We met Shirim at her family’s olive grove plot. It falls just outside the Betar Illit settlement. More accurately, it falls on the entire hill but the settlement imposed itself right on top of the farmland that has belonged to her family for five generations. She is forbidden to access her land beyond the current border of the settlement.
In 2011 The British Council and Holy Land Trust teamed to raise £3,000 to help Shirim and her family enhance their longstanding olive grove with new trees. This past summer, as the IDF was busy looking for the three kidnapped Israeli boys, on June 28 the grove was burned down, a clear act of arson.
Since the family had begun planting the new trees, settlers had taken trips beyond their high fences to throw rocks at the family as they worked their field, yelling murderous epithets at Shirim’s elderly mother when she prayed during work breaks. “They say it’s not our land,” Shirim said, “But my great-grandfather planted trees here.” The family used to harvest the land that is now inside the settlement and they cannot access it or recoup their losses. When they made objections to the settler board, one settler sneered, “Why don’t you buy a helicopter and fly down onto your land?”
The burn damage was extensive partly because the land is dry, but also because here in Zone B of the Palestinian Territory, under the political control of Israel, Palestinian civil services such as fire trucks are only allowed after an extensive red-tape permitting process. Obviously this bureaucracy could not serve such an emergency. Thus Palestine could not help its most vulnerable in their time of dire need.
The family is certain of settler culpability because no Palestinian can reach the settler wall, where the fire seared most deeply. You can tell the fire started there because of the burn patterns and how the burn tapers out further away from the settlement. “We are farmers,” said Shirim. “We know how land burns. We can read the burns.” It is clear it started in a place only a settler on the inside of the wall could access.
“They want us to be out of Palestine but we will never leave,” defied Shirim. “This land belonged to my great-great-great grandfather. The trees grew up with us like little babies.” In the meantime, settlers pass the Palestinian farmers as they mindfully work their land and say bad words, throw stones. Settler children taunt Shirim’s mother and say they’ll kill her.
In her life, Shirim has never had a good experience with a settler.
I ask her if she has ever met a non-settler Israeli. She shrugs. “Only soldiers.” But her friend Marwan interjects and reminds her that Jewish Israelis sponsored by Breaking the Silence and Combatting for Peace have crossed the Green Line to help rebuild the land. They come weekly to help undo the damage their co-nationalists have done. The Israeli government says these people are anarchists, but Shirim says, “They’re nice people. They’re humans.”
I ask Shirim why she meets travelers in her charred grove to tell her story. She responds, “to be honest about ourselves. We are not terrorists. The Israeli media is strong and tells everyone we are terrorists, not human beings, that we want to kill. We want to change this bad information about the Palestinian people. We are victims. And we want our rights. We want justice.”
If settlers came to her house with a proper visa, a permit to be on her land, and asked for her hospitality she would be obliged to give it to them. “It is the Arab way,” she says. “But they stole my land and built on it so I don’t respect them. I don’t know how they can see themselves as humans but see us as slaves.”
She somehow still believes the situation can change, Inshallah. “We’re here because we want to change everything.” She could just stay at home and cry all day about her two imprisoned brothers, her burned farm, her beaten father, her mocked mother. But she wants to fight for her rights. She stays strong through her faith, and also because she had friends all over the world who believe in her cause and stand by her. And because, she says simply, “This is our home.” The starkness of that basic fact helps her speak up.
In a moment of naive hope I asked her what she would do if a settler came to her and said they wanted to seek mutual understanding. If a settler wanted to explain themselves, their motives for settling, could she listen? Shirim thought for a while. “It is very hard to understand them. This is my home. They stole and forbid me from my own land. I cannot go to Jerusalem or to the settlement. They have taken so much and they have so much power. They have hurt us so much I cannot understand them.” Shirim cannot allow for a religious argument to justify settlements. “It’s not the Bible” driving their behavior, she declares, “it’s power. If you are using religion or a Biblical argument you should also choose the human being. They don’t respect human life. They see themselves as sons of God and Arabs as slaves. But I don’t have a high wall around my house. A wall means you know you are a thief, and you are afraid.”
She speaks with a calm resolve. Her tiger-gold eyes flash under her floral hijab. Her face is strong and sorrowful, and beautiful. She looks at her scorched, rocky field, the blackened branches jutting out sharply.
At a loss for words, I asked her how we can help. She replied, “Just tell my story.” They don’t need money, she said. Just for her story to be told far and wide, to combat the bad media image of Palestinians.
As she talked we saw an Israeli army truck drawing toward our van, circling with slow menace and then driving away, in a show of leonine presence. Shirim said worriedly, “I don’t have my ID on me.”
Her friend Marwan replied, “Don’t worry. He’s just saying ‘I’m here.’”
The Israeli army truck sauntered away from our van. Shirim drew herself up and glowered at it. She responded in a low voice.
“I’m here too. I’m still here.”