Lt. Col. Shalom Eisner demolishing homes and animal barracks in Fasayil

See our photos of the attack and occupied Jordan Valley on Flikr here

On Saturday 14th April a cycle ride through the Palestinian Jordan Valley was attacked by the Israeli Army – hundreds of thousands of people around the world have seen the video footage of Andreas Ayas being smashed in the face by the Deputy Commander of the Army’s Jordan Valley Brigade.

The world’s media have focussed on the brutality of the Commander’s attack, and his subsequent suspension from the Army. Little has been said about why the cycle ride was happening, the villages that the cyclists planned to visit, the apartheid legal process stacked in favour of the army and the systematic violence used by them against Palestinian communities.

Bike tour in occupied Jordan Valley

Over one hundred activists from Palestine and around the world participated in the bike protest, organized by Sharek Youth Forum, Nablus. They planned to ride  14km through the valley from Ras Al Auja to Fasayil, aiming to challenge restrictions of movement imposed on Palestinians by the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) andraise awareness of  the repression  of Palestinian communities living under occupation in the Jordan Valley.  The tour was promoted by organisers with a spirit of celebration including music, youth dubka dancing and traditional food in Abel al Ajaaj UNRWA school.

Cyclists travelled about 3km before being blocked by IOF at the junction to Road 90, and forbidden from entering the main road. After about 30 minutes, the group started to cycle forward towards the road block – the soldiers attacked them at random.

Background information – al Auja

The attacks took place in al Auja, a village located approximately 10km north east of Jericho city. About 4500 Palestinians live in the built up heart of the village which is classified area A meaning, in theory at least, Palestinian Authority has full administration and security control. Another 1500 live ion Ras Al Auja, which is a Bedouin community about 1km away from the built up area..

Road 90, which bypasses Jericho city from the east and stretches 119km from the Northern Dead Sea to Besan, was classified area C under the Oslo accords, and cuts through the village. Area C means Israel retains full control and the military has ultimate authority over the occupied territory.

Since Israel invaded the Jordan Valley in 1967, the IOF have confiscated 2,682 dunnams (1 dunnam = 100m sq) from Al Auja to establish 6 illegal agricultural colonies; Yitav (1970), Gilgal (1970), Netiv Hagedud (1975), Niran (1977) Na’ama (1982) and Omer’s farm (2005). Now, Israel claims it must keep a strong military presence in the Jordan Valley to protect these Jewish only colonies.

Israel now controls almost 95% of land in the Jordan Valley and has constructed 36 agricultural colonies which control 50% of the land. 45% of the land has been designated; ‘closed military zone’, ‘border zone’, or ‘nature reserve’. Only 5% of the land remains under Palestinian control even though Israeli citizens (settlers) make up approximately 10% of the population.

Many Palestinian communities located in area C (under full Israeli control) face regular home demolitions, and are denied the most basic services such as water and electricity. In contrast, the Israeli government gives large economic subsidies to the illegal settler population which have been transferred to the colonies. Transferring a population to occupied land is a breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention and constitutes a war crime.

For centuries, Al Auja spring provided fresh water all year round. People built their communities around this natural resource. In 1972 Israeli state water company, Mekorot, drilled two deep water wells around the source of the spring. Two more were built in the 1990’s and now no water flows from beneath the ground, forcing the Palestinians to purchase their water from Mekorot. Ras al Auja are prohibited from having running water or electricity despite both utilities passing through their community for use by Yitav settlement located just a few hundred meters away. Yitav is a colony established for Russian Jews and enjoys use of a communal swimming pool.

After spending some time in the community of Ras al Auja, JVS volunteer Sarah observed, “During the day, this is a village full of women and children. Access to land and water has been so depleted that the older boys and men are nearly all forced to work in the illegal settlements in order to survive.”

Mekorot has drilled a total of 28 deep water wells throughout the Jordan Valley causing, many of the natural springs to dry up. A border fence erected west of the Jordan River also prohibits Palestinians from accessing this water while Israel diverts water from the river to large over land reservoirs (Bt’Selem 2011).

Legal process under military occupation

The cyclists who were attacked are being represented by Meissa Irshaid from the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (PCATI).

Meissa explained: “Soldier perpetrators rarely go to trial in military courts. usually the investigation process lasts for 2-5 years and ends with the file being closed without a trial or any charges. In most cases, the only evidence available is the victim`s and soldier`s testimonies.

“In fact all involved parties –  the suspects, the court and the investigating department are ruled by soldiers who are supposed to investigate suspected crimes of their fellow soldiers. When a soldier defends himself against an alleged crime, the prosecutor and judge are also soldiers from the same institution, making a mockery of the idea of a fair trial.

Meissa told us, in 18.4.12 she has submitted a written complaint in Hebrew about the incident and hopes to eventually prosecute Shalom in a criminal court.

There is a clear  democratic deficit in this process. Victims of crime are forced to seek justice through the military police and courts because the military have authority and ultimate power in the occupied Jordan Valley.

Media reaction

The story of Andreas being violently hit in the face made world headlines. Unfortunately, the reasons why the bike ride was organised were lost, as news media focused on this as an incident. Al Quds TV screened extended interviews with Mira and Andreas who stressed their motives in participating in non-violent activities: to challenge the occupation and raise awareness about political oppression Palestinians face on a daily basis. They also talked about how Israeli violence against Palestinians and anybody expressing political dissent against Israeli policies in the OPT is normal.

Meissa from PCATI emphasised her frustration with the Israeli media for repeatedly asking for her opinion on ‘The Danish incident’.

“This case is different for a number of reasons. First identity: four of the victims are white Europeans. Additionally, the video evidence of the attack is extremely graphic. This created a lot of diplomatic and media pressure on the Israeli government to react in a strong way causing the Military Police to actually seek out the testimony of victims in order to ease political pressure.”

Lt. Col. Shalom Eisner who was caught on camera attacking Andreas in the face with the butt of his M16 machine gun, claimed activists attacked him and broke two of his fingers. Anyone watching the RAW footage available of the incident can clearly see he injured his fingers by punching a non-violent protester in the head.  An IDF spokesperson lied by corroborating his false claims. This lie quickly became central to discussion about the attack, with much of the Israeli right defending the violence as being ‘necessary’.

JVS volunteer Paddy Clark was present when Israeli Channel 2 news recorded interviews. He criticized the way the story was broadcast on their prime time 8pm news show.

“Interviews started with short clip of Andreas saying he was standing there and out of nowhere the soldier attacked him. This was followed by an IDF spokesperson stating the behaviour of the soldier was completely unacceptable, but that the famous 6 second video clip didn’t show the full story. Viewers of this mass communication broadcast would mostly be questioning whether or not the commander was attacked before the incident. Any discussion about occupation in the Jordan Valley or systematic violence being used to crush political dissent was marginalised or completely lost.’

Systematic violence under occupation

The violence of Lt. Col. Shalom Eisner, has rightly shocked the world. Yet, the violence of tearing down family homes, and leaving children without a roof over their head, of denying people access to water, or education or health, of harassing them persistently is equally shocking. Soldiers who perpetrate this violence against Palestinians are not dismissed, but are rewarded and promoted.

Eisner himself has been involved in the destruction and demolition of Palestinian homes in the Jordan Valley in recent months – in Fasayil al Wusta and Fasayil Fouqa on December 20, 2011.

The Army were desperately trying to claim that this sort of violence is ‘not characteristic’ of their soldiers.

Andreas (ISM) pointed out: “Soldiers attacked 8 different international activists in the 15 days before this latest attack. These were barely reported. It is also a daily reality for Palestinians living under occupation and most of this also goes unreported.”

Zionism and the colonization of the Jordan Valley

Since occupying the Jordan Valley in 1967, the Israeli Government or Zionist settlers have worked hand-in-hand to rapidly expand their colonies by systematially ‘confiscating’ Palestinian land and handing it over to settlers, and supporting them with a range of economic subsidies.  The same government penalizes the indigenous Palestinian population, using emergency military law to justify their actions. Through this process of ethnic cleansing Israel has managed to reduce the Palestinian population from approximately 300,000 to 64,000 in just 45 years.

Additionally there is not one sign post for any of the seventeen Palestinian villages left in the Jordan Valley. For example, Israel established an agricultural colony on the land of Fasayil and named it Pazael, stealing the historical name of the village. The 2000 people living in Palestinian Fasayil are largely invisible to the tour buses traveling through the valley on Road 90.

IOF are attempting to re-create the Jordan Valley, both physically and in the public imagination, as Israeli territory even though it is occupied Palestinian land and Palestinians make up the vast majority of the population.

Lt. Col. Shalom Eisner and Zionism

Israel’s President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz all strongly criticized the actions of the commander but within ‘a bad apple’ narrative.

A number of other supporters from the Israeli right have publicaly announced their support for Shalom.

The day after the cycle ride the Israeli Mayor of the Jordan Valley regional council of settlements, David Elchiyani was interviewed on Israeli Army radio. He said that Eisner should be rewarded not punished, as he was one of the best soldiers in the IDF.

Here is a link to an Israeli news report showing a video from Shalom Eisner in 2005 at a demonstration organised in response to Israeli government plans to evacuate settlers from the Gaza strip. The video shows Eisner in civilian clothes with a group of settlers blocking the main Jerusalem motorway. He is acting very aggressively to Israeli police who are attempting to re-open the highway.

Lt. Col. Shalom Eisner has a lot of support from high profile figures of the Israeli right-wing settlement movement because he is one of them. A pillar of the nationalist-religious movement is yeshiva Merkaz Harav (centre of the Rabbi) where Eisner’s father was a rabbi.

A yeshiva college was established in 2002 on a disused military base named Nahal in the Northern Jordan Valley, a pre-army school for religious nationalist students. Wikileaks released cables showing that permission was given to construct 28 new housing for settlers evacuated from Gaza in 2005.

Maskiot is built on the land of Ein El Hilwe which translates literally as ‘sweet spring’.  This community is home to around 130 Bedouin Palestinians. Numerous attacks and human rights violations, by IOF and settlers against the community, have been documented during the past years. Most of the water is pumped from the spring through Mekorot pipes and settlers have prohibited the local community from using what little is left. Like in most bedioun  communities in the valley, people are forced to live, and raise their animals, from portable metal water tankers, despite Mekorot pipes passing through for sole use by the colonies. IOF policies are clearly designed to force the people from their land so the Jewish only colonies can permanently control the land and resources where they live.

Israeli local media is reporting that Lt. Col Shalom Eisner has not been suspended from his rank but will be in an office job for 2 years, after which he will again be eligible to return to combat duty.

*Political Zionism emerged from Central and Eastern Europe in the late 19th century as nationalist movement for Jews.  Eretz Israel is the name for Palestine in the Jewish religion. Zionism claims Jews must return to Palestine (the holy land) as a necessary prelude to Redemption and second coming of Messiah ‘at the end of times’ (Philo and Berry, 2004). The drive to create a purely Jewish state, by expelling Palestinians from the land coveted by the Zionist movement is rooted in a blend of nationalist ideology and colonialist practice (Pappe, 2006).