Cowboys and Beduins face off in Israel's wild west

Rustlers, land disputes leave cattlemen at end of their rope.

beef cattle 298.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
beef cattle 298.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
For Israeli cattlemen, it's the Wild West all over again with rustlers, land disputes and fence cutting all combining to challenge police, frustrate the cattlemen and occasionally leading to more serious violence, including the September incident when Amir Angel was shot following a long property dispute. On Sunday, even as police announced the arrest of five suspects in the shooting attack directed at the Jezreel Valley cattleman, Angel's family and national representatives of the industry said the situation was out of control and the police weren't doing enough to stop it. Haim Dayan, head of the Israeli Beef Cattle Organization told The Jerusalem Post Sunday that lawlessness directed against cattle growers was a growing phenomenon. "Today the courts in the North and the Supreme Court understand that this is a national problem," he said, citing incidents of theft, vandalism, violence and intimidation directed at cattlemen. In some situations, he said, they are forced to pay "protection money" to local Beduin to "guard" the cattle. When they don't pay, the cattle disappears. The lessons to the cattlemen, Dayan warns, are grave. "It is serious when the government fails to take care of the law-abiding citizens. The situation in the South is especially terrible. I don't remember any time in this country when there was such a frequency of theft; its simply out of control." Amir Angel has become symbol of the cattlemen's struggle. Angel, whose grandparents were among the first Zionists to settle in the Jezreel Valley in the 1920's, established his herd with around 30 head of cattle in 1991. In the beginning, Angel's wife Rochelle said, they were allotted the use of more state-owned grazing lands than they needed. Initially, she said, her husband was willing to allow a resident of the nearby town of Tamra-Zoeiba to use the grazing lands that he didn't need. But, according to Angel, when the government began to fence in the land and the Angels wanted to use it for their own cattle, the situation with the neighbors became nasty. The Tamra-Zoeiba family that was using the land allegedly approached the Israel Lands Authority, and said that they wanted some of the land allotted to Angel. But the ILA responded that it would only do so if the two could come to an independent agreement. And then, according to the Angels, the real trouble began. Members of the Tamra-based family allegedly began to dig up fence poles and set fire to the pastures. One day, Angel said, someone even shot at the cattle. "It was simply exhausting vandalism," said Angel, "a war of attrition." Local police said that they had received a number of complaints from the Angels, and that in all of those instances, suspects had been arrested. But all of the incidents described by the Angels, the police said, did not get reported. In turn, Rochelle said, the family became disillusioned and believed that the police were not taking serious steps against the bandits. The situation came to a head a month-and-half ago when Amir was driving through the pastures and saw two men in his fields who claimed to be looking for a lost horse. As he wrote down their contact information in case he located it, one of the men allegedly reached behind his back, pulled out a pole, and started to beat Angel. According to Rochelle, her husband succeeded in wresting the pole from his assailant's hands when the second man pulled out a gun and shot Amir in the thigh. A second shot, as Amir grappled for the gun, grazed his hand. Leaving him for dead in the field, the two fled, and Amir used his cell phone to call his family for help. On Sunday morning, six residents of Tamra-Zoeiba were arrested on suspicion of attempted murder in connection with the September incident. The six were taken to the Nazareth Magistrate's Court for a remand extension. Four of the five suspects had their remands extended by four days, and the fifth had his remand extended by six days. Police said that additional arrests were expected, and emphasized that they were using intelligence information to try to root out the outlaws, including those involved in harassment and not just those connected with the shooting. Dayan said that the Northern District, including the Jezreel Valley, was actually the best of the police districts in confronting agricultural crimes. He complimented the Border Police's Dekel Agricultural unit for working tirelessly against livestock thefts, but said that they are hamstringed by an enormous sector stretching from Hadera to the Lebanese and Syrian borders, and from a lack of resources. Crime scene investigators, for instance, are rarely available to the unit because police put a relatively low priority on such crimes. The Northern District Attorney is the only one of the district attorneys in Israel to have appointed a specific prosecutor - attorney Tomer Schwartz - to try cases involving agricultural crimes. The DA and the courts have cooperated in delivering tough sentences against convicted cattle rustlers - two to three years behind bars. Dayan said sometimes such action pays off. "In Beit Zarzir, as soon as the Erez Unit caught the thieves, there was amazing quiet. And that just goes to show what must be done. From my personal experience, whenever central thieves are caught, we feel immediate relief." Cattlemen are planning further meetings with representatives of the Internal Security Ministry and the Agricultural Ministry in the hopes of expanding the policy in the North to the rest of the country. They plan on asking for tougher laws, and minimum sentences, as well as special agricultural units that will work exclusively against such thefts. But for Angel, all of the developments came too little too late. Confined to crutches, he has minimal use of one leg, and since the incident, has been unable to drive, visit the pastures or tend his cattle.