Ezra Brownstein

How we stopped West Bank settlers from attacking Bedouin shepherds

One of the day's volunteers stands in front of a flock of sheep as they drink from a water tank. (Ezra Brownstein)
One of the day's volunteers stands in front of a flock of sheep as they drink from a water tank. (Ezra Brownstein)

It was 4:30 am on a Thursday morning and we were on our way to Nablus. Well, actually, we were driving past it, to a small Bedouin village in the shadow of the sprawling settlement of Beka’ot. At the wheel was Dani Brodsky, Director of OPT Operations for Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR). His three passengers included a student studying film at Tel Aviv University, a board member of the New Israel Fund’s Austrialia branch, and myself.

This was the first time Rabbis for Human Rights would be providing protective presence to the shepherds of Homsa, who had requested our help due to the near-daily abuse they were facing from settlers, whose end goal was to scare the Bedouin community’s residents into fleeing. Due to archaic, Ottoman-era laws still in use in the OPT, the settlers could then claim the abandoned land for themselves. Through filming the settlers’ provocations and abuse and by putting our physical bodies in between the assailants and their targets, we would be providing a form of accountability for the settlers’ actions that usually doesn’t exist, and this is often enough to keep the attacks from occurring altogether. At least, that was the explanation that Dani gave us. No one in the car except him had ever actually participated in such an effort.

The sun was just peeking over the hills of the Jordan Valley as we arrived at the loose grouping of tents and shacks that made up Homsa. We were greeted by a man from the community who showed us pictures of a brutal beating he had taken from settlers just a few months before. It looked as though his entire back had been scorched.

Over the next hour or so while on the move with the flock, the other shepherds explained to us the “problems” they faced. The settlers would come with their livestock to graze over the Bedouins’ land. They would kill the Bedouin sheep, puncture the water tanks, and verbally and physically abuse the shepherds. One of the men asked us if we could come every day. We could not; the unfortunate reality is that far too many communities across the OPT have asked for help in comparison to the amount of manpower we are able to provide.

The first hour of our watch went by without any issue. Then, I heard Hebrew—on the hill across from us stood a group of settlers and their livestock. Two of the settlers were eyeing the shepherds and talking amongst themselves. We assumed they were debating whether to descend from the hill and confront us. Perhaps they also considered calling the Israeli army, which has a base next to Beka’ot. Either way, after a tense 15 minutes, the settlers decided against confrontation and continued on their way.

One of the shepherds told us that he recognized the settlers we saw as some of the more belligerent residents of Beka’ot. Just the week before, in fact, they had attacked the shepherd and his flock. We realized that we could have just then prevented an attack from occurring. As the sun climbed in the sky, we thanked the shepherds for their hospitality, hiked back to Dani’s car, and returned to Tel Aviv.

Overall, I would describe my first time accompanying shepherds in the OPT as “objectively uneventful.” I am very grateful that harm came neither to the shepherds nor to any of us four. At the same time, it terrifies me that our simple presence may have been what determined whether or not the settlers would carry out some heinous act against another person and their property. So little tends to stand in their way that the potential for even a little bit of resistance from some ragtag smolanim is enough to make them say, “I don’t feel like it today.” I seems to me that the decision to maim or even kill in that moment carries similar weight to the decision of what to eat for breakfast or what clothes to wear. After all, there’s always the next day.

This also means the bar is so low that any person can make an enormous impact. Just a few hours of your time can protect an entire community and their livelihood, and as the number of overall volunteers increases, the threat of accountability that we pose toward settlers grows in kind. In the current reality on the ground, one in which the government and the army are failing to stop the violence, the responsibility to act falls on you and me.

About the Author
Ezra is an American-Israeli budding activist with an identity crisis. He currently works as a grant writer for Rabbis for Human Rights.
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