Isabel Kershner
The New York Times
June 24, 2008 - 4:12pm

The conflict between Arabs and Jews over grazing land and water wells in the ancient, arid hills south of Hebron in the West Bank has a distinctly biblical feel, like the flimsy tent encampments and dank caves in which some local Palestinian farming families dwell.

But the primeval feud took on a modern twist this month when Muna Nawajaa, one of the two wives of a Palestinian shepherd from Khirbet Susiya, used a handheld video camera to film what appeared to be masked Jewish settlers viciously beating members of her family with clubs — images that have since been broadcast by news networks all over the world.

Mrs. Nawajaa, 24, said it was the first scene she had filmed.

Had it not been for the camera — one of about 100 handed out in the West Bank by the Israeli human rights group Btselem for the purpose of documenting violent attacks — the June 8 assault may have ended up like many others that have occurred in these parts: unresolved.

But the graphic images and ensuing attention by the news media seem to have spurred the Israeli police. By Friday, the Judea and Samaria branch had arrested three suspects from the nearby modern Jewish settlement of Susiya after what a police spokesman described as “an intensive investigation.” Two of the three were under 18.

“The only weapon we have is the media,” said Khalil Nawajaa, 61, a patriarch of the clan that raises livestock and teases wheat, grapes and zucchini out of the thistle-spiked earth.

The Nawajaas maintain a home in the town of Yata a few miles away, but they prefer to stick close to their land. The encampment has no electricity. Water is drawn from a well, milk is kept in sheepskins, bread is baked in an outdoor stone oven and extra shelter is provided by an underground cave.

Sitting on the floor of a tent in the family’s encampment in mid-June, Imran Nawajaa, 33, a nephew of Khalil Nawajaa, recalled the morning of the attack. He said he was out tending a flock with his young sons when two masked settlers rode up on a tractor and ordered him, in Hebrew, to leave.

“I said, ‘This is my land, this is my flock, I’m not going anywhere,’ ” he said. “They told me, ‘If you are a man, stay here for another 10 minutes,’ then they left.”

Imran sent for Muna, whose brother had taught her to use the camera. She arrived with Imran’s wife, Rabiha, and Khalil and his wife, Tamam.

The camera captured four lean men, their heads swathed in colorful cloth, striding toward the farmers, clubs in hand. In the background are the whitewashed, red-roofed houses of the settlement. One masked man struck Imran with swift, hard blows. There is a fleeting frame of another man grappling with Khalil before the camera stopped.

Muna said she partly hid the camera under her scarf while filming from a nearby rise, until she got scared. “I was thinking of my baby. He was alone in the tent. I also ran away to call for help,” she said, explaining why the video ended abruptly after the first blows.

Other shepherds helped the farmers down to the main road. There they flagged down an Israeli Army jeep, which called for an ambulance, and the videocassette was given to the police.

Tamam, 60, was taken to an Israeli hospital with a broken cheekbone and a gash on her right hand. Khalil, who received a head wound, and Imran, who said he had briefly lost consciousness, were treated in Hebron.

Khalil said that the violence was foreshadowed about a year ago when he tried to shoo settlers’ sheep away from his newly planted wheat when two settlers grabbed him and smashed his face with a stone, knocking out a front tooth. Khalil was unable to identify his attackers from any of the pictures in the police files so they closed the case, he said.

The south Hebron hills are the scene of constant tension, according to Btselem and the police. The fierce competition for sparse resources is compounded by security fears and deeply conflicting national claims.

Ancient Susiya contains the ruins of a synagogue dating from the Roman period, attesting to a long and robust Jewish presence here. Jewish settlers started moving in again after Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967.

In the persistent war over the land, blood has been spilled on both sides. In 2001, at the height of the second Palestinian uprising, Yair Har-Sinai, a well-known Jewish shepherd from the settlement of Susiya, was murdered in the Hebron hills.

His widow, Dalia, still lives on their farm on the edge of the settlement, a few hundred yards from the Nawajaa camp.

Imran said the recent attackers had set out from “Dalia’s farm.”

Mrs. Har-Sinai denied any link to the attack. “They can claim, but it’s not true,” she said by telephone. “I have no connection to the affair.”

The festering conflict revolves around entitlement to the coveted land. The Nawajaas said that they owned about 10 acres in the area, and that they had a deed of registration last renewed in 1935. Israeli human rights lawyers say the actual plot where the attack took place is owned by a Palestinian from the nearby village of Samoa.

But when it comes to Palestinian property rights, “the settlers don’t care,” Imran Nawajaa said. “They tell us to go back to Saudi Arabia.”


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