The final trip we made in the West Bank was theoretically of no special importance, just another visit to another Palestinian village surrounded by settlements and army installations. We had seen such before, near the giant wall itself in Bethlehem, talking to farmers whose land was slowly eroding away and being cordoned off as vast settlements oozed down the hillsides towards them.
On the day however, the village of Yanun did end up feeling very unique from all other places we had been to here, even to Hebron. Although the two places would share many similar qualities they were two sides of the same coin, displaying the same significance in different ways and leaving a familiar yet singular impression.
The car journey to the village was very much like the others, yet more green hills, more grey settlements, more farmers. Today was more tense though, our week coming to an end, an air of electricity filled the taxi, produced by fatigue and close proximity of large egos and voices. We were all very relieved to disembark into the empty streets of Yanun. The village itself lies in a bowl of hills, slightly mounting one of them, with its fields occupying the valley floor like a worn green rug. These are overlooked by grey sandy houses above. Dotting the hilltops around us were the now familiar sight of ragtag settler houses and a military base, poorly disguised and visible even from a distance, where it commanded a full view of the valley.
Soon after arrival we were greeted by members of EAPPI (Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine), an organisation that has been helping to maintain and protect the village. They introduced us to yet another heavily moustachioed mayor who led us into a cool, round room for an interview.
The smallest village in the West Bank, it was of little significance until the start of the 21st century. The first attack came from settlers in 2002, in the form of shootings and assaults upon farmers and foreign aid workers working on the harvest; the perpetrators have since been evicted. Such action culminated in October of that year, in repeated threats by settlers, who would enter the village, armed and on horseback. Such Wild West aesthetics were clearly successful as the entire village was abandoned except for two old men who refused to leave. Only after a strong campaign and international support did people return to their homes, but the situation has hardly improved for them, even with volunteers present.
Since their return around 800 olive trees have been cut down by marauding settlers, and the village water supply poisoned, but the army bases claimed to have seen nothing, despite being able to identify us as white Europeans when we alighted and respond with patrols. Physical attacks have included the shooting of animals, as well as the severe beating and mutilating of one farmer, and the shooting of another, who was defending a mentally disabled person. Medics and locals were forbidden to go near him for three hours, leaving him permanently paralysed. At least one settler went to court for shooting a University professor but the case was dismissed. A major problem also lies with the fact that ownership papers can be demanded on pain of eviction. Many of these papers are held by owners in Nablus, who sometimes cannot be reached within the 24 hours given before eviction.
Much of the problem with the settlements lies in the delegation of responsibility. Whatever the Israeli Supreme Court does to evict the settlers the government continues to hinder it. This same government may not openly endorse illegal settlements but electricity, water, roads and, of course, army protection are still lavished on them. Many in Israeli society condemn the settlers as extremists only making the situation worse. As pointed out by settlers in interviews, these same people will both criticise but also buy the products of settlement farms. They may agree that they do not want the army defending these radicals, but when such a policy has been so tied up with the prevention of terrorism by both semantics and practicality there is little anyone is prepared to do.
Even the settlers themselves can seemingly wash their hands of guilt. A visit to the Itamar ‘Gem of the Hills’ settlement website provides one with plenty of information about glorious pioneers in an idyllic paradise, as well as of the attacks made upon settlers (to which no villagers of Yanun were ever linked). But Yanun is only mentioned as an ‘Arab village’, and does not even appear on the map of the area. Thus if no place exists, at least with any real roots here, then there really is no one from whom they are stealing.
After the interview we visited the local school, which serves eight children. Out of a nearby doorway a small child peered out at me, ducking away and looking back now and again. Were it not for the presence of internationals, the only Westerners these children would ever grow up knowing would be Israeli soldiers and settlers, a potential psychological time-bomb giving equal importance to the presence of internationals as protecting the farmers. The long-term aim here is to have no international presence necessary, but with a small population consisting of many children, surrounded by armed and entrenched settlers, this seems a sad pipedream.
If anything could further hammer home the hopelessness of this villages’ predicament it was the sight of a white UN car parked outside as we came out. Like the international presence in Hebron they do not appear to do anything of any use, and drove off away from us, as if simply giving up and packing it in for good. The village they left behind emits the resilience of a dying man. Whatever the hard work and optimism of the internationals and village leaders, life is slowly being bled out in the form of ordinary people who can no longer afford to keep resisting, and must resign themselves to their fate elsewhere. And why shouldn’t they when all those who could do something have washed their hands of the whole affair?
Written by Giles Longley- Cook