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By David Shulman
Three vignettes from the Jordan Valley, after the first rains:
We race up to the top of the ridge at Umm Zuqa, turn left past the army base. Suddenly a vast slice of the Jordan Valley opens up beneath us, rows of corrugated grey sandstone, the green winding sliver of the river, the pink hills of Transjordan—surely one of the most breathtaking views in the Middle East. Not by chance, settlers have started building a new (illegal) outpost here. I, too, would be happy to live in this spot hovering between heaven and earth.
The land, of course, is Palestinian; here the shepherds of Umm Zuqa have grazed their herds for as long back as human memory reaches. Soon we see a group of maybe six or seven settlers, with heavy woven kipot, the mandatory tzizit fringes flapping as they work with the shovels and other tools they’ve brought along. They’re young, maybe 17 or 18. We pull up and jump from the car, rushing downhill toward them with our cameras whirling, and then something happens that I have never seen before in sixteen years in the occupied territories. They panic, pack up their equipment, and within seconds flee, leaping into their car and heading down the dusty path toward the floor of the valley. Behind them they leave a rudimentary structure of poles, their first experiment in crime. They’ll be back.
Al-Hammeh was brutally demolished by the army some three weeks ago, the tents torn down, their metal frames crushed and broken into pieces. The Ayyub family of 26 souls, including many children, were left without shelter from the fierce sun by day and from the freezing cold at night, not to mention the heavy first rain that sent floods coursing through the wadi. The sheep and goats were also exposed to the elements, and the newborn lambs began dying. When we arrive today at 6 AM, just past dawn, we’re amazed to see that three new tents have been erected, no doubt by some efficient jinn who was summoned by Aladdin from the bottle where he was trapped. Al-Hammeh still lives. It’s a fragile and tentative moment in the endless struggle against the overwhelming forces striving to destroy it. We spend six hours clearing rocks off a slope where the sheep will live. Above the tents, on the nearby hill, the new (illegal) outpost the settlers have been building is, no surprise, still standing, despite visits by the police and the officers of the Civil Administration, who know full well that it shouldn’t be there. Someday, I think, it won’t be there.
Clearing those rocks is an object lesson in action for its own sake, for the sake of truth, without thinking much, or at all, about tangible results. Once I let go of the fear that the soldiers will be coming back, very soon, to tear down everything again, once I let my mind and my fingers breathe in the thick and happy present moment, I feel the pure joy of acting, of doing the decent, right thing, no matter what happens next.
The U.S. Embassy is supposed to arrive in a convoy with two senior diplomats whose job is to keep track of settlement activity in the territories. The indomitable Dafna Banai from Machsom Watch is to guide them into the Valley, to al-Hammeh. We want to show them the new outpost, and maybe also take them to Umm Zuqa. But just past Jericho the army calls them and tells them their tour is cancelled because there are, it says, training exercises going on near al-Hammeh. It’s an outright lie, which nicely, incontrovertibly, confirms what we have been arguing for years, namely, that the army doesn’t want these American diplomats to see what’s going on with their own eyes. Within minutes the news—“Israeli Army bars U.S. diplomats from visiting the Jordan Valley”—is on all the media, and first the army spokesman disclaims responsibility and passes the buck to the Civil Administration, which passes it on to some other august body, and so it goes for some time, soldiers and bureaucrats falling over each other to escape the blame for what was obviously another, typical, stupid blunder. A consensus emerges among the veteran activists: this was a very good day for us.
Ra’s al-Ahmar sits smack in the heart of a Firing Zone declared by the army. There are many such zones: 46% of the Jordan Valley, which has nearly a third of the land in the occupied West Bank, has been closed by the army to Palestinians. Most of the rest has been allocated for Jewish settlement. This week the villagers of Ra’s al-Ahmar were ordered to evacuate their homes for some days because of army exercises. To make the move even harder, someone in the Civil Administration had the bright idea of impounding five tractors on the grounds of a “suspected criminal act inside a Firing Zone.” You can’t live at Ra’s al-Ahmar without a tractor to fetch water, to bring fodder for the sheep and goats, and for the myriad everyday chores. Since the villagers happen to live where they live and have always lived, the mere existence of a tractor in Ra’s al-Ahmar is by definition illegal, even if it never moves from where it’s parked. In short, it’s harassment of exquisite purity, with the familiar aim of making life unbearable so these Palestinians will finally go away.
The valley west of the main road is well-watered; dark green fields of onions and other crops give it a Tuscan beauty against the backdrop of the dry mustard-hued hills to the north and east. When we reach the first huts and sheep-pens, ‘Ali—stocky, brawny, mustached, and very very angry—launches into a bitter tirade. “You’re all the worst of the worst, worse than the Jews, you have stolen my tractor, you are thieves, nothing but thieves and crooks, you’re ruining my life……” He pounds with his heavy fists on the roof of the car and looks as if he wants to pounce on us. Decades of bitterness come pouring out. He seems to have taken us for bureaucrats from the Civil Administration. We talk to him, we tell him who we are and what we think about what’s happened, and after a while he calms down. He has spent a fruitless day in Ramallah and other West Bank cities trying to get his tractor back. The army wants him to pay a fine of some 7000 shekels, an unimaginable sum for this subsistence shepherd. He loves his sheep, he needs to take care of them and now he can’t, his father and his father’s father and so on back through the generations herded sheep in this valley and now the Jews are driving him out, his neighbor in the next cluster of tents is a cripple who can barely move and now they’ve taken his tractor too, he’s unable to manage, how are they going to live, and so on and on. “I love my tractor as if it were my son.”
Somehow we have to recover those tractors. In the evening I meet Eitay, who knows the niceties of the law, and he says there are new and complicated procedures for such cases, the owner has to appear first before the military commander in his area, and then before the military courts, and so on up the ladder, and it will take many months.
Within the firing zones you still have a relatively small number of people like ‘Ali and his family, stuck in a limbo that is indeed wrecking their lives. The impounded tractor is only a part of it. Even the access road to their tents is closed off by an army barrier, so that their tractors, if they still had them, would have to take a circuitous route over a dirt path full of potholes just to reach home. I could go on with this litany. We tell ‘Ali we’ll be back next week, and as we leave he sends us off with blessings and smiles.
I’ve seen a lot of cruelty over these years in the territories. Much of it is driven by greed. Some of it seeks to justify itself in the name of a greedy God who allegedly gives out title deeds to the land. Who would want to worship such a God? But more and more I see a tortuous, transparent kind of cruelty that delights, above all, in its own power to hurt. It’s gotten worse over the last months, under the new Minister of Defense. The bureaucrats are probably indeed the worst of the worst. In 2016, house demolitions in Area C have doubled in relation to the previous year, and in the Jordan Valley alone, home to over 50,000 Palestinians (most of them in the city of Jericho), some three hundred buildings have been destroyed and well over a thousand people have been rendered homeless, half of them children. These numbers almost certainly err on the side of caution. If you’re a Palestinian Bedouin trying to survive in the microscopic bits of territory left for Palestinian settlement in the Jordan Valley, your life hangs by a thread.