Israeli settlers from Shavei Shomron have recently started dumping untreated sewage on the farmland in Sebastiya, a small Palestinian town in the West Bank just north of Nablus. Today, Sebastiya organized its first popular demonstration in 36 years specifically to draw attention to the issue of the sewage contaminating their lands.
“We want to farm our land in peace,” Ahmed Kayed, a resident of Sebastiya and the organizer of today’s protest, told me. “But the settlers are cutting our olive trees, keeping us from our land. Now their sewage is flowing through our land, poisoning it.”
Kayed hopes that today will be Sebastiya’s first of many weekly popular demonstrations like those in Bil’in, Ni’lin and Nabi Saleh. In preparation, he proudly unfurled a sign that read, “This is our land. Get the shit out of here!”
As a village, Sebastiya is known for its picturesque Roman ruins dating back to 800 BCE, making Sebastiya one of the oldest and most historic villages in the West Bank. Before 1967, these ruins were a major tourist attraction of the Middle East. However, since the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) occupied the land, tourism has plummeted with several shops being forced to close, draining the small town’s economy. Once the first Israeli settlement was built in 1975—the second Israeli settlement in the West Bank ever, preceded only by Hebron—the village became characterized by settler violence.
Now it is known for their sewage.
At the demonstration, 150 activists—including Israelis, internationals and Palestinians from Sebastiya and surrounding villages—marched en masse from the village to the valley. On one side of the valley is a grove of olive trees, each of them tagged with a note in Arabic notifying the farmer that it will be cleared. Above the olive grove, the American suburb-like perfectly painted white houses and red roofs of the Shavei Shomron settlement are perched on the highest hill, overlooking the entire valley. IDF soldiers stood guard next to two tanks, midway down the mountain between the Palestinian protesters and the Israeli settlement.
A trickle of sewage flowed like a small creek through the valley’s clearing.
“It is quite obvious that Palestinians in the West Bank are oppressed, and important that conscientious people support them in their struggle,” Kobi Snitz, an Israeli activist from Tel Aviv, told me when I asked him what brought him here. “Especially Israelis, since this violence clearly takes place in our name.”
Despite the stench of sewage, Palestinian Muslim protestors carried their rugs and performed Friday noon prayers on the land in the valley—bowing and murmuring “Allahu Akhbar” while surrounded on one side by olive trees marked for destruction, and on the other by the Israeli settlement responsible for the trickle of sewage and eight IDF soldiers in plain sight with their fingers on the trigger, ready to shoot high-velocity teargas canisters into the crowd.
Once Friday prayers had ended, the protestors—waving Palestinian and Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine flags—advanced up the side of the mountain, drawing kuffiyehs over their mouths and noses in anticipation of the onslaught of suffocating teargas from the IDF soldiers. True to form, the IDF soldiers responded by firing teargas canisters—routine for a West Bank demonstration—sending protesters running back down the mountain and away from the clearing, crying, coughing and spluttering the suffocating gas out of their eyes and mouths, leaving their land filled with the clouds of noxious teargas and the ever-present stink of sewage.