A Day in Jinba, the Tiny Palestinian Village About to Become a Huge IDF Training Zone

Everything seems to be forbidden here; only the water tower of Avigail, the vineyards of Sussia, the cowsheds of the Maon Farm and the home of Mitzpe Yair are apparently permitted.

Two upside-down concrete blocks on the side of the rocky road that descends to the beautiful wadi constitute the landmark. This is where the Israel Defense Forces’ Firing Zone 918 begins, but all it says on the blocks at this particular place is: “Sick of the occupation.” At the end of the slope, in the heart of the valley, lies the tiny and beautiful village of Jinba. It looks like something out of the Bible: a collection of several tents, huts, sheep pens and caves that are cut off from the electrical grid and water system, cut off from the 21st century, cut off from any semblance of justice or equality. It is a place whose residents have been suffering for decades under the yoke of the occupation. All around is a green sea of “legal” and “illegal” settlements.

The High Court of Justice of the occupying state will decide on July 15 whether these people who are stubbornly attached to the land − the approximately 250 inhabitants of Jinba − will be allowed to remain in their village, or will once again be uprooted ‏(and later, will likely return‏) as happened during the big expulsion in 1999. The reason for that would ostensibly be to turn this arid piece of land into yet another training area of the army of the occupation, in effect to cleanse this plot of all its Palestinian inhabitants.

Everything is heartbreaking here: the ancient stone fences, the donkeys braying in the desert heat, the sheep and goats huddling in the pen to find a spot of shade, the tiny school built with donations from an Islamic organization in the United States, the dark caves where villagers live, and the white tent of the clinic set up about two weeks ago, thanks to contributions from an Italian charity and the Italian Foreign Ministry.

The tent is especially heartbreaking: It contains only a few dusty chairs, an equally dusty hospital bed and a special table for infants. Every once in a while, a doctor comes from the town of Yatta. The Civil Administration personnel who maintain law and order in the area already arrived here this week in order to document the place, to ask questions, to scare and threaten, probably on the way to issuing a demolition order for this forbidden tent. Needless to say, no house, road, vineyard or field belonging to any settlers is included in Firing Zone 918, in the land of the caves in the South Hebron Hills.

This week we went down to Jinba on the winding and bumpy road in a jeep belonging to Ezra Nawi, an activist in Ta’ayush, an Israeli-Palestinian political nonprofit organization. Without him, and without the other devoted and determined Ta’ayush activists − along with long-time volunteer attorney Shlomo Lecker, members of the Rabbis for Human Rights and Breaking the Silence organizations who work in the vicinity day and night − the ethnic cleansing would long since have been completed here. The members of these groups are the “good Israelis” of the south Hebron hills.

Nawi, sporting a purple Bedouin head scarf from Sinai, was afraid his jeep would be confiscated because he was driving into a prohibited zone. His colleague Guy Butavia made sure we fastened our seat belts in the back too, so there wouldn’t be another excuse for harassment by the IDF force that was liable to show up.

A tractor made its way with difficulty up the path opposite us, belonging to shepherd Khalil Younes, four of whose children were seriously wounded a few years ago when unexploded ordnance suddenly blew up; one died of his wounds. Younes was transporting goats to Yatta.

We stopped at an observation point next to Bir al-Eid, from which we saw the tent of Haj Ismail, the elderly shepherd who was beaten by settlers a few months ago, and whose home we visited at the time. And we saw the tiny rubber pipe that transports a small quantity of water to Jinba from cisterns on the top of the nearby hill; it has been slashed by the settlers a number of times. And we could also see the wells that were sealed off by the Civil Administration and destroyed and demolished houses. There, not far away, the administration confiscated two special bathrooms for the disabled a few weeks ago.

Everything seems to be forbidden here. Only the water tower of Avigail, the vineyards of Sussia, the cowshed of the Maon farm, the huts of Lucifer Farm and the homes of Mitzpeh Yair are apparently permitted.

From the mountain Jinba looked to us like a handful of tiny dots on the wild, uninhabited, primeval landscape. It’s hard to understand how a state can be waging such a prolonged war against it: The road leading in is not a road, and the village is not really a village, in the usual modern sense. Some residents live in Yatta too, during the dry season when the sheep and goats cannot graze in Jinba.

“Jinba Welcomes Visitors,” says the modest sign at the entrance. Last week a group of Israeli writers visited here at the initiative of Breaking the Silence. Among them were Zeruya Shalev, Eyal Megged, Alona Kimhi and Sayed Kashua.

“Life here is not natural,” one resident told us. “Everything is decided by the occupation.”

The new village school, built in 2011, may be the tiniest I’ve ever seen: four small classrooms, four to five tables in each, 35 pupils. In the classroom for first- and second-grade pupils there’s a blackboard and chalk. The days of the week were written on the board − a souvenir of the last lesson before summer vacation. There was no water in the drinking fountain, and of course they’ve never heard of an air conditioner or a fan here; two swings and a slide, without a drop of shade, constitute the playground. In spite of that, everything seemed to reflect touching devotion and care.

About a year ago the IDF confiscated the car of teachers at the school who come from Yatta. Last winter the IDF detained three jeeps and three all-terrain vehicles in which residents of the village, including little children, were traveling home. At 5 P.M., they were stopped; at 3 A.M., they were released. All that time they had to stand in the wintry cold, children and parents.

One Jinba resident, Hamzi Rabai, was among those detained. He said he won’t forget that night, at the end of which four of the vehicles were confiscated − as it said on the army order: “By dint of the authority invested in me according to paragraph 80, with respect to security directives, I seized the goods described herein. The reason: driving in Firing Zone 918 between Mitzpeh Yair and Jinba.” A phone number for “clarifications” was given and the order also bore the unreadable scribbled signature of the officer in charge.

The impoverished people were forced to pay a total of NIS 20,000 to get their vehicles back two months later, after a legal battle in which they were assisted by a lawyer, who of course also cost them money. The teachers’ car has yet to be returned, along with two additional vehicles that were confiscated at another time − belonging to the district veterinarian and the local veterinary service, whose staff came to treat the sheep and goats.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday night, an IDF unit arrived in Jinba and confiscated Rabai’s vehicle.

Nobody dreams of confiscating anything from the settlers for entering the firing zone. In a video camera given to him by B’Tselem: the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, one resident shows us pictures of a group of settlers who came to Bir al-Eid about two weeks ago. They arrived in the middle of distribution of sacks of flour donated by the U.S. Agency for International Development ‏(USAID‏), and the settlers made sure to disperse the people who had come for food.

That’s how it is here, in the land of fire, which only the High Court may be able to save.

Alex Levac