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Sunday Nov. 21, 2010 8:33 AM (EST+7)
13 activists detained for helping Palestinian farmers

Read more: Beit Umar, Palestinian farmers, Saffa Valley, olive trees, detain, arrest, activists

BEIT UMAR, NOV 21 (JMCC) - Thirteen international, Israeli and Palestinians activists were detained in the Saffa Valley near the West Bank village of Beit Umar on Thursday where they were helping Palestinian farmers clear their land in preparation for planting trees.

In the past month, more than 30 arrests and detentions have taken place in the area in what residents described as an escalation in Israeli settler and military violence and the denial of the Palestinians' rights to work their agricultural land.

We were escorting farmers from the village of Beit Umar to their fields in preparation for planting olive trees. The land has to be cleared of the dead bushes so trees can be planted, said Michael Mosczcynski, a Canadian activist who was detained with the other volunteers on 18 November.

Mosczcynski explained that the group had been working for about half an hour – de-rooting dead plants and lighting controlled fires to clear the brush – when five Israeli soldiers arrived, yelling in Hebrew that they had one minute to clear the area.

At this point, he said, the soldiers shot sound bombs at the volunteers, told them to sit on the ground and began collecting ID cards and passports.

It was very sudden. There wasn't any warning for throwing the sound bombs, Mosczcynski said.

The activists were arrested on the charge that they ignored a closed military zone order, and were detained in the Gush Etzion police station for six hours. They were only released upon agreeing to not participate in demonstrations and stay out of Beit Umar, the Saffa Valley, and Southern West Bank area for a period of 14 days.

I was told about the closed military zone upon arrival at the police station. The soldiers never used the word in English nor did they show us any paper in any language, Mosczcynski said.

I'm not surprised [by the sentences] but it's certainly very disappointing seeing as how we were just there to help farmers work their own land. For that to be considered a crime worthy of being banned from an entire region is a bit ridiculous. But hopefully these efforts will continue in the future despite the bans.

Illegally Annexing the Land

Sitting at the foot of the illegal Israeli settlement of Bat Ayin, the Saffa Valley has been the location of numerous attacks in recent months, including a group of settlers which set fire to 70 olive trees on 16 November on land belonging to the Thalji Aady family.

Three Palestinians were arrested during this attack, as they attempted to extinguish the fire and save some of the trees. Beit Umar area fire trucks were also stopped by the Israeli military from reaching the area in time to stop the fire.

According to Mousa Abu Maria, co-founder of the Palestine Solidarity Project (PSP), a non-violent direct action group based in Beit Umar that organizes the Saffa Valley replanting project, the persecution of Palestinian land owners and volunteers by the Israeli military is wholly unwarranted.

The people every week they go two times, Sunday and Thursday. They clean the land and the rubbish because we have a program to plant 5,000 olive trees, Abu Maria said. [The volunteers and activists] are in a legal area. They don’t make anything against the settlement or the soldiers, so I don’t know why they care to arrest these people.

This is the second year that PSP has organized groups of international and Israeli volunteers to accompany farmers and re-plant the Palestinian-owned land of the Saffa Valley, which was completely destroyed by Israeli settlers in 2009.

According to the Israeli military, the Saffa Valley is considered state land and is intended to be annexed to the Bat Ayin settlement, which was illegally set up in 1989 and today counts approximately 1,000 residents. Bat Ayin is located in the Gush Etzion bloc, an area counting 12 settlements and over 40,000 settlers, between Jerusalem and Hebron.

Indeed, under Israeli law, the Ministry of Agriculture has the ability to acquire any lands that are deemed neglected or abandoned by its owners. This is one of the main reasons that working the Palestinian-owned land in the Saffa Valley has become so important.

The farmer, when he is in his land, he has all the documents and he shows the soldiers, Abu Maria said. We have all the documents. We don’t work against any law.






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