A Shepherd’s Life …

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… Under Permanent Military Occupation

By David Kattenburg

Serene. Calm. Idyllic: adjectives synonymous with pastoralism — the shepherding of sheep, goats and other cattle.

For Palestinian shepherds trapped in the ever-expanding matrix of Israeli military occupation, surrounded by Jewish settlements, army outposts and settler-only roads, life is anything but. Land confiscation, property damage, livestock poisoning and theft, arbitrary arrest and violence are routine.

According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), since January 2016, over a thousand Palestinian-owned structures have been demolished in the two-thirds of the occupied West Bank controlled by Israel under the 1994 Oslo Accords (‘Area C’), some 1500 Palestinians have been displaced, and 163 acts of settler violence have been reported. Settler violence is rarely prosecuted.

It’s all a part of established Israeli policy, says Israeli NGO B’Tselem. “Israel has employed various measures – official and otherwise – to cut off [rural communities] from their land and hand it over to settlers,” says a December 2016 report entitled “Expel and Exploit” focusing on villages near the northern West Bank city of Nablus.

“Under the guise of “temporary military occupation,” says the B’Tselem report, “Israel treats the occupied territories as its own: grabbing land, exploiting natural resources, and establishing permanent settlements. Palestinian residents are being increasingly dispossessed of their lands, roots and livelihood, to be replaced by Israeli control either by direct official action or by the settlers acting as its envoys.”

UN Security Council Resolution 2334, passed by a vote of 14-0 late last year, declared settlements a “flagrant violation under international law,” with “no legal validity.” Numerous resolutions condemning settlements have been passed since the start of Israel’s occupation fifty years ago. Israel has ignored them, and the international community has not enforced them.

Halamish settlement, in the northern West Bank

On the opposite end of occupied Palestine, in the semi-arid hills south of Hebron, indigenous pastoralists face woes similar to those in Nablus, and worse. Long-standing Israeli plans to establish a vast weapons testing area there, on grazing lands belonging to a dozen Palestinian communities, are being challenged before the Israeli Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, on the ground, Israeli groups like Ta’ayush (‘Living Together’), Rabbis for Human Rights, and Haqel (Jews and Arabs in Defense of Human Rights) have been accompanying Palestinian shepherds as they tend their flocks, surrounded by Israeli settlements and military posts.

Sheep graze near Palestinian village of Um El Amad

On a Saturday in early June, Ta’ayush activist Guy Butavia guided a group of Israeli Jews (and a Canadian journalist) on one such accompaniment trip, just outside the Palestinian village of Um El Amad, beneath the Jewish settlement Otniel, together with a 24-year-old shepherd named Achmad and his flock of sheep

Shepherds from Um El Amad and nearby Beit Amra own several thousand sheep, goats and cows. Land confiscation has left enough to graze five hundred, and harassment by Jewish settlers and Israeli soldiers is routine, Butavia says.

In one incident described by Butavia, Achmad’s brother and another shepherd were arrested by soldiers and taken to Otniel. There they were beaten, burned with cigarettes, then released in the early hours of the morning. No one was charged, Butavia says.

The woes of Um El Amad shepherds have been brought to the attention of the Israeli justice system. In an April 2014 Israeli Supreme Court ruling, Justice E. Rubinstein ruled that “clear instructions should be given by the commander of the regional division and the Civil Administration [lead occupation authority] to allow the petitioners [four local residents, supported by the Israeli NGO Rabbis for Human Rights] regular access to the grazing area.”

Listen to Ta’ayush activist Guy Butavia guiding visitors through the wadi beneath Otniel:

 

Shortly after the Ta’ayush group arrived in the wadi, a security van appeared on the hill above, beside Otniel settlement. Within minutes, a couple of army jeeps pulled up and seven heavily armed soldiers stepped out.

Security vehicles and army jeep outside Otniel settlement

Another settlement vehicle then arrived, topped by hefty observational gear, and a pair of long-locked, knit-capped settlers walked up a ridge, where they stood and watched the Ta’ayush group. Before too long, a soldier trudged up the ridge and engaged the young settlers in conversation.

Soldier consults with settlers

What was happening, I asked Guy? Events were unfolding according to well-established routine, he explained: Settlement security personnel had called the soldiers, who failed to take immediate action. So the settlers walked up to the top of the hill, readying themselves to descend into the valley and confront the Palestinian shepherd and accompanying Israelis, thus prompting the soldiers to do their duty. Soon, soldiers would come tromping down and declare the whole area a “closed military zone.”

But events unfolded differently. Having spoken with the soldier, the pair of settler youth left the scene and a half dozen soldiers positioned themselves on the ridge. One of them observed us with a pair of binoculars. Others communicated their situation by radio and smart phone.

Israeli soldiers defend Otniel settlement

Gazing up the hill, our young Palestinian shepherd wanted to withdraw, but Guy urged him to hang tight. The accompanying delegation of Israeli activists sat on rocks, took pictures, checked their smart phones and chatted among themselves. Oblivious of the tense stand-off, the shepherd’s sheep chewed on abundant vegetation, vying for the best pickings.

Achmad

After some ninety minutes in the valley beneath Otniel, under the watchful eye of Israeli soldiers, and with a trill of his tongue, the shepherd led his flock back to Um El Amad. All of us followed, relieved to have experienced nothing more threatening than close military scrutiny from afar.

A few days later, having mulled over our surreal experience in the stubbly wadi beneath Otniel settlement, I decided I needed to pay Otniel a visit, to see what I could see and speak with whomever was willing to speak with me.

I set out from the heart of the Jewish quarter in the old city of Hebron (where only Jews and internationals are allowed to walk). A settler woman at a bus stop stuck out her thumb, a car stopped, and we both jumped in. We drove to nearby Kiryat Arba — one of the first settlements to be established in the wake of Israel’s June 1967 conquest of the West Bank — where I got dropped off at another bus stop. The wait was long. A friendly gentleman originally from the States consulted a bus schedule on his smart phone, on my behalf. He gave me his business card. “Love of the Land,” it reads. “A Jewish State Must Be Faithful to the Land of Israel.”

Entering Otniel settlement

An air-conditioned bus finally arrived. Otniel is only a dozen kilometers from Kiryat Arba, but the bus stopped at a half dozen settlements along the route, slipping past yellow steel gates that slid open on command from a security booth.

Finally, we arrived in Otniel. My heart beat fast. A pair of schoolgirls giggled as they directed me to the settlement office. Inside, an exceedingly pleasant woman with a Yorkshire accent offered me a coffee and set out to find someone for me to interview. At first, she thought a gentleman named Yehuda Glick might be the one. My heart leaped in my chest. Yehuda Glick! A journalist’s coup, if ever there was one! Yehuda Glick lives in Otniel?

Indeed he does. The American born, notoriously extremist (but perhaps reformed) settler has been dubbed “the most dangerous man in the Middle East.” Glick would be the perfect person to tell me all about Otniel, and respond to charges that the settlement oppresses neighboring Palestinian shepherd communities.

But Glick has a seat in the Israeli Knesset, and was in Jerusalem this day. So, Leeds-born Karen continued her search, combing through a long list of potential interviewees. Finally, she located a gentleman prepared to come speak with me.

Eliezer Fetterman soon arrived. An elegant man of a certain age, Eliezer preferred that I not take his picture, and requested that I pass the following recording by him before posting it.

 

Otniel yeshiva

After chatting for twenty minutes in the settlement office, Eliezer graciously offered to take me for a tour of Otniel. We visited the local yeshiva, where some two hundred young men exchange seven years of military service for a solid Talmudic education. We also visited the local public library (Otniel residents love to read, Eliezer says), and walked down lovely, tree-lined streets. Otniel residents also love to plant trees and garden, Eliezer told me.

Regarding the God-given rights of the Jewish people and the joys of life in the land of Abraham, Eliezer spoke much. He said he knew nothing about settler violence against local Palestinians, however, and expressed doubt that it occurs. Jews are strictly forbidden to enter Palestinian areas, explained Eliezer, although local friendships do exist between Jews and Arabs. (he refuses to call them Palestinians.)

I did not reveal that I had just visited the valley below — in the company of a group Fetterman referred to disparagingly — and had heard various accounts of dispossession, oppression and violence.

Listen to my conversation with Otniel resident Eliezer Fetterman:

Otniel, Palestinian village of Carmah in distance

Having shown me around Otniel, beneath a blazing sun, Eliezer Fetterman accompanied me to the bus stop for my return trip to Hebron. There, another gentleman helped me score a free ride. An Israeli custom. The woman driver slipped through the sliding security gate, then turned north along Highway 60. After a few brief introductions, the woman — who spoke excellent English — began whispering under her breath. At first I thought she was engaged in Blue Tooth chat, but then realized she was praying. After finishing, she apologized. “Road prayers” are customary, she told me in a soft voice, especially in situations of danger or when the trip is long.

“Is this trip dangerous?” I asked. Yes, she replied.

I mulled this over as we headed up the road to Hebron. How truly unfortunate it would be, I thought to myself, to be the victim of an unlikely but not completely improbable rock throwing or gun attack. Perhaps that would make the evening CBC news, back in Canada. How supremely ironic that would be.

All images by David Kattenburg

Otniel settlement, viewed from the wadi where Palestinian shepherds tend their flocks

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