by the South Hebron Hills team.
It is six o’clock in the morning, and day is about to break over the valley below. In the distance, the foothills of the Negev emerge above the mist. All is quiet and peaceful in Ziad’s tiny homestead, where we have just spent the night. Only the hollering of the jackals and the barking of a lone dog interrupted the silence of last night. Ziad arose well before daybreak to say his two morning prayers, as is his religious custom. He has worked tirelessly all morning feeding fodder and maize to his one hundred and twenty sheep.
He lives by himself in a very small simple cave and he seems satisfied with its rudimentary comfort it offers. Electricity comes from solar panels and water is collected in cisterns. A local NGO has built a toilet cubicle adjacent to the house. A few olive trees and a fig tree are planted next to the small platform where Ziad sits when he rests for a moment. A small paradise on earth, one may think and yet a closer look at life in this area reveals that it is far from ideal…
Since the Oslo accords in 1995 this area, known as Masfer Yatta, has been classed as Area C. This means that this area falls under full control of the Israeli army. Area C covers about 61 percent of the West Bank. As far back as the 1970’s, the Israeli Authorities began declaring parts of the area a military firing zone. To date about 18 percent of Area C has been declared a closed firing zone. As a result Palestinian presence is formally prohibited in these zones without permission from the Israeli authorities. In 1999 Palestinian the majority of communities that lived in Masfer Yatta began expelled. The expulsion orders dubbed the ancient Palestinian hamlets “illegal residence in a live-fire zone.” Some months later the Israeli High Court of Justice ruled to allow some people to return while the final High Court decision was still pending. So Ziad’s life here, like so many others, is extremely precarious and he lives with the knowledge that could be expelled again at any time.
This hamlet, consisting of a few stone homes clinging to the side of the hill and small caverns dug from limestone cliffs, continues to loose its inhabitants. Ziad was the only one to return to his hamlet after the community was expelled six years ago. The two other families that shared this hamlet with Zaid and his family left in 2011. The daily hardships and insecurity of life inside a firing zone is no place to raise a family. Ziad’s wife and his younger son also left the hamlet and are now living in a nearby town. Zaid stays because the animals that he attends to daily are the only means he has to supports his family. Though the legal case is still on-going we were informed that two communities left the area as a result of settler violence.
Zaid reported that on October 12th, that seven settlers from the nearby outpost, Lucifer’s Farm, arrived at Ziads dwelling at sunset and severed the water pipe leading from his water cistern. As a result of the vandalism Zaid’s home and his sheep pens were left without any water supply. He tells us that he did not expect that the Israeli police or the army would offer any protection from settlers, so he called for help at the nearby village of Susiya. Afraid that the settlers would come back during the night he requested that the EAs come and provide protective presence, as a deterrence against attack overnight.
This is not the first time that settlers from neighboring outposts have carried out acts of vandalism or attacks. On the previous Sunday for example, settlers blocked the track that leads to a small school in Jinba with large boulders. School teachers, trying to reach school had to roll the large boulders out of their way in order to pass. The track is crucial to the inhabitants of the area because it is the only route available to them to transport essentials goods in and out of the valley. It is also the only access road for Palestinians commuting to work in the city of Arad in northern Negev.
This valley which was inhabited since ancient times is currently home to about four hundred people who live scattered across five hamlets. The majority of residents are Bedouins who were forcibly displaced in 1948 from the areas around Beer Sheva, in the Negev. The forcible displacement of protected persons is a violation of international law as is clearly stated in Article 49 of the fourth Geneva Convention. Despite the injustice of the situation Ziad does not show anger towards his aggressors. He does not talk much but looking on his serene face, I am reminded of the verse: “forgive them, for they know not what they do”.
Tonight, Ziad will be by himself again in his small stone dwelling. For his dinner he will have some soup, some bread dipped in olive oil, and a glass of mint tea. He will go to sleep by 8 p.m. after the last evening prayer. As we leave he shares his modest hopes that the night will be peaceful and that he will be able to attend to his sheep again at day break. And so life goes on, inside firing zone 918, at once precarious and precious.