Here’s how 2015 began for residents of the shepherds’ compound at Ain al-Hilweh, in the northern Jordan Valley: at the mercy of the cold and rain, under the naked sky, their homes reduced to rubble, utterly destitute. Heaps of ruins are all that remain, the wreckage of tents and shacks, with remnants of their meager belongings strewn around.
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Happy New Year to the 80 members of the Kaabana family, now homeless. Happy New Year to their neighbor, Khader Ibrahim, a shepherd, who lost a leg as a child when he stepped on an Israeli army landmine or unexploded shell, and is now sitting abjectly where his tents stood last week.
Happy New Year to his eight children, who are now scampering among the ruins, their teeth chattering from the cold. Happy New Year to the dozens of newborn lambs and kids, the first litters of 2015, whose pens were also razed, leaving them exposed to the winter weather, as a result of which some died.
Happy New Year, too, to the Israeli Civil Administration and the Border Police, who enforce the apartheid laws in the territories, and who last week raided this forlorn community of shepherds and destroyed all their property, ignoring the anguished outcries of women and the silent weeping of children; ignoring the fact that they left dozens of people exposed to biting cold in the Jordan Rift Valley; ignoring the gross injustice and inequality of the authorities’ attitude toward these wretched of the earth, in stark contrast to the attitude toward the settlers in the area.
After all, someone has to do the dirty and repellent work of the slow, persistent, systematic ethnic cleansing of this valley.
Ain al-Hilweh is situated just past the settlement of Maskiyot, along the road that climbs from the Jordan Valley eastward toward the small town of Tayasir. Not far off is the community of Halat Makhoul, which has been demolished time after time and is now rebuilt.
The Kaabanas have nowhere to go with their flocks – their only source of livelihood – and no force will move them from their land. Mahmoud Kaabana is a 44-year-old shepherd, married and the father of 10 children. Together with the families of his six siblings, and their parents, there are about 80 souls in this pastoral community. He says he and his father were born on this land, which was leased to them by its owner, the Catholic Church in Jerusalem.
The Civil Administration has now demolished their tiny habitation, which consists solely of tents and tin shacks, three times: in June 2011, in January 2014 and on January 1, 2015. The first demolition took place in the early summer, but the previous one, last January, left people and animals exposed to the rain, and Israel blocked outside attempts to assist them. About 30 sheep died. In the early days, the refugees took shelter under a small bridge, and then neighbors and other good people brought them plastic sheeting, clothing and tents. The scene repeated itself last Thursday, as the new year was ushered in.
“Happy New Year,” Kaabana says with a bitter smile, “this is how a new year starts.”
The raiding party – around 20 jeeps and two bulldozers – swooped in at about 9 A.M. All the people and animals were evacuated, and the demolition began. The 10 minutes the inhabitants were given to come to grips with the situation and collect their property were obviously not sufficient. An argument broke out between the Civil Administration people and the Border Police, Kaabana relates. The latter did not want to allow residents even to gather up their property.
“I’m in charge here,” a police officer declared. “You’re the guard,” a Civil Administration official shot back.
The results are scattered all around: crushed household utensils, torn clothes, slashed up rugs – all of it under steel tent pegs, which thrust skyward like a mute monument.
This time, Kaabana says, Civil Administration personnel used utility knives and pruning shears to tear apart whatever the bulldozers missed. All 30 structures of the compound were destroyed. Nothing remains, other than a refrigerator and an iron bed that were salvaged.
The International Red Cross provided the residents with a few tents, but not enough, Kaabana says. At night the family huddles in one big tent supplied by neighbors.
Most of the sheep are outside. This is the birthing season, and the condition of the newborn animals is worrisome. Fatma, Kaabana’s wife, is pregnant, too, in her seventh month. When she burst into tears during the assault, Border Policemen ejected her from the site, to the other side of the wadi.
Kaabana says he received no warning of the demolition. Nor did the wreckers tell him why their homes were being destroyed, other than to say, “You are not allowed to be here.”
After each demolition, Kaabana rebuilds a few meters away from the previous site, so that the new structures will not be immediately razed. As we talk, a Civil Administration vehicle is parked on the main road, its occupants observing us. The sight fills Kaabana with trepidation.
“Does this bother [Prime Minister] Netanyahu?” he asks, pointing to the ruins of his property. And again, “Does this bother Netanyahu?”
“There was a children’s tent here, and this is where we slept,” he says, giving us a tour of the debris. “The kitchen was here and the animal pen was there. This was the home of the lambs, and that was for the older sheep.”
Nothing remains. Even the vegetable patch he planted near his home – eggplants, cucumbers, onions and peppers for domestic use – was trampled brutally.
The animals are out to pasture on the hill, but when they return toward evening, there will be no place to shelter them against the oncoming chill of the desert night.
In his despair, Kaabana asks for assistance: “Maybe people will bring us plastic sheeting to cover the sheep, and clothes for the children? I am asking for help. No one is helping us. I am asking people all over the world to help us. We are left with nothing.”
His little daughter Thaima, a year and seven months old, clings to his leg. Her teeth are chattering from the cold. She is dressed in rags, like her sister, seven-year-old Sarah.
Not far away, about one kilometer to the west, a heavyset man is climbing the hill, breathing hard, staggering, leaning on a stick, barely moving, until he finally comes to a halt. Heaps of ruins lie about. This was where his home stood.
Khader Ibrahim, who’s about 45 or 50, he has no idea, is a father of eight. Now he hobbles around on an artificial limb. After the wreckers finished leveling the hamlet of the Kaabana family, they moved on to his compound. Five structures – tents to live in and animal pens – are now gone.
A threadbare checkered wool blanket lays on the bare ground. Ibrahim stretches himself out on it. His sonorous voice rumbles across the expanse. He and the others spent the first night in the open, he says. Then the neighbors brought them a tent and some plastic sheeting for shelter. “What will I do? There is nothing for me to do,” he laments.
A spokesperson for the Civil Administration stated: “These are illegal structures that were erected, and were demolished at the beginning of the month for the second time, because they were built without a permit in a firing zone in the Jordan Valley region. It should be noted that being present in a firing zone used regularly by the IDF for training using live ammunition is dangerous and against the law.
“In regard to this case, a petition was submitted to the Supreme Court, which was stricken from the record, with the petitioners undertaking to take action to regularize the construction within 45 days. As the petitioners did not do so in the course of four months after the petition was stricken, the structures were demolished.”
Dafna Banai, an activist from Machsom Watch-Women Against the Occupation and for Human Rights, wrote, “This evening I had a call from Mohammed, a shepherd, with whom we’ve been in touch from boyhood ... He was crying. He’s young, he’ll get over it, but his elderly parents – his father is disabled from an Israeli land mine and is sick.
“What will happen to them? How will they survive the freezing nights of the Jordan Rift? What will happen when it rains? I asked if there was anything special they needed, and there was silence. What would he ask for? They have nothing.”
Gideon Levy tweets at @levy_haaretz