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No olive branch for Yanun?

The situation is always tense and the people fearful -- VIKRAM SURA visits the beleagured Palestinian village of Yanun in Israeli occupied West Bank.


Yanun, West Bank:

TUCKED away in a dip in the arid hills of the West Bank lies the village of Yanun. Here, flocks of sheep graze on the lower edges of the slopes, bleating when a shepherd checks them from straying. The scent of pine and olive flushes the valley. Yanun is also home to 16 Palestinian families who rear sheep, and pick and harvest olives and pepper.

Yanun is older than his memory, says 65-year-old Hassan Abu Hanniyeh, and the father of eight daughters and seven sons. His father, he recounts with pride, lived to 115 years in the village, which lies in between the Jordan Rift Valley and the West Bank city of Nablus. Near Yanun and eight miles away, is Itamar, a Jewish settlement established 19 years ago. Abu Hanniyeh says that roughly nine years ago, families from Itamar set up trailer homes along the ridgelines flanking Yanun. The homes flourished as Itamar's outposts. The villagers of Yanun felt surrounded but not vulnerable.

Well until the second Palestinian uprising in October 2000, Jewish settlers from the outposts and the Palestinians of Yanun traded goods and services. Settlers from Itamar visited Yanun to be served cardamom-spiced coffee and mint tea. But the warmth evaporated when violence erupted in Jerusalem that October. Israeli police had shot dead 13 Israeli Arabs, in response to rioting against Ariel Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount or the Noble Sanctuary. The esplanade, which houses the Masjid Al Aqsa, was then barred to non-Muslims by the Israeli Government.

Even as officials investigated the deaths, in Yanun valley, Palestinian militants killed around 11 settlers from Iramar in the last three years, including three unarmed rabbinical students and a family of five, the youngest of whom was five. The attacks fitted a pattern of sorties into Itamar by Palestinians who reckoned that killing Jewish settlers in the West Bank was justifiable. However, between Yanun, and Itamar and its outposts, there was less cause for grievance."

"Throughout the years, there has been free moving back and forth," says Moshe Goldsmith, a spokesman for Itamar. "But the last two years have been the most difficult. Separation took place in the last two years. A Jew wandering about would find himself murdered."

The Palestinians in Yanun complain about the settlers in the outposts. In the past one-year, according to Abu Hanniyeh and press accounts, armed settlers have prevented the Palestinians from harvesting the olive crop, which accounts for approximately 40 per cent of West Bank's non-dairy agricultural produce. The settlers had begun to intimidate them, even damaging the village's electricity generator, which the United Nations helped replace. Hoping to prevent further attacks, the Palestinians had painted "U.N." in large white letters on the blue gates of the concrete shed sheltering the generator.

"First they good people, drink café and sit with Abu Hanniyeh," says Fida Bani Jabber, 24, Hanniyeh's daughter-in-law. "Now beat up people in Yanun. They kill our sheep, swim in the water. Why? They want us to leave Yanun, they want to take the land," she says in broken English. Of the original 30 families in Yanun, half have fled to the village of Aqraba nearby.

But Mohammed Khader, 40, father of five, stayed on. Khader had worked as a students' counsellor in the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) mission in New Delhi in the mid-1980s, and later in Palestinian missions across West Asia, returning to Yanun five years ago. He now tends to his flock of 70 sheep. "Too much problem. Every week problems," he says. "Ask the settler, `why you here'," says Khader, complaining of the right of settlers to own M-16 assault rifles and the exclusive use of dirt roads connecting the outposts. "This is just for the Israeli," he says. Peace groups describe the privilege more radically, but often inaccurately, as racist. Khader says that the army and the police who mediate between the settlers and the villagers are no good. "The police come and said settler is crazy. If the settler is crazy why you give him M-16? Take him to the mental hospital, I said to police," says Khader.

Following official reappraisal in 1998, the Israel Defense Force (IDF) are now responsible for security in the West Bank and the police within the settlements. In Yanun, however, groups of foreigners belonging to the International Women's Peace Service, the International Solidarity Movement and the Israelis of the Jewish-Arab peace groups Taayush — meaning, life in common — keep watch. They move in pairs to operate the generator and call for the police or army when settlers threaten them, and keep the local economy going. A notice in their encampment reads: "Participate in the economy of the village by buying these local products: `olive oil 2 litres', `cheese 1 kg', `yoghurt 1 pot', `olive 1.5 litres', `soap 1 bar'. Yanun is Area `C' or total Israeli control. In October 2001 the village emptied and only 16 families returned with the peaceniks shielding them.

In Itamar, however, the Palestinians are accused of aiding terrorists. Says Alon Zimmerman, an immigrant from California, "From the village of Yanun, with the cooperation of the residents, terrorists attacked the settlement. The terrorists were proven to have come from Yanun. They did much more damage than the damage (the settlers did) to the olive trees. In the last few months there were lots of attempts to attack the settlement. The army was able to scare them."

Moshe Goldsmith, Itamar's spokesman, says that he "never heard of the things mentioned", of bathing dogs and scorching the electricity generator and hacking olive trees. "A lot of people are exaggerating things," he says. "If you look at the Jews they have to travel in armoured cars in Judea and Samaria (the Biblical names for West Bank). We as a people do not want to harm a population. We are the one's who are hiding, not the other population. We are a peaceful people."

Around 2,20,000 Israelis live in 150 Jewish settlements, among three million Palestinians in West Bank and Gaza Strip. A poll conducted in June by Peace Now found that 70 per cent of them were willing to evacuate for compensation. Despite claims to the contrary by the Israeli Government that Palestinian Autonomous Territories are "disputed" and not "occupied", settlements have no legal validity under international humanitarian law. Currently the settlements have carved up the West Bank and Gaza Strip into Palestinian enclaves separated by a network of Israeli checkpoints and exclusive settler roads. The settlers argue that settlements occupy only two per cent of land and, therefore, are not an obstacle to conflict resolution. But what has to be accounted for are the areas bordering the settlements for security and municipal services that envelop around 6.8 per cent of land, according to Btselem, an Israeli human rights group. It is this extension of land that usually falls nearer to Palestinian owned property and some 83,700 hectares of olive groves in West Bank. Says Goldsmith: "The army at times doesn't allow them too close to the settlements for fear of a terror attack." Yet Btselem notes that the IDF is supposed to protect the Palestinians when harvesting olives.

Unlike the settlers in Itamar who seek Biblical inspiration for settling in the West Bank, many secular Jews also build homes in the settlements attracted by the government's financial sops. A study released in January 2003 by Btselem notes that an individual settler benefits an average of 8,500 shekels or Rs. 88,000 more than a resident in Israel.

Yanun valley lies relatively far from the main population centres where Palestinian militants and Israeli security forces play a game of hide-and-seek.

It's a world kept apart by at least two Israeli checkpoints, tangled hill ways and dust eddies. If the claim of Israel as the only nation in West Asia governed by the rule of law finds meaning among some of its settlers, Yanun might be allowed to co-exist.

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