Protective Presence for shepherds is an important part of EAPPI’s work in the South Hebron Hills. Without international or Israeli presence, shepherds are afraid of Israeli settler or military aggression.
by South Hebron Hills team, Group 49
We leave early for Umm Al Ahmad to walk with the shepherds. It is a cool morning and the light is dim as we leave. We are going there almost every Saturday to offer protective presence to the shepherds. Four people from Ta’ayush, we two EAs, five shepherds and two dogs set off together with some 130 sheep and goats.
One shepherd opens the gate of the sheep pen and the sheep hurry out – the other shepherds follow with their flocks. We head up to the cistern, a shepherd drops a bucket into the well four times in all, and the animals gather to drink. Soon we climb over the dry rocky ground towards the valley past the family olive grove. The hooves of the sheep can be heard softly pounding the dry, rocky earth and the tinkle of bells is clear this early in the morning. Across the hills we see a settlement. As we round a hill we see the Israeli army vehicles waiting ready for us!
Without internationals or Israelis, the shepherds would not go
The settlement is illegal as it has been built on occupied Palestinian territory. According to the 4th Geneva Convention, which Israel ratified in 1951, it is prohibited for an occupying force to build permanent dwellings or move their own population into occupied land (article 49), as it is also prohibited to destroy private property (article 53).
Although the shepherds own the land and are entitled to graze their animals there, they only dare do so on a Saturday when international volunteers or Ta’ayush are present. The shepherds have experienced settler and military aggression and they just too scared – two of them are just 16 years old and the settlers carry guns – Israeli law allows settlers to do so. The valley is in area C (i.e. under Israeli civil and military control) and the Otniel settlement has clearly shown its ambition to include it into the settlement by building new roads to demarcate their future borders. The court case is pending in the Supreme Court.
The sheep eat hungrily, it is important for them to graze this area when possible as it “rests” the other pasture and stretches the fodder they have saved from the summer harvest. As we all walk along, the soldiers get out of their vehicles, they wear their machine guns like hand bags slung over their shoulders. As we move through the valley an army vehicle is following us close from behind. Soon the sheep have found their spot and cluster to graze.
Ta’ayush volunteers share their experience
We volunteers stand close to the sheep or sit on rocks to chat and share stories. One woman from Ta’ayush tells how she was not hired in her line of work as she had not done her National service in protest to the government policies; another says she is self-employed so no one ever asks her if she did her service; still another was arrested only yesterday and still shaken – apparently he stood too close to an Israeli settlement. He was soon released though, as he was an Israeli himself. The security guard from Otniel comes up to us and starts filming us and soon we are all filming and taking photos of each other.
We have met these shepherds before and know that one of them is particularly keen on singing. As he walks, we hear him singing folk songs, some Ta’ayush members also join in. Today an EA gets out his flute and the army gazes on.
How many people does it take to graze sheep?
After a while the sheep are satisfied and we head back to the village. The soldiers move their vehicles. The only communication between the shepherds and the army has been nonverbal. The army vehicles move up the hill, where the settlement is. For us it is a slow walk up the valley and slopes as the sheep are well fed. We have been there for four hours. Nineteen people have watched these sheep eat. The shepherds rest – later in the afternoon they will take their flocks out again this time to a field close to the village.