Editor’s note: Ross Fenter is a Seattle-based film maker who has been documenting the Israel-Palestine conflict for years now. Fenter has returned to the region to gain the perspective, arguably under-represented in the U.S. media, of the Palestinians. His focus has been on the Maria family in the West Bank, where they have been leaders in protesting the Israeli occupation of their lands. One family member, 46-year-old Hashem Abu Maria, who worked on children’s issues, was killed July 25 by an Israeli sniper. In his third installment for Humanosphere, Fenter reports from the West Bank as fighting resumes.
By Ross Fenter
“I know him, I know this man,” says my Palestinian friend Mousa as we sat on the top of a hill with his family overlooking the town below – and what appeared to be yet another road block in the West Bank by the Israeli military.
“The soldier or the man?” I ask, to which I get no response. “Mousa?”
“I know the Palestinian,” says Mousa. “Do you want to go down there with me”?
Of course I do.
We were in the town of Beit Ommar located in the Hebron District of the West Bank, during a lull in the fighting. This town of 18,000 people is situated roughly 10 miles north of Hebron and about 35 miles northeast of the Gaza Strip. Fighting between Hamas in Gaza and the Israeli military has resumed after a 72-hour cease fire.
It may sound odd to say, given the circumstances, but this was a beautiful day and we’d hiked up to the top of one of Mousa’s favorite spots in the whole village. It’s late afternoon and there’s a nice cool breeze coming down from the hills. Behind us are the stone ruins of a house from the Roman Era. Out ahead we see one of the prettier, more fertile valleys in the West Bank.
Mousa and I are eating fresh fruit that he picked from a tree on our way up to his favorite spot. You cannot go for a walk or a hike with Mousa and not eat fresh grapes, figs or plums. This is one of those idiosyncrasies that I love about the man, always studying the land and the trees with that farmer’s eye, checking for ripe fruit and eating as we go.
About 300 yards below us there’s a car stopped in the road with several soldiers questioning two men, the younger man stands facing the stone wall of the cemetery, arms and legs spread out with his palms flat on the wall.
Mousa and I make our way down through the fields and out onto the road, I have my camera on me and I’m filming as we walk up to the car and Mousa says hello and asks the soldiers what they are doing.
Immediately one soldier approaches Mousa and in perfect English he says something in a voice that resembles a scene from the TV show Cops, complete with hand gestures: “You’re interrupting a military operation, this is a military operation and I’m going ask you to leave. Go, go now.”
Mousa firmly stands his ground in front of the two soldiers, delicately pushes the aggressive soldiers gun barrel away from him and asks: “Why?”
“This is my town,” Mousa says, “I know these men, why you stop them like this, why you treat them like criminal? I know this man, he sells bread, how can he work and make income for his family if you make him stand against wall for an hour like terrorist?”
At this point two more soldiers walk over from behind me so I move to get a better angle.
The soldiers are confused, they’re not sure what to do given that I’m filming the events as they unfold and I’ve already announced that I’m an American journalist working on a story about the West Bank. Mousa remains calm. He’s articulate and steady, and only addresses the commander, a tall soldier with a boyish face who speaks good English.
It turns out the more aggressive soldier is an American. It’s obvious from the way he talks and I ask him where he’s from. He glares, doesn’t respond. From this point forward the conversation is completely controlled by Mousa. For every excuse that the soldiers come up with for their actions, Mousa delivers two or three rebuttals – quoting Israeli law and telling the soldiers that they can call his lawyer in Tel Aviv if they have any questions.
The fact of the matter is, this is Area B and it is not the job of the military to make random traffic stops inside the village of Beit Ommar. That job is for the Israeli police, which Mousa informs the young soldiers over and over again.
Several times throughout the conversation the soldiers bring up Sederot, the Israeli town closest to Gaza whose residents have been suffering the most from Hamas rockets. The agitated American IDF soldier starts talking to Mousa assuming that in his spare time – between raising a family, farming and operating two organizations – Mousa is running down to the border and somehow launching rockets at Sederot.
It doesn’t matter that we’re not in Israel or Gaza. It doesn’t matter that we’re in the West Bank and Mousa would need permission from the government 30 days in advance just to leave and do these stupid things this guy is accusing him of. These guys are young, not very bright and heavily armed. To them, it’s easier to group all Palestinians into one category (Hamas), regardless of how foolish.
The American is getting aggressive because he’s scared. This is obvious to both Mousa and I, and twice I hear him ask if they should be calling for backup.
As a former military man myself, if there’s one thing that I know it’s that a scared soldier is a dangerous soldier.
I realize that these guys are just following orders. I’m sure they’d rather be back in the barracks playing Xbox, checking Facebook and talking about girls. But they’re here now and they have a job to do, that job being to randomly stop people and harass them, reminding the villagers who’s in charge.
This systemic harassment has been going on inside the West Bank unchecked for many years now.
Denying the local population their freedom of movement is in direct violation of Article 27 of the Geneva Convention. Many of these issues in the West Bank today are a direct result of the failed Oslo Accords, signed by Israel and the PLO in 1993.
After about 5 minutes the commanding officer who for the most part has been polite, gives in to Mousa and he lets the man and his father go. The American is upset but there’s nothing he can do about it, so we thank the commanding officer and everyone goes their separate ways.
We head to what might be considered ground zero of the current conflict – a conflict that has so far killed nearly 2,000 people since early July, when Israel launched ‘Operation Protective Edge’ aimed at blocking and responding to Hamas’ rocket fire from Gaza into Israel.
The demographics of the dead are hotly disputed, but according to the UN’s estimates this includes about 1,900 Palestinians (most of them reportedly civilians, including more than 400 children) and more than 60 Israelis, mostly soldiers.
This particular eruption of violence cane be traced back to June 12, when three Israeli settlers apparently went for a late night hike in the hills near Gush Etzion, about 7 miles from Beit Ommar. Ground zero.
According to police reports, one of the three boys managed to make a call to emergency services before gunshots were heard and the phone call was cut off. The initial media reports did not mention the gunshots, that information came out much later but what was reported was that the three teenagers had been kidnapped and the Israeli Government put Hamas at the top of their list of suspects.
This “kidnapping” launched an 18-day rampage across the West Bank targeting many people, followed up on July 7th by drone strikes on Hamas targets inside Gaza. The siege that went on for weeks is still going on to this day, though at a lower level since the launch of Operation Protective Edge on July 8.
One week after the kidnapping a Palestinian teenager was abducted in East Jerusalem in an apparent act of revenge. According to authorities, the boy was beaten, tortured and then forced to drink gasoline before being lit on fire.
Always on the look-out for good conspiracy theories, many Palestinians that I’ve talked to have told me what they think really happened to the three boys and believe me, the theories are all over the map. Most involve some kind of story about the Mossad, a very common theme in the Arab World.
Regardless, it still doesn’t change the fact that four young men tragically lost their lives through heinous acts of violence setting off yet another regional conflict with devastating consequences.
But focusing on the military conflict alone, on this particular ground zero, is misleading. What really keeps fueling the conflict, these chronic and dispiriting repeated cycles of disproportionate combat, is the daily grind of occupation. It isn’t about the latest ground zero. For the Palestinians, it’s the feeling of being ground down to zero – to a life of subjection, abuse and impoverishment.
I am writing this on Thursday August 7, 2014. The 72-hour truce was still in effect and the Israeli Government asked for an extension to the ceasefire this morning and so far Hamas has refused based on the terms, or what they would characterize as the lack of any terms. Few around me expected the truce would last – because it represented no change from the miserable status quo.
In the morning, we saw drones flying overhead in Beit Ommar and the surrounding valley. That’s the first time I’ve noticed any drones since arriving in the West Bank just over a week ago. It’s very odd to me that on the second day of the ceasefire we all of a sudden have this drone activity over the West Bank (as opposed to Gaza). But then again, there are often a number of odd incidents taking place in and around this village.
Perhaps the ominous hum of the drones overhead is just there to serve as a reminder to the West Bank residents that Israel is watching, and ready.
On Saturday the IDF pulled a ‘straw widow’ just up the road from where I’m staying. A ‘straw widow’ refers to the invasion and occupation of a private home for strategic military operations; arresting people, searching homes. Occasionally, the IDF use Palestinian rooftops to place their snipers. It’s a very common operation so much so that it has it’s own catchy little name.
When the IDF occupies your home they can do whatever they want, eat your food, drink your soda and on occasion they steal things, like Mousa’s computers. The families inside their homes are usually gathered together and forced into one room where they must stay until the soldiers decide that it’s time to leave.
“In The West Bank, it is army law, or marshal law, and it’s not by the people for the people, it’s by Israel for Israel.” – Former Israeli paratrooper Avner Gvaryahu, activist with Breaking The Silence.
Since I arrived in Beit Ommar 10 days ago, the Israeli Army has executed a handful of night raids in the West Bank, arresting 26 people. Given the conflagration in Gaza, these actions get little to no international media attention. Many of these people arrested are not known to be active in any kind of resistance, which is confusing to Mousa and the other men in town.
The soldiers sometimes exercise a show of force late at night or early in the morning by entering the village and launching tear gas canisters and concussion grenades, waking everyone up in the process before they inexplicably leave.
Other times, like two nights ago, they come into town on the prowl wearing black ski masks and silently making their way between buildings and down alleys until they reach their target home. According to our neighbor who was asleep on his roof two nights ago, the one time that I actually slept through the night, the soldiers walked through the Maria compound and past my bedroom window.
In addition to the actions taken here by the Israeli police, and military, the Israeli settlers encroaching on the borders are also getting more aggressive. Two days ago we watched from a hilltop as a settler armed with an AR-15 assault rifle (above) opened fire with live ammo on a group of kids using sling shots by the security fence. Fortunately, he missed.
Last night, Mousa got a phone call at 4 a.m. from a friend asking if he was okay. Apparently, his friend had heard from another source that the soldiers were back in town and they’d arrested Mousa.
It’s all very strange and hard to understand. On the one hand this place is like a tinderbox ready to explode. On the other hand, you have the IDF stepping up it’s operations and arrests as if they’re trying to spark some kind of reaction. It makes you wonder if either side has a clear end game in mind. Or if it’s all reaction and, well, over-reaction.
The common belief in the West Bank right now is that with the failure of this ceasefire, the resumption of fighting, things will go from bad to much worse. Military operations are expected to move from the Gaza Strip up to the West Bank. If this happens, the chances for a third intifada will increase dramatically. That could make the current catastrophe look like a walk in a fig field.
Ross Fenter is a philanthropist and a film maker with over 18 years of experience working in film and television. After serving in the US Army overseas and earning a degree from the University of Montana, Ross moved to Los Angeles to embark on a career in film and tv with a focus on documentary film making. Ross has filmed in over a dozen countries, from the jungles of Thailand and Burma working with the Karen refugees and guerrilla fighters, to the occupied territories of The West Bank, Brazil, Peru, Laos and many more.