'Kill me, shut everything, but I want water for my children'
This is the first time in two years that Ami, a foreman at a West Bank quarry, has feared for his life while traveling the road that leads from the Jordan Valley to his place of work, in an area once known as `the pursuit zone.'
This is the first time in two years that Ami, a foreman at a West Bank quarry, has feared for his life while traveling the road that leads from the Jordan Valley to his place of work, in an area once known as `the pursuit zone': east of Nablus, along the villages of Akraba, Majdel, Meghayer, Kafr Malah (or, according to the names of the settlements in the area: Maaleh Efraim, Gitit, the Shiloh settlement outposts and Kokhav Hashahar).
Suddenly, he is agitated. At the start of last week, someone in the Israel Defense Forces decided to erect a rampart of earth on land belonging to the village of Meghayer, blocking the only entrance to the village that remained open.
Ramparts also went up along the side of the road at other locations, to prevent vehicles crossing into fields, groves and Bedouin encampments in the area. "Now, anyone who wants to can hide behind the rampart, shoot at me while I'm driving on the road, and flee back into the fields. No military vehicle could catch him, because the ramparts are blocking their access."
According to Ami, the IDF did not just provide a potential sniper with amenable topographical conditions, but also with a motive. "This is a quiet area," he says, basing his proclamation on daily personal experience from the first days of the current intifada. "Not that there wasn't shooting here, but, in general, it's a quiet area. This is the only road connecting [for the Palestinians] Ramallah and the northern West Bank. What drives me crazy is that in Israel, people say that we are making concessions here and there - when the reality is the exact opposite."
The ramparts, he explains with increasing anger, "cut off their water. They simply cut off their access to water. If you come and choke a man, make him thirsty for water, then he will respond with `I will die for Palestine.' That's how someone who has nothing to lose responds." Several of the villages in the area are not connected to the National Water Carrier, and rely on tankers, which they fill from the central well of the Ramallah Water Undertaking (RWU).
The ramparts erected last week prevent trucks from bringing the tankers directly to the villages and Bedouin encampments. One dirt rampart put up last week even blocked direct access to the central well, both for vehicles belonging to the RWU and those responsible for the maintenance of the wells, as well as access to the tankers.
Ami, who is a member of the Ashdot Ya'akov Meuhad kibbutz ("It's no longer a kibbutz," he stresses, "it's a community") has been working for the last three years at the Israeli-owned quarry near the Jordan Valley. His salary went directly to the kibbutz. He has no qualms about the work he does, which is portrayed by the Palestinians as stripping the natural resources of an occupied land: the entire quarry is situated on "state land." While it is true that the profits go to Israelis, the quarries serve many Palestinian consumers. The Palestinians, during the Jordanian times, says Ami, did not manage to develop and utilize this resource. "This is our country; we were here; we're not conquerors. I cannot erase my heritage: Yehoshua Bin Nun's Gilgal and Saul's Mikhmash. It's all the Land of Israel, and two peoples live in it."
The blocking of the path leading to the Palestinian well especially incensed Ami. He spoke with IDF officers in the field, made the calls that needed to be made and berated those that needed to be berated. The shouting was only partially successful. The barricade obstructing access to the well was removed by the army some three days later, but the other barricades remain in place. Ami is certain that "the flocks of sheep are going to die of thirst." The shepherds are forced to maneuver, moving their sheep onto the road and giving them water from a hose. Ami has already allowed the Bedouin to fill up tankers of water from his supply at the quarry, and cross the quarry to reach their encampments. But these are only partial solutions.
Next to the blocked path leading up to Kafr Malah, on the slopes of the hill leading up to the roads, one can already see signs of tractor tracks. The only vehicles that can bypass the barricades are tractors carving alternative paths, suitable for heavy vehicles only, into the hills and fields. So, in convoy, one can spot tractors laden with water tankers, making their way to the well. The drivers fill up with water, pay the Ramallah Water Undertaking clerk and start making their way back to the villages, praying not to run into an IDF patrol that could hold them up for hours. If, under normal circumstances, 250 cubic meters of water were sold every day, that has dropped to 150 cubic meters today. The barricades - even when they are easy to bypass - have led to a drop in the amount of drinking water consumed by the Palestinians who live in the nearby villages and Bedouin encampments.
When bypassing the barricades at the entrance to the village, the tractor drivers must beware of passing IDF patrols. One driver, from Meghayer, told Ami how, last Thursday, one soldier had shouted at him: "If you cross here, I'll burst your tires." The driver waited, with his water, until the soldiers had gone, and then drove down the forbidden path. "Sometimes," said the drivers, "they will station an armored personnel carrier, which makes it very clear, without words, that passage is forbidden. "Everything is dangerous," he explains, "but what can we do? We have to drink. Kill me, shut everything down, but I want to drink and I want to give my children water." The tractor drivers sell their water on credit. "People don't have any money to pay, but they need water."
Ami knows people in every village in the area. His friends in the village of Kusra were lucky, compared to his friends and employees in other villages: the residents of Kusra, which is not connected to the National Water Carrier, fill up their tankers at the neighboring settlement of Migdalim. The IDF had blocked off the entrance to Kusra with earth ramparts and rocks several times, but now, one can enter the village with a vehicle. The local children say that the barricades were removed after the village mukhtar threatened to close the entrance to Migdalim if the road to Kusra was not reopened.
Ami believes that this sort of initiative is "absolutely fine. Here is Kusra, which has been around for ever; and here is Migdalim, a recent settlement built on what used to be the groves of Kusra. You ask me if I'm angry? How can I not be angry? Look at the nice road they have leading to Migdalim, and look at the pot-holed path that Kusra has. And Kusra is in Area C. Look at the difference. But, nonetheless, they still have good, neighborly relations." The residents of Kusra pay Migdalim NIS 4 for each cubic meter of water. Summing up the nature of these neighborly relations, Ami explains that "those of us who are hooked up to the National Water Carrier pay around 80 agorot per cubic meter."
Twenty-six Palestinians work in the quarry that Ami manages. He has known some of them since they were young boys. It is clear that they consider themselves lucky - both because they have a job and because Ami is their boss. They hail from the surrounding villages, and they all have work permits that have been signed by the Shin Bet security service, settlements security chiefs and various brigade commanders. Even the taxi that brings them to work has specially issued permits.
But, despite all that, not a day goes by when Ami is not called upon to extricate one of his workers from some problem at one of the roadblocks.
It could be a surprise roadblock that prevents the worker from continuing his journey. The soldier does not even allow the passengers to get out of their taxi to show him their permits - he just tells them to turn around a go back to where they came from. The workers have no way of contacting Ami. The solution: someone gets his hands on a mobile phone and calls Ami or one of the other Israelis who work at the quarry, who then make their way to the roadblock, and, since they are allowed to approach a soldier with impunity, explain that the workers have all the necessary permits.
On other occasions, the problem can be caused by a lone IDF jeep whose occupant decides to make life difficult for one of the workers. In these cases, Ami makes a point of chasing after the jeep, if only to let the driver know what he thinks about offhand mistreatment of his workers. Early on the morning of August 21, a soldier at the B'kaot-Hamra roadblock confiscated the identity cards of six of the quarry workers, "for no reason at all," claims Ami. He was called to the roadblock and spoke to the soldiers, who said that the soldier responsible had gone to sleep, and the ID cards were in his pocket. "They only went to look for him because I was standing right there," says Ami. "Even with my presence, it took three hours. If I had not come and intervened, they would have been left out in the sun all day."
A few days earlier, at the same roadblock, manned by the same battalion (ultra-Orthodox Nahal), the soldiers told Ami's workers that they would only be allowed to continue if they swept the road. The workers refused, and continued via side roads and paths. According to the workers, some of the other passengers may have agreed to the soldiers' terms. Sometimes, Ami is witness to an extended delay, for no good reason, of a Palestinian vehicle. Whenever this happens, he then makes fervent phone calls to whoever he can.
"Every day I am called on to put out similar fires," he says of himself. The Israeli friends whom he tells about the bullying and the abuse at the roadblocks, do not believe him. "That cannot be true," they tell him. "You're biased." Ami tells them to ask his wife, who is not "biased."
"Every morning at 5:30 she is woken up by the phone calls from the Palestinian workers who are being held up by soldiers at one of the roadblocks." Some three months ago, Ami was sitting in a shop owned by a friend of his in Jama'in. Seeing but unseen. Outside, he says, there was a truck carrying vegetables. Suddenly, a Border Police patrol turned up, and, without saying a word, shot up all four of the truck's tires. "The poor guy had to go and get another four tires, and then the soldiers shot those up as well." Ami filed a complaint, but still has not received an answer.
He also filed a complaint when one of the drivers, who works with the quarry on a regular basis, was attacked by settlers from one of the nearby outposts.
Ami leads his guests to a lookout point overlooking the whole of the Jordan Valley. Here - he points to the cave - IDF soldier Yosef Kaplan was killed in 1969. Paratroopers were chasing after some infiltrator, and discovered a Bedouin woman with her baby in one of the caves. They asked her if anyone had passed by, and she answered no. They did not know that an infiltrator was threatening her at gunpoint from behind. He shot and killed one of the soldiers, who returned fire and killed the infiltrator. In doing so, they also killed the woman and her baby. Over there, says Ami, pointing to a distant mountain, is where the ancient Hebrews lit bonfires to announce the religious holidays.
According to IDF sources, Ami's complaints about the behavior of soldiers at roadblocks have been received, and are being investigated thoroughly.