “The earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with lawless violence.” (Genesis 6:11). While it is true that God promises never again to destroy the earth by flood, God never promises that human beings will not wreak destruction.
When the first farmers from Mreyer hurried to the scene in the morning, an Israeli came down from Adei Ad and began taking pictures. The farmers were immediately worried that he intended to spread again the familiar libel that the Palestinians themselves had performed “Deep pruning.” Sure enough, settler news agencies were soon spreading the libel. However, there was an additional twist the Palestinians hadn’t anticipated. The claim was now that the Palestinians had destroyed trees owned by Jews. To anybody who thinks to him/herself, “Well, couldn’t that be true?”, I can only remind you that it was the Israeli army informed the Palestinians about their trees, and that the army had no problem when I spoke to them about guarding the branches until the farmers could collect them and try to salvage the olives. In fact the Palestinians were allowed to collect the branches. The Palestinians also report that, before I arrived, the army made it clear to the settlers just what they thought about settler claims to these trees.
Sadly, the settler claims even appeared in Ynet, and we haven’t been able to get them to issue a clarification or give the other side of the story. From past experience, I know that when we don’t succeed in debunking the lies, they come back to haunt us years later. To this day the settlers in the South Hebron Hills truly believe that I am responsible for the death of Dov Dribben, even though several courts ruled that “Women and Green” had to pay us compensation and remove some of their original language from their website. I have no doubt that this incident will become part of the settler mythology and consciousness as “Another example of a Palestinian attack on Jews living in Judea andSamaria,” as well as their data bases.
Towards the end of the day, I experienced a small corrective experience to this bleak reality. We eventually continued northward, as we had arranged to meet a new DCO officer. He was supposed to be supervising the harvest of farmers from Farata in their olive grove next to the Khavat Gilad outpost, and we were going to meet between the olive grove and the village. (We are no allowed to be in the olive grove with the Palestinians because we are more of a red flag to the settlers than are the Palestinians themselves.) However, there was just one little problem. The Palestinians had arrived and discovered (Not for the first time.) that there was nothing left to harvest. All the olives had been stolen. Khavat Gilad wasn’t going to concede to Adei Ad so easily. For some time now one of the principle (and not so young) Palestinian land owners has been forced to work as a day laborer. After years of theft, tree burning and uprooting to make way for more and more prefab settler homes, he can no longer make a living off his land. The settlers claim that this is “disputed land” (I sat next to the founder of Khavat Gilad in 2004 when the army’s Civil Administration told both of us that this was Palestinian land.), and that there is an “agreement” that they will harvest on alternate years.
Seeing as there was no point in keeping our original meeting place, I made a stupid mistake. I suggested that we meet at the gas station at the entrance to the Kedumim settlement. A burly Jewish man with a big kippah sat next to us. I wrote a note to Yehiel and the DCO officer, “He is recording our conversation.” The logical thing to do was to invite him to join us, and I asked him to contribute his thoughts how we might enforce the law and High Court rulings, and prevent the theft of olives, destruction of trees, and further desecration of God’s Name. He and a friend preferred to take our picture and to shout asking why an army officer would be meeting with us. However, another settler arrived toward the end. He also recognized us and begin to shout. However, after the DCO officer left, he accepted my invitation to sit and talk with derekh eretz (In a decent fashion.). We didn’t agree about much. However, he did hear from me that we also condemned the murders of the Fogel family, why we reject the idea that the murderers gathered intelligence during the harvest or that the entire extended family should be punished, and how our work actually makes a major contribution to the security of Israelis. We heard from him that he is not opposed to Palestinians harvesting their olives if that won’t lead to murders. We won’t cease protecting Palestinian human rights and our own humanity. He won’t stop being a settler. However, I have learned that neither High Court decisions nor any facts coming from a source somebody doesn’t trust will change their inner truth. (I think we do a better job than the most radical settlers of honoring Court decisions, but we also disagree with the Court fairly often.) There is no simple solution even about how to agree on the facts regarding Mreyer’s olive grove or many other contested issues. For there to be even a minuscule chance of agreeing on anything, we have no choice but to have direct contact with those who rely on the sources spreading these lies. In the process, we must also listen to things that challenge some of our truths. We also read this week about the Tower of Babel. Since the tower, we don’t all speak the same language. However, the midrash teaches us that the true sin of the builders was that the tower was more important than human beings. I maintain faith that one day we will again at least all agree on the sanctity of the human being that flows from the One God who created us all.
P.S. We in RHR and other HR organizations currently believe that we are in an emergency situation in the face of levels of tree destruction and theft we haven’t seen for several years, the lack of sufficient preemptive action by Israeli security forces (As in previous years, the army knows how to successfully protect farmers on scheduled harvest days, but they aren’t fulfilling their High Court ordered responsibility to prevent tree destruction and olive theft in the middle of the night. Nor, to they succeed in protecting Palestinians exercising their right to harvest freely in areas not requiring advance coordination. In “Parashat HaShavua” you will find the letter we have written to the Defense Minister and other army officials, links to the all too few mentions in the press of this terrible phenomenon, including the warning I issued on Reshet B radio at the outset of the harvest that the army wasn’t prepared this year. I ask myself why there isn’t a great outcry from the Prime Minister down, as there was in 2005. The Prime Minister was Ariel Sharon and Shaul Mofaz was Defense Minister – Not exactly the radical left. In 2005 the adjacent outposts were put at the top of list of outposts scheduled for evacuation. The destruction stopped. In 2009 the army placed a ring or border police 24/7 around Khavat Gilad, starting a month before the harvest. There were almost no incidents that year.