Chez Abu Tarek
In the hills around Susya, sheep- and goat-herders live in small, tented communities in the wadis (valleys) of Israeli-controlled “Area C” in the West Bank. These communities are fighting for their existence against the Israeli policy of Palestinian expulsion in the region, where strict controls limit the quality of life that is possible for them. These restrictions do not extend to the growing Israeli settlements in the area.
As two ISM volunteers, we spent four days with Abu Tarek and his family in Khirbet Bir al ‘Idd, following a request for internationals to help against recent Israeli settler & soldier intimidation. Abu Tarek used to own a factory, but he had given it up to defend this hillside, just north of the village of Jinba. Israeli settlements were taking-over the Palestinians’ land here, and so he and another man, Abu Nassir, had come to make their living as shepherds, four months previously.
The transition must not have been easy. Whilst Abu Tarek has a house in Yatta, where his children live and attend school, he and his wife, along with their youngest daughter, live amongst these arid hills. The Israeli government forbids the people living here from building any permanent structures, and so a tarpaulin roof covers the stone-walls which create their living quarters. A few metres further down the hill, another tent extends over the mouth of a cave, which is where his flock of sixty sheep spends the night; other caves provide storage for things such as the animals’ food.
They live under the constant harassment of Zionist settlers and the Israeli army. A few days before we arrived, the army had tried to prevent the men from grazing their sheep on these hills. At the same time, the settlers graze their sheep on the Palestinians’ agricultural land, which is vital to their livelihood.
Whilst we were there, I witnessed shots being fired by a settler at some Palestinians who walked near his farm. Under article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, these settlements are illegal, yet the Israeli government allows these occupiers to carry arms. When the Palestinians telephone the police to complain of infringements of their rights, the police have hung-up when hearing their Hebrew spoken with an Arabic inflection.
It was hoped that our presence could defuse any volatile situations, as well as provide encouragement and support to these farmers.
Days here begin at sunrise; with virtually no electricity, natural light is an important commodity. We would breakfast on the delicious bread that Abu Tarek’s wife would bake every morning in the taboon, served with the products of their farming here: warm milk and lebeneh - a kind of yoghurt. The processing of the milk into lebeneh is vital; with no artificial means of refrigeration, and with difficult, infrequent access to the farm, the transformation of milk into a longer-lasting substance is a necessity.
We would then take the flock to graze. The first morning, Abu Tarek explained to me how the hills were notionally divided up between the Palestinians and the settlers. He described the divisions in terms of the dirt-track that led to the settlers’ farm, and the wadi between two hills. This division is visually manifested in the fertility of the hills — the Israelis have the greener, more verdant slopes.
From these hills, the panorama provides a vivid portrayal of the encroachment of the surrounding Israeli settlements, a stark contrast to the restricted development that is afforded the Palestinians. Whilst the settlements have telephones, power lines and other amenities, the Palestinians here do not even have running water: they draw their water from a well.
This first morning there, Abu Tarek left his shepherding stick in my hands as he went off to brew some shay; I was in charge of his flock. As Israeli military jets flew overhead, I had to learn quickly how to prevent the sheep from grazing too far up the hill and thus causing him problems with the settlers. I fared only slightly better at this than I had the previous afternoon when I attempted to help milk the sheep.
The cold evenings were spent with the family in their dwelling. This space was their kitchen, living room and sleeping quarters. The walls provided some respite against the biting wind that blows across these hills, but with an open doorway, the frigid air still creeps in. When things got particularly cold, a fire was lit, but with no chimney, the room quickly filled with smoke. Yet within these stone-walls there is a jovial, soulful atmosphere. The room only fell silent when a mat was brought out to pray.
These people face hardship, both from the land and from the political pressures forced upon them. Life is not easy, but they make it comfortable and pleasant. It is becoming a cliché of my writing here, but the warmth and friendliness in which we were welcomed was incredibly touching. They have had several volunteers come to stay with them over the past few months, but they said they truly counted us as friends. I can only hope that their lives become easier, and that they will no longer need to welcome us in the struggle against occupation, but instead purely as guests.
» A collection of photographs from Khirbet Bir al ‘Idd