The following is an article translated and adapted from the June 18 edition of the Hebrew-language weekly B'Sheva.
It is hard to imagine a lynching in Israel’s pastoral, sun drenched south - the Negev - but sheep grower Oz Davidian is alive only because he was able to break away for a few seconds from the Bedouin marauders who attacked him on his own property in broad daylight. He managed to dial the emergency hotline, causing his attackers to flee, not before they told him: “You will leave this place dead or alive. We will destroy your livelihood until you run away”. Davidian needed stitches and surgical care. The Bedouins who tried to murder him are out of jail until the case comes to court.
Two weeks ago, Davidian woke up to discover that all his sheep had disappeared. Israel’s Border Police used scouts to find where the thieves, local Bedouins, had hidden them. The 30-40 complaints he has filed in the Ofakim police station over the last two years have had no deterring effect as the police simply interrogated and then released the offenders.
Davidian’s story is but one example of the surrealistic conditions under which farmers in the southern Negev and northern Galilee of Israel have been trying to survive. Arab and Bedouin marauders strike again and again in their attempts to force Israeli farmers to leave their land, situated well within the pre-1967 Green Line.
Arab and Bedouin marauders strike again and again in their attempts to force Israeli farmers to leave their land.
The beleaguered owners, whose financial losses are catastrophic, have turned to law enforcement agencies but found that police are understaffed. If a case finally gets to court, the punishments do not fit the severity of the crime. Eventually some of the farmers give up and allow the Arab aggressors to take over their land.
Two years ago, this depressing picture began to change. A dynamic group of young Israelis formed a group called “The New Guardians” and began to help distressed farmers and sheep growers. The name was chosen to bring to mind the legendary “Guardian” group that arose to protect Jewish settlements from Arab attacks in the pre-State period from 1909 to 1920, when the area was under Turkish rule.
Silberman and co-guard on patrol Yoel Silberman, a combat officer, took an extended leave from the IDF to found the “New Guardians” group. He realized that his family, third generation farmers from Tzippori in the Galilee, were going to lose their livelihood if he didn’t take action to guard their property. During the three-year period prior to Yoel’s initiative, his father filed over 250 complaints against Arabs who cut his fences, caused tens of thousands of shekels worth of damage and threatened his life. Most of the police files were closed as being of “insufficient interest to the public.”
“One day we took our flocks out to graze on our land north of the (Jewish) Galilee town of Hoshaya”, he recalls, “and found that Arab flocks had broken in. We got them out, but four Israeli Arabs from the nearby village arrived and began punching us and throwing rocks. They called my father to tell him that they intend to kill me. Border Police were there, but they and their vehicle were attacked as well. The next time they cut our fence, my father went to the police while we held up their flocks. Arabs followed him into Hoshaya, beat him and stole his car right in front of the town’s offices. They were freed after several days in jail.”
Silberman set up a lookout post, highlighted with Israeli flags all around it, and little by little, people who identified with his idea began joining him. Two more guard posts sprang up, staffed with volunteers who kept watch 24 hours a day in other areas. The project expanded through the Galilee and is now being set up in the Negev as well, where paying “protection” monies or goods to avoid trouble with Bedouin neighbors is rampant.
Silberman feels that the lessons of history have not been learned by the powers that be, but he is careful to stay within the parameters of the law. He defines his group as providers of extra help for existing law enforcement agencies. A hotline set up by the group is manned by 100 permanent and another 200 volunteer members who rush to threatened areas in real time and set up preventive ambushes at night.
The Guardians take advantage of a property law called that allows a landowner to incarcerate invading livestock in equal value to damage inflicted on his property until the end of court procedures. “This perfectly lawful measure”, he says, “makes them think twice before trespassing. When fences are cut we immediately call the police, estimate the damage, rope in the thieves’ horses, cows and calves and file a complaint.”
The New Guardians are deeply ideological. “The problem has as much to do with our loss of attachment to the land and interest in self advancement and the easy life as it does with the trespassers’ criminal acts”, claims Silberman. “We have to discover and renew our ideology of love for this land. Those who attached to it most strongly will end up having it.” It is not surprising that youngsters from religious Zionists high schools and religious and secular pre-army program students are a significant source of manpower for the New Guardians.
He notes that kibbutzim once had no fences but now are enclosed and afraid for their youngsters to go out horseback or bike riding due to Arab attackers. “We also have to deal with the fear and insecurity caused by lack of solutions to the problem. We want people to feel secure in our homeland. Kibbutz Kfar HaNassi had a longstanding argument with Arab neighbors over an area of land and finally abandoned it to avoid continued violence, although it had been purchased by the Jewish National Fund over 100 years ago,” he adds.
The New Guardians have also come up with creative, positive ways to let their Zionism show. On Israel’s Independence Day, they counter (Israeli) Arab pro-Palestinian Authority rallies, where PA flags are waved, with nearby “happenings” at which they sing the Israeli national anthem and dance and wave Israeli flags in order to show the joy and strength they feel on this holiday.
The organization would love to be superfluous and would like to see the government put an end to the proliferation of unlawful flocks which have not been inoculated, illegal building, police inaction and protection payments. At this point, they need help to continue their aid to farmers and to encourage legislation that will give the landowners more authority to act to protect themselves. They also want to create a grassroots movement that will lead to enhanced ideological convictions and a change in attitude towards the problem.