As the sun sets on the southern Galilee, 19-year-old Gai Duabe gets ready for the night's watch. While most people his age are taking advantage of the last nights of the season by hanging out with friends in bars, holding bonfires on the beach or just relaxing in front of the TV, Duabe will spend the next nine hours in a secluded shed with no air-conditioning or running water, overlooking empty grasslands, watching and waiting for any unexpected sound or movement. His only companions for the night are two small dogs, which have made Sando outpost their home.
Duabe is one of a growing number of volunteers who make up a group called Hashomer Hahadash (the new guardsmen). Every night, young people like him take to newly established outposts on hilltops, like this one five kilometers northwest of Nazareth, to keep the Jewish agricultural and pasture lands free of acts of sabotage, theft and intimidation. Their goal is to make life bearable for the farmers and herders of the region, who for years have suffered from nightly incursions at the hands of local criminals. Their methods are straightforward. They believe that by maintaining a physical presence on the land, they are making a statement - this land is ours, and we intend to keep it.
Yoel Zilberman, the 25-year-old founder and leader of Hashomer Hahadash, could be a poster boy for healthy outdoor living. Born and raised in nearby Moshav Tzipori, the third generation of a family of cattle breeders, he has the type of tan one gets from spending full days out in the sun, and the physique of an elite combat soldier, which he was until recently. Sando outpost was named after his grandfather, and rests on land owned by his family. It was here that the idea for the New Guardsmen started, and where the movement began.
"My father owns 5,000 dunams (1,200 acres) in these hills, which he leases from the Israel Lands Administration. The land provides pasture for 400 heads of cattle. Three years ago he almost gave up and left the land. He couldn't afford to hold on to it anymore given the nightly attacks and infiltrations by a group of Beduin herders from the village across the road," said Zilberman. "This has been going on for ages. I remember, when I was a boy, they used to throw rocks and sticks at my father and grandfather."
When he heard that his father was considering selling the herd and giving up on agriculture, Zilberman felt he had to do something. Though he was still in the army, he told his commanders about the situation, and they agreed on a temporarily leave which would permit him to help defend his family's land.
"Things were getting out of control," Zilberman explained. "They began chopping trees and burning the fields. Some people were being threatened and some were being physically attacked. That's when I began spending my nights out here.
"At first I made a shelter out of an old shipping container," he continued. "Later on we built this shed, and everything you see here." He pointed to a small wooden shed with a struggling vegetable garden next to it. Off to the side was an area covered by a large tarp, providing shade for a few chairs and benches.
"You probably think this whole thing is pretty odd," said Zilberman while showing me around and giving me a survey of the towns and villages in the area. "For me it always comes back to what [Hizbullah leader Hassan] Nasrallah said after the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000."
During that speech, the Shi'ite cleric claimed that though Israel had a strong military, its citizens lacked the tenacity and resolve to uphold the state's national interests.
"You see it most clearly with guys like us, people from our society, the secular society, people who aren't attached to any place and who don't care about anything that doesn't concern them directly," he said. "People who think that Israel's history is 60 years old, who don't know where we came from and have no idea where we are going."
Determined to take action in what he saw as both a personal battle, but even more, a battle for the character of the country, Zilberman started the movement. He called it Hashomer Hahadash as a tribute to the original Shomrim (Guards), who protected the farmers of the Yishuv from attacks by local Arabs.
IN THOSE days, the Galilee was a sparsely settled region assigned to the vilayet (province) of Beirut, under the Ottoman Empire. The region was inhabited by a mix of Arab Christians, Arab Muslims, Druse, Circassians and Jews. The Jews lived in small, agricultural communities. Spread out across long distances and lacking a cohesive ruling body, they relied on themselves for security and protection. The shomrim of the time patrolled the fields and pastures on horseback and chased away pilferers and saboteurs. The founders had experienced pogroms in Europe, and were determined that in the future State of Israel, Jews would be more effective in defending themselves. The Shomrim, the first Jews in the Yishuv to take up arms, became a symbol for modern Jewish independence, and their stories have made legends of the founders. One of them, Alexander Zaid, became an icon of the movement, and an image of him sitting atop a horse is the symbol for Hashomer Hahadash.
"I planted an Israeli flag at the top of the hill and people started rallying," Zilberman says. "With the people came the stories."
He tells Metro of Kibbutz Kfar Hanassi, which gave up on some of its land after criminals beat up workers in the fields, killed and stole cattle, and burnt the animal feed and the fields. He told of Amir Engel, a herder from Tel Adashim, who was shot at by men from the nearby Arab village, Tamra. He told of Moti Peretz, whose car was ambushed and pelted with rocks on his property near Turan.
"It turned out that the phenomenon was much more prevalent than we thought," says Zilberman. "We learned about widespread land sales to Arabs, backed by foreign funding. We learned about farmers and business owners who pay protection fees to protect their land and property from vandalism and theft. What's going on here demands a constant presence. We believe that those who are on the land are those who control the land."
Hashomer Hahadash currently numbers 250 volunteers, each giving between seven and 28 nights of guard duty a year. The guards are split between four existing outposts, three in the Galilee and one in the Negev, all on lands that belong to local farmers.
"We can only guard the lands if we have permission from its leasers. This enables us to remove any trespassers from the area and also confiscate their livestock and equipment until the police arrive," explained Zilberman. "We are not cowboys or vigilantes. Everywhere we operate we have authority by proxy."
Beyond performing guard duties, Hashomer Hahadash also organize other activities, such as Jewish heritage education for schoolchildren, concerted work-days mending damaged fences with youth movements and groups, and cultural evenings of public sing-alongs. They hope within three years their movement will expand considerably, and eventually even reach a 2,000-member-strong volunteer guard force with grassroots communal support.
"We are not a political movement. We are not identified with any party. Our members come from all backgrounds and hold a broad range of political beliefs. What links us is ideology and the desire to keep the Jewish heritage in the region alive," explained Erez, one of the volunteers who guards Sando.
"Look, he wears a kippa," he said pointing at Duabe. "But Yoel and I don't. This isn't about Left or Right, religious or secular. This isn't [the West Bank]. We live in the heart of the Israeli consensus. This is about protecting the lands that the JNF bought for you and for me a hundred years ago. This is about standing up for our homes and our livelihoods."
"Look over there. You see those lights across the valley?" asked Erez, pointing toward a collection of lights indicating a small town on the other side of the highway. "That's where they come from. A Beduin village called Rumat El-Heib. There are seven guys who come from the same clan. They come here at night and cut the fences. Sometimes it's to let Chaim's cattle out, sometimes it's to bring their cattle in, and sometimes it's just for the hell of it. Every kilometer of fencing costs NIS 22,000."
YEHUDA MARMUR was home alone. His wife was in Jerusalem celebrating their wedding anniversary. As usual, Marmur had to stay behind. He had his herd to take care of.
"I guess she's used to it by now, it's been like that all our life," he said. "I've spent the last 13 Yom Kippurs out on the hills, and the last seven Pessah seders, too."
Marmur is a third-generation cattle farmer from Yavne'el, a small town located a few kilometers southwest of Tiberias. He owns 200 heads of cattle, which he rears on 4,000 dunams. His family has been living in the country for seven generations.
"I lease my pasture land from the ILA. Part of it is on JNF land, and part of it is on a nature reserve," said Marmur. "Just south of my land there's a family that has a herd of cattle. They live in a tent in the nature reserve. Until around 1990, the relationship between us was more or less fine. They'd encroach on my territory from time to time, but there was more empty land in the area, so they could go there."
Marmur says that as the years went by, and as empty land became scarce, the incursions by his neighbors became more and more frequent. "In the last few years it has become a nightly battle. Last week they beat up my employee and cut up a thousand meters of wire."
Things had gotten so bad, he says, that he could only maintain a herd half the size of what he had before. He said that the most serious incident occurred several years ago, when he was assaulted and then shot at with his own gun, after the attackers stole it from him. "The shooter was eventually caught with the weapon and sat in prison for a year," said Marmur.
He sums his situation up as "catastrophic."
"Look - financially, I can only maintain a herd half the size of what I'm used to. In the last nine months I estimate that I have suffered NIS 200,000 in direct damages. They even steal my breeding bulls to fertilize their cows. For five years they had no studs of their own. My bulls just happened to join their herd. I guess their cows are better looking."
He says his neighbors have grown so bold that they don't bother hiding their deeds anymore. "The police are either unable or unwilling to do a thing about it," says Marmur.
According to Marmur, he has complained to the local police so many times that they treat him like a nuisance. "They promise things from here to Eilat, but in the end all they provide are excuses. Off the record, they tell me to sort out an arrangement by myself. 'You have a lot of land,' they say. 'Try to come to an agreement with them.'"
As he talks, Marmur brings out a thick file of papers - the records of all the complaints he has filed with the police over the years. "You see? One after another after another, all the files were closed because of lack of public interest."
Marmur reckons that agricultural theft is simply not on the police's radar. "They prefer to focus on crimes that appear on their graphs, especially drug trafficking," he said. "When I call them, it's always excuses. They say they can't come to the field because they don't have 4x4 vehicles. They say they don't know how to read maps, so they can't determine if my territory was breached."
"The only reason I still bother to file complaints is so that if something happens, they won't be able to say I didn't notify them," Marmur says. "I told them that if something happens to me, my blood will be on their hands. I know that sometimes it's not worth the fuel I waste driving there."
FRUSTRATED WITH the answers he received from the local police, Marmur decided to take his problems to the very top. On August 18, he sent a letter to the Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch, through his local council chairman, urging him to help resolve the matter.
"You have to understand. This is a problem on a national scale. Wherever Jews left the land, Arabs have settled, and within a few short years there is a small village. A few months ago, I spotted an older couple on one of the hilltops in the area. When I asked them what they were looking for, they told me that their family had lived here pre-1948 and they were there to stake out an area where they can be buried," says Marmur.
Out in the field, Marmur looks and feels at home. Driving his beat-up truck up and down the steep hills, he steers with one hand and uses a hand-held projector to illuminate points of interest with the other. Along the way he points out places where his fences were cut or where he had to construct fence posts out of reinforced metal. "All of the other herders laugh at me. I'm the only one who uses building materials for fencing."
"What can I do?" he asks. "It's the only way to keep the fences from being utterly disassembled."
He turns off his engine several times so he can listen to the sounds of the night. He pulls his night vision goggles from his satchel and surveys the fields. "The best protection is a dog. They are like an alarm system on legs. For years I used to own a rottweiler, who would accompany me everywhere I went. Now I have half a dozen dogs dispersed around the territory."
Stopping on one hilltop, he pointed to an area to the east, "You see that? Hundreds of dunams were burnt down in a fire. I have no proof that it was started intentionally, but the fire started a few hours after I got into an argument with the neighbors who told me I'd regret it."
When asked if he was ever tempted to solve the problem by entering into "partnership" with his adversaries, Marmur says the option exists, but was repugnant to him. "I was told that all my issues would disappear overnight if I would only part with half of the land. I showed them the door. Mark my words, if I can't hold on to my herd by myself, I prefer not to have a herd at all."
When asked if Hashomer Hahadash presented a solution to his problems, he sighs and says, "Look, these guys have the right idea, but so far they are too small to really do that much good. They don't have the resources to make a real change yet. Besides, it shouldn't fall on them. The police are aware of the problem, they just aren't doing anything about it."
"The police aren't to blame. They do what they can with the limited resources they're given," says rancher Chaim Zilberman. "The problem is that all the law enforcement agencies in the country are impotent. They don't know how to get to where they are really needed. They only know how to get to those places that are under the spotlight."
He says that what is lacking is correlation between the different authorities and law enforcement departments.
"When I put up this shed for my son, immediately an inspector came by to make sure I had a permit. But nobody goes into the village across the road. Not the Ministry of Health, not the Environment Protection people, not Income Tax, not Bituah Leumi, nobody. Even the police hesitate to enter the town, and that's despite the fact that many there serve in the army and the Border Police."
THE BATTLE for the lands of the Galilee is two-fold, and Hashomer Hahadash is determined to fight it on both fronts. Alongside their guarding and educational activities, the guardsmen, along with half a dozen other organizations, are involved in the 2009 version of "land liberations." In response to the recent surge in purchase of private lands by Israeli Arabs, often financially backed by money arriving from foreign states, these groups have taken to offering to purchase the land from its Jewish owners themselves, in an attempt to keep it in Jewish hands, and for use in agriculture.
Kadima MK and former secretary-general of the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria, and the Gaza Strip Otniel Schneller says that there currently exist two opposing trends that threaten to drastically change Jews' relationship with the land. "On the one hand, modern Israelis have increasingly come to view the land as real estate rather than national assets. You can see this in the recent privatization of the land that used to belong to the ILA, you can see it in the JNF's readiness to swap lands with the government."
"On the other hand," he continued, "we see a reverse trend among Israeli Arabs. They are beginning to see the land as a strategic asset, and they are doing everything they can to both stop lands in their possession from being sold to Jews, and to take over lands illegally where they can get away with it."
"The state has yet to realize, and I hope they will soon, that this is its most important battle. It is proper that the government start an organization with the sole purpose of safekeeping our national assets," says Schneller.
He accuses other politicians and the media of keeping the problem under wraps because it lacks ratings and is not politically correct. "It's not easy for a politician to say it, but for me it's clear. Israel is a Jewish state before it is a democratic state."
Two weeks ago, Hashomer Hahadash held a public event to draw attention to their activities, and to raise public awareness of the issues facing the agricultural community of the North. Roughly 200 people attended the event that took place at Kiryat Amal, under the statue of Shomrim hero Alexander Zaid. The guests sat around an improvised stage made of an old farm wagon and decorated with bales of hay. They heard songs performed by folk singer Arik Sinai, and heard speeches by Kadima MK Israel Hasson, retired General Ram Shmueli, and Upper Nazareth Mayor Shimon Gabso. Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya'alon was scheduled to attend, but canceled at the last minute after being summoned for a reprimand by the prime minister following statements he had made against Peace Now earlier in the week. In addition, there was an exhibition of attack dogs demonstrating their effectiveness at taking down invaders.
One of the people who came to observe the event was Avishai Zaid, a farmer from Kiryat Amal who happens to be a descendant of the original shomer. Zaid said he was troubled by some of the things that Hashomer Hahadash stands for. "When my ancestor and his men were protecting the lands in this area, it was before there was a state. Today we have a state, with all the necessary bodies and authorities to solve these problems. I believe they have a good understanding of the difficulties of being a farmer, which is by no stretch an easy life, but I'm not sure they should be taking on this role. As romantic as it is to be defending your property and chasing after criminals, I don't think it's their job."
Zaid also expressed concern over some of the identification of minorities as the enemy in the story. "I know many Israeli Arabs, and I know that they too have serious issues with agricultural theft. They are victims in all this the same as we are, and I'm uncomfortable with some of the rhetoric I'm hearing.
"It may come as a surprise to you, but I'm not a member of this group, and nobody asked me to use my ancestor's figure as their logo. I guess it's fine. It's in the public domain. But all the same, I'm not sure what he would think of all this."
(Repeated requests to arrange interviews with officers of the Northern branch of the Israel Police were declined. Questions that were addressed to the branch commander on several occasions went unanswered as of press time. )