The land here tells the story. The wheat fields are now a brilliant green against the dark brown background of the fertile soil, summer’s aridity transformed into winter’s mud. But the land is scarred. The verdant fields have been slashed by tank treads, leaving ungainly gashes among the wheat and barley, harbingers of a wasteland. These are the fields of Khirbet Ibzik, a shepherding community in the northern Jordan Valley. It’s privately owned land on which Palestinian fellahin and Bedouin shepherds raise their livestock and cultivate fields belonging to the residents of the city of Tubas, on the slope of the hill nearby.
Israel, which covets the Jordan Valley for itself eternally and is doing all it can to rid it of its original inhabitants, has apparently chosen to start by abusing its weakest groups: the shepherds and the tenant farmers, the Palestinians and the Bedouin. They can be evicted from their homes and their land, even if temporarily, with a mere wave of a military directive, under the cover of illusory security and training needs, and they can be evacuated and expelled time after time. Has a settler outpost ever been evacuated by the Israel Defense Forces to enable its troops to train in its fields? Would anyone even conceive of evicting dozens of settler families for 24 hours and leaving them to fend for themselves under the forbidding skies, so the IDF can conduct an exercise? Have the residents of the nearby settlements – the Beka’ot, Maskiot, Mekhora and Ro’i moshavim – ever been forced to leave their homes for a night or for a whole day and night, so soldiers can train on their land, and on their return found it trampled over by tanks?
One after another, signs of apartheid at its worst accumulate here. There’s no place like the Jordan Valley to demonstrate its crass, violent, brazen and arrogant presence, leaving no room for doubt or argument about the existence of the separation regime.
Khirbet Ibzik is a community of dark-skinned people who can apparently be preyed on at will. Where people are evacuated from their homes, even children and the aged, at the order of an officer, evicted whenever fancy strikes, and their fields invaded as though they were unclaimed wilderness. In the past month alone, the residents of this little community were ordered to abandon their tents multiple times. Thirteen families – 70 souls, among them 38 children – were forced out, on December 16, 23, 26 and 31. Two of the 13 families received additional orders to leave, on December 17 and 18.
We arrived at Khirbet Ibzik on Monday when the last evacuation, on the last day of 2018, was scheduled to take place. On the previous evening, a man named Yigal from the Civil Administration had called one of the residents to inform him that the evacuation had been called off, but that it might take place the following Sunday. The mukhtar of the local Bedouin community, Imad Harub Turkeman, looked bemused when we came to his blue tent, on which the title “mukhtar” is written in Arabic. Despite his satisfaction, Turkeman was concerned that the cancellation announcement was false and that the soldiers would evict them anyway. The uncertainty here runs deep. The hours passed, the sun shone above, no Israeli soldiers appeared on the horizon.
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Photographs and video clips from the earlier evacuations, the most recent of which had taken place the week before, taken by Aref Daraghmeh, a field researcher for the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, also tell the story. They show the locals walking silently in single file, escorted by IDF and Civil Administration vehicles, lest they slip away, heaven forbid. Images that cannot but evoke the sights of the 1948 Nakba, the Nakba that continues here. Turkeman’s family is originally from a village near Haifa, he relates.
The video of the latest eviction in Khirbet Ibzik shows the iron chains and treads of IDF armored vehicles crushing the crops tended by the residents. According to Daraghmeh, shepherding communities in the northern Jordan Valley have been ordered to evacuate their tents at least 100 times in the past five years. The shortest eviction lasted five hours, the longest 24 hours.
The only way to get here is via a long, winding dirt road that starts in the town of Taisir. That road is muddy now; the rain has turned parts of it into a quagmire. In any event the locals are afraid to drive here, because they know the Civil Administration and the IDF are liable to confiscate their pickups and other vehicles.
Thirteen tractors and pickups have been confiscated in the past few years, for having allegedly entered closed military areas, Turkeman reports. The vehicles are generally returned after a few months, after the owner pays a fine of between 1,500 and 2,500 shekels ($420 to $700).
So, there are periods in which they live in a state of total disconnect, with no means of transportation – plus there’s no electricity, of course. Without vehicles it is extremely difficult to rush someone who’s sick or a woman about to give birth to a clinic or hospital.
The shepherds bring their water in tanks from long distances, usually by tractors which they sometimes have to hide between the rocks, to prevent their confiscation. Or they post observers, to make sure there are no soldiers or Civil Administration personnel along the way, and then sneak in a water tank hitched to a tractor.
Turkeman is sitting barefoot in his tent, which is heated by a wood-burning stove emitting smoke through a chimney. His sheep huddle in the nearby pen. He’s 42, the father of six children. He sent his firstborn son to Jenin, to work in construction. His family, he says, has been temporarily evacuated about 40 times in the past five years.
Here’s how it works. About a week before the scheduled day, IDF and Civil Administration forces arrive, go from one tent to the next and distribute the evacuation orders, which the inhabitants must sign: “Order Concerning Security Directives (Consolidated Version) Judea and Samaria No. 1651,” issued by the “Territorial Unit for Supervision,” containing “a warning of obligation to evacuate a closed area by virtue of my authority according to clauses 262 and 318 of the Order Concerning Security Directives,” etc., etc. Orders, powers, directives – the occupation’s books are rife with them. All proceeds according to law and order – the occupier’s law and order. All this applies only to non-Jews, of course, in the Jordan Valley and throughout the territories.
On evacuation day the troops go again from tent to tent, ensuring that everyone leaves. According to Turkeman, they know every family and know how many children each one has. They do a head count and occasionally discover that a child is missing. The convoy of evacuees forms in a single line, and they begin to move, a few kilometers from the tent encampment, until they scatter, each to his fate. Sheep and property are left behind. Sometimes the shepherds take the ewes, but the lambs remain and must be looked after. One of the young people may have to steal back to the site, far from the soldiers’ prying eyes, to safeguard the flocks and the property, until they are permitted to return.
One local inhabitant who was caught returning to his tent during the last evacuation was punished: An agent of the occupation authorities emptied out his water tank. Sometimes the troops leave behind unexploded ammunition that endangers the shepherds’ lives. On July 22, 2017, a 16-year-old shepherd, Udei Nawaja, was killed in the presence of his brother in the pasture.
The regular pattern repeated itself last week, on December 26. At about 11:30 A.M., the tanks appeared from the direction of Bardala, a Palestinian village south of Beit She’an. Daraghmeh, the field researcher, who was there at the time, counted about 70 tanks and other armored vehicles, two bulldozers, a few jeeps and infantry soldiers. Accompanying them were representatives of the Civil Administration and the Nature and Parks Authority. At 11:50, two jeeps drove in, one IDF, the other of the Civil Administration, and their personnel proceeded to go from tent to tent, from family to family, hustling everyone out, driving them from their homes. They asked Turkeman, who emerged with five children, where the sixth one was. (In Jenin, working in construction.)
It was cold and muddy. The shepherds and farmers walked. Mithkal Turkeman somehow managed to slip away. Civil Administration personnel launched a search for him, found him hiding in the valley and returned him to the convoy. After a few kilometers of marching, the locals were left on their own. Some of them headed for the next village, Raba. They would have to make do until 6 o’clock the next morning, when they would be allowed to return home.
The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit stated, in reply to a request for comment: “The area in question has been an active IDF firing zone for many years. This past December, live-fire training maneuvers essential to the army’s fitness and preparedness were conducted there. In accordance with existing procedures, and so as to avoid endangering anyone who may have entered the firing zone illegally, the residents there were given advance warning so that they could depart during the periods when the training was taking place.”