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What Happens to a Palestinian Who Protects His Land

Home Invasions and False Arrests: Aref Jaber defies settlers’ attempts to take over his plot of land near Hebron, and finds himself facing harassment from the army too

Amira Hass, Haaretz, Aug. 28, 2021

On December 11, a structure made of wood and cinder blocks appeared on a piece of land belonging to Aref Jaber of Hebron. Just before he found the structure, relatives told him that Israeli Jews were squatting on his land, on a hill east of Hebron in the West Bank, in an area called al-Bak’aa.

Since that day, Jaber and his family have been constantly harassed: raids on his land and home, other illegal structures going up and being demolished, intrusive drones, imposter Israel Police officers saying they’re from the Shin Bet security service, and false arrests by the army and police.

From the plot at al-Bak’aa to the home in Hebron and all the way to the Ofer military court, Haaretz has been accompanying the Jaber family since March – and the challenges they’ve encountered because they object to a hostile takeover of their land.

The structure discovered on December 11 was demolished; almost immediately a drone appeared over the plot, followed by a military force and Israeli civilians. There were also police officers and vehicles of Israel’s Civil Administration in the West Bank.

“We told them that strangers had built something on our land; the policemen told us to file a complaint,” Jaber told Haaretz. Later that day, an Israeli settler who lives near him in Hebron’s Old City shouted at him: “Why did you destroy the structure, why did you destroy the structure?”

Jaber filed a complaint about illegal construction on his land as well as vandalism of his car. “From the distance, the children saw Israelis around the car,” Jaber said. The windshield and a headlight were smashed and one of the door handles was broken.

Jaber, 46, the father of five sons and a daughter, does his best to film every trespass and other incident. He backs up his testimonies with those videos, taken in the field by him and others.

That’s how he can report exactly what happened on what date. On December 12, the army declared the plot a closed military zone. Three days later Israelis again started to build a structure there; it was also demolished.

On the night between December 22 and 23, Israelis returned to the plot and in the morning Jaber discovered a concrete surface, iron mesh in preparation for another surface and a new stone fence. On December 29, a Civil Administration order was found on the plot ordering the work stopped.

Then on January 9, two concrete rooms and a pile of planks for construction were found on the plot. The rooms were demolished and the planks were removed.

On January 13, several non-Palestinians, including a man speaking American English, were sowing seeds on his land. “Policemen and people from the Civil Administration came and removed them after I reported it,” he said.

On January 24, Jaber and friends planted 100 olive saplings on the plot. Each sapling cost 35 shekels ($10.80). An Israeli whom Jaber knows is a tenant of a building that settlers have taken over in his neighborhood looked at the people doing the planting and left.

The next day a few Israelis came and tore out the saplings, in front of officials from the Civil Administration, who wouldn’t let Jaber come any closer. He planted again, and the saplings were uprooted again. After that the Civil Administration destroyed the concrete surface.

“In the past we planted barley and wheat at the plot,” Jaber said. But the crop went bad because of the restrictions on movement and the curfews during the second intifada, the ban on driving cars in Hebron, the thugs who destroyed the plot after every sowing and planting, and the overall economic difficulties.

On February 10, Israelis invaded his land once again, and again on February 23. On March 16, a man driving an earth-moving vehicle started clearing a pathway through the plot. Jaber tried to block the vehicle with his body. Neighbors and relatives gathered around and the driver drove away.

On May 4, Israelis placed a mobile home on the plot. Jaber said they sprayed him and his cousin with pepper spray and aimed guns at them when they hurried to the spot to demand that the transgressors leave. The Civil Administration took the mobile home away. A quadrangular fence that the settlers also built, from stones they took from the original fence of an agricultural terrace – thus destroying it – remained. They prayed a few times on that piece of land until the fence was removed and the stones were scattered.

On June 4, soldiers drove Jaber off his plot and showed him an order saying this was a closed military area. Another time they said the area was closed but did not have a valid closure order.

False arrests

On June 21, Jaber came to his land with his friend Imad Abu Shamsieh. Abu Shamsieh, a resident of the Tel Rumeida area of Hebron, is the one who filmed Israeli soldier Elor Azaria when he killed Abdel Fatah al-Sharif, a Palestinian who was already lying wounded on the ground, motionless after stabbing an Israeli soldier. Jaber gathered a few thorns and twigs and lit them to keep snakes away and to dilute the dry, fire-prone thistles. Soldiers soon appeared.

“The soldiers were polite,” Jaber said. They photographed his and Abu Shamsieh’s ID cards and sent the pictures somewhere on WhatsApp. An hour later the soldiers told the two that “the police center wants to talk to you,” referring to the police station opposite the Kiryat Arba settlement, on the land of the Ja’abri extended family. The two were kept in a jeep for several hours and then taken for interrogation.

“The policewoman who questioned me accused me of being on land that wasn’t ours – that I set a fire that endangered settlers, and that we belonged to the leftist organization B’Tselem and were causing problems to make money,” Jaber said.

“I told her why I lit the fire. She asked if I had documents showing that the land was mine. I said of course. She asked me if I knew there were problems with the land. I said sure, I’m the one who’s always calling you when strangers invade the land.”

In their response to Haaretz the police didn’t refer to the question about the policewoman’s allegations. They only said that “in June an investigation opened on suspicions of arson and harm to the security of the area.”

The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit said that Jaber and Abu Shamsieh had been “arrested and interrogated on suspicion of arson after they were seen setting weeds on fire in an open area.”

After the interrogation, the two were taken to the Etzion military detention facility. On the way they were taken for a medical checkup at an army camp. When they were taken off the jeep, bound, a soldier pulled Abu Shamsieh’s arm harshly and dislocated his shoulder.

Jaber added that the soldiers at the base recognized Abu Shamsieh and started yelling at him, shouting Azaria’s name. An officer quieted them. (The IDF spokesman: “Not familiar with a violent event during the detention.”) Abu Shamsieh was taken to the hospital for treatment, was moved to Etzion and from there, due to his fragile health, on to the Ofer military prison.

The two were brought to military court on June 24 to discuss the extension of their detention. The military prosecution demanded that they be detained until the end of the proceedings, claiming that the plot in question had been declared state-owned land.

Lawyer Riham Nasra, who represented Jaber, showed the prosecution his ownership papers. (Since Israel halted Jordan’s land registration process in the West Bank in 1967, the papers attesting to an owner’s link to the land are property forms from the Jordanian period). Finally, the military prosecution sufficed with a request to release Jaber on bail, which the judge set at 1,000 shekels to make sure he comes to trial, if it ever takes place. No charges were laid, and Abu Shamsieh was released without bail.

In the last three years the army has allowed a few residents of Jaber’s neighborhood in Hebron to drive in it in their cars; this had been forbidden since the beginning of 2000. Jaber is one of them. When he was freed from his false detention on June 24, he found that the permit allowing him to enter the area by car had been revoked. The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit said: “The decision to restrict the resident Aref Jaber’s entry by car was made by the relevant IDF officials, for reasons intended to preserve the public order there.”

Four days after his release, four right-wing media outlets reported on the arrest. “Two B’Tselem activists were arrested on suspicion of setting a fire on a hill in Judea and Samaria,” a headline in the daily Israel Hayom said. The truth is that the two had volunteered for Israeli rights group B’Tselem a few years ago and filmed acts of violence by settlers. Currently they are active in a group called Human Rights Defenders. Israel Hayom also reported that the information on the two came from a project “that documents the activity of anti-Israeli activists.”

The newspaper added that “Hill 16, which was set on fire, is located on state land. The assumption is that the two suspects set the area on fire to prepare it for farming as part of a plan for a Palestinian takeover of the area in the future.” The right-wing newspaper Makor Rishon added that the project gives the information it gathers to the Israeli defense establishment.

A headline on the right-wing website Hakol Hayehudi added in parentheses a demand that does not appear in the story: “It’s time to outlaw them” – without saying whether this meant the two released detainees or B’Tselem.

In all four almost-identical versions, Matan Peleg, chairman of the right-wing group Im Tirtzu, is quoted claiming that once again a connection has been proved between “terror acts,” B’Tselem and the New Israel Fund. Makor Rishon and Hakol Heyehudi also quote the spokesman of the Jewish settlement movement in Hebron: “Their affiliation to an organization that calls itself ‘a human rights organization’ … puts it in an antisemitic ideological light adding a hostile terrorist dimension to the crime. We expect law enforcement to act against those who commit hate crimes against Jews.”

On July 4, Jaber says, a bulldozer, a civilian Toyota car, a few civilians and three soldiers appeared on his land. The bulldozer started paving a path on his land and the soldiers ordered him to leave and showed him a long-expired order declaring the plot a closed military area. Jaber remained on the plot.

The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit said: “The area was not declared a closed military area at that date, and the engineering forces at the site did not belong to the IDF.”

‘Immediate release’

After that, the army raided the family’s house three times. Jaber said that on one occasion an army officer mentioned “problems with the settlers.” In the third raid, early on the morning of July 28, two soldiers or police officers asked him in Hebrew: “Is there anything illegal in the house?” Jaber replied in Hebrew: “There are people in the house. I have five children here.”

“Are there weapons?” they asked, and he answered in amazement: “I have no weapons.” They continued: “Are there drugs in the house?” to which a surprised Jaber said: “If you want, you can check.” The soldiers didn’t move a single pillow, he recounted, but their presence in the house frightened his young daughter Farah (though she adamantly denies this).

Jaber said that from Wednesday to Friday that week, a surveillance drone flew over the house. (When Haaretz asked whether this was a drone of the army or settlers, who would have needed an army permit, a security official said: “We are not familiar with an event involving a drone in the area of the Jaber family’s home on the dates in question.”)

Jaber’s 20- and 18-year-old sons, Albaraa and Mohammed, were taken to the police station opposite Kiryat Arba. Ten days later, at their home in Hebron, Albaraa recounted his interrogation and arrest, which would also merit an article of their own.

One of his jailers and several of the police interrogators introduced themselves as being from the Shin Bet. (The police spokespeople didn’t reply when asked if Shin Bet personnel took part in the interrogation, but sources told Haaretz that the agency was not involved in the arrest or interrogation.)

Albaraa Jaber. Credit: Haaretz

Albaraa said that his interrogators accused him of throwing stones and possessing arms. He flatly denied the allegations. He and his brother were released at around 2 P.M. and Albaraa was required to return to the police the following Sunday, when he was again interrogated by someone claiming to be from the Shin Bet and was again asked about weapons in his possession. He was then transferred to the Etzion military detention facility.

On Thursday August 5, a hearing was held in military court on extending his detention. Haaretz accompanied the concerned father, who believed – as he himself experienced more than a month earlier – that his son had already been brought to the military court and was waiting in shackles for several hours in a blazing-hot prefab container. To his surprise, the hearing was held online and his son was still at Etzion.

The judge, Lt. Col. Azriel Levy, explained that the military prosecutor’s office had ordered the case closed, that there was no point in moving the suspect and that he would be released that day. Via an app, Albaraa’s face appeared on the judge’s cellphone. From about two meters away, the judge showed the elder Jaber the screen.

“Hi, Dad,” Albaraa smiled.

“You’re being released today,” the judge declared. Albaraa paused for a moment, digesting what he was just told and replied candidly: “I’m in shock.” Shortly before 11 A.M., the judge dictated the following: “I order the suspect released immediately and unconditionally.” He ordered the court stenographer to underline the word “immediately.”

Albaraa Jaber was only released about nine hours later, and this followed the intervention of Nasra, the lawyer, and repeated questions to the army by Haaretz. “Due to a human error, Albaraa Jaber was not released immediately as the court had ruled,” the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit said in response for this article. “When the mistake was noticed, he was released immediately.”

Haaretz asked for the unit’s response regarding the conclusion that the chain of events was evidence that the army was acting in the service of settlers “who aim to break the morale of the Jaber family, which is resisting the efforts to take over their land.”

“Israeli army forces are not acting ‘in service’ of parties who are not the army commanders,” the spokesman’s office replied, adding that the forces aim to protect Israeli citizens and foil terrorism. The army’s activities are “carried out according to operational considerations in coordination and cooperation with the other relevant security entities.”