Bedouin shepherds were forced out of their land last Thursday, but not all hope is lost. Concluding a year of Ta’ayush activity in the Jordan Valley.
Rain drops sound like bullets on the tent cover and wake me before the alarm goes off. Morning in Ecome, rural Jericho area, the Jordan Valley. Madrugada. It takes an effort to crawl out of my sleeping bag and gently open the shabby old zipper of a door, still so effective at keeping the mosquitoes out.
A yellow sun peeks sheepishly over the hills on the Jordanian side of the Valley. A vortex of clouds wilds a blue sky that is tainted with purple and soft crimson on its western end. I shake my stiff shoulders and the trace of a disturbing dream off my eyes,i and go to make coffee before we hit the road northward.
It’s been almost precisely a year since we started expanding the Ta’ayush method to the north of the Jordan Valley. After a decade and a half of activity in the South Hebron Hills, our form of direct action coupled with legal accompaniment and media work was bearing fruit,ii and there appeared to be the resources and energy to offer our services to other communities in need. We snooped around carefully for a while, encountering understandable suspicion and skepticism at first. Today, we ride with a fleet of four full cars to places where we are familiar, welcome, and, I dare say, trusted.
Spring effervescence. The hills of Al Hamme are overflowing with flowers. Red poppies, yellow daisies and mustard, some purplish-pink flowers, a blossoming ‘Akoub thorn known among Arabs and Kurdish Jews for its rare medical and culinary uses, all in the thicket of green barley and wild chives that send green tentacles up in the air, sprawling over the beige desert land. In these moments I really can understand the settlers who attempt to take over. This land is precious beyond words.
Muhammad is nineteen years old – like my sister, I brood – and has already been permanently maimed by the occupation. He meets us when we arrive and accompanies us to the herds already on their way to the grazing land up above. A faint ginger beard adorns his cheeks. With his vision impaired, his feet hit a rock here and there as we walk, but he elegantly replaces them and guides us to the herds safely. About a month ago he took sheep out to graze all by himself and was attacked by a group of settlers from the new outpost. “I didn’t mind the hits on my cheeks and the rest of my body, but I wish they didn’t hit me on the forehead with a stick,” he says and my heart cracks – not immediately, it’s more of a slow torturous cracking, like a metal crate being pried open. The doctor told him he lost forty to sixty percent of his vision. He went with his father to file a complaint at the nearby Israeli police station. They sent them away. He lost his job in construction. He could no longer take care of a herd all by himself. He asks me if I could help him get a job at an NGO. I tell him I can’t. I feel numb. A bellwether tolls.
Four herds graze languidly. The dark clouds are all gone by now and the sun starts ramming the tops of our hats. A lonely goat wanders a little too far from its herd in search of some elusive piece of barley. When it raises its head and discovers that it’s all by itself, it bleats loudly and heads to the nearby herd, in which no sheep or goats bleat in response. It smells one sheep that ignores it. “Meh.” And sniffs at another goat. “Baa!” Until Walid comes and directs the distressed goat to sprint away, back to its mother herd. Interesting, I muse, how the goats and sheep have more loyalty between the herds in which they were raised than they have among each other as species.
Abu Rasmi Ayoub, our host in Al Hamme, first saw Jewish settlers take over his family’s grazing lands in early 1968, after the West Bank was occupied by Israel and the settlement of Mehola was established. It was the first settlement in the Jordan Valley, sanctioned by then-Prime-Minister Levi Eshkol to be built secretly, in order to avoid controversy at home and abroad over this deliberate violation of international law.
“Inshallah kheir,” Abu Rasmi says when we discuss the prospect of resisting the new outpost. Ayoub is Job in Arabic, the Biblical and Quranic character who remained steadfast to God, patiently enduring all torment and affliction.
Abu Rasmi has ten children. “Five of them are married, and five are not,” he clarifies. Walid is in the former category. He has a rounded face and kind eyes like his father’s, except unlike his father, there is no fear in his eyes when he glazes over the new outpost erected above his home. He has bright white teeth and a generous smile. Graying tufts decorate his hair. He tells me the history of his family. He feels safe today, daring. The settlers didn’t come to attack us and they don’t show any sign of doing so. We go closer to the unpermitted settler outpost of Givat Sal’it, set on the land of the Ayoub family on a place they used to call their home. A fresh wind threatens to set my hat afloat in the spring-scented air. Walid notices three settlers around the outpost facing us. His situational awareness of the landscape is highly developed, and he’s instantly conscious of any changing factor. He smiles, they won’t attack today.
“Before the 90s,” he says as we sit down on a rock, “we used to live nomadically. We would go up the mountain where it’s cooler in the summer, and down to this wadi in the winter. Then Mehola expanded to build Givat Sal’it above Khalat Hammad right here, where we lived. After they built it we could no longer come back here, and had to move to the next wadi with our relatives in Al Hamme. But we could still graze in Khalat Hammad, no problem, it’s officially ours in the tabo. But now they built this outpost and they don’t let us go to Khalat Hammad anymore, and they try to kick us out of the only place we have left.”
This process of disenfranchisement has been repeating itself all over Palestine for over a century. But today we’re back in Khalat Hammad, on the land Walid hadn’t entered since the settlers started building their outpost half a year ago. I feel excited, gratified. And I think Walid does too. Slowly, we’ll return and insist on maintaining this land. I take a photo and upload it on Facebook, mentioning the quiet that is simply not there when we’re not accompanying, and inviting people to join us in this work.
The next moment a military vehicle appears on the dirt road surrounding Givat Sal’it, stopping in our vicinity. Two soldiers come out and tell us we need to leave. I post another photo. “I jinxed us.”
The lieutenant says that it’s a firing zone and that we must leave because Thursday is training day.
We never heard this reasoning before. The orders change according to the whim of the commander in chief. “We come here regularly and know the regulations and know that no training is happening.”
“It doesn’t matter, you must leave now. It’s for your own safety.”
“Show us an official paper that confirms that we can’t be here and we will leave.”
“I have it in the vehicle, if you want to come with me all the way to it you’re welcome to.”
“Since you want us to leave this land, you must bring the warrant, present it to us, and allow us to photograph it in order to confirm that it’s valid, not the other way around.”
“Okay, if you want to have it this way,” he addresses Walid. “Show me jibelhawiyye!” Jib el hawiyye is IDF Arabic for, “Bring the identity.”
Walid says he left it at home.
“So yalla I’ll go home with you.”
“But if I go home who will take care of the sheep?”
“You take the sheep as well!”
Pause. Bell tolls, wind blows, the other soldier raises her voice, “Yalla hawiyya!”
The officer speaks, “Either I detain you, or we go home together.”
Magic words. Eventually they reach some form of understanding. We will move towards home, and they will leave us without identifying anyone. This is how the military does the settlers’ will.
They leave when we turn around the hill and out of sight. We stay to let the sheep get their fill. I feel relieved. No one was detained, no one was injured, the sheep are calm and satiated. Yes, the army is doing the settlers’ work for them, but we stretched the boundaries today and got further than usual.
A donkey nibbles about, scooping hard crunchy thorns with its stealthy tongue. Ahmad sings between phone calls with his mates. The life of a Palestinian shepherd.
We receive a call from the village. Two settlers’ vehicles descend on Al Hamme. We are told they’re standing on the hill taking photographs. They threaten Abu Rasmi, telling him not to invite us over again. Again. I feel an urge to run over there. Walid tells me he suspects they want to lure us there so others attack the sheep while we’re gone or dispersed. Thankfully, Guy is touring the area with the pickup truck. We notify him. As soon as he arrives, the settlers leave.
“Why are the settlers afraid of us?” one of the newcomers asks as we keep on milling about by the herd. I speculate that there is a decision from above instructing the settlers to keep a low level of confrontation in order to avoid media attention. The Jordan Valley is not perceived as an occupied place in the Israeli imagination, and its settlers are known as fairly liberal people. Some hippie acquaintances of mine go to places like Rotem, a settlement set on a nearby hill, for holistic couple therapy, unaware of the dark routine taking place on the other side of the barbed wire. Changing this calm, rural perception for that of the masked settler bandits who terrorize farmers around Nablus and the South Hebron Hills is not economically nor politically desirable.
“When the settler comes to threaten us he says that Ta’ayush are this small.” Walid shows us a finger held close to a thumb. “But few who struggle for good are better than many who are oppressive.”
The phone rings. My sister Atalya calls from prison. She’s been incarcerated for over forty days now for refusing to serve Israel’s military regime. We get about ten minutes to talk. I sit on a rock and forget about the soldiers, the settlers, the mess. She was uplifted by the samba noise demo we held outside prison last Saturday. I tell her our friends in Al Hamme invite her to have a party over here once she’s released. She sends them her regards. She says she’s reading Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, one of my favorites, and finds it very interesting. I’m heartened by her strength of spirit. I hear the guard yelling at her to put down the phone on the other end. She says she has to go, she loves me, I love her too. A white butterfly hovers over a mustard flower.
The herds have had their fill and start huddling together to protect each other from the now-scorching sun. As we head back, we see that same military vehicle from before parked inside of the settler outpost. Now we know where that officer got his orders. Not that we needed another confirmation. The next week the same soldiers will come to tear down a caravan in Al Hamme, I know because that’s when I’ll be writing this piece. The settlers’ illegal caravans will remain unharmed. This is how ethnic cleansing happens in the Jordan Valley, simply by making life unbearable. Slowly, quietly, without loading women and children on trucks at gunpoint to be dropped by the border. Israel has found more elegant ways by now. It works: according to an OCHA report, between 200-300,000 Palestinians were displaced from the Jordan Valley since ’67. David Shulman harkens at the end of the Bedouins in the New York Review of Books . Few hear about it. If you read this far, please help us spread the word.
There’s hope that we’ll upend this process. I remember when we first visited Makhoul a year ago today. Ezra worked his magic and our hosts softened and listened to his story on how the situation has changed in the South Hebron Hills. Hummus was growing on the field nearby, as it does today. We learned that nine families had left Makhoul after a wide-scale demolition a year beforehand. Today, the seventeen families of Al Hamme remain on their land, despite the wide-scale demolition late September, and another one early November. They’re not alone in their struggle for being. You can join them now too. Contact us if you’re around and share their plight. Ciao for now.
i I was told my sister was in trouble but I couldn’t find her and tried calling her but my phone was in a language I couldn’t comprehend and something horrible was going to happen to her and it was all my fault.
ii Success determined by: more and more reclaimed Palestinian grazing land, recovered usage of countless water cisterns, a population growth and reversal in the process of displacement of Palestinians from that rural area, the emergence of local Palestinian leaders who support each other doing the accompaniment and monitoring work that we have offered, and a general sense that the people of the South Hebron Hills are no longer alone in their struggle to survive under threat of house demolitions, prevention of drinking water, and other forms of abuse in the hands of Israeli apartheid, as exemplified by the yet-increasing media awareness to their plight and by the presence of international and local solidarity organizations.