While the prime minister is dispensing promises about easing restrictions in the territories, Israel is expelling hundreds of shepherds from the Jordan Valley
Which is crueler? Expelling an urban family from its home in Jerusalem's Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, or bulldozing a meager tent encampment of shepherds living on private Jordan Valley land they leased, destroying their water tanks, their tents and their sheep pens, and expelling families with many children from the land on which they live? It's hard to say. But while the Sheikh Jarrah expulsions are attracting interest in Israel and elsewhere, hardly anyone notices or protests what's going on in the Jordan Valley.
There, far from view, Israel has been trying for several years to methodically remove Palestinian inhabitants from wide swaths of land. And in a week when the prime minister was making more promises about a "package of gestures" to the Palestinians, in order to curry favor in Washington, the Civil Administration bulldozers brutally destroyed several more encampments, leaving dozens of residents helpless and destitute under the open sky. But the Jordan Valley is far from the public eye and the public heart, and there Israel can do as it pleases.
One look at the landscape tells the whole story: The settlement of Beka'ot, with its lush greenery and plentiful electricity and water at one end of the magnificent valley, and the ruins of the meager shepherd encampments at the other end, with no electricity, no water, no nothing. One picture is worth a thousand words. It's a far cry from the words of the old propagandistic song once sung by the Central Command musical troupe, about the little settlement in the Valley that "guarded the line, called out for peace and served up hope in the form of colorful flowers." Calls for peace? Gestures of hope? Go ask the neighbors about that.
This week, Dafna Banai, an activist from Machsom Watch, described the most recent expulsions: 15 families were expelled from their encampments on July 1; the week before, another 16 families received demolition and evacuation orders. For more than a year, the entire valley has been strewn with dozens of cement blocks preventing entry and warning of "firing zones" wherever Palestinians live. Israel already has enclosed all the territory west of Highway 90 with impassable ditches, and residents can exit only twice a week, when Israel opens the locked gates on the roads.
Israel declares huge amounts of private Palestinian land as firing zones and expels the residents under the false and self-righteous guise of concern for their welfare, lest they be harmed by the military training; but these firing zones are always to be found solely on Palestinian land, and never on settlement land. Have you ever heard of any settlers being expelled from their homes because their settlement was declared part of a firing zone? But against these wretched shepherds in the Jordan Valley, anything goes. This is Israeli justice, this is equality as practiced by the Israel Defense Forces.
Perhaps the explanation for this appalling expulsion policy can be found in comments by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicized last Friday on Channel 10. During a condolence visit to the home of a settler family in 2001, Netanyahu divulged his dastardly plan: He told his hosts he would proclaim the entire Jordan Valley a "designated military site."
This is how the prime minister thought to mock the Americans at the time, so they would let Israel do as it pleases in the Jordan Valley. Now he is prime minister again, and his trick is working splendidly. A Jordan Valley cleansed of Palestinians will one day be more easily annexed to Israel.
The Civil Administration, naturally, attempts to deceive, dissemble and disregard all this. What connection could it possibly have with acts of systematic expulsion? After all, it is simply concerned with the welfare of the residents and the preservation of law and order. If an expulsion is taking place, the administration is not the one making the decisions; it's just acting as a contractor.
In any event, what's going on here is "self-evacuation," as the spokesman put it, and "abandoned structures."
"This is a matter of tin structures and tents, which were set up recently, without the necessary permits, in firing zones, endangering the inhabitants' lives," the spokesman said. "Most of the structures under discussion were abandoned independently by their residents, and a few were destroyed. Most of the people who built these structures own permanent homes in the valley, and most of the structures were already abandoned on the day they were destroyed."
Owners of permanent homes? Have you heard of settlers being evacuated because they have another house in Petah Tikva?
On second thought: The expulsion in the Jordan Valley is worse than that of Sheikh Jarrah. It is more systematic, more large-scale, and it's being committed against a weaker population. But the demonstrators won't come here. It's too far away.
The most closed open area
In an empty room that serves as the headquarters of a remote village council, local activists elaborate on their fears: Israel is seeking to expel all the area's shepherds to here. Two big spiders silently spin their web on the ceiling. In the past month, dozens of families have received demolition and evacuation orders, all in accordance with the law, of course, the law of the occupation.
The elderly Abdel Rahim Basharat says it's not a village, it's a prison.
"If you close off the shepherds from every direction, to them it's a jail, because their lives are tied to the land. If they are made to move to this village, they'll have to sell their flocks, their only source of income. Taking our lands from us is the same as taking our lives."
Basharat has a question: "Does Area C mean evacuation and expulsion?"
And what will you tell him? What can one tell him?
And he has another question: "Why don't you ask about the water problem?"
Ataf Abu al-Rub, the B'Tselem investigator in the area, explains: "Sometimes these shepherds hear water trickling through the pipes that pass through their fields on the way to settlements, but they are forbidden to use it. Sometimes they hear the crackle of electricity in the high-tension wires, but the electricity is meant only for the settlers."
Al-Rub says this is the most closed open area in the world. Four families have already left for the village, after the encampments were repeatedly destroyed and they tired of hopeless battle. The rest are persisting in a desperate fight for survival. We go out to see, driving past harvested wheat fields on our way to the sites of destruction.
Abdel Razeq Bani Awda's family already has erected a new encampment. On July 1, the previous one was destroyed, and its ruins lie on the opposite hillside. They'd lived there for 15 years, on private land that belongs to a resident of Tubas who leased it to them. They have documents to prove it. Now they are stuck in the middle of a wheat field; when winter and planting times comes around, they'll have to leave here, too. This is the fifth place they've moved to in the past few years, since Israel began implementing its policy of evacuation and expulsion. Two families - a father and son and their children, and 160 sheep, their only source of income. The sheep are now crowded into new pens, seeking shelter from the heat.
What will the children eat?
The road is too treacherous for our car, as we make our way up the hill from the ruins of their recently destroyed camp. Hardly anything is left of it. Strewn about the ground are some wrecked tent stakes, a spoon, a rusty kettle, a blackened coffee pot, a spilled container of tehina and a broken-down refrigerator. Remnants of a meager life. Basharat asks why Israel is also destroying the water tanks.
"The tents are one thing, but why the water tanks? Sometimes they empty them of water. What will the children drink? And why do they always come when times are the toughest, or in the middle of summer, when the heat is terrible, or during the rains, when there is no other shelter? It's not by coincidence. And why do they destroy the taboun ovens? They know it takes four to five days to build a new taboun, and in the meantime we have no bread. Do they want us to die of hunger and thirst? Is that what they really want? Our children know the Israeli army is the one doing this. And what do they expect them to remember when they grow up?"
Basharat's questions go unanswered, echoing through the valley. We sit beneath the remnants of a tin shack that wasn't thoroughly destroyed. An old refrigerator door serves as a bench, until it, too, collapses beneath us. The Bani Awda family will return here in the winter. They have no other choice. They have already re-erected one tent. Across the way, Beka'ot is blooming; there is a spa there.
On the western part of the hillside is another ruined encampment. This is where Hassan Bani Awda's family lived before they migrated eastward. Another encampment, closer to Beka'ot, is still standing. Nine times this family has had its home destroyed. We sit in silence and gaze out at the valley. It could be so beautiful, if not for the ugliness of the expulsion. We make our way to the next encampment.
An old wooden chair has an old sticker attached to it: "Israel is Strong with Shimon Peres." Israel is also strong with Benjamin Netanyahu, especially in dealing with the weak: Mohammed Bani Awda and his 11 children are also living under the threat of expulsion. He has 270 sheep and a combine that belongs to the landowner from Tubas. This family already has been forced to move four times. Now they've been instructed to tear down just the storehouse for the sheep's food. Is Mohammed afraid? He says: "They're going step-by-step. They started in the east and when they finish clearing out there they'll come here too. We'll be the next stage."
The two shepherds, Basharat and Bani Awda, consult with one another. What to do? Bani Awda suggests appealing to the High Court, and Basharat says there's no point.
"There's no point appealing to Israeli law and justice. They'll declare the whole Jordan Valley a military zone and that will be the end of the story."
Mohammed's son Jihad, a 19-year-old shepherd, wears a New York baseball cap. He says he dreams of going there one day, but all of us in the tent knew it will never happen. It's unlikely that he'll every get as far as Jerusalem