'This is no life'
The tiny Jordan Valley village of Khirbet al-Tawil, surrounded by encroaching Jewish settlements, launched a hunger strike to make the world notice their distress.
When we came to the tiny village of Khirbet al-Tawil this week, villagers were gathered in their relatively new mosque. There were 20 farmers and shepherds in worn-out work clothes, their heads covered in kaffiyehs or old wool scarves. Wind and pouring rain lashed the beautifully worked fields outside.
The prayer rugs at the mosque were sopping wet; a digital clock on the exposed wall announced prayer times. Muddy shoes were piled at the mosque's entrance, next to a heap of new wool blankets the villagers had received that morning as a gift from the Palestinian welfare ministry. After the noon service, each farmer would take one blanket home for his family.
A member of the Palestinian Legislative Council from Nablus, Najat Abu Baker, came with a small entourage. Abu Baker said she had come there to tell residents that they were not alone, and to see how she could help. She came to thank them for their determination to hold on to their land, which otherwise would have been stolen long ago.
And she also had a message for the Israeli people: These villagers will not fight the occupation alone. Mainly, she was interested in the difficult lives of the village women, she explained during her ultra-brief visit, seated with the others in a circle on the mosque floor.
Before she turned to go, just minutes after she had arrived, the farmers asked her to come back soon. She promised to return. She had visited this part of her constituency only once before.
Khirbet al-Tawil sits on the sides of a hill that descends into the Jordan Valley, between the Palestinian town of Aqraba and the Jewish settlement of Gitit. The village is accessed by a muddy road, which took us a long time to find. On the rocky terrain in between the fields, there were several buildings - either houses or shacks - next to animal pens and coops. When we entered the mosque, accompanied by two researchers from the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem and a researcher from the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, the residents were absorbed in lively conversation. It was noon, and they turned first to pray, kneeling on the wet rugs, their faces toward Mecca.
The stone ruins of the ancient, magnificent houses in Khirbet al-Tawil attest that Palestinians lived here for centuries. The villagers recall the stories of their ancestors who lived here, but Gitit is encroaching from northeast and Itamar is expanding from northwest; Nativ Hagdud, Yafit, Tomer and Patzael, the settlements of the valley and the surrounding slopes, are gradually choking off the Palestinians' agriculture in the valley.
Noon prayers won't save them. They know this. So the residents tried to do something that never had been done before, in an attempt to shake up international public opinion and maybe even Israeli opinion. Winter had come, and the new year brought another wave of demolition orders while the Israel Defense Forces went on training in their fields. So all the residents convened two weeks ago at the mosque.
Somebody - they wouldn't say who - offered what seemed to them to be a revolutionary suggestion: The whole village would go on hunger strike. Once news of the strike spread, international journalists would come to the village and tell the world about Khirbet al-Tawil's existential danger, they believed. At least that's what the head of the village, a shepherd named Basam Dali Bani-Jaber, told us Monday, a day after the strike ended.
Once they decided to go on a hunger strike, they had to decide how long it would last. An open-ended strike was too extreme. Striking for several days also seemed too dangerous, so they initially decided on a 24-hour fast. From dawn to dawn, the entire village would gather at the mosque and let nothing pass between their lips. That was last Saturday.
Much of the village's lands were stolen long ago for Gitit and other settlements, about two kilometers east of the village. The Civil Administration issued the most recent demolition orders two weeks ago. In the neighboring communities, residents report harassment by settlers, primarily from Itamar, who sic their dogs on the shepherds to drive them off the grazing grounds near the settlement.
In the summer, several hundred villagers live here, and in the winter about 150 remain. They have a small, well-kept school for all the village children. They get their electricity from Aqraba; water comes from a well. The village head, Bani-Jaber, says Israel wants to change the land's designation from farmland to a military training area. Afterward the Israel Defense Forces will give the land to the settlers, and it will be rezoned as farmland for its new owners. That is what happened in the past, and that's what's likely to happen again, the villagers believe.
First, all the lands west of the road to the settlement of Ma'aleh Efraim, at the entrance to the Jordan Valley, were expropriated; now the same is being done to the east. Seventeen eviction and demolition orders have already been delivered to Khirbet al-Tawil homes, and its case is being heard in court. Fortunately, nothing has been demolished yet. The villagers say that one of the orders was even issued to take away the plastic sheeting that covers the animals' food. Some of the villagers live in caves. The latest orders were delivered January 17 - three demolition orders for illegal construction.
In recent years, two teenage boys from neighboring communities were killed by playing with IDF duds that exploded; another small boy was badly burned and his family relocated. Their livelihood depends solely on the wheat and flocks.
"They don't give us a chance to live here," the head of the village sighed, and his friends nodded in agreement. That is why they decided on the hunger strike.
Last Saturday they gathered at the mosque. Nonprofit representatives, local politicians and television crews from the local area showed up. Even Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, president of the Palestinian Medical Relief Society, came. IDF soldiers also came, and confiscated Barghouti's identification papers.
For those 24 hours, they were all together in the mosque - women, men, and children. One 10-year-old boy, Daya, participated in the hunger strike. Asked why he went on strike, he replied immediately in his thin voice: "Because this is no life."
Said Bani-Jaber, when asked why the strike ended so quickly: "The message got across. We achieved our objectives."
One shepherd proposes that next time their strike should be open-ended, but his suggestion doesn't appear to have many supporters at the mosque. But they'll do it again if necessary. Nothing changed in Israel due to their actions, they concede. But some international organizations and governments support Israel because they do not know enough about the village's suffering - so maybe the strike changed that. Even though only local Nablus TV showed up; even Reuters didn't come.
Was it hard to strike, we asked? They laughed: "Compared to our [usual] living conditions, it was very easy."
Bani-Jaber, says that he broke the fast on Sunday with an ordinary breakfast - labaneh cheese, olive oil, mallow and bread. But this time the breakfast tasted especially good.
The coordinator of government activities in the territories stated in response:
"The Khirbet al-Tawil compound is located in Area C, and has an agricultural designation. Part of it is under a military closure order and in fire zones, and was built without permits and contrary to the master plan.
"Over the years, 28 stop-work orders were delivered for illegal construction.
"During 2011 two stop-work orders were delivered for a pen and a tent, on behalf of which an application for a building permit had been filed. The application was rejected in a hearing before the supervisory subcommittee, and a 30-day extension was granted to restore the property to its previous condition, or any other step that the proprietors see fit.
"During 2012 one stop-work order has been delivered against a tent that serves as a storage space, and since a legal building permit was not presented, the supervisory subcommittee decided to issue a final demolition order for the structure, while granting a 30-day extension."