– Reflections from a recent ICAHD study tour trip to the Jordan Valley
Arriving at the tented community of Khirbet al-Makhul, we were invited into the home of a Bedouin herding family. Although we had brought food from Jericho to share with the family, not expecting anything from them, they insisted on sharing what little food they had with us. The entire community here was demolished in 2013 with a brutality that broke the spirit of many of the residents to the extent that they moved away (though some moved back). The pretext was that the homes had been built ‘without the correct permits’. European diplomats trying to deliver aid to the destitute villagers were manhandled by the IDF: one of them described Israel’s actions as ‘shocking and outrageous’. A French diplomat, Marion Fesneau-Castaing, was deported after she confronted one of the soldiers. Our host family, determined not to give in to Israel’s bullying, decided to remain; aid agencies provided them with new animal shelters.
Through the interpretation of Chaska, the head of the family explained that Khirbet al-Makhul was a small herding community. The people comprising it used to be nomadic, but had been sedentary for 40 years. Many of them were refugees from Hebron and other disrupted places. They rely on their livestock for a living, selling milk and cheese, and the animals themselves on religious holidays. Israel’s prohibitions on their grazing lands makes it very difficult to sustain this way of life, added to which is the expense of having to bring in animal feed. With the depletion of their natural water supply, they are now completely dependent on bringing in water tankers for their animals and themselves. Even though they live in tents and shacks, Israel still imposes building restrictions on them.
Because they live in Area C, the herders are not entitled to claim help from the Palestinian Authority. A military camp has squatted on the adjacent hilltop overlooking them since the 1970’s. The demolition of the compound in 2013 happened on the same day as the anniversary of the massacres at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon. Four bulldozers, 17 jeeps and many soldiers arrived without warning in the early morning. They demolished the tin shacks and tents in which our host and his family were living, leaving them without any shelter, completely exposed. It seemed like an out-of-body experience, he told us. How can a ‘democratic’ country like Israel do something like that?
Israel’s aggression against the Al-Makhul community began in 1967, our host informed us, when the IDF began their tactics of intimidation. Sometimes they shot the farmers’ livestock; other times, they ‘confiscated’ it and took it to Jericho, from where the farmers could only recover it by paying a fine. From that time onwards, threats, confiscations and demolitions have continued until today. Why, our host asked us, does Ban Ki-moon talk about human rights and do nothing to help us?
People around the world, he continued, support the Palestinians, but their governments support the Israeli government. He recalled the humanitarian intervention of Marion Fesneau-Castaing, ‘the lady from the French consulate’, who, he said, was knocked to the ground and beaten (though Israeli media gave a different account).
Our host said that when he hears about events such as the recent massacres in Paris, his ‘heart breaks’; so why do people not condemn Israel for what it is doing?
The Arabs had no rights, he said; no one to protect them. After sunset he can’t sleep, because he’s afraid of settlers, especially after the recent arson attack that killed a Palestinian family in Duma. He said that there had been several settler attacks on a neighbouring community, so he is afraid of every car that passes. When his compound was demolished, his 5-year-old daughter asked him, ‘Why do they do it?’ No one could answer.
‘I’m 40 years old’, he went on. ‘Will I ever be able to live like a human being?’ The Occupation sometimes makes you do things you don’t want to do. He has had to send the two oldest of his eight daughters a long way off, for them to go to college. If there were no requirement for a building permit (which is never granted), he could have built a house here for the whole family. How do farmers pose a threat to the Occupation, he wondered? In Europe and Australia, farming is a respectable trade; here a farmer is treated like a criminal. And if he goes too close to the military tower (on top of the hill), he’ll be arrested.
His life was barely sustainable now, he said. Water shortage was a huge problem. The two wells nearby had been fenced off for the sole use of the settlers. A water pipe passed a few metres from his tent, carrying water to the settlements and the military base, but he and his neighbours can’t access it. When he sees the settlers making profit from the land and water they’ve stolen, and exporting their produce to Europe, it gives him a ‘bad feeling’.
After we finished the meal that the family had so kindly and no doubt with great difficulty prepared for us (there was no sign of anything resembling a shop for miles around), we thanked our host and departed for Nazareth in the gathering dusk. After our return to the UK, we were distressed to learn that our host’s humble dwelling had been ransacked by Israeli soldiers a few days after our visit. They entered the tent without warning, trashed the family’s few basic possessions and threw out all their food. Shouting and cursing at the family, they told our erstwhile host it was lucky he was there, or they would have abused his wife and young daughter.
– With thanks to John G for his notes.