BURIN, West Bank — The drive from the Green Line — Israel’s border with the West Bank — to this village of 7,000 people outside Nablus takes only 20 minutes, but it’s a crossing into a different world. As I leave the army checkpoint behind and climb through the first Palestinian village, the white blocks of flats in the Tel Aviv suburbs and the lush farmland vanish into the heat haze of the coastal plain. The hillsides become khaki and dusty, striped with exposed gray rock and dotted with hardy olive trees.
On the hilltops, the houses of the Israeli settlements are recognizable by their red-tiled, pitched roofs, their organization into streets and their landscaped pines. In the Palestinian villages, which occupy lower ground, the buildings are square and irregularly placed. If there’s any water to be had, the Palestinians concentrate it on the vines and olives in the valley bottom.
In the last year, Israeli settlers have come down from those hilltops more frequently than ever to confront local Palestinians, destroying crops and attacking farmers. Around Nablus, where the settlers are more ideological than almost anywhere else in the West Bank, the confrontations are near constant. They go largely unreported even in the Israeli media — and the international press rarely bothers with them.
There’s someone covering the violence between Israeli settlers and Palestinian villagers, however — the villagers themselves.
With 150 video cameras supplied by the Israeli human rights group B’tselem, Palestinians all over the West Bank record the violence from Israeli soldiers and settlers that otherwise is often dismissed by the Israeli public as enemy propaganda. The impact of the cameras on the settlers is minimal — almost none are prosecuted by Israeli authorities even when there’s video footage of an offense. Attacks on Burin from the nearby Yitzhar settlement, for example, continue to occur about every 10 days. Still the cameras have relieved the Palestinian sensation of powerlessness in the face of a group that behaves as thought it were above even Israeli law.
As his sisters serve mint tea, Ahmed Soufan sits in his freezing living room with the hood of his sweatshirt over his head for warmth. Flies settle on his face, briefly diverted from the horse manure piled against the side of the house. When he leads me outside to view the patches of gray dust where settlers burned his olive trees before the October harvest, the sun sears out of a cloudless sky to bake his thick, craggy features. “We have a conflict with the Israelis,” says the 24-year-old. “Of course, B’tselem is Israeli. That makes me feel that Israelis are just people like us, too.”
In the Nablus area, B’tselem’s Palestinian fieldworker Atef Abu al-Rob administers the camera program. While many Israeli settlers see themselves as suburbanites fleeing expensive Tel Aviv and Jerusalem for affordable family housing, the settlers here are mostly extremists driven by religious and nationalist fervor. Many are prone to violent confrontation with local Palestinians. A vivacious 43-year-old former journalist, Abu al-Rob is constantly on the move, collecting tapes and questioning Palestinians about trouble with their Israeli neighbors.
On a recent night, Abu al-Rob fielded a phone call at his home from a frightened woman. A few dozen settlers had descended from Yitzhar to the road at the edge of Burin, where Huda Najar lives with her 55-year-old mother, six siblings and a 3-year-old niece.
The settlers threw stones at the Najar house, a two story construct of poured concrete beside the family’s olive grove. The solar panels on the rooftop water-heater were smashed and the security bars on the windows rang with the impact of the rocks. Abu al-Rob had given Huda, 27, a Sony video camera and she filmed the settlers from a first-floor window with the night-vision setting. But she grew worried the settlers would see her and try to get into the house to capture the tape or to break the camera.
“Just press Record, put the camera on the window ledge and leave it there,” Abu al-Rob said.
The next day at the Najar house, Abu al-Rob comes to pick up the tape. After watching a few minutes, he hands it to me. “You can’t see so much, because it was night,” he says. “But you can hear the stones and the settlers shouting.”
A series of orange flashes zip across the screen and a few army jeeps seem to emerge from the darkness. “Gunshots,” I say.
Abu al-Rob rewinds the tape and watches the shooting. “Oh, that’s pretty good,” he says, with a smile for Huda.
When the tape arrives back at B’tselem’s Jerusalem office, it’ll be loaded onto a digital archive. Some of the more important clips are highlighted on www.btselem.org.
In the most recent B’tselem footage to hit Israeli headlines, one of the group’s Palestinian activists in the southern West Bank town of Hebron filmed an Israeli from a nearby settlement confronting Palestinians. He appeared to shoot at least one of them with a pistol from close range, before he was knocked to the ground and briefly beaten. At the settler’s remand hearing in early December, the presiding magistrate ordered him released to house arrest and condemned the police for ignoring the beating the man received from Palestinians after he fired his shots.
In the Najars’ yard, a neighbor named Abu Yussef grumbles that the settlers make life difficult for the people of Burin “for no reason.” Abu al-Rob slips Huda’s tape into his pocket and explains the settlers’ tactics. Whenever the Israeli government threatens to remove a remote, new hilltop outpost, settlers all over the West Bank cause trouble with local Palestinians. The intention, as stated by settler leaders, is to overwhelm the army and to persuade the politicians that halting settlement expansion is just too much of a headache.
When Atef Abu al-Rob first brought the camera, the Najars doubted the worth of filming the settlers, but he persuaded them. “I trust Atef and I trust B’tselem,” Huda says. “When we used to complain, the police would say there’s no evidence. Now we have the tapes, at least.”
The Samaritan's Secret Part 2: How the Samaritans straddle the Israelis and the Palestinians
(Matt Beynon Rees’s latest Palestinian crime novel, "The Samaritan’s Secret," was published Feb. 1 by Soho Press.)