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This is a story of return, the return of Palestinians to their land in Area C. Just over a month ago, on November 8, two out of 15 families returned to Khirbet Bir al-Idd, in south Mount Hebron. By yesterday their number had reached eight.

"Everyone waited to see if they would kill us before they decided whether to return," joked Ismail I'dra, 63, as he worked energetically to clean up one of the caves that serve as homes to residents the village. Indeed, less than two weeks ago, I'dra, too, was afraid to enter the area on his own, with his tractor laden with feed for his flock; he preferred to be accompanied by activist Ezra Nawi of Ta'ayush (an Arab-Jewish anti-occupation movement).

The first three weeks after residents began to return to Bir al-Idd were full of incidents in which settlers from nearby communities threw stones at the women and the flocks, and tried to enter the village to frighten people), and blocked the access road, sometimes with the help of the army. Only the submission of an urgent petition, two weeks ago, to the High Court of Justice by the inhabitants, by means of Rabbis for Human Rights, compelled the army to leave the road open.

"But, God be praised," said I'dra on Wednesday, "during the past week it has been quiet."

The minor incident last Saturday apparently no longer counts as a clash: About 20 members of Ta'ayush arrived to help clean up the village, which is actually a collection of caves. One settler appeared, as did Israel Defense Forces soldiers and Border Police. There was tension, and one Ta'ayush activist was arrested, which is a routine occurence. And this week, there are already more smiles on people's faces: The constant presence of activists from abroad and daily visits by Israeli supporters add to their sense of security in Bir al-Idd.

Laundry fluttered in the breeze, chickens scuttled about and some of the sheep ventured off to chomp the first grass that sprouted after the rain, while others bleated from inside their stone enclosures. A few inquisitive children scampered around the mothers and the volunteers working to tidy the area, between the black water containers brought by Rabbis for Human Rights and the white tents protecting the caves - donations from the Red Cross.

On the agenda now are the cleaning and restoration of the village's cisterns, which were dug by the residents' great-great-grandfathers. A number of Ta'ayush volunteers have already acquired expertise in "this donkeys' work," as Nawi calls it. One noted with satisfaction that the first cistern he has been entrusted with would be a cinch; there is no need to slither down into it on a rope. The work will take two or three days, and it will be able to store enough rainwater to supply residents for a month.

Is this cleaning operation allowed, we wondered. After all, this is Area C, where every heart needs a permit to beat from the Civil Administration. The activist's reply: Digging new cisterns for collecting and drawing rainwater is forbidden, but repairing existing cisterns is allowed.

During a tour by Haaretz in August 2007, this place looked like a lost cause - manifest proof, it seemed, that the designation of a locale as belonging to Area C is the final stage before "cleansing" the place of Palestinians and effectively annexing it. No sign of life was visible on these slopes back then. The cisterns were in ruins. The half-destroyed stone fences and structures, and partly blocked caves, looked like memorials, situated as they were between the two unauthorized outposts overlooking the area: from the south the Lucifer farm, and Magen David (also called Mitzpeh Yair) from the north.

An attack back then by two settlers on UN field researchers and on a Haaretz correspondent and photographer was added to the list of abuses suffered by the indigenous inhabitants, which spurred them to flee. The harassment was backed up by closure orders of the area by the army, and by inaction on its part, and on that of the Civil Administration and the police.

Useless complaints

The harassments began in 1999; by 2003 the last family had departed. A petition by inhabitants of Bir al-Idd in 2006 to the High Court of Justice, submitted on their behalf by Rabbis for Human Rights attorney Quamar Mishirqi-Assad, gave all the details: the killing of sheep, burning of fields, destruction of crops, damage to property, use of gunfire and dogs, building of dirt mounds to prevent access, throwing of carcasses into the cisterns. Complaining to the police was worthless.

At the end of January 2009, about five years after attorney Mishirqi-Assad began her correspondence with the authorities, climaxing in the petition to the court, the state gave its response: "In the wake of the completion of the examinations and assessments of the issue, it has been decided that the army will allow the petitioners to come to the area of Bir al-Idd for purposes of grazing and dwelling ... starting from the second part of 2009 ..."

On Wednesday Mussa Raba'i, one of the residents, said the real problem in the area is not with the settlers, but rather with the Israeli authorities - i.e., the central government: It allows the settlements (including unauthorized ones) to sprout up and develop, while preventing the original inhabitants from building or connecting their dwellings to the electricity and water grids. This, added Raba'i, effectively prevents adoption of a modern way of life.

The state's response to Rabbis for Human Rights also stipulates: "Nothing in what is stated allows your clients to enter areas that have been declared state lands or to carry out construction of any sort without obtaining the requisite building permits from the responsible authorities."

Maryam Raba'i and her daughter Abir, a student of business management at the Al-Quds Open University, smiled when asked whether they live in the caves of their own free will. Abir, who cannot study at night because there is no electricity, said of course not. Everyone wants modern and convenient housing, she added, but on their own land.

In various places in the West Bank, clusters of similar semi-nomadic dwellings (tents or caves) had by 1967 developed into villages with permanent structures, but this natural process of development was halted by the Israeli occupation.

"In the period when the central government was weak," explained geographer and archaeologist Nazmi Ju'beh, "people left the khirbehs [rural outposts] in which they had been living and moved to larger, central villages to seek protection mainly from acts of robbery by nomadic Bedouin tribes. As the central government grew stronger, after 1830, habitation near their springs, grazing lands and cultivated fields - in accordance with the seasons - became more permanent. A mosque was built here, a school and a shop went up there. Jordan encouraged this process. Now the situation is reversed: The government is causing the insecurity and selective non-development."

Why didn't you build stone houses before 1967, we asked the inhabitants of Bir al-Idd. They immediately corrected us: Some 40 roughly hewn stone houses had been built during the period of the British Mandate in the village of Jinba, in a valley about three kilometers to the southeast. Bir al-Idd is an integral part of Jinba, in terms of the families living there, the land and the history. However, in the 1980s, without anyone being aware of it, the IDF demolished most of the houses because they stood on land that was declared a "military training zone."

The determination to return, the legal battle, and close support of Israeli and international activists have rendered the expulsion only temporary. Neither the massive demolition or the training grounds designation; nor the building prohibitions that Israel imposed in the early 1970s; nor the restrictions of "Area C" are what has impelled people to abandon their lands. The official Israeli limitations only force people to live in harsh, traditional conditions that do not accord with the younger generation's aspirations and expectations.

In reply to a query from Haaretz regarding measures being taken to protect the safety of the inhabitants of Bir al-Idd, the IDF spokesman and the spokesman of the coordinator of activities in the territories replied: "The IDF takes seriously the claims regarding friction between Palestinians and the settlers, and carries out various activities at known points of confrontation in the sector with the aim of preventing and limiting occurrences that disrupt public order. Recently the brigade command has also carried out a tour of the site, in cooperation with people from the Civil Administration and the prosecution, to assess the situation.

"In the wake of incidents that occurred there, and after carrying out a security assessment of the situation, the army determined that, provisionally, entering the Bir al-Idd area can be done by means of an access route that is different from the one that initially served the inhabitants.

"Indeed, the inhabitants submitted a request for an urgent discussion in the High Court of Justice, but prior to deliberation (and with no connection to it), an additional assessment of the situation was conducted, and it was decided to allow the inhabitants free access also along the original route, if there is no concrete security impediment, in the future. On November 28, there was friction between Palestinians and settlers, in the aftermath of which the area was declared a closed military zone, with respect to Israeli civilians. The settlers were evacuated in order to prevent a conflagration.

"The IDF is continuing to take all measures to ensure public order in the area within existing limitations, with the aim of reducing the incidents as much as possible."