For the past month the tiny village of Yanun, south-east of Nablus, has breathed deeply the air of liberation that has followed its briefly being thrust into the limelight. Children play on the rocky track that winds up from the wide valley below, men sit on low stone walls smoking, while women lean chatting in huddles on the balconies of their homes.
The relaxed atmosphere is, all of them are aware, as temporary as it is contrived. A few weeks ago the alleys of this West Bank village were empty, the last families having fled under a relentless campaign of attacks from neighbouring Israeli settlers. Today, the villagers’ safety is ensured only by the heavy presence of outsiders.
Sharing the lives of Yanun’s inhabitants for the last four weeks have been dozens of Israeli peace activists and international solidarity groups. They sleep in the villagers’ homes, accompany them to the fields to pick olives, and each night a few sit by a campfire keeping watch.
They are not the only visitors. Since Yanun’s plight was telegraphed to the world in reports of how the last of the 150 inhabitants had abandoned their homes on 18 October in the face of settler violence, Israeli army jeeps have been making almost continuous sweeps of the olive groves. Friendly young soldiers in battle fatigues check in at regular intervals with the villagers.
Fawzi Zbeh, 42, is skeptical of the army’s new policy of vigilance. “We have been suffering attacks from the settlers for five years and nothing was ever done about it before,” he said. “We reported the incidents to the police but they never investigated. Eventually we stopped even reporting the attacks.”
He added: “The army is here because of all the international attention. Where were they when we needed them? When everyone forgets us, so will the army and then we will be alone again with the settlers.”
It is not a prospect any of the inhabitants relishes. They have suffered a catalogue of assaults since the day five years ago when settlers from Itimar, a religious settlement of 400 Israelis, first entered the village and beat Fawzi Zbeh’s 85- year-old father, Ahmed, with a stick, blinding him in one eye. On regular Saturdays since they have returned, throwing stones at the villagers and their houses, shooting in the air, blocking access to fields with their tractors, uprooting trees and stealing sheep.
Over the past year the intimidation has been stepped up, says 47-year-old quarry worker Najeh Zbeh. Last November, he says, the village chief, Abdul Latif Youssef, was badly injured when a group of 30 settlers came looking for him and beat him with their rifles. A month later they brought in bulldozers to raze 50 dunums (12 acres) of olive trees. And in April they burnt the village’s only generator, donated by the United Nations, depriving the inhabitants of both electricity and running water for the past seven months.
Spending the long nights in darkness waiting for the next attack was too much for most families. “They started packing up and heading for Aqrabeh,” Najer Zbeh said, referring to a much larger Palestinian village, a 15-minute drive away. By the summer’s end there were only eight families left.
The final straw came on 16 October when the villagers found settlers using their only water source, a small concrete reservoir, to wash their animals. Two days later, village leader Abdul Latif Youssef declared his regret at being forced to leave, the last inhabitant to do so. He piled his battered old car, a black Volkswagen Beetle, high with his family’s belongings and set off on the dusty, bumpy road to Aqrabeh.
The flight from Yanun coincided with last month’s general wave of settler violence in the West Bank against Palestinians harvesting their olive crop. But while peace activists have concentrated their efforts on helping farmers quickly gather in the olives to avoid clashes with armed settlers, the real problem cannot be so easily be solved.
Israeli groups are due to quit Yanun soon, leaving the villagers in a potentially worse situation than before their exodus.
On October 27, shortly after the first international activists escorted the villagers back to Yanun, settlers from Itimar returned to the area and chased after the group of foreigners. The two oldest members, who were 68 and 74, were caught and badly beaten. After the attack one had a broken arm and the other a perforated lung.
Fawzi Zbeh says the settlers also issued a warning to the villagers. “One of them said, ‘They [the activists] won’t be here for ever. Then we will be back and things will be much worse for you’.” Itimar, like many other West Bank settlements, rapidly expanded during the Oslo years. Despite its small number of inhabitants, it has spread huge distances in every direction, taking over hilltops for miles around with small outposts of caravans and watchtowers.
Although Yanun is some five kilometres from Itimar’s main settlement, outposts were built on the hilltops around the village four years ago, coinciding with the start of the attacks. “They can see us every minute of the day. They know everything we do,” said Najeh Zbeh, pointing to one of the watchtowers on a long ridge on the other side of the valley.
Settler leaders have defended the attacks on villagers in the area as legitimate self-defence, arguing that the settlements must protect themselves against terror attacks waged by Palestinians. Five inhabitants of Itimar, including three children, were killed by gunmen in June.
But no one is suggesting that the villagers of Yanun were involved in that attack, or that they have tried to infiltrate the outposts. The attacks on the inhabitants appear to have a different, and more sinister, motivation.
Yanun has almost certainly been picked on because it is the smallest and most isolated of the Palestinian villages in the area. It comprises two small groups of houses, Upper and Lower Yanun, that are separated by a kilometre or so of fields. The rocky track linking them weaves along the exposed valley from Aqrabeh — under the watchtowers of Itimar’s outposts — until it comes to an abrupt halt at Upper Yanun.
The news that the villagers had been forced to flee from homes that have belonged to generations of their families sent a powerful message to the surrounding villages. “Yanun is being made an example of,” said Musli Hardil, a 35-year-old bus driver from Aqrabeh. “We are being shown the future. No one knows who will be next, and that is the point. The settlers want to frighten us all away. Then the land will be theirs.”
It is a view confirmed by peace activists who have lived in Yanun. Two members of Taayush, a leftwing coexistence group comprising Israeli Jews and Arabs, wrote last week in Haaretz that they believe the settlers are systematically trying to drive Palestinians into ever larger population centres — from small villages to larger ones, and then on to Palestinian cities — in an attempt to besiege them and take the land for themselves.
According to figures released by Peace Now, settlers now control some 45 per cent of the West Bank, even though they live on only a tiny fraction of the territory.
The settlers’ almost unchallenged power over the Palestinian civilian population has encouraged ever greater settler militancy, particularly from religious youngsters, known familiarly in Israel as the “hilltop youth”.
For the past few months they have been furiously resisting the half-hearted attempts of the former defence minister, Binyamin Ben Eliezer, to dismantle outposts like those set up by Itimar. At one outpost, Gilad Farm, the youths even hurled stones at soldiers ordered to clear the site. After a series of eviction battles at Gilad, the army allowed the youngsters to remain in the area.
As in dozens of earlier cases, the settlers are hoping their intransigence will eventually win them a license from the government for the outpost so that it can become an official settlement.
The dismantling of the outposts was not intended to tip the balance in favour of the Palestinians. Ben Eliezer, the leader of the Labour party, staged the operation mainly for the cameras, to publicly distance himself from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who vocally supports the settlers, before the elections.
A recent survey by Peace Now showed that only eight of the 106 outposts had been removed.
But the hilltop youth took the operation, and their success in resisting it, at face value. The youngsters’ mistaken assumption that they had pushed the government off its chosen course — that they had defeated the state — is contributing both to a new inflammatory rhetoric among settler leaders and to a shift in ideology among their followers.
The outpost battle has effectively pitted the settlers’ vision of Zionism “as a religiously inspired redemption of the land” against the state’s largely secular Zionism, seen by most Israelis as project of creating and sustaining a Jewish homeland.
Denunciations of the hilltop youth by leftwingers like Meretz leader Yossi Sarid, who called them a band of “Jewish fascists”, underestimate the problem. The young settlers have organised themselves into armed militias with little respect for the law and a ready understanding that they will be treated with restraint at all times by the security forces.
One settler leader, Moshe Feiglin of the extremist Zo Artzenu movement, has become a spokesman for many of the youngsters and articulates a new ideology based on what he calls a “Jewish dream”, as opposed to the traditional “Zionist dream”: investing power in an expanded theocratic Jewish state rather than a secular Zionist one.
He told an Israeli newspaper recently: “Zionism has exhausted its mission. It was the right thing for its time but now the turn of Judaism has come, not only as a way of life but also at the level of political sovereignty, as a guiding ideology.”
“This is an inbuilt time bomb and we are in the midst of its explosion,” he told another paper.
He also offered advice to those like the Palestinians who stand in the way of realising the Jewish dream: “Those who do not accept the authority of a Jewish state have the whole world to go to.”
It is precisely this message that is worrying not only the villagers of Yanun but Palestinians across the West Bank and Gaza.