The first thought that runs through Yusuf Hanani’s mind when he gets up at 5 each morning, in his neatly kept cave in the hills between Nablus and the Jordan Rift Valley, is whether the Israel Defense Forces will come again to demolish his home. Israel has wrecked his living space and that of his sheep a dozen times over the years, and the trauma persists. Hanani, a shepherd, lives in the community of Khirbet Tana, east of Nablus, with other sheep breeders and their families. This is a place that has known frequent ravaging and devastation.
In January 2017, the Civil Administration, a branch of the military government in the West Bank, demolished the homes of 14 families here; in 2016, the authorities razed 79 dwellings – whether tents, huts or cave entrances – during a number of raids; and in 2015 the homes of seven families were leveled.
First thing in the morning, he looks out at the hills to see whether the forces of destruction are on the way to Khirbet Tana. Twenty-seven families live here during the pasturing season, from November to May. So it has been for decades: The 34-year-old Yusuf, his father and his grandfather were all born here, on this fertile soil between the hills whose slopes descend to the Jordan Valley – soil now covered with a verdant spring-like down.
Neither Hanani nor his neighbors will ever have the slightest chance to live here in safety or tranquility. They are sons of the land whom Israel is out to dispossess. It’s a plan as methodical as it is malicious, designed to start with the weakest link in the population: communities of shepherds and cave dwellers, in areas that Israel has always coveted for itself – in the South Hebron Hills, along the ridge of the West Bank and in the Jordan Valley.
From the beginning, this scheme – unjust, immoral and illegal – has enjoyed the almost automatic assistance, backing and absolute support of the High Court of Justice of the only democracy in the Middle East. A report published this week by the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, titled “Fake Justice: The Responsibility Israel’s High Court Justices Bear for the Demolitions of Palestinian Homes and the Dispossession of Palestinians,” accuses the High Court justices, who are known at home and abroad for their illusory enlightenment, of collaborating in war crimes – no less.
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“Particularly blatant is the justices’ disregard of the fact that implementation of the Israeli planning policy involves violating the absolute prohibition on forcible transfer, even though allegations regarding the violation were brought before the court. The prohibition stands even if people leave their homes not of their own free will, for example due to untenable living conditions the authorities generate by cutting them off from the water and power grids, turning their living area into a military training zone, or repeated demolition of their homes. Violation of this prohibition is a war crime,” writes Yael Stein, the director of B’Tselem’s research department and author of this grim report. “Therefore, they [the justices] too – along with the prime minister, senior ministers, the chief of staff and other senior military officers – bear personal liability for the commission of such crimes.”
The statistics pretty much tell the story. From 2000 to 2016, the occupation authorities approved just 4 percent of the Palestinians’ building requests, according to the Civil Administration. Of 5,475 requests submitted during that period, only 226 were authorized. In other words, the Palestinians have virtually no place to build and no place to live. From here it’s a short distance to “illegal construction” and from there to mass demolition and dispossession, under the rubric of upholding the law.
Between 1988 and 2017, the authorities issued 16,796 demolition orders for Palestinian houses, an average of 1,000 per year since 2009; 20 percent of them have been carried out, the rest are in the works. According to B’Tselem, between 2006 and 2018, Israel demolished at least 1,401 Palestinian residential units, leaving some 6,200 people, about half of them children, homeless.
Throughout all those years, the High Court did not grant even one petition from Palestinians who appealed to it for protection against the razing of their homes. Not a single petition. B’Tselem asserts that this is the policy of the High Court, which under the guise of upholding the law and official planning policy, and in disregard of a reality in which the Palestinians cannot obtain building permits – even as the settlers continue to build feverishly – launders and even collaborates in the crimes of the occupation.
During the past 50 years, the state established close to 250 settlements, all of them illegal under international law, whereas in the same period it has established just one Palestinian community in the territories, to which Bedouin were moved who lived on land that Israel earmarked for settlement expansion. In parallel, Israel pursued a policy that doesn’t allow the Palestinians to obtain legal building permits and that involves investing major effort in imposing and enforcing extreme restrictions on any construction designated for the Palestinian population. If that’s not apartheid, what is?
From the B’Tselem report: “The gulf between this reality and that described in thousands of HCJ decisions – in which justices wrote about ‘clean hands’ and ‘exhausting remedies,’ accepted each and every argument by the state regarding planning for the Palestinian population, and summed up by allowing the state to demolish the petitioners’ homes and consign them to abysmal living conditions – is unfathomable. While it is true that the court does not write the laws, make the policy or implement it, it is within the scope of the justices’ authority and duty to find Israel’s policy unlawful and prohibit the demolition of homes. Instead, time and time again, they have chosen to give the policy their stamp of approval and validate it publicly and legally. In so doing, not only do the Supreme Court justices fail to discharge their duties, they also play a pivotal role in further cementing the occupation and settlement enterprise, and in further dispossessing Palestinians of their land.”
Israeli justice in the spirit of the High Court is on display at Khirbet Tana, in all its splendor. The shepherds are forbidden to graze their sheep on the hills to the south of their community. Why? Because Kobi doesn’t allow it. Who is Kobi? Kobi is the bane of the shepherds, the settler from Itamar, on the other side of the hill, who lets his flock graze everywhere and doesn’t allow the Palestinians to approach. If shepherds come near the hill behind which Kobi lurks, he summons the IDF, his personal gopher; their troops remove the Bedouin shepherds by force. The situation is no better a bit further north: Here the Civil Administration destroyed the pool the local inhabitants built adjacent to the spectacular spring on the ridge. The authorities also leveled the small school of Khirbet Tana, which the local folk then rebuilt. The ruins of the pool, though, remain, an infuriating sight.
The road to Khirbet Tana also tells a story. The Palestinian Authority recently paved and upgraded it, but a few kilometers away from the shepherds’ homes, the paving was halted at Israel’s order. From this point, travelers have to submit to the rocky route that leads to the little community whose residents’ rights are not recognized by Israel, a community that was here long before neighboring Itamar, on the hill.
A sky-blue door leads into Yusuf’s cave. He lives here quite happily with his 74-year-old mother, Yusra, his wife, Sukor, and their 6-month-old son, Mohammed. Mom and Dad take the baby outside in his cradle to show him off to the guests. Solar panels are the only sign of modernity in this unusual place. It’s impossible not to be struck by its beauty, by the way it blends into the landscape, in the face of the ugliness and arrogance of Itamar. The inside of the cave is painted white, a few mattresses are strewn on the floor, Sukor does the dishes with water coming from a plastic tank.
The couple served a breakfast that made it tough to feel sorry for them: the best of Palestinian rural cuisine, with a marked prominence of green mustard leaves, freshly gathered and cooked, alongside hummus with meat, fava beans and even avocado, which has only become a staple of their diet in recent years. The white cheeses and the labaneh are of course homemade, from their goats and sheep, which are now in pasture. Only the goat kids remain in the pen.
We sit on the roof of the cave, on tattered office chairs. The sun shines from upon high, IDF jeeps roll by in a long column on the ridge to the east, raising clouds of dust behind them. A large-scale army exercise is underway, and the military vehicles rush back and forth.
A black bird of prey circles above the valley. At the center of the valley stands a stone mosque, the mosque of Khirbet Tana. Early spring is a happy time for the shepherd, we’re told, days of pasturing in nature. Next to the ruins of the pool, in the shade of a large eucalyptus tree, a family from the nearby town of Beit Furik is having a picnic, enjoying stuffed vine leaves from a pot. They immediately invited the Israeli guests to partake of their food.
The way to the spring runs next to the cave of the shepherd Mansour Nasasara. As we pass, he’s reciting the afternoon prayer on the roof of his cave. In 2009, the authorities confiscated a tractor of his, in 2010 another tractor – which was returned two-and-a-half years later – and in 2016, a car that had no papers was taken from him. In that year, the entrance to his cave was demolished three times within 45 days, along with a tent providing shade for the sheep. Like everyone in the community, he has rebuilt everything.
At the sight of the jeeps on the ridge, Nasasara, smoking a cigarette in a wooden holder, asks whether the Israelis are planning another war. His 200 goats and sheep are out to pasture, tended by one of his sons. He’s convinced that his troubles began with the advent of the Palestinian Authority: As far as he’s concerned, Mahmoud Abbas is to blame for everything. “Maybe you’ll take him to Tel Aviv?” he quips.
The B’Tselem report in fact notes that until 1995, the year in which the Israeli-Palestinian interim agreement was signed, the authorities issued only about 100 demolition orders a year. Things began to spiral in the wake of the accord, to a peak of 1,000 orders annually in the past few years.
And after all the reports, the orders that were issued and the petitions that have been turned down, all that remains is to look with fairness from the porch of Mansour Nasasara’s cave toward the hills and the valley that lies between them. Those who are destroying caves that have been the dwelling places of shepherds for decades, perhaps centuries, those who are authorizing the acts of destruction and allow Itamar but forbid Khirbet Tana to thrive – these are the same people who are establishing the apartheid state under the auspices of the High Court of Justice.