Elderly activist beaten by settlers: Cruelty happening in those hills all the time

Hagar Gefen, 70, was hoping to escape unnoticed with the footage she captured of masked settlers descending on the southern West Bank village of Kisan, where she and other Israeli activists were accompanying Palestinian harvesters in their fields last week.

“I thought that I could find a way down the hill, hide myself and continue taking photos without them being able to see me,” Gefen recalled Tuesday, a day after she was released from the hospital, where she was treated for a broken hand and ribs, a punctured lung and a head contusion.

Left-wing activists often join Palestinian farmers in hopes that the presence of other Israelis will deter settler extremists from targeting the villagers, who face an uptick in attacks every fall season. But that proved not to be the case on October 19, when two of the masked assailants spotted Gefen in the fields of Kisan and beat her with stones and clubs as she lay helpless on the ground, shielding her face from the blows.

For their part, settlers claimed that the Palestinians and Israeli activists had staged a provocation, encroaching onto land that belonged to their illegal outpost; had failed to coordinate their harvest with the IDF military; and were actually the ones who started the violence.

Police appeared to avoid taking sides, describing the incident as “a skirmish between Israelis and Palestinians.” As of Wednesday, they had yet to carry out any arrests and the only ones who had been summoned for questioning were several of the left-wing Israeli activists. “We have opened an investigation, through which we have been and are now looking into assault suspects from both sides,” said a police statement.

The assault on Gefen was the latest in a string of violent events that have destabilized the West Bank for much of the year. Many of the clashes followed widespread Israeli military raids that the IDF has been carrying out to crack down on Palestinian terror attacks, which took the lives of 19 people on both sides of the Green Line at the beginning of the year. Gefen, however, fell victim to a separate but parallel phenomenon — attacks by settler extremists against Palestinians, left-wing Israeli activists, and even Israeli soldiers.

Last Friday, the Haaretz newspaper reported that settlers had carried out 100 attacks against West Bank Palestinians in the previous 10 days alone, citing unnamed security officials who did not elaborate on the exact nature of the incidents.

Gefen said she first spotted her alleged attackers when the farmers, along with their allied Israeli activists, were making their way towards their field to start picking olives.

“Our intention was to reach the olive grove as quickly as possible to start working. Nothing on the way was going to prevent us from doing that,” she said. Once in the grove, the volunteers heard shouts from its elderly Palestinian owner and his wife; it was dawning on the couple that the settlers had picked the olive trees just about clean and then doused them with herbicide.

“Each of us started to do something,” Gefen said of the volunteers’ swift reaction. While plucking off the few olives still on branches, they rushed to spray the trees with water before the toxin could take effect. Now, one week later, it seems their attempt to save the grove was unsuccessful. “The trees are probably destroyed completely,” she lamented.

Amid the already chaotic scene, a large group of settlers suddenly came streaming down the hill — all armed with rods, and some with knives and machetes, Gefen said, acknowledging that the scene was too confused for her to count the number of alleged assailants.

The Israelis, who had descended from the direction of the nearby Ma’ale Amos settlement, threw stones at the Palestinians and the left-wing Israeli activists, Gefen said.

Gefen, a seasoned activist, fled down the hill but stopped to hide, leaving her phone’s camera on to record the confrontation. Not long after, the settlers caught her filming and charged at her.

“They started to beat me, then violently pulled off my backpack. I thought they were moving away, so I hid my phone under my clothes. They put their hands into my clothes, on my body, to pull out the phone, while shouting that people like me ‘shouldn’t live here’ and ‘should be killed.'”

A settler group calling itself The Forum for the Struggle for Every Dunam issued a statement after the incident claiming that the Palestinians had not come to pick olives, but rather to clash with residents of one of Ma’ale Amos’s outpost neighborhoods.

After the Palestinians shouted threats and charged at the outpost residents wielding clubs, the settlers were forced to defend themselves, the right-wing group claimed.

Michael Milstein, head of the Palestinian Studies Forum at Tel Aviv University, noted that during the harvest “there are many more clashes between Jewish settlers and Arabs” in comparison to other times of the year.

“In this season, many Arabs, mainly those who live in the villages, go out to their groves [to work],” he said, adding that “many of these lands are very close to the settlements, so there are all kinds of disagreements, even court cases, regarding [ownership of] those lands.”

Abbas Milhem, the executive director of the Palestinian Farmers’ Union, told The Times of Israel that the proximity of Palestinians’ olive groves to Israeli settlements presents “a major challenge for Palestinian families.”

“Settlers intensely confront Palestinian families with ferocious attacks, which include uprooting the olive trees, shelling them with artillery, and destroying them,” he said.

Olive trees hold both cultural and economic significance for Palestinians, so attacks against them are particularly apt to deepen enmity. “The olive tree is part of the national identity as well as a major religious symbol, since it is mentioned in [the 95th chapter of] the Quran,” Milhem said. “The olive tree can be found in the roots, in the innermost depths, and in the heart of every Palestinian living on this land.”

On the economic level, olive production accounts for 4.8 percent of the West Bank’s GDP, and provides a livelihood, increasingly under threat, for an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 Palestinian families.

Aware of the olive harvest’s central role in Palestinian life, Gefen said she was glad to have gone to the grove last week, despite the injuries she sustained. Looking forward, she said she “feels good” about continuing her year-round West Bank activism in the future. “Cruelty [against Palestinians] is taking place in those hills, not only during the olive harvest,” she said, “but all the time.”

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