Sarah Ka’abneh, 24, doesn’t know yet that her 2-month-old daughter Hana has died. For nearly two weeks the mother has been unconscious in intensive care at Jerusalem’s Hadassah University Hospital, Ein Karem.
When the accident happened on the morning of August 5, she had the baby in her arms. She was sitting in a cart harnessed to a tractor driven by her father-in-law. Her eldest son Khaled, 2, her mother-in-law and her parents-in-law’s young children sat to each side, among the family’s meager belongings.
Sarah’s husband, Odeh Ka’abneh, took the sheep out to pasture and knew nothing until 9 A.M., when his cousins found him in the hills and told him. He was always a man of few of words, and since he buried his tiny daughter and saw his wife badly bruised on the face and then linked up to various IVs at the hospital, he has been saying even less.
This Bedouin family is no stranger to seasonal wandering between two permanent sites and searching for food for the sheep. But this time the wandering was premature, forced. On August 4, a day before the disaster, a Civil Administration inspector appeared at the family’s encampment near al-Hadidiya in the Jordan Valley in the West Bank. He ordered the family to move away from the place where they and their herd stay several months each year during the warm weather.
About half an hour earlier, Odeh says, a settler from the settlement of Ro’i showed up and also ordered them out. They decided to spare themselves what they had undergone in May and July this year – the destruction of their tents and sheep pen.
For about seven or eight months a year they live in a neighborhood of simple structures – tin shacks, huts, pens and tents – in the farming village al-Jiftlik in the Jordan Valley, some 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) from their second permanent site at al-Hadidiya. There, at al-Jiftlik, under a wide canvas, in 38-degree-Celisus heat (100 Fahrenheit), Sarah’s father Salem Ali Ka’abneh says “they called to tell me what happened after the morning prayer, at about five.”
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He too uses few words, not only because of the fast before the Eid al-Adha holiday. “I was born in the Nakba,” he says. “I lived in al-Auja” – a village north of Jericho.
When did you move to al-Jiftlik?
A long time ago.
Life is bitter.
His parents were born and lived in the Negev, before being forced out to the West Bank after 1948. He recalls a house that the authorities tore down in 1973, then wandering north to Marj Najeh and at the end of the ‘90s – a forcible eviction from there too.
‘Everyone lost consciousness’
The accident in which his granddaughter was killed took place about 6 kilometers west, near the Beka’ot checkpoint. The photographs by the Magen David Adom ambulance service show the overturned, broken wooden cart and the mattresses strewn on the road, along with a white plastic chair that remained whole, unidentified fragments and sacks of food and clothes. A truck and a car were involved in the accident, both with Israeli license plates.
A helicopter was called in and flew Sarah to the hospital in Jerusalem. The others, apart from Hana, whose death was announced at the scene, were rushed to Nablus for treatment. The bruises on little Khaled’s face and the big white bandage around the head of Hamza, Odeh’s 8-year-old brother, and both boys’ sad eyes tell what is difficult to ask.
“Everyone in the cart lost consciousness,” Odeh says. His father, who drove the tractor, went to Nablus again on the day of my visit for another medical examination, due to pains in his arm.
“They already destroyed our house here, in al-Jiftlik,” Odeh says. The remaining details were provided later by Dafna Banai of the rights group Machsom Watch, and whose main activity has been in the Jordan Valley in the past 15 years. On July 21, when she was in the valley and heard about the demolitions at al-Hadidiya, she hurried there. She also took the two photos of little Hana that remain after the demolition – in her crib in the shadow of a large water container, before anyone knew that an even bigger disaster was in store.
Odeh Ka’abneh recognized Banai immediately. “You were here right after the demolition of the house in al-Jiftlik two years ago,” she quoted him. This is what she wrote then, in May 2017, in a report on Machsom Watch’s site:
“We received a call on house demolitions in al-Jiftlik near the main road. When we got there, there were two UN cars with a team that had received a report about the demolition.
“Odeh Ka’abneh is 21 but he looks 15, like a boy. He got married five months ago, but for three years he and his father saved pennies and gradually built a house – a 200-square-meter (2,150-square-foot) stone house with a balcony. Nice furniture and ornaments. Now everything has been thrown outside, a pile of stones and concrete are the remains of the house.
“The authorities also demolished the new pen. Incredible cruelty. He received the demolition order in January 2016 and thought that, since they hadn’t come already, it would be all right. What could he do? The settlers get more and more areas and build houses due to natural growth. And what about the Palestinians’ natural growth? Don’t they have children? Don’t the children want to get married and build a house?
“Odeh wandered around lost among the visitors. Who will lend him a hand? It’s hot. Forty-four degrees and not a bit of shade, and what will he and his new wife do in the scorching sun? And the sheep? How have they sinned? Didn’t they ask for a building permit? Many of the sheep will die without shelter. He turns to us for help, his eyes begging. What can we do? Except for feeling his pain, we’re helpless.”
Seven structures torn down
The first demolition this year of the Odeh Ka’abneh family’s tent and pen at al-Hadidiya was on May 30. A few hours earlier Civil Administration forces also destroyed the encampment of another shepherd’s family on the Western side of the road, at al-Ras al-Ahmar. This is a plain with rich soil between the village of Atuf in the south and hills with grass growing among rocks in the north.
The land is owned by residents of the town of Tubas. Some of it is leased to farmers, some is cultivated by its owners. In other parts of it and on the outskirts there are shepherds. When the owners decide to sow, the shepherds and their children, herds and tents wander a few dozens of meters away.
“They [the Civil Administration] came at seven in the morning,” says Ruwaida Bani Odeh, a mother of four girls and two boys, about the demolition at the end of May. Seven structures were torn down, including a pen and a mobile toilet. On June 12 “they” came again and the demolition was shorter, because there was only one tent and one pen. Both times the family was left for hours without shelter in the blazing sun.
Male and female members of the Border Police accompanied the Civil Administration inspector, and workers accompanied the bulldozer: seven workers the first time and four the second. Their mother tongue was Arabic, Ruwaida says, and they did their best to take the belongings out of the tents so they wouldn’t be destroyed. But the refrigerator that was saved in the first demolition was destroyed in the second, and the solar panels were confiscated.
Ruwaida was born and raised at al-Hadidiya, and helped raise the family’s sheep and make cheese, the way her sons and daughters help her and her husband with today. She witnessed the demolition of her childhood’s encampment, as her children have experienced the demolitions these days.
“Twenty years ago they came in helicopters to collect the debris [to prevent the tents’ sheets and boards from being used again]. Today they bury them and we don’t know where,” she says. Her father, about 80, lives in the village of Tammun today. “Resting from the demolitions,” she says.
Israel declared the al-Ras al-Ahmar area a firing zone, and therefore the shepherds living and raising their herds there must evacuate the place every now and then, every time for a few hours or days. The pretext for the demolitions is that this is Area C, under Israeli civil jurisdiction, and illegal construction.
Occasionally the farmers and shepherds’ tractors and other vehicles are also confiscated, whether when the owners are cultivating the land or carrying drinking-water tanks (since Israel doesn’t let them connect to the water grid). For example, as rights group B’Tselem reported on August 6, Civil Administration people accompanied by soldiers confiscated a car and tractor belonging to a farmer living in Tubas. They also confiscated a truck that unloaded feed for the herds.
The owners were told that the vehicles were found at a place where they weren’t allowed. A firing zone and illegal construction are also the explanations for the frequent demolitions of tents and pens at al-Hadidiya. At al-Jiftlik the reason for the demolitions is that it’s construction in Area C without building permits, which only Israel can grant, or outside the limits of the master plan, which can only be approved by Israel.
In the past 25 years the pasture areas remaining for the Palestinians in the Jordan Valley (a third of the West Bank) have been decreasing due to the expansion of the settlements and outposts. But despite all Israel’s bans on grazing, construction and linking homes to infrastructure in most of the valley, despite the declared firing zones and all the demolitions and forced evictions, about 50 communities still live there and preserve their traditional way of life centered around herding and raising sheep. Some of the communities are Bedouin. The other people come from villages on the mountain slope.
Was it ever different, I ask Salem Ka’abneh between his telephone conversations with the medical team at Hadassah, who request his consent to operate on his daughter so the fractures on her face can heal properly.
He ponders and says: “Until the ‘80s we still felt there could be a little justice. They let us stay in the place they evacuated us to. But today they can change their mind every time.”
Have you ever felt, I ask. He points at Odeh and his brothers and says: “The young ones – never.” Odeh nods in confirmation.