by the South Hebron Hills Team,
The South Hebron Hills, located in the south of the West Bank in Palestine, is a beautiful area, especially in spring. The soft rolling hills are covered with fresh green grass, carpets of yellow flowers and sprinkled with limestone. At this time of year after a long winter, the shepherds bring their flocks of sheep and goats out from their farms to graze on their lands. This seemingly idyllic setting is stunning but does not paint the whole picture because it is also scattered with illegal Israeli settlements, outposts and military bases.
Abu Mohamed* is a shepherd, from Susiya whose father bought their grazing lands in 1932 during the British mandate. The family holds papers that prove their ownership of the land. ‘My father first worked the land with two camels, carrying water from the nearby village of old Susiya, until I built the well that is now used for the sheep to drink from’, said Abu Mohamed. His land is set in a lush valley with fields for crops, olive groves and a hillside with rich grazing.
Abu Mohamed is now a grandfather and when there are school holidays his grandsons accompany him when he grazes his sheep and ploughs the land.
The Oslo Accords of 1993 decided that Abu Mohamed’s home and farm is in “Area A” (controlled by the Palestinian Authority) and his farmland and grazing land is in “Area C” (controlled by Israel).
Some 60% of West Bank lands have been classified as Area C and are under full Israeli civil and security control. Under International law, Israel, as the occupying power in the West Bank, has a legal obligation to protect the Palestinian civilian population and to administer the territory for their benefit [Article 55 of the Hague Regulations of 1907]. However, the Government of Israel’s policies and practices in Area C, including its settlement policy, have severely restricted the ability of Palestinians to build, access land, water and other natural resources. The cumulative impact of these policies has resulted in the stifling of their economy, high poverty rates, dispossession and displacement.
On a daily basis, Abu Mohamed encounters problems accessing his lands and grazing his sheep. Now when he leads his sheep, just like he had always done, along the road from Yatta he must pass through a small gate to access his lands in Area C. This gate is controlled by the Israeli Army and is often closed and padlocked.
In addition to these administrative and physical restrictions on Area C lands, Abu Mohamed’s problems were further compounded when an Israeli military base was built on part of his farmland in the 1990s. Now when he can access his lands soldiers often order him to move his sheep further away from the military base. Every day he is given different instructions – most days the rule is 50 metres from the base but it seems that the definition of 50 metres always differs. Abu Mohamed reports that every day the distance changes and that occasionally the soldiers throw sound bombs to enforce this rule.
Last Tuesday was another one of these difficult days. Abu Mohamed and his grandson were tending their sheep when the soldiers threw two sound bombs and arrested him and his twelve-year-old grandson, Ahmed. They were then taken inside the military base where they were interrogated. They were held in custody for about one hour before being released.‘They didn’t treat us badly’, said Abu Mohamed ‘but their tone during the questioning was very harsh.’ No clear reason was given for this arrest, it seems that Mohamed and Ahmed were just in the ‘wrong’ place.
When EAs spoke to the military base commander about this incident he said: ‘I don’t understand why he comes every day, especially to this place. Here, look around you, there are so many fields to go with his sheep!’ We were very surprised to hear him ignoring this farmer’s right to access his own lands.
The day prior to the incident, the soldiers had apparently told Abu Mohamed that it would be even better if he didn’t bring his sheep to graze in that area at all. And that instead he should just work and plough his land.
‘How can this be?’ said Abu Mohamed. ‘What is a shepherd without his sheep?’ ‘I have always been shepherding this land.’
Tomorrow he will be back again. Not only to feed his sheep, but also to resist the occupation nonviolently by working his land. This is where our commitment is important. We EAs will continue to offer protective presence whenever Abu Mohamed needs us.
Every year EAs provide protective presence to Palestinian farmers in occupied Palestine. Our protective presence helps farmers to access their lands in Area C and deter Israeli military harassment as well as acts of Israeli settler violence against Palestinians.
*Note: The names of individuals have been changed to protect their identities.
Learn more about Susiya and Israel’s planning regime in Area C here.