Life under constant harassment

One of the “security guards” from the Eli settlement outpost threatens a Palestinian man and forces him to leave his land. (IWPS)

Perched on a south Hebron hill, at first glance Mufaqara seems like a small quiet village sheltered from the troubles of its more famous neighboring city. But the settlers in the region have transformed the shepherds’ tranquil agricultural life into a hellish struggle against politics.

Woken up by the rooster’s song long before the sun rises, Mahmood Hamandi swallows a modest breakfast, home-made thick bread and olive oil, and gathers his 120-sheep flock. Today seems like a normal day in the small village of Mufaqara, south of Hebron. Women are already rushing around, shaking the milk collected the night before to prepare the local cheese. And the Israeli army has already sent a bulldozer to lay a mound of gravel on the main road connecting the Palestinian villages of the area. Later on, Palestinians will come with spades to clear out the area before the Israeli army blocks it again in this cat-and-mouse game.

Hamandi speedily herds his livestock over the next two hills, in a zone close to the illegal settlers’ outpost of Havat Ma’on, a cluster of trailers hidden in a wooded area. The land adjacent to the outpost has the greenest grass in the whole dried-out region. The terrain belongs to Hamandi and he even possesses the legal deed for it, but he barely walks over there with his herd as it has become very dangerous over the past few years. Today, taking advantage of the very early hour, he is hoping to finish grazing his flock before the settlers wake up.

Moving borders

Since the Havat Ma’on outpost was erected in 1998, daily life in what used to be an unknown and quiet fellahin village of the West Bank has become increasingly nightmarish. Villagers have the feeling that the settlers’ security forces, as well as the Israeli army, are trying to “clear out” the area of Palestinian villages. Settler and army jeeps regularly drive back and forth in the area to intimidate the shepherds and make them move further from the settlement’s limits.

These limits have been constantly changing as is emphasized by Mary Yoder from the Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), an American organisation that defends villagers’ rights. “Settlers come at night to plant trees and move the barriers a few meters down to expand their land. The settlements in the area are assumed to have thus recorded a growth of land of 25 acres each year.”

With a sense of irony, Yoder remarks that it is actually lucky when the settlers’ security forces arrive because when settlers come on their own they are usually more violent. Hafez Hreini, who lives in Al Twani, the biggest village in the area, recalls what has today become a normal scene in the life of the villagers. “My old mother left one morning to graze the flock on one of our pieces of land. The land is two hills further from here and we cannot see it from the village.”

He added, “Suddenly people ran to me and said my mother was in danger. I rushed to the area and saw five young settlers beating up my mother and stealing the sheep. When they saw me they started shooting in my direction, but my blood was boiling and I didn’t realize the danger. I kept running towards them and my determination scared them away. When I reached my mother she was lying on the ground, holding her stomach where they had thrashed her, and she was bleeding [in the back of] the head.”

Settlers resort to poison

Mahmood Hamandi thanks God that nobody in his family has been victim of the settlers’ violence. However, his family, as well as the whole village — of which Mahmood is the Mukhtar — have been greatly affected by the settlers’ activities. In late March, goats and sheep began to mysteriously die. The shepherds found out that blue seeds had been spread out in the fields where they usually walk their herd. The seeds were sent to Birzeit University to be analysed, where they were revealed to be fluoroacetamide-poisoned cereals.

This incident was the subject of a joint Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations/United Nations Environment Programme report that stated that this poison is only produced in Israel and is illegal in many other countries because of its acute toxicity to both man and animals. In Israel it can only be obtained with a special permit and for specific uses. However, according to both villagers and organizations based in the area, the shepherds’ complaints have not yet been followed up by the police.

Half of Mahmood’s flock died the next month in another incidence of poisoning, a loss that is estimated at NIS120,000, a devastating cost in this impoverished community. In the village, most residents inhabit old caves or unsanitary tents as all cement houses in the area have been subjected to demolition orders. The villagers’ livelihood comes from the harvesting of cereals and the raising of their sheep. They have been recognised by the World Bank as being among the poorest people in the West Bank.

Despite the scientists’ warning to the contrary, villagers cannot afford to stop eating the cheese produced from their flock’s milk. Similarly, they have no choice but to drink the contaminated well water as the village is not connected to running water and electricity. Nor can they stop sending their children to school, though this too has become a dangerous task.

Foreign volunteers as a target

The area only has one school, to which all the students must walk. Most of the routes connecting the Palestinian villages border the recent illegal settlement outposts. The Israeli army advised that the children follow another itinerary that goes around the settlements. However, this alternative route is about 10 kilometers long each way, forcing the children to get up very early and return home at night.

The CPT and the Italian organization Operation Dove offered to accompany the children to school following the straight path linking the Palestinian villages, which is only one-kilometer long. However, three attacks have launched against CPT and Operation Dove members. Young masked settlers, armed with chains and baseball bats, have assaulted the foreign volunteers, stolen their cameras, and severely beaten them. All three times, volunteers were severely injured and had to be transferred to hospital.

“Half-an-hour before we got beaten up we had called the Israeli police to let them know that settlers were causing problems and shooting at us. The police came only long after we called them. So did the ambulance to evacuate the volunteers that had been injured. Actually it is not really surprising that they came late as the ambulance [belongs to] the near-by settlement Karmel, and the driver is also a member of the settlers’ security [forces],which comes regularly to cause problems for the shepherds,” says a member of Operation Dove who prefers to stay anonymous.

However, despite these three serious incidents, CPT and Operation Dove actions have brought real changes to the villagers’ daily life. Naim Saalem Al Aadra gratefully explains that since the foreign volunteers have been staying day and night in the village for more than a year, their situation has improved. Because the foreign volunteers are filming every single action directed against the villagers by the army and the settlers, the latter are a little more restrained.

“Moreover, when our flocks were poisoned, we didn’t receive the compensations promised by the Palestinian Authority and we were only able to survive thanks to foreign money that CPT and Operation Dove collected. They also carried our voices to the Muqata’a and to the Knesset.” Al Aadra, like the other villagers, now hopes that actions will be taken by the authorities to recognize their rights and condemn the offenses committed by the settlers and the army.

“We can’t count on politicians’ help”

These hopes seemed to solidify with the announcement of a visit by Ahmad Majdalani, Minister of Settlements and Wall Affairs later in the day. People of all ages from the surrounding villages gathered in the newly built clinic of Al Twani to get a chance to talk to the minister. When he arrived to the clinic, people overwhelmingly surrounded him and emphatically expressed the severity of their situation.

Majdalani patiently listened, not showing any expression as villagers spilled out their anger and sorrow. He concluded the meeting with a very short speech stating that he would try to do as much as he can to help them. His small official delegation jumped back in their cars and drove off to the village of Susiya where a new section of the wall is being built. Or at least, they tried to reach the village but were blocked by a flying Israeli checkpoint. The young Israeli soldiers did not allow the minister to cross despite his claim that it was only a half-an-hour visit to the village.

Mahmood Hamandi vented the villagers’ general frustration: “The Palestinian Authority cannot do anything against the settlers and the Israeli army. … We know that nothing will be done. A few months ago the health minister came to visit the new clinic that we built with our own hands. He promised that he would send doctors to help the population here, but we are still waiting. Here in the village, most of us don’t belong to any political party because we have been deceived by all of them and we know that we shouldn’t count on their help.”

This article was first published on 15 June 2005 in Palestine Report Online, a project of the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center in Jerusalem, and is reprinted with permission. Palestine Report Online is a continuation of the print Palestine Report, which was established over twelve years ago as a means of informing English-speakers about Palestinians and their daily lives in the context of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Also in this week’s edition: Also in this week’s edition: PR reports on the plight of Al Muwasi and the gains from non-violent protest against the wall in Budrus and Bil’in.