The Sleepover

Bir al ‘Idd is a village with only one family left. Protective presence is constantly needed to keep this small village alive.

by Hans, South Hebron Hills team

Bir al 'Idd. Photo EAPPI/V. Rochat.

Bir al ‘Idd. Photo EAPPI/V. Rochat.

Every Friday night the EAPPI team in the South Hebron Hills goes on a sleepover. While it is cozy, like any other sleepover, it is also protective presence for the only family left in the village of Khirbet Bir al ‘Idd.

Bir al’Idd is located in one of the most vulnerable places. It lies on the edge of Masafer Yatta, a large area declared a firing zone for the Israeli army (despite the scattered villages still there). About a kilometer in each direction lie Israeli settlement outposts, known for violent attacks on Palestinian farmers. And in a small valley in between, Bir al’Idd lies like an eagle’s nest desperately fighting to hang on.

Khirbet Bir al ’Idd lies between the Israeli settlement outposts of Matzpe Yair and Nof Nesher. Photo UNOCHA.

Khirbet Bir al ’Idd lies between the Israeli settlement outposts of Matzpe Yair and Nof Nesher. Photo UNOCHA.

Abu Tariq and his family lives in a cave. They have a few provisional buildings to house their animals, walls built from dismantled crates, rocks and mud with tented roofs. Caves are not rare in this region. It is part of the traditional housing. It stays warm in winter and cool in summer. And, perhaps most importantly in these times, they are a lot harder to demolish than buildings. They have some electricity, thanks to the NGO Comet ME that provides solar and wind power to the villages in the area. The solar panels in Bir al’Idd were broken by the nearby Israeli settlers, but they still provide enough electricity for some light in the evenings, and for Abu Tariq’s family to follow their favorite Syrian soap opera.

When we arrive in Bir al’Idd we are greeted by smiles and hugs. We sit outside and make staggering conversations in Arabic and English, helped by our phrasebook. When the sun sets, we go inside the cave and sit around the beautiful carpet Abu Tariq’s mom wove.

The family brings us food, yoghurt from their sheep, bread from their small taboon, rice and soup. It is simple, delicious and extremely humbling to see how gladly they share what little they have. Saying “no, thanks, I’ve eaten” is not an option, they would see it as an insult. After dinner it is TV-time and we watch the aforementioned Syrian soap in great delight. They, because they’ve followed the series for twenty years. Us, because of the wonderful and theatrical expressions of the actors, and the Arabic words we can recognize.

Between 8:30 and 9:00 we go to bed. The sons in the family make our beds in a small mud-walled hut above the cave. It is simple, but we are treated better than at a five star hotel, and we go to sleep to the sounds of sheep stamping and hyenas howling.

In the morning we eat breakfast with the family before they take their sheep to graze, and while the sun rises over Jordan in the distance, we go off for other duties, promising to return next Friday.

Bir al’Idd was there under the Ottoman Empire, under British and Jordanian rule, but in 1999 it was laid desolate. Harassment and threats from Israeli settlers forced the fifteen families who lived there out in a ten year exile. Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR) engaged lawyers and after a long-fought battle in the courts they won their right to return in 2009. But the two Israeli outposts were still there, and only five families chose to return. It was not an easy choice, and they did not choose an easy life. Despite near constant follow-up from RHR and Tay’ush, they have been expelled from their grazing lands, their roads have been blocked, they have suffered violence at the hands of Israeli settlers and the Israeli army, and eventually, one after the other, all but one have given up.

Abu Tariq is happy when he is working in his land. Photo EAPPI/B. Thiel.

Abu Tariq is happy when he is working in his land. Photo EAPPI/B. Thiel.

Abu Tariq tells us he does not want pity. He is a strong and proud man, and considers himself rich as long as he is working his land. But with only one family left, there is no school in Bir al’Idd, and most of Abu Tariq’s children live alone in Yatta. The lack of parental guidance has affected their grades and their health. The pressure is too much. Staying away from their children is extremely tough. It looks like the last family of Bir al’Idd has succumbed, and when the harvest is finished, Abu Tariq seriously considers to pack his things and go. It will be yet another Palestinian village laid to waste by landgrabbing settlers.


Want to know more about issues facing the villages in the South Hebron Hills? Read HERE.

Well watched sheep

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

A shepherd with his sheep in Umm al Ahmad. Photo EAPPI/S. Masters.

A shepherd with his sheep in Umm al Ahmad. Photo EAPPI/S. Masters.

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.

A shepherd gives his sheep water to drink from a well. Photo EAPPI/B. Rubenson.

A shepherd gives his sheep water to drink from a well. Photo EAPPI/B. Rubenson.

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.

“Existence is Resistance”

by Birgitta, Sally, Juha, and Arve, South Hebron Hills team

The hamlet of Halaweh in Masafer Yatta. Photo EAPPI A. Konnestad

The hamlet of Halaweh in Masafer Yatta. Photo EAPPI A. Konnestad

Journey to School

The sun rises as we leave for Masafer Yatta. Its golden rays colour the house walls and alleys in the town. Soon, we leave the good roads and turn onto the stony trails that take us further and further into the hilly desert landscape. Sheep graze on the hillsides even if it difficult to see what they find to eat. A small boy gives them a drink at a water cistern.

At a bend in the road a mother comes down the hill with her two children. Mofeed, the driver, stops and we help the children into the car. The UNICEF Land Cruiser brings children in Masafer Yatta to and from school every day.

An EA accompanying children to school in Masafer Yatta. Photo EAPPI/B. Rubenson.

An EA accompanying children to school in Masafer Yatta. Photo EAPPI/B. Rubenson.

The journey continues into the great emptiness of sandy hills, where suddenly small groups of children appear waiting for the car. After about 45 minutes we reach Khirbet al Majaz, where some children get out of the car and others enter. From Majaz we continue to Khirbeit al Fakheit, the main school in Masafer Yatta.

By 9:00 am, the school day starts. We see Israeli air-fighters drawing white lines across the clear blue sky and hear the Israeli army firing of live ammunition in the distance.

To stay and continue to live

Masafer Yatta, is situated next to the Green line. Its 12 small hamlets house a population of about 1400 people, whose ancestors lived in the area for generations as herders of sheep and goats. They are partly nomadic, following their animals in search for water and fodder.

In 1970, the Israeli government decided to designate the area for military purposes under the name firing zone 918 and required the population to move. In 1999, roughly 700 people were forcibly evicted and their homes destroyed. With the support of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) the families took their case to court and in March 2000 the court decided on an interim injunction, allowing the people to return to their homes.

Since then the case is pending a final decision. The people of Masafer Yatta live with the constant threat of destruction of and eviction from their homes. Daily, the Israeli army practices with live ammunition. The are ready to demolish every structure and suspicious of any new construction.

“Existence is Resistance” says an UN-representative working in the area, when describing the people in Masafer Yatta. To stay and continue life under constant threat is difficult and requires strong conviction that one is right and that justice will prevail.

Not giving up

Children coming home from school by donkey. Photo EAPPI/S. Masters

Children coming home from school by donkey. Photo EAPPI/S. Masters

Many of the families in Masafer Yatta have relatives in Yatta and could move there, but that would mean giving up their land and traditional life-style to the occupier and enemy. Instead they send their children wandering over the sandy hills or riding on a donkey to ensure that they receive their education. They accept to live in the most primitive conditions with poor water sources and small sun-panels for electricity. Larger construction would lead to immediate demolition-orders, which often include the makeshift tents they use for housing.

When the families in Masafer Yatta decided a small school was needed in al Majaz, they had to find an existing structure, since a new structure could not be considered. Everyday, international organizations must accompany the children school to ensure their safety, but even they have difficulties.

In August, just before school began, the people of Masafer Yatta opened a new school in this tent in Khirbet al Majaz. Photo EAPPI/A. Konnestad

In August, just before school began, the people of Masafer Yatta opened a new school in this tent in Khirbet al Majaz. Photo EAPPI/A. Konnestad

Recently, the Israeli army confiscated a World Vision car, supporting another school in the nearby community of Jinba, and the children forced to walk back through the desert. Confiscation was also the fate of cars from CometME, Operation Dove and the Palestinian ministry of agriculture.

Hope remains

The case to expel the 1400 people from Masafer Yatta and permanently turn it into a firing zone went to the High Court of Israel for decision on September 2nd. Instead of giving a final decision, however, the court appointed a mediator between the people of Masafer Yatta and the Israeli army. The two parties must decide if this is an acceptable decision on October 17th.

In Masafer Yatta, the people are optimistic. “Finally they are willing to talk to us, not just give us orders” the director of the Khirbeit al Fakheit school says. He hopes for a realistic and viable decision.

Read a previous EAPPI Special Report on Palestinian Villages in Firing Zone 918.