Opinion

The Essence and Example of Israeliness

After living in the south Hebron Hills for generations, the Abu Qubeita family stands accused of trespassing on its traditional grazing lands.

Mahmoud Abu Qubeita standing by the sign of the unauthorized ranch, with his family's land in the background.
Amira Hass

So here are the facts, with the main points first: Five Israelis, one wearing a motorcycle helmet that covered his face, prevented a 21-year-old shepherd from crossing the road with his flock. His home is west of the road, some 200 meters away. At least two of the Israelis live in a nearby small unauthorized ranch. The Israelis yelled at the shepherd and approached him threateningly.

From the wadi, his two cousins (aged 12 and 14) come up with their flock. Their older brothers have long stopped bringing the flock to graze because of the bullying, harassment, threats and fear. Another family has already left the area permanently for the same reasons.

What happened to them happens all the time in the West Bank, but this fact doesn’t shock the silent Israeli majority. The fact that what happened is a metaphor for a method used on both sides of the Green Line and an integral part of that method is enough for us to act as if this fact is a non-fact. But the fact that what happened to the Abu Qubeita family has happened and is happening and will happen to others is no solace to them.

The Abu Qubeita family lives in the southern Hebron Hills, on land that its ancestors lived on long before the Balfour Declaration. The family is an inseparable part of the human, economic and social fabric, and of the interaction between Yatta and the villages of the area. This fabric was not erased even though its geographic confines have been reduced and divided. After 1948, Qaryatain – the village where the family lived during the winter months – was destroyed. The family moved to an area a few kilometers westward and upward, in an area that they’d always used during the warmer months. There they continued to graze, plant grains and grow olive trees, even after 1967.

In 1983, the settlement of Beit Yatir was built very close by. There were attempts – that failed – to expel the Abu Qubeitas from their homes. But there were successful efforts to deny them access to their grazing lands. Moreover, the Civil Administration refused to let them build or connect to the utility grids. The result is familiar ad nauseam – an expanse of new Jewish homes adjacent to a few old Palestinian structures, with no name or sign, with small animal pens, metal scraps, a shabby dirt path and a weathervane.

In the early 2000s the Yatir checkpoint was built a few hundred meters north of the Abu Qubeitas’ compound, within the West Bank. Some 60 family members now need a special exit permit to pass through the checkpoint and enter their homes. Friends and other Palestinian relatives can’t visit them, because past the checkpoint is already considered “Israeli” territory. The sheep and goats can’t be brought north through the checkpoint, nor can Abu Qubeita go even a kilometer southward, because that’s where the Green Line runs. So the family now lives in a type of prison whose walls are the Green Line, the checkpoint, the settlement, the ranch and the harassment.

On Sunday, February 26, Mahmoud Abu Qubeita set out to graze his flock on the wadi at Khirbet Amira, east of their home, on land that until a few years ago his late uncle still plowed and planted. In the afternoon, he was replaced by two of his sons and a cousin. At some point he received an agitated phone call; the neighbors from the unauthorized ranch weren’t letting them return home and were trying to scatter the flock. Someone managed to film the helmet-wearer yelling at the cousin in Hebrew – “Why are you here; answer me, man.” The cousin tried to explain that this is where they’d been grazing their flocks for generations. The yeller wasn’t impressed. His father, the owner of the ranch, was Yaakov Talia, an Afrikaner who converted to Judaism and emigrated here from South Africa (this isn’t an allegory, it’s a fact).

Mahmoud Abu Qubeita hurried to the site, which was near the main road and the path leading to the ranch. He knew that he had to prevent a confrontation. That’s exactly what the Jewish neighbors want, so that there would then be a “security” excuse to expel the entire family. There was no fight and the flock and the shepherds returned home, but with a pervading sense of gloom; after all, this would probably happen again and again.

On Wednesday, March 1, Abu Qubeita went to file a complaint at the Kiryat Arba police station, even though he presumed that the complaint would be tossed into “File 13” along with the thousands of other complaints he and other Palestinians had filed over the years. Officer Salah Isaat took his complaint. Even before he got to the station, an officer by the name of Ghassan Bibar called him and told him he wanted to clarify a few things with him. After he filed the complaint, he went to speak to Bibar.

It was then that he discovered he was being arrested for attempted assault and entering a forbidden area, and that his trial would take place at the Ofer Military Court on September 3. After being questioned for two hours, he was told to pay 2,000 shekels ($544) bond, which he didn’t have. The officer refused to reduce the sum. Abu Qubeita made several phone calls until finally someone came in a taxi with the needed cash.

The Judea and Samaria Police spokesman told Haaretz, “At issue are mutual complaints that both sides filed against each other for assault and trespassing. Both complaints will be examined.”

The spokesman failed to answer whether the Israeli complainant had also been arrested, questioned, given a trial summons and asked to pay bond to be released.

The bottom line: The cousin who was accosted is afraid to complain. He doesn’t have 2,000 shekels for bail or money for a lawyer if he’s put on trial.