The phrase ‘it’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good’ took a sinister twist for the citizens of Burin, a village in the North West Bank on Friday 15thJuly. That morning had brought a much needed cooling breeze to the hillsides of Yanoun, softening the hard sun that bakes the valley every day. Four of the team were due to visit the Jordan Valley that afternoon to meet with an expert on water access rights in the region. Instead, just as we were about to leave, my teammate Chris got a call to say that the hillside olive trees of Burin were burning. As our car drove towards the village we could already see plumes of white smoke rising from the hillsides, and drawing closer to the village we could see that flames were running along the eastern end of the village hills.
Arriving at the scene we found dozens of local men and boys fighting the fire. Their mouths covered with scarves and shirts they were beating down the flames with olive branches and cloths. A small boy ran up the hillside carrying bottles of water for the men covered in ash and streaked with sweat. The one fire engine that was available had just arrived. We spoke to the mayor of the village (Abu Ahmed) and were told that around 50 settlers from the Yizhar settlement beside Burin had come down the hills at 11.45am and set fire to the trees and fields. On such a dry day with a strong breeze the flames caught easily and spread rapidly. However, the fire engine and locals were prevented from reaching the flames for over two hours by the Israeli army. This was done, according to the army, to protect them from the settlers who are likely to attack anyone who tries to put the fires out. However, no arrests of settlers were made nor any suggestion given that the Israeli army might protect the firemen from being attacked by the (armed) settlers. In the mean time the fire had time to spread. To destroy the trees is to destroy the heart of these communities. The income of villages such as Burin is significantly impacted on by the destruction of these trees.
Under International Humanitarian Law (IHL) the occupying army has a responsibility to protect the civilians of the occupied land (Article 4, Geneva Convention IV). Furthermore, it requires that the occupying power must “take all the measures in his power to restore, and ensure, as far as possible, public order and safety, while respecting, unless absolutely prevented, the laws in force in the country” (Article 43, Hague regulations). In the case of settler attacks such as these, the Israeli army is clearly ignoring its responsibilities. As well as not preventing the fires from being set, or providing protection to the Palestinian fire-fighters, the Israeli army does not, as noted, carry out any arrests or prosecution in the aftermath. According to a recent UNOCHA report, “lack of adequate law enforcement by the Israeli authorities is a key factor behind the persistence of this phenomenon”. A point that is reinforced by the fact that Burin was visited by such destruction again only one week later, when settlers once again set fire to the hillside olive trees.
We watched as groups of settlers appeared as shadowy figures through the smoke, viewing the inferno from the hilltop, the army standing between them and the villagers putting out the flames. The rest of the team and I wondered what they could be thinking as they looked down on the village’s livelihood being destroyed. Zertal and Eldar’s study of the settlements, Lords of the Land (2007, p.4) quotes an expert on national religious Zionism, Aviezer Ravitsky, which perhaps gives some insight into the mindset, “‘When you are in the midst of a divine process, and God is on your side, you gradually lose your sensitivity to the suffering of the other’”. In addition to their divine assurance, the settlers can draw confidence from the knowledge that they are protected by their military and what Diakoniahas called “an undeclared policy of leniency and compromise towards the perpetrators” when carrying out what, Israeli military commander, Avi Mizrah has called ‘terrorism’ against Palestinian communities.
As September and the question of Palestinian statehood being recognised by the UN draws near, the likelihood of an increase in settler attacks (as well as demolitions and displacement), by way of protest, seems highly likely. Without a change in response to such attacks from the Israeli military, the hills of Burin and many more villages are likely to burn again. However, the fear also exists that if any concrete action is taken by the military then the settlers will enact a so-called “price-tag” revenge on the Palestinian communities through violent and destructive attacks.
I finished writing this blog at 2.30am on Friday 28th July. Before that day had ended our team had once more been called to Burin. This time as we arrived settlers (the settlements of Yitzar and Bracha lie on the hills beside Burin) were close to the village. Small fires sprang up before us and local men and boys were trying to stamp out the flames and the Palestinian fire brigade attempted to get access to the land to do their job. The Israeli army ordered the fire brigade to leave and to the roars of anger from an elderly local farmer everyone else was told to leave the hillside as well. What followed was an unnecessary escalation of violence erupting from the blatantly unfair order for those fighting the fire to leave.
Within twenty minutes a barricade had been erected at the entrance to the hillside by local young men. Caught between this and the soldiers attempting to exit, the team spent the next over three hours on the rooftop of a family who had brought us inside seeing our predicament. After enforcements were brought in, a battle of rocks and stones versus dozens of rounds of teargas and several sound grenades took place immediately in front of this house. Tear gas was shot through an open window and three rounds were fired at an animal shed which caught fire from the canister’s spark. Then suddenly it was over, the army vehicles drove away, women and children poured out of a nearby community building back to their homes, stones, rocks and empty tear gas and sound grenade shells littered the ground and the call to prayer echoed across the village. This was Burin’s fourth burning of its olive tree fields in the month of July. There is doubt in the minds of the village that there will be more.