Around Duma: Palestinians and Israelis in the Conflict Zone

In the two years I spent working in the West Bank, the most beautiful spot I found was on a ridge of the Samarian Mountains, not far from Nablus The hill looks down on vineyards, olive orchards, fields of rich brown earth. Unlike so much of the dry, rocky West Bank, it’s green for much of the year – full of life, idyllic.

On July 31, two miles from this beautiful spot, a child was burned to death in the village of Duma. You’ve no doubt read about it – the incident was widely reported and met with universal outrage.

What could bring anyone to throw a Molotov cocktail into a house with a sleeping family inside? For anyone struggling to comprehend, this post offers some of the interviews and profiles we filmed in the area around Duma. I have no new reportage to add — I haven’t been to my spot since 2012. But when I was there, I think I had unusual access and traveled freely from one side to the other, to film both Palestinians and Israelis.

I spent quite a bit of time with a young hard core Israeli settler, originally from LA. He’s the settler who planted a vineyard that adjoins my favorite vantage point. On hilltops visible from there are Israeli “unauthorized outposts,” small settlements that have grown up over the past 20 years, many populated by young extremist settlers. At the end of the valley is a small Palestinian village, Jalud. Israelis have taken land claimed by owners in Jalud and other nearby villages and planted vineyards and orchards.

Growing disputes over this land have created a cycle of protest, resistance, civil disobedience, revenge and murder. Palestinians march onto the land after Friday prayers to demonstrate. Settlers come down from the outposts to push back. Stones are thrown. The Army intercedes. It has developed into a pattern, almost a ritual, like so much of the unending conflict in the West Bank.

Sometimes the usual ritual devolves into something darker. A mosque is torched. IDF live fire kills a protester. In one bizarre incident, the grandson of extremist Meir Kahane was trapped by a mob in the village of Qusra and severely beaten, until he was rescued by the IDF.

Over the past three weeks, it’s been particularly gruesome. On June 29, a Palestinian man opened fire on a carload of settlers, killing one of them. The Duma attack, about a month later, seemed to be a retaliation. Pro-settler graffiti was found on the walls of the house, a sign that this was another vigilante settler action known as a “price tag” attack. Duma was denounced by Netanyahu, decried as an act of terrorism, prompting a crackdown on the young crazies in the shadowy world of extreme right wing settlers. The same grandson of Meir Kahane was picked up as part of this sweep. On Aug. 4, a Palestinian plowed a vehicle into a group of soldiers standing next to the highway, inuring two critically.

These incidents have occurred within a very small area. Five or six miles, at most, separate one from the other. It’s certainly not the only flashpoint area in the West Bank, and I can’t say it’s the most extreme. But it’s the flashpoint of the moment.

What follows are profiles of Palestinians and Israeli living in this flashpoint, organized geographically:

Ibrahim Wadi is a leader of the village of Qusra, near Nablus. Qusra borders on the outpost of Esh Kodesh, and there have been frequent clashes between settlers from Esh Kodesh and people form Qusra involving disputed agricultural land. The Qusra mosque was damaged in an “price-tag” attack presumably perpetrated by extremist settlers. A resident of Qusra was shot by the IDF during a protest clash later in 2011.

Wadi and Fateh Allah Mahmoud, also of Qusra, walk on Mahmoud’s farm land, which they say is being stolen by settlers from nearby outposts, including Esh Kodesh.

Esh Kodesh:
Aaron Katsof grew up in the US and moved to Israel when he was 18. Today he lives in the settlement of Esh Kodesh, a small outpost in the Samarian Mountains near the larger settlement of Shiloh. Katsof recently built a new house in Esh Kodesh, a permanent structure (as opposed to the trailer homes that house most of the community). Katsof has planted a vineyard on land near the settlement.

Katsof is active as chief spokesman for Esh Kodesh and as part of an organization that captures video footage of Palestinian or IDF violence against settlers. The Esh Kodesh settlers have clashed with Palestinians from the neighboring villages of Jalud and Qusra. Other settlers from Esh Kodesh have been arrested and convicted for attacking Palestinians.

Abdallah Tawfiq heads the town council in Jalud, a small Palestinian village near the Israeli outpost of Esh Kodesh, home of Holy Land main subject Aron Katsof. Residents of Jalud assert that much of the land being taken by settlers from Esh Kodesh and other nearby outposts belongs to people from Jalud. The area is a major flashpoint for confrontations involving Palestinians, Israeli and the IDF.

Fawzi Mohammed has extensive land holdings in the area, including agricultural land adjoining the outpost of Esh Kodesh, home to Holy Land main subject Aron Katsof.

Alex Ostrovsky is a settler activist who has been implicated in a number of “price-tag” attacks on Palestinians and Israeli officials. A resident of the settlement of Eli, he has been active in the “Garin Ha’arim Ha’ivriot” (The Seed of Hebrew Cities), a group which advocates the return of Jewish settlers to West Bank towns such as Nablus and Jericho. In 2011, he was detained by Israeli authorities on suspicion that he was involved in several extremist actions in the West Bank directed at the IDF. He was released, and kept under house arrest for an extended period.

Dov Berkovits is a settler who lives in Shilo, in the northern West Bank. Shilo was founded in 1978 and is an officially recognized and supported Israeli settlmenet, now with a population of about 3000. Its housing and infrastructure are well developed. The biblical Shilo was at one time the capital of the Jewish nation, and is said to be where the Ark of the Covenant was kept before the founding of the first temple. The smaller unauthorized outposts are offshots of Shilo, which lies closer to the major north-south highway as a sort of mothership for the cluster of outposts further in the hills. Berkovits, son of a prominent American rabbi, was an early resident of Shilo and a proponent of more moderate views on the conflict.