New Guard protects Galilee farms from pilferers

With help from abroad, volunteer organization also buys available land to keep it out of Arab hands.

yoel zilberman 248.88 (photo credit: Ron Friedman)
yoel zilberman 248.88
(photo credit: Ron Friedman)
Tired of police ineptitude and concerned about the receding Jewish character of the region, a group of farmers and volunteers from the Galilee have formed an organization called the New Guard (Hashomer Hahadash). The group held its first public conference last Thursday, under the slogan, "Who will save my home?" and called for a reevaluation of Israel's national priorities. Modeled after the original guardsmen, led by Alexander Zaid, who protected the Jewish communities of the region in pre-state Israel at the beginning of the 20th century, the group's volunteers are primarily dedicated to upholding Jewish farming and pasture rights in response to nightly violations by local Beduin herdsmen. Roughly 200 people attended the event that took place at Kiryat Amal, next to the statue of Alexander Zaid. Surrounded by bales of hay and standing on a farm wagon, speeches were given by Kadima MK Israel Hasson, retired general Ram Shmueli and Nazareth Illit Mayor Shimon Gabso. Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya'alon was supposed to attend, but canceled at the last minute after being summoned for a dressing down by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu following statements he had made earlier in the week. "It started when I saw the difficulties my father was facing in confronting Beduin herders from a nearby village, who infiltrated his property, cut his fences and stole his cattle," said the group's founder, 23-year-old Yoel Zilberman from Tzipori, a moshav not far from Nazareth. "Even though I was a soldier at the time, I got permission from my commanders to go home and help him out," he said. "I built an outlook overlooking the pasture grounds and began spending my nights there, keeping watch over the territory." Zilberman recruited friends and volunteers from the nearby towns to help him protect his father's lands and those of a number of other local farmers, and soon the movement was born. "This isn't about solving one individual or another's private problems, this is about protecting all of us. Today it's Chaim Zilberman and Yehuda Marmur, but tomorrow it will be you or me," said E., one of the group's members, who asked that his name be withheld. "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," said E. "What links us is ideology and the desire to keep the Jewish heritage in the region alive. This isn't Yesha [Judea and Samaria]. We live in the heart of the Israeli consensus." Today, the organization counts 2,000 members, with 300 volunteers doing guard duty regularly. The organization maintains three outposts and is planning to build and man three more by the end of the year. Aside from guarding at the outposts, volunteers patrol the dirt roads surrounding the grazing lands. The guardsmen paint a bleak picture of widespread protection rackets in the region. According to Zilberman's father, Chaim, most of the farmers and herdsmen in the region prefer to pay, rather than face the constant harassment and the expenses involved in fixing fences and making up for losses in cattle and pasture degradation. "What they do is enter into 'partnership' with the criminals," said E. "They either allow them to graze their herds freely, thus in effect giving up large portions of their land, or else they pay out a salary to the local tribal leader, for 'security services.' "We're here to help those who aren't willing to pay protection fees for using their own land," said E. Due to legal restrictions, none of the volunteers are armed and with little money, they can't afford night vision goggles or even binoculars. "All we have are our eyes and our fists," said volunteer Gai Duabe, 19. When asked what they do if they spot trespassers, Duabe explained that the volunteers have authority by proxy to remove anybody who isn't allowed on the land. If they refuse to leave, guardsmen call the police to force them to leave. "We also have the right to temporarily confiscate their livestock if it's on private land," said Duabe. So far the guardsmen haven't been involved in any violent altercations, but Yoel Zilberman thinks it is only a matter of time. He said that farmers in the region have been threatened and attacked in the past. "One of the people who works with us was ambushed by a large group of people. They waited by a curve in the road and pelted his car with rocks. It was a miracle that he came out of it alive," Zilberman said. The guardsmen say that they work in cooperation with the police, but are frustrated by the latter's lack of action. "The police don't want to confront the thieves, they are scared that if they try to enforce the law in the Arab villages, they'll face an uprising, so they prefer to turn a blind eye or make excuses about lack of resources and personnel," said Duabe. Northern District Police spokesman Yehuda Mamman refused to answer questions about the New Guards and their activities. Questions regarding police enforcement of farmers' property rights in the face of incursions were not answered by press time. Avishai Zaid, a descendent of Alexander Zaid, who also attended the conference, said he saw the group's activities as inherently problematic. "When Alexander Zaid 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 [the New Guard members] 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," Zaid added. "As romantic as it is to be defending your property and chasing after criminals, I don't think it's their job. "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," he said. Also in attendance on Thursday's conference were representatives of The Core of the Fight Against the Privatization of the Land in Israel, a protest group that grew out of opposition to the recently passed Israel Land Administration reform plan. They were there to protest against the sale of Jewish-owned lands to foreigners, something they say is already happen in the Galilee, with sales, ostensibly to local Arabs, who are suspected of getting funding from Persian Gulf sources. They feel the reform will make such sales even more prevalent. But the New Guard and other organizations are doing what they can to buy lands themselves, often funded by Jews from abroad. "There are a bunch of groups, including ours, who don't want to see Jewish lands fall into Arab hands," said E. "So we try and raise money and ask the sellers to consider our offers first because of the ideological aspect of it."