For a moment, the scene looked like Bosnia: United Nations personnel in their blue vests, soldiers of the occupying army wearing bright turquoise berets and armed to the teeth, representatives of the French association "Doctors Without Borders" with their white flag, the rubble of homes, meager personal belongings smashed and left in heaps, frightened residents among the ruins. But Bosnia is there and we are here, in the south Hebron hills, an hour and a half from Tel Aviv, an hour from Jerusalem, half an hour from Be'er Sheva, in our own home-grown zone of evil.
Little children were running this way and that; fear was shimmering visibly in the air. The young women worked hurriedly to remove family belongings from their new home - a heap of bricks covered with swathes of plastic sheeting, an improvised shelter thrown together after last Tuesday's destruction. They took everything out: kitchen utensils, clothing, leftover food, half-empty bottles, tattered mattresses, even a pair of crutches. They laid it all to one side, on the stony ground, hoping the soldiers would take pity on them and not trample what little remained. A boy ran to hide the metal sheep's bells among the boulders.
A hen with a dozen chicks found shelter from the heat in a wooden Ceylon tea shipping crate, hitherto their coop, shortly to be their grave. That chicken family's hours were numbered. The bulldozer would pay it no heed, as it had paid no heed a week earlier to most of the belongings of the unfortunate family of shepherds.
Everyone knew that in a little while, all would be destroyed again. The soldiers had woken them up in the middle of the previous night to tell them they had to get everything out before 10:00 the next morning. Now it was noon and the soldiers with their armored jeep were back, waiting. Waiting for the Civil Administration's doomsday machines that would soon arrive to attend to the last bits and pieces remaining from the week before, wiping them off the face of the earth here, in this godforsaken desert.
There was a slight complication due to our presence and that of the UN, but we'd all soon be gone and the Israel Defense Forces would be free to destroy to its heart's content. For years now, Israel has been hounding these sheep farmers, who live in caves and huts on the southern slopes of Mt. Hebron. They've sustained one weird accident after another, the evident aim to evict them once and for all from this arid land of settlements not far from the Green Line: a kind of Judaization, not to say ethnic cleansing.
Last week, with the murder of settler Yair Har-Sinai not far from here, another priceless opportunity presented itself and the destroyers came once again to uproot, to shatter and smash. They laid waste in the immediate area of the murder, but the devastation did not stop there and extended as far as Jinba and Al-Fahit, a considerable distance away. With the murder as a pretext, they destroyed cave dwellings there, and uprooted trees belonging to people whom the High Court of Justice determined, more than a year ago, should be returned to their homes.
Last time, pending the arrival of the messiah, a battery of literary figures came to their rescue: Dalia Rabikovitch, S. Yizhar, Haim Guri and David Grossman. This time, the destroyers blocked up the wells - the source of life for these families who have neither running water nor electricity. Electricity? Someone had erected a device to produce household electricity from solar energy. They broke that, too, the only remnant of progress here, and left it lying useless in the dust.
Now, hundreds of children have no roof over their heads in the midsummer sun, and nowhere to go. From fear of the destroyers, the sheep were taken away to graze elsewhere. The old people are trying to improvise a bit of shade. In the one tent left standing, a young mother named Rabiha, a child-woman of indeterminate age, is rocking her baby, Aya. The infant lies in an improvised cradle, a crate hanging from a string between two saplings somehow overlooked by the uprooter of trees, in a landscape of seeming tranquillity. But even Rabiha knows that the destroyers will soon be back.
Visible alongside the houses of Susya with their red-tiled roofs on the hill across the way is an upscale community center, built with funds from Mifal Hapayis, Israel's national lottery. It appears grossly out of proportion in that small place, and "community" in this case refers only to Jews. The message for the despised farmers viewing that hill from here seems to be that Israel tries repeatedly to evict them just to placate the people who come to that community center.
"We were here a long while before they were," says one of the old people wearily, knowing in his heart that this argument is futile.
The Nawajeh clan from Palestinian Susya has become destitute: The family of Jaber Nawajeh, 14 souls, now homeless; the family of Ismail Nawajeh, also 14 souls, now homeless; the family of Ahmed Nawajeh, 17 souls, now homeless; the family of Mahmoud Nawajeh, 31 souls, now homeless; the family of Halil Nawajeh, 17 souls, now homeless. All since last week.
Everything they had was destroyed after Har-Sinai, himself a shepherd, was murdered. These shepherds have lived here since 1986, when they were evicted from ancient Susya, an archaeological site where they had lived for generations. Israel claims they're actually residents of Yata and that they do have somewhere to go. They deny this.
The patriarch of the clan, Mahmoud Nawajeh, was murdered in the summer of 1991. Susya resident Baruch Yellin was arrested as a suspect in that murder and later acquitted in court. Yair Har-Sinai told Ha'aretz after Nawajeh's murder: "The authorities did not act as required, they didn't exert their authority properly over the sons of Ishmael, they didn't draw the boundaries." Har-Sinai, who after his death was described as almost a pacifist, did not condemn the murder of his Palestinian neighbor nor express any sorrow over it.
A guided tour of the newest site of destruction, with Ahmed Nawajeh, a young shepherd: "First, look at the wells. We saved that water for a year; now it's full of sand. They threw cement and sand and rocks into the water. Now even the sheep won't drink it. Here there was a little building with food for people, and up there, a tin hut. They destroyed it.
"Here there was a fold for the sheep in winter. And another place, for people - they destroyed that one in 1997. This is our car. They wrecked it in 1997. They pushed it with a bulldozer and wrecked it. Now they pushed it into the well, to wreck the well. There's a grapevine - they ruined it. What did the trees do to them? What did the trees do to the settlers?
"Here's a taboun (oven). They took the firewood and wrecked it. Here, there was a little shelter for new lambs. They wrecked that, too. Here's a little tree; I put it back [in the ground] today so it won't die. Here, there are things for eating. Here's where a soldier grabbed my mother and took a jar she had in her hand with sheep's butter in it and threw it under the bulldozer. It cost a lot of money. Here there was a dovecote; they wrecked that, too. This was the boundary between us and the neighbors. They destroyed it.
"Yesterday the army came and wanted us to leave here. They told us that they were coming back today at 10 o'clock and if there were people here, or sheep here, they would take them away and burn everything. That's what they said.
"Take into account that this is the fifth or sixth time that they have destroyed everything we have. The first time, they ruined the wells and the trees, but they never touched the water. The water has to be enough for the whole year. We have no pipes like in Israel. There are pipes here for the settlement. Once we asked to be hooked up and they wouldn't let us."
The scene is hard to look at: swathes of destruction, broken vestiges of scanty belongings, debris from tents and tin huts, caves that were used for the herds and for storage with their entrances now blocked. And above all, the wells. Wells with water in them, covered by cement, sand, rocks, and dirt - the cruelest blow of all, for people who have no other source of water.
What will the children drink? And the parents? And the sheep? And where exactly will they go?
A group of children is picking sour grapes from an uprooted grapevine and sucking the juice. A dozen sunflowers still remain, as of this moment, in their natural state. The Nawajeh family loves sunflower seeds.
The tin roof that covered the biggest cave is lying ruined on the ground within. A wrecked car was tossed inside, for good measure. The men are sitting outside in the one surviving tent, reliving all that happened on the night of the murder and on the day of destruction that followed. An argument flares as to whether the Civil Administration and the soldiers came with three bulldozers or four.
They knew the murder victim, Har-Sinai, very well, but no one is willing to talk about him. They're afraid.
Going to hell
During the night, Abd al-Muhsein Nawajeh and his cousin Nasser were arrested here. They were both released the next afternoon, five kilometers from here, and obliged to make their way home barefoot. The soldiers also took away the elderly Jaber's mobile phone. His wife thrusts a note into my hand with the phone number: Maybe that will help get it back.
Every woman and man present insists on recounting their family's own portion of suffering and destruction, as if somehow that would help.
The soldiers came at first light on Tuesday last. Ahmed: "Before, they came slowly. They told us to take out our valuables. This time, they told us not to take anything. They wanted to ruin everything because we made their blood boil. That's what they said. Since then, the soldiers have come every day and demanded that we get out. Where we go - they don't care.
"Yesterday they said we could go to hell. They don't care. I told them that if they have to take the sheep, they should take the people, too, because we have no livelihood without the sheep. When the settlers killed my father, nobody did anything to them. And we haven't done anything to them. We just want to live here."
From among the ruins, a tray of tea mysteriously arrives. Jeremy Cheevers is a young, good-hearted, blue-eyed Englishman from a little town near Hampshire. Now he's here in the south Hebron hills, in a vehicle with the UN logo fluttering over it. This morning he came to bring blankets and utensils to these newly homeless people. His Palestinian assistant records the names of the residents: Beginning tomorrow, they can go to nearby Yata and receive food from UNRWA, if they can get there. Now they, too, are refugees: the new refugees.
Tents that Cheevers brought to another site of destruction were ripped up by the IDF the next day. The residents also reported that a flock of sheep had been killed.
More miserable debris lies mutely scattered at the next place destined to be destroyed, at Wadi al-'Amayer at the foot of Samu'a. Members of four Daramin families lost their homes here last week. Thirty-six people, 28 of them children. No house, no water, no roof over their heads, no hint of shade.
A clutch of doves whose cote was destroyed stands helpless on a boulder. The sight is unreal. "Oh my dove, in the cranny of the rocks ... " [Song of Songs, 2:14]
A jeep from the artillery corps comes along and its officer, a young second lieutenant, threatens to wreck everything in sight if the residents don't leave immediately. He tries to prevent the photographer from taking pictures, as if this were a classified military action. Soldiers stand at the ready around the jeep.
So long as we and the UN are there, they won't do anything. One woman is quietly weeping; people hurry past lugging a mattress. Everyone is waiting for the end, which is foreordained.
The next day, Monday of this past week, the soldiers and people from the Civil Administration went back there and destroyed everything. Someone called me. I listened on my mobile phone and I could hear the people crying.
Peter Lerner, spokesman of the Civil Administration, responds: "Following the murder of Yair Har-Sinai on July 3, it was decided in consultation with the security forces to undertake demolition of illegal structures and to evict squatters from the southern Mount Hebron area, in proximity to the site of the murder. In the framework of this evacuation, various illegal structures were destroyed. Without any connection, on July 5, another eviction took place from the [military] firing zone, which originally had been planned for two days earlier but was postponed due to the murder. These actions were undertaken because of residents' ongoing deviations from arrangements ordered by the High Court of Justice."n