David Margolis writes from Israel.

Facts on the Ground

By David Margolis

A couple of months ago, Dov Dribben, age 28, was clubbed and shot to death by Palestinian Arabs on a tract of Israeli “government land” attached to the West Bank settlement of Maon, about 40 miles south of Jerusalem.

Depending on whose story you believe, Dribben was the incidental victim of an ongoing struggle over grazing rights between Palestinian and Jewish shepherds; or he was murdered for “nationalist” reasons by Arabs who claimed the tract of land; or the Palestinians were gunning for him because of some previous argument or insult. (You will notice that the first reason is hardly different from the second, but the government, which framed it the first way, preferred language that imparted a less “political” spin.)

Whichever story you believe, you may be sure that the killing did nothing to increase my sense of security in my home in the village of Beit Yattir, another six miles or so down the same road.

That’s what a murder in one’s neighborhood does, in Israel no less than in Los Angeles. But if anyone had a reason to lose sleep over Dribben’s death, it was Yaakov Talia and his wife, Marcelle, whose sheep farm occupies an analogous tract of “government land” attached to Beit Yattir. Though Yaakov, a sturdy and sun-burnished immigrant from South Africa, says that he isn’t scared, Marcelle confesses that she is — very — and would gladly pack up their four small children and go, except that Yaakov is committed to making his sheep farm succeed and living his Zionist ideals according to his lights.

The actual threat to the Talias is implicit in their situation; that is, it is not just by analogy with events at Maon. Two Palestinian families have now made their homes, uninvited, on Yaakov and Marcelle’s farm — one on a hillside in the middle distance, the other just a couple of hundred yards from the Talias’ trailer. The Palestinians have torn down fences that Yaakov has built and stoned him when he tried to put up new ones.

Although it would seem, on the face of it, that the Palestinians are trespassing, Israeli law somehow ends up on their side: Yes, Yaakov’s 800 acres of hills and pasture land are classified as Israeli “government land”; yes, Yaakov is living there with the authorization of the Israeli government; but Yaakov cannot evict his new neighbors, because the government, though it placed him there and wants him there, will not authorize him to build the fences that would fully establish his claim to the land and mark any intruders as trespassers. And because he has no fences, the army and police will not interfere with the Palestinians who squat there.

On one recent afternoon, Yaakov recounts, a group of 11 Palestinians drove up to his barn, got out of their cars, and started nosing around — casing the joint, it seemed clear. Yaakov called the police, then went out to greet his guests. Either scared or angry when they wouldn’t leave, he fired a warning shot into the air. When the police came, the Palestinians said that they had only been looking for a picnic site. The police can’t arrest people for wanting to have lunch, and Yaakov can’t claim trespass without fences to mark the land as private. The only consequence of the intrusion was that the police — as the law requires — took away Yaakov’s gun for a few days while they investigated whether his use of it had been lawful, leaving him temporarily less protected than before.

If you are more fiercely partisan in these matters than I allow myself to be, you will see this situation as an outrage — as does Yaakov, who needs fences not just for protection but also to care adequately for his sheep.

The reasons I am not as angry as Yaakov are 1) I’m not Yaakov, whose hard work, future ambitions and personal safety are being compromised; and 2) Israel’s claim that these 800 West Bank acres are Israeli “government land” seems to me merely to express Israel’s side of an argument. Right now, the land is disputed. Our side is using Yaakov, who receives some financial assistance from the Jewish Agency, to establish “facts on the ground,” while the Palestinians squatting there (with no visible means of support and presumably paid by the Palestinian Authority or Hamas) aim at establishing their own “facts on the ground.” Ownership of this tract will be decided, in the end, by agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (or by the Messiah, whichever comes first.)

So the situation out here on the range flows back and forth between seeming, on the one hand, rational and, therefore, solvable and, on the other hand and more disquietingly, like an unpredictable Wild West drama, with rumors, guns and ambushes as feuding families battle for their place.

If the peace process does succeed in defining a border between us and them, Beit Yattir and the land around it — the high ground in the area and mostly empty of Arabs — will become Israel’s, and Yaakov will be able to stand at his sheep barn and point out to visitors where the Green Line used to be.

But until then, he’s just out there on unfenced land, with an Israeli flag flying above his trailers, unwelcome guests nearby, and the ghost of Dov Dribben whispering in the wind.