Written by Mary and Christine
Photos by Bryan MacCormack w/Left in Focus
There are two communities that live side-by-side in the South Hebron Hills. One is Carmel, a gated Israeli settlement of 400 residents, with lush gardens and air conditioned homes. Just beyond its barbed wire fencing is the small Bedouin town of Umm al Khair, populated by roughly 70 people living in tin huts and tents. They have no access to the electricity grid and no running water. All their attempts to build permanent dwellings have resulted in demolition by Israeli forces.
The Bedouins in Umm al Khair came here nearly 70 years ago when Israel expelled them from the Naqab desert. They bought the land bit by bit over 10 years from people who lived in the local town of Yatta. In the end, it cost them 100 camels—a high price for a small band of subsistence farmers.
They attracted little attention from the Israeli authorities until 1980 when the decision was made to build Carmel and the settlers began to look greedily on the Bedouin land. The means of grabbing it was to issue arbitrary military zone orders, under which the Bedouin structures suddenly became illegal—from their homes to their bread oven and, more recently, to the small toilets they built.
Some structures have been demolished two or three times and then rebuilt. Soldiers attack the goats and sheep and the shepherds who tend them. The Bedouins have papers to prove ownership but are forbidden permits to enable them to build new houses or maintain the old ones.
The Bedouins refuse to leave. Meliha Al’hathaleen, a 56 year old woman (pictured with one of her 17 grandchildren), says the Palestine Authority have been no help.
“They came once, took a picture and then left,” she said. “We have to be steadfast. The Palestine Authority build mansions in Ramallah, but we stay here to fight to keep our land.”
A five minute drive from Umm al Khair, tucked in the rolling hills around Yatta, is Mufaqqara. It’s a small farming community—olive trees and tobacco, sheep and goats, donkeys, a few horses. Situated at the crest of hill, the village affords stunning views across the fertile valley farmland to the east, and, on a wooded bluff on the western horizon: another gated Israeli settlement, it’s white boxy buildings sitting in stark contrast to the smooth curves of the land.
Over the years, the people of Mufaqqara have endured a lot of abuse from these settlers.
“In 2007,” said Abu Ashraf, the eldest patriarch of the community, as he reclined on a rock with us looking out across his pastures. “Settlers poisoned the feed of my sheep.”
Abu Ashraf owned around 300 head of sheep at that time. He took a sample of the poisoned feed to be tested at Birzeit University. The result?
“They said the baby sheep can’t drink from their mother for four months,” Ashraf said. Because of the timing of the attack—early spring—many newborn sheep were lost, despite the village’s attempts to keep them alive by bottle-feeding them costly powdered milk.
Despite this, Abu Ashraf maintains a remarkable humor and sense of resolve about the situation. Before long, he has everyone laughing as he relates a story of an arrest that took place on the hillside right before us. According to Ashraf, the Israeli police arrested and detained a shepherd from Mufaqqara, ostensibly because he was grazing his sheep in a “closed military zone.” They told him, in custody, that he owed a 8000-shekel fee for this offense, and that he could either pay the fee or stay with them at the army base indefinitely.
“He began to argue with the police—asking for a lower and lower fee.” At last, when the police had agreed to lower it to 2000 shekels, the shepard looked stunned, hurt. Only two thousand shekels? he said. Surely I’m worth more than that!
“They kept him over night,” Ashraf said. The next morning, when Israeli police arrived for their morning briefing and assignment of daily tasks, the arrested shepherd piped up.
Hey, what about me? He began to banter with the police, asking for an assignment. I can drive, why don’t you let me be in charge of this or that raid?
In the end, the shepherd was released with no fine.
On its surface, the story’s pure fun, a tale of triumph through wit. What you can’t see, however, is that at the margins of this tale—underpinning and likely facilitating the Israeli army’s decision to release the shepherd—is a vast network of support that Abu Ashraf has intentionally built for himself and the others of Mufaqqara. He partners with a variety of human rights organizations—The Freedom Theatre among them—and is not afraid to call on their support and solidarity when the dignity and rights of his community are infringed upon by Israel.
While we sat on the hill, a silver pickup truck drove past us down a distant road, slowing down to gawk out their open window at the forty or so of us gathered on the hillside. A settler. Immediately, half the group stood, pointed their cameras at the vehicle, walked closer to the road. After a few moments, the truck drove away.
“You all are more frightening to the settlers than an army tank,” Abu Ashraf told us. “Your cameras, your writing. There is a dramatic change in their behavior towards us when you are here.”
I’ve never felt “watching” to be a particularly strong activity. However, in Playback Theatre performances—after a community member has shared a story—the person conducting the show will turn to the audience and say, khaleena enshuf. It means “let’s watch.” In both those moments of performance onstage and moments of witness like the one all the Riders collectively shared on the hillside in Mufaqqara, it has become clear to me that, in certain circumstances, watching is a powerful act.