Gideon Levy
Selected Articles from Ha'aretz


Bitter harvest

October 19, 2001

The ruined hothouses of Bardala: "This is the only source of support for us and our children."
(Photo: Miki Kratsman)
   

They arrived in the night, two busloads of men and youths, accompanied by soldiers. Bent on revenge for the murder of Salit Sheetrit of Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu, they destroyed the crops and the hothouses of the farmers of Bardala. The police, called to the scene, arrived nine hours later.  

Izat Maslamini was distraught. He walked about in his field, limping, his shirt dripping with sweat, his face unshaven and his throat hoarse. Here was another torn-up tube and more irrigation pipes pulled out of their places, another wrecked hothouse and another eggplant bush that will never bear fruit. Maslamini picks up from the ground each remnant of the destruction, as if believing that everything he beheld - cucumber after cucumber, irrigation pipeline after irrigation pipeline - would somehow be set right again. 

Maslamini raised the ruined tubes and waved them about; he threw the lost vegetables to the ground in despair. Walking has been difficult for him ever since he was beaten by Jews on that terrible night; he still carries the scars, and wants everyone to see. He says that those who were armed forced him to stay by the door of his hut, where he sat for two hours, watching the settlers destroying the fruits of his labor. All the hard farming work of the past year went down the drain that night. 

Maybe only a farmer can truly understand. The harvest was due to begin exactly five days after this pogrom by the settlers, who are farmers themselves. "By God, I didn't harvest anything this year," the disconsolate farmer repeated over and over again. The damage is estimated at NIS 150,000. 

The rampagers came to his fields four days after the murder of Salit Sheetrit of Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu. Now the road to the farmer's ruined fields are blocked as well: On Sunday, an IDF bulldozer came and dug a trench to separate the fields of Maslamini and his neighbors from the main road. This week, Maslamini composed a declaration to the world, the cry of a tiller of the soil whose fields were sabotaged and whose world has been destroyed, written in awkward script on wrinkled cigarette paper. He keeps it in his shirt pocket, which is already stuffed with notes. 

"In the name of God the merciful. We farmers of the northern region, the land of Bardala, tell you that the settlers have destroyed our fields and wrecked our hothouses. This is the only source of support for us and our children. And now we must go on living. The settlers also beat Izat Maslamini on the back and legs. We call upon all the organizations to provide assistance to these farmers who have lost all they had. We ask Saudi Arabia and Prince Walid bin Talil to support us, like he donated $10 million to New York to build the Twin Towers ... " 

When Maslamini finished reading his proclamation, there was a deathly silence in the shady spot at the edge of his fields, where we sat, interrupted only by the quiet humming of the bees up in the fruit trees. Then farmer Jihad Darajma said, "We all agree," and all the other farmers sitting there nodded their heads. 

Maslamini angrily passes through his ruined fields, bewailing his tragedy. "From what am I going to eat now? You tell me. How will my children and I eat? It's all over. Tell me, what are we to do? It's all gone. They've killed us. They beat me on the back and legs with their weapons. What are we going to do? I have 12 big and small children [eight children and four grandchildren] and what will we do for them? Where am I going to get food for them? I need NIS 1,000 for fertilizer and for plastic. Where am I going to get it from? I haven't harvested one thing. They came in the night and then fled. What shall we do to them? Tell me. 

"Here, look. Two dunams of hothouses - all gone. Over there, three dunams of eggplant - all gone. And now the road here, you can't get in anymore. If there were soldiers here now, they'd take your ID and you'd sit here and wait. When is the soldier coming back? In an hour, two hours, five hours, seven hours, maybe not all night. What does he care? He's happy. You can't come in here. Here's the cucumber area. They destroyed everything, dug it all up. What are we going to do? I saw it happen at night, at 2:30 in the morning. They grabbed me and beat me. 

"Am I causing problems? Look at this boy here, you see? No shoes. We thought the crops would grow and we'd all eat, this boy, too, and now it's all gone. Isn't that a shame? I told the policeman, `If I did this mess, then come and take me.' Look at the irrigation pipe. It's all torn up. What can we do with it. Look - it can't even be fixed. They cut it all up. By God, I haven't harvested anything. By God - if you believe in God. Here, this is the first eggplant I've picked this year. Look at it. I've been sick at home until now. There's no money for us to try it again. Look how they tore the plastic sheeting of the hothouses. They have these things like pruning shears that slice the tubing. Look, they left one here. Everything is ruined, all 60 dunams, and there's another 100 dunams that belong to the neighbors. They destroyed everything there, too. All in one night. 

"We wait a year for the crops to grow - all through the winter and the summer. And then they come and wreck the whole area, everything, even inside the hothouses. They wouldn't let us speak. `Sit, sit and keep quiet,' they told us. They hit us in the leg with their M-16s. How is it possible to live like this? How can we make peace? Did I cause them trouble? I didn't even have a knife to slice tomatoes. They tore everything up with box-cutters." 

Salt of the earth 

Like an abdomen sewn up after an operation, the torn plastic sheeting of the hothouses are closed with crude black stitches. But the vegetables inside are a total loss - yellow, rotten cucumbers and green tomatoes that will never ripen. The torn-up irrigation tubing lies scattered on the ground, beyond repair. Yazid, a bespectacled young boy, shows a piece of evidence from the place of destruction: a cutting tool left behind by the vandals. A neighbor, Jihad Darajma, who was in charge of irrigation on the night of the rampage, hoists his little nephew on his shoulders. "What does it have to do with this child?" he asks. 

All the fields close to the main road, the Jordan Valley Highway, were totally destroyed, plowed up by the avenging bulldozers. The land was completely ruined; whatever crops remained have withered and yellowed. They came to avenge the murder of 28-year-old Salit Sheetrit of Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu, killed four days before. Not radical settlers from Yizhar or violent settlers from Tapuah, but "colonizers" of the Jordan Valley - apparently together with religious kibbutzniks from Sde Eliyahu inside Israel, who had never been considered "settlers." 

The salt of the earth, who went to settle in a part of Israel that someone, for some reason, once promised them would forever remain in Israel's hands (according to the Allon Plan) and whose world is now crashing down around them. Ehud Barak put the future of "their" Jordan Valley on the table at Camp David, farming isn't the big hit it used to be, and Palestinian terrorists are shooting at them on the road that just yesterday was also thought to be a part of Israel. 

Maslamini, 49, has four daughters, four sons and four grandchildren. For 10 months of the year, from August through June, they live in a hut at the edge of the fields, without electricity. On Sunday of this week, the laundry was hanging on the line after having been boiled over coals. The children go to school in the nearby village of Bardala, a kilometer and a half away. For two months of the year, the hottest part of the summer, they stay in the village of Tubas. Maslamini has been working this land for three years. Before that, he worked the nearby fields. A tenant farmer, he splits the income with the owner of the land. Last year, he reaped a crop worth NIS 155,000 from the 30 dunams that he works, half of which went to the owner. It's all written in his notebook - the income and expenses, each crate of cucumbers sold and each sack of fertilizer purchased. Gas - NIS 6,100. Plastic sheeting - NIS 2,223. According to his notebook, he sold 16 crates of squash at NIS 30 per crate. He gets up at four in the morning to go to work and goes to bed at eight in the evening. They rest between noon and 2 P.M., because of the heat, and finish work at six. 

He planted here in July. Eggplant, squash, cucumbers, zucchini, hot peppers, sweet peppers, fava beans. The prime crops he sells right there to merchants who come from Jenin, Nazareth and Tiberias. The rest, they send to the market in Nablus - whenever it's possible to get there. A crate of prime produce sells for NIS 40, the rest is sent to the market for NIS 10, not including high transportation expenses, due to the situation. These days, it sometimes takes nine hours to travel the 40 kilometers to Nablus, traveling on makeshift roads. Now that the dirt blockade of Maslamini's fields is piling up before our eyes, as the IDF officer gives the signal and the bulldozer gouges the earth, getting there will take longer and be even more difficult. 

Maslamini awoke in a panic in his hut when he heard the mob closing in. It was after two in the morning. He pulls out his notebook, where he has it all written down. On the night between September 27 and 28, it says. "Your holiday, your Kippur, had just ended," he says. The vandals arrived just hours after the conclusion of the fast and Yom Kippur prayers. They came in two buses, for a well-organized rampage, escorted by two IDF jeeps as quiet and unseeing backup. Before going to sleep that night, Maslamini had watched the news from New York again and again on Jordanian Television. "Only in New York, only in New York," he'd said to his wife. 

Maslamini was stunned by what he found when he went out of his hut. He saw dozens of people running wild in his field, which was illuminated by the headlights of an IDF jeep. "They were kids - 16, 17, 19 years old. Each one armed with a box-cutter and wire cutters. They spread out all over. For every three kids, there was an armed adult. Then the tractors came. There were three of them ... 

"Four armed men stood next to my house. `Sit, don't say anything,' one of them said, and then he hit me. They were settlers, not soldiers. My neighbor, Salah Darajma, came with a tractor and wanted to go to his children. They told him to beat it. Tell me, what were we to do? It went on for an hour and a half or two hours. They kept on destroying everything, with the IDF jeep showing them the way. I was afraid that if I started yelling, they'd do something to my children. That's all I was thinking. You can talk to the soldiers, but it's not possible to talk to these people, to the settlers. They were from Sde Eliyahu, from Mehola and Sdemot Mehola. You think anyone was there from Tel Aviv? What do they care? They knew that neither we or our children had done this." 

As Izat is telling his story, his neighbor Jihad arrives. "They came off of two buses," he says. "And they had knives and pliers and shears. Each group of three was accompanied by someone armed with a gun. I told my uncle, who was with me, to take his children and wife and escape with them to the area above. We took all the children and fled, my wife and I and our 6-month-old baby. I went and sat with them in silence. Where could I go?" 

Jihad Darajma called the police around 2:30 A.M. "This guy answered and I spoke to him in Hebrew. I told him that people had come and were plowing up our crops and wrecking our hothouses and that we had little children that were seeing all this. He asked where I was. I told him that I live in Bardala. So he said, `Where's Bardala?' I told him it's in the Jordan Valley. I explained to him exactly. He said, `Wait, I'll ask where Bardala is.' I heard him talking with a young woman. I heard him ask her where Bardala is. She said, `Here, next to Sdemot Mehola.' 

"I could tell that he thought he understood now. He asked me where I was calling from. I told him that I was calling from the house in the tent, from my uncle's cellular phone. He asked me for the number and asked my name. I gave him my name and he said: `I'm sending a patrol car now.' I said: `There's a blockade here and a blockade there and you could stop them in a minute.' Then I hung up the phone. 

"I waited. I said to myself that if the police wanted to come, it should take 15 minutes or a half-hour at most. They didn't come. And meanwhile the vandals are plowing up our fields. I tried again. I dialed 100 and spoke to a woman there. I told her I'd spoken to a man there before, that there were people who were destroying our crops. She asked where it was and said she'd send another patrol car. I hung up and waited another hour or more. And all this time, they're still at it. I waited and they didn't come. So I said, What can we do? From now on, I'm just watching. And I turned off the cell phone. I sat there smoking a cigarette and looking at the field. I played with my baby and told him that tomorrow, we're going back to Tubas. That we're done with farming. And now he's in Tubas and I'm here trying to pick whatever they didn't have time to pull up. If we had the money, we'd try to grow things here again." 

`You can replant' 

The police arrived at 11 the next morning, almost nine hours after they were called. Maslamini: "They looked around, they took some pictures. One of them asked why I killed that girl on the road and I said, `You think we killed anyone? If one of my children did something, I would have called the police. What are we doing here? Are we here to cause trouble? We're here to be able to eat. The policeman said that if there's one rotten tomato in the bunch, then the whole bunch is rotten. But if it hadn't been on the news that a girl had been killed around here, I wouldn't have known. He told me, `You can replant.' I told him I didn't have any money, so he said, `Go to the Palestinian police and let them give you money.' Now we're waiting. Maybe someone will come by and give us money. We don't have enough money to buy food." 

Superintendent Rafi Yafeh, spokesman for the Judea and Samaria police district: "On September 28, at 2:10 A.M., a phone call was received by the Samaria police from a Palestinian resident of Bardala who said that Jewish settlers were causing damage to Palestinian agricultural areas. A message regarding the incident was relayed to a patrol car at 2:23. The police car arrived at the scene at about 3:40 A.M. after the suspects had already fled. It should be noted that the Samaria sector is quite large and response times are therefore sometimes longer due to the distances that must be covered. The investigation of the matter was entrusted to an investigative team in Samaria, which preserved the crime scene, collected evidence and took statements from the Palestinians and the security forces. The district intends to continue collecting evidence against the suspects and to bring them to justice." 

An American attorney, the legal advisor to the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, is seeking to file a complaint with the police on behalf of the Bardala residents. She says both of the inquiries she made this week have been ignored. 

Sdemot Mehola secretary Moshe Dermer: "I don't know who did these things, this vandalism, but I would guess that the ones who did it are good Jews who couldn't bear to see a person murdered on the road while the Arabs keep on working their tomato fields as if nothing happened. Jews and Arabs have lived together peacefully here. But as soon as someone struck at our side, a response was quick in coming. They knew that as soon as someone did something to us, the other side would get hurt." 

Mehola secretary Amram Dayan: "As a community, as an organization, we had nothing to do with it, either in planning or execution. It was the action of some individuals and I don't know who they are. That's all I can say at this point." 

Sde Eliyahu secretary Shaul Ginsburg: "I don't know anything, just that the police reported that our tractor was there. We condemn any kind of violence. But, above all, we condemn and are grieving over the murder of our member, Salit." 

No response from the IDF spokesman had been received as of press time. 

Goats now graze over the remnants of Maslamini's crops. Across the road, the ruins of the neighbors' hothouses also stand silent. They belonged to the Ahmed family. Of their seven hothouses, four were completely destroyed. On Sunday of this week, the brothers tried to repair what was left. But the vegetables had all withered among the wreckage. Not far away, between Maslamini's ruined field and the Ahmeds' ruined hothouses, the IDF's mighty bulldozer, guarded by an armed sergeant, was making progress in its work, leaving a cloud of dust behind it. "It's so the residents of these villages won't be able to go out to the road," said the officer, explaining the operational objective as the machine under his command continued its destructive work.

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