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The Settlers

1.

Several months ago, residents of the Arab village of Bidya on the West Bank assassinated their mukhtar, or headman, whom they had accused of being an Israeli collaborator. The mukhtar, Mustafa Salim Abu Bakr, was a well-known land speculator who villagers claim defrauded them out of hundreds of dunams of land by, in some cases, tricking them into signing over to him the deeds to their property. Like many mukhtars on the West Bank, Abu Bakr had been appointed by the Israeli Civil Administration to run the village and to act as a middleman between the villagers and the authorities. He was supplied with Uzi machine guns and a beeper that connected him to the nearby Jewish settlement of Ariel, which sent squads of armed settlers to Bidya whenever he called for protection. Abu Bakr passed out the weapons among a small band of followers, who used them to intimidate the villagers and to collect “taxes” from them. The villagers twice appealed to the Israeli Civil Administration to remove Abu Bakr. In November 1986, the house of the villager who led the opposition against the mukhtar was riddled with machine-gun fire.

Abu Bakr himself survived six assassination attempts, including one early last year in which several villagers rammed his car with a Dodge Plymouth as he pulled out of his driveway one morning. The mukhtar was unhurt. But his nineteen-year-old pregnant daughter had been sitting in the back seat and was crushed to death by the Plymouth—a car the villagers had selected for its size and weight. A few months later, on March 5, 1988, young people in the village threw firebombs at Abu Bakr’s house. Israeli soldiers and Jewish settlers quickly intervened; they arrested several young men who had allegedly taken part in the killing of his daughter, put the village under curfew, demolished three houses, and uprooted more than two hundred olive trees.

The military government finally gave in to the villagers’ request and on May 15, 1988, dismissed Abu Bakr. But before the order could take effect, Abu Bakr sold Bidya’s water pumping and electrical equipment. Then last September Abu Bakr was shot to death by two masked men as he was driving in front of Bidya’s high school. The gunmen set fire to his corpse as villagers looked on. “It was our biggest achievement of the intifada,” said Amir Abu Bakr, the director of Bidya’s high school, which, along with all other West Bank schools, has been shut down by the Israelis in reprisal for stone throwing and other activities.

According to the Associated Press, at least forty-five Arabs suspected of collaborating with the Israelis have been killed by Palestinian militants since the beginning of the intifada. Palestinian sources told me that PLO officials in Tunis approve most orders to kill suspected collaborators after underground trials have been conducted by local Palestinian activists.

Soon after the shooting, in which the mukhtar‘s eight-year-old son was seriously wounded, Bidya was surrounded by 150 soldiers and settlers from Ariel. The entrances to the village were blocked with earthen barricades, and all the men between the ages of fourteen and forty were herded into the mosque for questioning. Seven villagers, including the sheik of the village mosque, were subsequently arrested in connection with the assassination and are now in prison awaiting trial. Five houses belonging to the suspects were blown up by the army and another house was sealed, leaving forty-five people homeless. Bidya was placed under curfew for four days. Israeli soldiers forced villagers to remove stones and bottles from their roofs, to paint over nationalist graffiti, and to take down Palestinian flags from trees and telephone poles.

I drove to Bidya in March with Osama Odeh, a thirty-three-year-old chemical engineer from Ramallah, whose family has had a house there, he told me, for 125 years. Bidya is a nondescript dust-shrouded farming village of some three thousand people near the Nablus-Tel Aviv highway, which is heavily used by Israeli settlers. Passing Israeli cars and trucks have frequently been attacked with stones and firebombs by the people of Bidya, and several settlers have been injured. In reprisal, Bidya has been raided by the army and by groups of settlers. Last January, soldiers entered Bidya at 3 AM, rounded up the men, and forced them to sit in a freezing drizzle in the high-school courtyard while an Israeli official confiscated the identification papers of residents who had not paid Israeli taxes. The authorities have raised the taxes Palestinians must pay in the occupied territories to cover the costs of putting down the intifada, and many Palestinians have stopped paying them as an act of resistance.

Shortly before our visit, Osama’s three-story stone house, which was standing vacant at the time, was broken into by Israeli soldiers, who, according to villagers, were looking for an illegal printing press. The cast-iron front door was blown off its hinges by an explosive charge. Furniture, mirrors, and windows were smashed, and food scattered. Someone mixed salt in the coffee. A glass frame holding a medical diploma belonging to Osama’s uncle, a doctor in West Germany, lay shattered in the study, along with a microscope and other expensive medical equipment. Hundreds of books were pulled from their shelves and lay in heaps in the library. They included A Short History of the Saracens, published in 1924; a Kansas State College bulletin from 1947-1948; and a leather-bound copy of The Knights of the Round Table. “It’s very sad they did such things to books,” Osama said.

Osama made arrangements to hire some workmen from the village to clean up and repair the damage. Then we walked along an unpaved street to the house of his cousin, the educator Amir Abu Bakr. We were joined by several other men, including Mohammed Odeh, Osama’s twenty-seven-year-old cousin, who had spent five years in prison for throwing a Molotov cocktail at an Israeli army jeep. The men were reluctant to talk about the intifada because they said they feared reprisals. They spoke with satisfaction about the mukhtar‘s murder and the new town council they recently set up, in defiance of the military, to run village affairs. As far as I could learn later on, Bidya’s is the only independent Palestinian town council in the territories. Palestinian town councils are appointed by the Israeli authorities. Bidya’s new town council is part of a new system of government that has been emerging during the intifada.

Like most other West Bank Arab villages, Bidya includes members of various PLO factions and Marxist groups, as well as the Hammas—an Islamic fundamentalist movement created in the spring of 1988 as an extension of the Muslim Brotherhood. But as with most of the other rural villages on the West Bank, Yasser Arafat’s mainstream Fatah has overwhelming support in Bidya. There is also a small but influential group of Communists that both Israeli and Palestinian sources told me has had a central part in planning much of the local resistance to the occupation.1 The Islamic fundamentalists are especially strong in Gaza, where they were originally encouraged by the Israeli authorities as a counterforce to the PLO. The Hammas have denounced Arafat for recognizing Israel; their underground communiqués sometimes quote from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The intifada itself has been coordinated by underground popular committees made up of all the Palestinian factions, except for the Hammas. Secular Palestinian nationalists I spoke to believe Israel is still supporting the Hammas in order to divide the Palestinian community, although they had no evidence that this was so.

The villagers in Bidya are engaged in a sharp debate over whether Arafat has gone too far in recognizing the Jewish state. But while they seemed to have little enthusiasm for coexistence, many of Bidya’s men work in Israel and would like to continue to do so. “It’s mutually convenient,” said Mohammed Odeh. If there is one thing the men agree on, however, it is their hatred of Ariel, the large Jewish settlement that looms over the village. Ariel sits on land that was either confiscated by the army for what it claimed were security reasons, or willingly sold by nearby villagers, or, according to some villagers, acquired by fraud by Arab middlemen such as Abu Bakr.

Ariel has a vigilante militia force that has often attacked Bidya. Within the last few months, groups of settlers from Ariel—sometimes as many as three hundred people—have pulled villagers from their houses and cars in order to beat them; they have smashed their windows and burned their olive trees. After the first such attack last February, settlers left behind a flyer in Arabic, warning that violence is a “two-edged sword,” and if the residents of Bidya continue to throw stones and firebombs at Jews, both the villagers and their property will be “destroyed.”

But as I soon learned, the Jewish settlers live in fear, the fear that the intifada will destroy their dream of “Greater Israel.” Indeed, for the 140-odd Jewish settlements scattered across the occupied territories, there is a new, depressing reality. Overnight, it seems, the Palestinians have been transformed from an easily intimidated people into determined fighters. “The settlers are now facing a proud, self-confident nation, with the chutzpah of a proud people,” said Dede Zucker, the Knesset member of the left-wing Citizens’ Rights Movement party. “The rules of the game have changed.”

After Osama and I left his cousin’s house, he dropped me off at the entrance to Ariel—a gleaming town of about eight thousand people who live in tree-shaded villas and row after row of low-rise apartment blocks set into the Samarian hillside. I had been invited to watch the making of a promotional film that Ariel’s mayor planned to show on a fund-raising tour of America scheduled for this autumn. To hear the citizens of Ariel tell their story to the camera, one would never guess that an Arab rebellion threatened their presence on the West Bank, or that Ariel now had a well-armed militia, or that the militia’s leader is said to be Ariel’s mayor.

As klieg lights glowed, a young Jewish couple in their late thirties from Portland, Oregon, seated in their neatly furnished apartment, told an off-camera interviewer why they moved to Ariel: “The first time we came here,” said Naomi, a black American teacher of English who has converted to Judaism, “there was nothing here but Arabs and rocks. I thought we had lost our way.”

Now five years later we are a city of eight thousand residents, with stores, parks, a good school system,” interjected Naomi’s husband Dan, a soft-spoken computer engineer.

It’s such a wonderful feeling to see a town grow up around you,” Naomi continued.

I remember the day when my neighbor got a telephone. I opened a bottle of wine and we danced on the table…. It’s important to make Aliya, but in Ariel it really counts. My three-year-old was born in the city, and my eight-year-old can go anywhere in town even at night without me having to worry. It’s like one big family…. People say I sound like a salesman, but I love it here. I couldn’t live anyplace else.

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    According to an Al Fajr poll taken in 1986, 93.5 percent of the respondents said the “PLO is the sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.” Seventy-one percent of the respondents preferred Arafat as their leader, and 78.4 percent agreed with the statement: “Acts of violence are justified in the pursuit of the Palestinian cause.”

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