Silence of the Lambs: A Palestinian Hamlet on the Brink of Destruction

The lambs due to be born soon in the village of Halat Makhoul may not survive these chilly nights. nor may the residents, whose tents were destroyed yet again by the army.

The scrawny little kitten is still around. It doesn’t seem to have grown since we were last here, two weeks ago. It’s still scratching for food in the dirt, but it’s still alive. Also still here, somehow, in Halat Makhoul, a village in the Jordan Valley, are some 1,200 sheep and about 100 people. Last week they pitched new tents, and once again the soldiers came to wreak destruction and burn things. This week the inhabitants erected them again − about a dozen white tents on the ruins of their predecessors − but they haven’t inserted the pegs deep into the ground yet, for fear of the soldiers. They are afraid to sleep in the tents, lest the wind collapse the insecure metal poles on top of them.

Another dozen lambs were born in this destroyed hamlet this week; it’s the start of the birthing season. The lambs are fine, though this is not true of some of their mothers; at least two of those that gave birth were lying listlessly among the ruins of their shelter. On Tuesday, our friend, Burhan Basharat, the shepherd, was doing his utmost to save them. He wiped their noses with his hands, injected them with a yellow antibiotic and administered an anti-fever remedy, but he was becoming increasingly concerned: The sheep were not nursing their young, which meant that the two sets of newborn twin lambs were at risk.

Sadness prevails in Halat Makhoul. The village we visited four times last month is withdrawing into itself under the threat of repeated demolitions, the looming winter and the problematic birthing season. At the entrance to every collapsed tin shack, residents continue to sit and stare sadly.

The High Court of Justice was meant to rule on the fate of the village this week, but on Tuesday, the day the interim injunction issued by the court expired, the state asked for two more days. It needed more time to prepare its response to the request for an interim order against destroying the village and expelling its residents, which had been submitted on behalf of the locals by attorney Tawfek Jabarin. The previous day, Israel Defense Forces soldiers tried to block a group of women from the Machsom Watch human rights organization from reaching the village, where they wanted to express solidarity and offer help. Other than them, the fate of the village doesn’t seem to interest anyone in Israel.

Meanwhile, the hundreds of lambs that are due to be born in the coming weeks may not survive the increasingly chilly nights and the hot days here. Nor may their shepherds, whose spirits are being slowly crushed and bodies weakened after nearly a month of being forced to live outdoors.

This week, some of the women and children returned to the rubble. The fire in the damaged taboun oven was re-lit, and in the morning we found a group of shepherds dipping crispy pita into labaneh cheese. “It’s good for the cholesterol,” joked Khaled bin Oudeh, a resident of nearby Jiftlik, who had come to visit his son and his elderly father, who both live here.

Oudeh was also here on Wednesday last week. That evening, a lone IDF jeep made the rounds of the area and then disappeared. Later on, a bit
before midnight, a larger force arrived; it destroyed the two new tents that had been erected, set fire to two bales of hay and the tent canvases and confiscated the iron poles.

The interim order issued by Supreme Court Justice Zvi Zylbertal − that forbade the army from expelling residents or destroying homes until this past Tuesday − didn’t seem to make a difference, even though every resident took care to carry a copy of the decision in his pocket, wrapped in plastic.

Every few hours, an IDF vehicle circles the area and leaves. The residents don’t get worked up about anything anymore. The few children who still live here are driven to school every morning in Ein Beda, about seven kilometers away. There is no water or electricity here, nor was there ever, even though a black water pipe does run through the village’s land, carrying water to the army base at the top of the mountain.

The women and children sleep in a tractor cart for fear of snakes and scorpions. Basharat sighs, and says, “I’d be better off being bitten by a snake.” He continues to sleep under the stars, on a tattered mattress. “There’s food and there’s water, but there’s no house,” he adds, with the bitter smile that almost never leaves his face.

There’s a television that’s connected to a car battery, while a refrigerator and finjan are on the ground nearby. Some of the sheep lie under the new tents, but most are out in the sun, as are the dogs, donkeys and chickens.

“My daughter asks, ‘Why did they destroy our houses? Did we do something bad to them that they destroyed them?’” says Basharat. “I want the state to give my daughter an answer. What should we tell our children? Can you tell me that? Don’t write, answer me. What should I tell my daughter? We teach our children to be against terror. Not to hate Jews, Muslims or Christians.

“Since 1967, when we came to live here, Israel has had soldiers here. They come and go, and no one ever complained about us, ever. We never caused them any harm. Let anyone, officer or soldier, who served here in all the IDF bases, tell me that we ever did something bad to them.

“Sometimes soldiers come and tell us we can’t live here. We ask them why, and they say because we are always shouting. But we’re shouting at our sheep. That’s how we live. Is there anyone in Israel who could live the life we live here? You hike, swim and pamper yourselves. As for us − if someone here wants to wash, he washes himself using a bottle of water.”

As we talk, lambs born the previous night are attempting their first steps. They hesitate, slip, fall and get up again. Basharat strokes one of them. Then he takes out a knife and makes cuts in the earlobes of their sick mothers. Sheep blood spatters on his torn jeans. Bloodletting, Basharat says, might help his sheep recover.