Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Battle for Land

In West Bank, attack on Arabs is filmed
KHIRBET SUSIYA, West Bank: The conflict between Arabs and Jews over grazing land and water wells in the ancient, arid hills south of Hebron in the West Bank has a distinctly biblical feel, like the flimsy tent encampments and dank caves in which some local Palestinian farming families dwell.But the primeval feud took on a modern twist this month when Muna Nawajaa, one of the two wives of a Palestinian shepherd from Khirbet Susiya, used a hand-held video camera to capture footage of what appeared to be masked Jewish settlers viciously beating members of her family with clubs - images that have since been broadcast by news networks all over the world.Nawajaa, 24, the mother of a four-month-old, said it was the first scene she had ever filmed.Had it not been for the camera - one of about 100 handed out in the West Bank by the Israeli human rights group Btselem to document violent incidents - the assault June 8 might have ended up like many others that have occurred in these parts: unresolved.But the graphic images and ensuing attention by the news media seem to have spurred the Israeli police.
By Friday, the Judea and Samaria branch had arrested three suspects from the nearby Jewish settlement of Susiya after what a police spokesman described as "an intensive investigation." Two of the three were under 18."The only weapon we have is the media," said Khalil Nawajaa, 61, a patriarch of the clan, which raises livestock and teases wheat, grapes and zucchini out of the sun-baked, thistle-spiked earth, while showing his scars.The Nawajaas maintain a proper home in the sprawling town of Yata, a few kilometers away, but they usually prefer to stick close to their land. The encampment has no electricity. Water is drawn from a well, milk is kept in sheepskins, bread is baked in a traditional outdoor stone oven and extra shelter is provided by an underground cave.Sitting on the floor of a tent in the family's encampment in mid-June, Imran Nawajaa, 33, Khalil's nephew, recalled the morning of the attack.He said was out tending a flock with his young sons when two masked settlers rode up on a tractor and ordered him, in Hebrew, to leave."I said, 'This is my land, this is my flock, I'm not going anywhere,"' he related. "They told me, 'If you are a man, stay here for another 10 minutes,' then they left."Imran sent for Muna, who had been taught to use the camera by her brother. She arrived on the scene with Imran's wife, Rabiha, and Khalil and his wife, Tamam.The camera captures four lean men, their heads swathed in colorful cloth, striding toward the farmers, clubs in hand. In the background are the whitewashed, red-roofed houses of the settlement.One masked man strikes Imran with a series of swift, hard blows. There is a fleeting frame of another assailant grappling with Khalil before the camera shuts down.Muna said she partly hid the camera under her scarf while filming from a nearby rise, until she got scared. "I was thinking of my baby. He was alone in the tent. I also ran away to call for help," she said, explaining why the footage ends abruptly after the first blows.Other shepherds helped the dazed and bleeding farmers down to the main road. There they flagged down an Israeli Army jeep, which called for an ambulance, and the videocassette was handed over to the police.Tamam, 60, was taken to an Israeli hospital with a broken cheekbone and a gash on her right hand. Khalil, who received a head wound, and Imran, who said he had briefly lost consciousness, were treated in Hebron.The violence was foreshadowed. Khalil said that a year ago, he tried to shoo settlers' sheep away from his newly planted wheat when two settlers grabbed him and smashed his face with a stone, knocking out a front tooth.Khalil was unable to identify his attackers from any of the photographs in the police files so they closed the case, he said.The south Hebron hills are the scene of constant tension, according to Btselem and the police. The fierce competition for sparse resources is compounded by security fears and deeply conflicting national claims.Ancient Susiya contains the ruins of a synagogue dating from the Roman period, attesting to a long and robust Jewish presence here. Jewish settlers started moving in again after Israel occupied the West Bank in the 1967 war.In the persistent war over the land, blood has been spilled on both sides. In 2001, at the height of the second Palestinian uprising, Yair Har Sinai, a well-known Jewish shepherd from the settlement of Susiya, was murdered in the Hebron hills.

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