After 10 years as a London divorce lawyer, I needed a break. Given how much time I spent thinking, reading and talking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I decided head to Jerusalem. I had spent time there before: a year in seminary at 18, and numerous holidays. This time, increasingly concerned by the Israeli government’s policies, I wanted to work with Israelis challenging the government’s approach and to increase my knowledge of the conflict.
Spending time in the West Bank with Israeli activists, in particular in Area C (rural areas under Israeli control) it became clear that amongst all the political arguments, the day-to-day reality of those affected by the Israeli government’s policies is often overlooked.
Take Zoaba, a farmer in the Jordan Valley whose family have lived on their land for over a hundred years. Since 1996 their homes have been demolished by the army multiple times, causing seven of his eight sons to move away. The homes were demolished because they were built without permits, which are almost impossible for Palestinians in Area C to obtain.
In July Zoaba received a demolition order for the home of his son, Mahmood, and his young family. Rather than have the army bulldoze it, Zoaba’s family decided to take it down themselves. Having joined the clear-up operation after a demolition in another village, I could understand why. I joined Israeli activists from the group Ta’ayush (“together” in Arabic) in taking the house down, until all that remained was a bed on a slab of concrete.
Zoaba looked on sadly. His wife brought us tea. Their grandchildren watched, shy and confused.
In the village of Um Al Khair in the South Hebron Hills many homes are under demolition orders for the same reason. Villagers describe living with the constant anxiety that their homes will be demolished.
In late August a new anxiety arose in Um Al Khair: nightly stone-throwing attacks from the adjacent settlement of Carmel. Staying in the village one September night, I too experienced lying awake in a tent listening to stones hit the ground meters away. Despite repeated calls to the Israeli police no one has been arrested and the attacks continue.
Earlier that night further calamity had struck the village: 35 years after Carmel’s establishment the Israeli administration began fencing its official boundaries, far beyond its built-up area. Soldiers stretched coils of razor wire across the hillside and within a few minutes the shepherds of Um Al Khair were cut off from grazing lands their families had worked for decades. One man prayed, some argued with the soldiers, some were silent.
With much of their grazing land already built on by Carmel, it is becoming ever harder for the shepherds of Um Al Khair to maintain their livelihood.
Shepherding is also becoming harder in in the Jordan Valley. Ta’ayush activists accompany shepherds several times a week to deter settler violence and military interference. I was lucky never to experience settler violence, but interactions with soldiers were frequent.
Declaring an area a closed military zone – an area temporarily closed for security reasons – was a frequent tactic to clear shepherds from an area. Usually these areas were near settlements, and there appeared to be close co-operation between settlers and the military. Sometimes the order was only made after the soldiers had seen where the shepherds were headed. There never seemed to be a genuine security concern, rather a desire disrupt the shepherds.
The Palestinian villages in which the shepherds live suffer from poverty and are unconnected to water or electricity supplies. By contrast, Jewish outposts, built without permits, boast green lawns watered by sprinklers and almost never suffer demolitions.
At the outpost of Mevo’ot Jericho, I watched soldiers laugh and chat with the residents, pet their dogs, accept drinks and snacks, and confer closely with them. Despite their illegal status under Israeli law, in reality outposts enjoy the full support of the Israeli administration.
Over 100 such outposts, with new ones continuing to appear, means ever less grazing land for Palestinian shepherds, and more water resources diverted.
I’ve described a few glimpses into rural Palestinian life in the West Bank. Whatever your political perspective, it should be acknowledged that Israel’s policies in the West Bank cause significant human suffering. The reach of these policies extends far beyond ensuring Israel’s security.
I believe in the need for a Jewish state; I also believe in the Jewish values of justice, compassion, and loving one’s neighbour as oneself. The reality is that it is not possible to maintain a 50-year military occupation in a moral way. Supporters of Israel should reflect on that this Yom Kippur.