As these words are being written, Khirbet Yanun still exists. Or maybe not: 15 of the 25 families that lived in the village are still there. This is not an insignificant number: If the reader recalls, on October 18 only two old men remained there, having refused to leave even after the last families departed, holding on by their fingertips to the village despite the abuse of settlers. The others had decided to take their possessions and move to the nearby town of Akrabeh.
However, Khirbet Yanun’s existence is still frail and incomplete. There is still no electricity or running water, the houses are without furniture, the presence of residents sparse, their security unassured. At the beginning of last week, volunteers from Israel and abroad – Jews and Arabs who belong to the Ta’ayush movement – were still on site, but their presence there was transitory. Come the next attack by settlers, which will happen sooner or later, Khirbet Yanun may be emptied of its residents for good.
Many Israelis who are committed to a life of peace and justice in this country are convinced, it seems, that despite all the horrors of the occupation and the violent conflict, there are still certain red lines that they will not allow Ariel Sharon and his government to cross: Transfer will not be permitted to happen. When the critical moment arrives, they will stand up and stop it.
But transfer isn’t necessarily a dramatic moment, a moment when people are expelled and flee their towns or villages. It is not necessarily a planned and well-organized move with buses and trucks loaded with people, such as happened in Qalqilyah in 1967. Transfer is a deeper process, a creeping process that is hidden from view. It is not captured on film, is hardly documented, and it is going on right in front of our eyes. Anyone who is waiting for a dramatic moment is liable to miss it as it happens.
The main component of the process is the gradual undermining of the infrastructure of the civilian Palestinian population’s lives in the territories: its continuing strangulation under closures and sieges that prevent people from getting to work or school, from receiving medical services, and from allowing the passage of water trucks and ambulances, which sends the Palestinians back to the age of donkey and cart. Taken together, these measures undermine the hold of the Palestinian population on its land.
When the water trucks don’t make it to the villages, when every trip to work becomes an adventure with an unforeseeable end, when schools are closed and hospitals in the nearby urban center begin to grow further away – the local fabric of life begins to disintegrate. Some of the young people, who used to work outside the village and then return home every night, remain outside, choosing not to attempt to pass through the succession of roadblocks each morning. Families that are able to do so move to safer places, closer to their sources of income, inside the population centers.
And the number of instances are mounting up: the butcher from Jerusalem, who despairs at the attempt to cross the Qalandiyah roadblock and who has closed his shop that is situated north of it; the taxi driver who moved out of his home in northern Jerusalem to live, crowded with the rest of the family, in his parents’ home in the Old City, in order to have a chance to get to work; residents of a West Bank village whose son was about to begin studies in the nearby city of Nablus, but because it is no longer so accessible even by public transit, are poised to leave their village and move to the city. All of these cases signal how the hold of the Palestinian population on the land is being weakened.
Not an isolated case
What the army’s closures and sieges don’t achieve, the settlers do: Every new settlement and outpost requires security, of course, and the meaning of security to settlers is eviction of Palestinians from the surrounding area, and transformation of the agricultural lands to death zones, for whoever enters them to pick olives or work the land may end up paying for the act with his life. In order for a handful of settlers to dominate almost half of the land of the occupied territories, an organized action, a conquest of the land, a tower-and-stockade thrust is required. Armed, subsidized and organized, they systematically rough up residents of the villages, very much like the paramilitary units employed by hacienda owners in Latin America to inflict a reign of terror on the peasantry. They are above the law.
The campaign against the olive harvesters was therefore an important component of the settlers’ attempt to pull out from under the legs of the villagers the little that they still have. It is also intended to show them that the settlers are the real masters, that they can pick the olives of the villagers with impunity, and drive off with gunfire anyone who tries to stand in their way.
Khirbet Yanun is not an isolated case. Dozens of villages in the area of Tul Karm and Qalqilyah, Salfit and Nablus have been subjected to intense existential pressure for several months. This is not necessarily marked by dramatic incidents causing death and casualties, but by organized abuse, constant deterioration of living conditions, tightening of the stranglehold, and increased isolation from the economic, cultural and political centers of Palestinian society.
All of these long-term structural processes, which gradually undermine the population’s hold on its land, are clearly expressed at Khirbet Yanun. It is a small and isolated settlement that lies only a few hundred meters from the outposts established by the settlers of Itamar. The outposts were established in the hills above Yanun in the late 1990s, under the auspices of the “peace process.” Akrabeh is situated a 15-minute drive away, via a poorly maintained dirt road that is easy to block off.
Venture out at night into the streets of Yanun. The little village is dark, the landscape pastoral. But even in the village itself, residents are not alone: On the hill opposite, the settlers’ watchtowers can be seen, and from the hill on the other side, the caravans and cars are visible. The lights of the patrol vehicles can be seen from far away. Here in their homeland, the people of Yanun sit surrounded, as in a sort of reserve whose days are numbered. The settlers may appear at any moment, and they do: The children hide whenever they hear the sound of their all-terrain vehicles. The residents freeze in place in the olive grove whenever the settlers appear.
This, too, is not an isolated case: If you find yourself in the southern Hebron hills along the edge of the desert, along with Palestinian residents living in their tents in Susya, here too you will find that there is no room for the local residents. Look up and you will see a star-studded sky, but all it takes is a glance around you and you will understand that you are surrounded – army vehicles patrol the road, which the Palestinians are not allowed to approach. On the other side are the settlers of Susya: Woe to anyone who gets too close to the fields adjacent to the settlement. And Susya continues to expand. An illuminated security road passes behind you, in the wadi, and if you take a look northward, you will see the lights of the nearby army base and hear the announcements crackling from the loudspeakers.
This reality conveys an unambiguous message: Residents of the reserve – you are surrounded; it would be best if you surrendered. And these are also the explicit words uttered by the settlers to the people of Khirbet Yanun during recent attacks on the village, when they broke into homes, when they beat Abd al-Latif Bani Jaber in front of his family: Get out of here, go to Akrabeh.
Complaints lodged by Yanun residents to the police provide a documentation of the process by which their village has turned into a ghost town. The village is situated in Area C, which is under the full security and administrative responsibility of Israel, but in the opinion of local residents, there is a tacit agreement between the army and the settlers. All development in the village is blocked. Indeed, since 1992, the Israeli Civil Administration has forbidden any construction there. The fields have become unsafe. The settlers used to come down the hill and treat the village as if it were their own. Local residents quote one of the settlers from Itamar, who told them that he and he alone ruled the area. I will remain here, he said, when the police and the press have gone. According to residents, it was he who led the raids on the village.
And so, long before they burned the electrical generator in April 2002, the infrastructure of daily life was increasingly being undermined. The children of Khirbet Yanun used to go to the elementary school in Yanun a-Tahta, which is near Akrabeh. When the raids grew worse and the road became unsafe, a small school was opened in the village, less than two years ago. This school was closed when the last families left the village. The walls were closing in on the daily lives of the villagers. The nearest high school is in Akrabeh, which has become so much more distant. So anyone who wants his children to stay in school is compelled to leave Yanun and move to the town. But even without this consideration – who is going to decide to stay in a village where settlers come and go as they please, day and night, marching on the roofs of the houses and breaking into the homes?
On Thursday, October 17, the principal of the small school in Khirbet Yanun bade farewell to his last students. The next day, the last six families left town. Two days later, the Ta’ayush volunteers arrived in order to enable residents to return to their village. Most of the residents are still there.
Khirbet Yanun sends a danger signal that should not be disregarded: Tens of thousands of people are liable to become displaced persons and refugees. In addition, Israeli “security sources” repeatedly leak reports that in time of war or escalation of the conflict, the Sharon government may try to displace many others, on an organized basis. The pain of displacement will not be soothed by time. For years to come, Israeli society will have to contend with the violent cost of this displacement, which is added to previous rounds of it.
Yanun is a warning sign not only to Israelis but also to Palestinians. The danger of transfer is tangible. In order to eliminate it, there is a need for serious work in the field and a strengthening of the local economy. First and foremost, there should be a focus on rejuvenating the social fabric and strengthening the internal solidarity within Palestinian society. Without these, a new wave of refugees is liable to be added to the old camps or join existing urban centers.
The foundation that is required for tsumud (the stubborn clinging to the land, the determination to hold on in spite of the occupation) will not be found in symbolic actions, in focusing on international public opinion at the expense of dealing with the distress at home, or in armed demonstrations of power. In order to contend with the creeping process of transfer, Palestinian society must enlist its human resources in order to struggle over every meter of land and every goat. Will this effort find loyal Israeli allies in the civil struggle against dispossession?
Ta’ayush volunteers came to Khirbet Yanun for two weeks to fend for the residents, to facilitate their return home and to roust public opinion out of its state of apathy. Fifteen families have returned to their homes, albeit hesitantly and fearfully, and their return is not complete.
During our stay here, the army has been compelled to demonstrate its presence. But past experience teaches the residents that despite their calls for help, the maltreatment will not end. During our stay here, the Itamar settlers succeeded in swooping down on the village and severely beating two residents and four volunteers. None of the rioters was arrested. A sign of things to come.
Our presence in Khirbet Yanun was temporary. It is impossible and it is wrong for the presence of Israeli citizens to be the only guarantee to ensure the continued existence of a Palestinian village. Unless people in Israel stand up to the injustice and support the people of the village, they will remain at the mercy of the settlers. When will the next attack come? Will it be after the residents leave? Will they blow up the houses of the village? Or move into the houses? And where will they stop?
The sights from three weeks ago remain with us. On the moonlit night when we arrived in Yanun, we walked through the abandoned Arab village. The residents had time to prepare themselves, to take their belongings, gather light fixtures and pull out the electrical wiring. There wasn’t even the sound of a single dog barking in the village. Still, wherever you turn, you see open homes, broken-down doors, yawning black voids. And on the surrounding hillsides, the watchtowers of the settlers of Itamar. More or less, this is how the Palestinian villages looked after 1948. Fifty-odd years later, we are here again, Israelis and Palestinians, captives of a history whose bitter lessons we have forgotten.
The writers are members of the Ta’ayush – Arab Jewish Partnership movement. They live in Tel-Aviv and Kfar Kassem respectively.