I first heard of the Bedouin village Arab al-Aramshe nearly 20 years ago when I did a year of service working as a tour guide in the Galilee before joining the army. There were many stories about the isolated village that sat right on the border with Lebanon, with some of its inhabitants living in Israel and some on the other side, in Lebanese territory. When I heard about Abed al-Hamid, the famous shepherd from Arab al-Aramshe who had vanquished what was thought to be the last leopard in the Galilee with his bare hands in 1965, and about his daughter, Taljia (“Snow White,” in Arabic), who walked dozens of kilometers each day with her goats, collecting wild herbs and spring water – I decided I wanted to go there.
The first time I visited, passing slowly through rocky outcrops dotted with sparse Galilean vegetation, I felt I had come to a place where the pace of life is different, slower, almost desert-like. I visited Arab al-Aramshe several times that year, but my induction into the army and the years I lived abroad, meant that it was only two years ago, when I returned to Israel, that I also returned to the village.
Arab al-Aramshe has some 1,600 residents, nearly all of whom live in its Aramshe neighborhood, on the hill of the same name. The remainder reside on the Nuwakar and Jordiyyah hills, which are located right next to the border fence between Israel and Lebanon.
In the mid-1980s, most of the town’s residents lived along the border itself, but for security reasons the State of Israel decided to move them away; promises of improved infrastructure and additional development convinced most of them to relocate. Nevertheless, a few families decided to remain in their homes. The houses of those who left were demolished in short order so that residents who agreed to move would not change their minds and ask to return home. The state’s promises were indeed kept and thanks to that, the Aramshe quarter is today the beating heart of the entire village, where most of the important services are located: a school, a clinic, a kiosk that sells falafel and doubles as a bridal salon, and several bus stops.
In the days of the Ottoman Empire, the people of Arab al-Aramshe were accustomed to roving freely with their flocks over the hills that are now divided between Israel and Lebanon. Subsequently, they had to become flexible, adapting to a dynamic reality on the ground. The broad pastures that once served them mainly for grazing have dwindled significantly, and are now confined to relatively small areas close to the village.
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In the more recent past, residents on the Israeli side could talk with and even visit their relatives in Lebanon, but the Israel Defense Forces’ withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 effectively canceled the security zone that had existed since 1985 – a 10-kilometer strip of land north of the border that had allowed contact between the two parts of the split village. Today contact between the sides is minimal and maintained largely by means of telephones social media.
Years ago, on one of my first visits to the village, I met someone I will call Omar, who lived with his sister and his mother in an old stone house just meters from the border fence, in the Jordiyyah neighborhood. Their house was one of the few that remained after most of their neighbors moved away; his family also eventually moved to the main part of town. Having been away so long, I though that seeing Omar, today in his mid-50s, would be a good starting point for catching up on developments during the intervening years.
The drive from the Aramshe quarter to Jordiyyah took about 10 minutes on a winding road alongside the fence, with a view of southern Lebanon stretching out to my right. As my car began to climb the hill to Jordiyyah, the road became narrow and rutted. I parked not far from Omar’s house, next to an old and neglected stone tomb. Hearing my car approach, Omar came out to welcome me. His sister, Dalia, who is in her mid-40s, came out, smiling, and then returned inside to make coffee.
In the meantime, since the visibility was excellent, Omar suggested that we head to the observation point near his house that overlooks Lebanon. We walked out of his gate and began to climb up a pile of mostly broken stones, which Omar said was what remained of the houses demolished during the resettlement in Aramshe. A clear and impressive view of southern Lebanon greeted us at the top of the hill. All that separated us from the Lebanese farmers cultivating their lands and three chatty United Nations soldiers was about 100 meters and the border fence. We stood in silence for a few minutes and between the breezes could hear the soldiers talking and giggling on the other side.
Pointing to the large and well-kept villas on the other side, Omar explained that they belonged to wealthy Arab al-Aramshe residents from the Lebanese side. Most of them live abroad most of the year, so the homes stand empty most the time.
On our way back, we met Omar’s neighbor Amira (also a pseudonym; none of the interviewees wanted to be identified). Amira, who is in her 40s, is a lover of cats and white doves. She likes to greet the few tourists who come to Jordiyyah, usually with a cat in one hand and a thermos of black coffee in the other, and generally they give her a tip before departing.
In my many conversations with villagers over the years, they have often voiced frustration about making a living in the area, and from what they say this problem has only gotten worse recently. For a long time now, herding sheep has not been a popular pursuit in Arab al-Aramshe: Apart from a handful of families that raise cattle and sheep, residents have been forced to find work outside, mainly in the packing houses and factories of nearby kibbutzim Hanita and Idmit. And as the kibbutzim, in recent years, have closed factories for financial reasons, they have cut back on workers, and that has had a direct impact on a substantial number of the Bedouin villagers.
According to Latif Suweidan, 67, the former principal of the local elementary school, many residents must now go as far as the cities of Nahariya, Acre and even Haifa to find work.
The tranquil atmosphere of the Galilee and the fact that the neighboring moshavim are full of bed-and-breakfasts and other tourism enterprises made me wonder why there isn’t a single tourism enterprise in the village. Suweidan said that there have been attempts to develop a local tourism industry by opening guest houses and restaurants, but they didn’t succeed because most of the locals lack the economic means required to establish such projects. Plus, being on the border with an enemy country doesn’t help either.
It turns out that the pastoral atmosphere around Arab al-Aramshe is somewhat deceptive. Most of the time, the security situation is fairly calm, but in 2006, during the Second Lebanon War, when a single rocket landed in the yard of the Juma’a family, it killed the mother and two daughters on the spot. In the wake of that incident, the state finally decided to build bomb shelters next to almost every home in the village.
There’s a problem, though, notes Suweidan. Aramshe’s proximity to rocket-launching sites in Lebanon means that residents will not have sufficient time to reach the shelters once the missiles are detected. The Second Lebanon War – and more recent developments – have made perfectly clear the extent to which the security situation is problematic here, but every time I mention the subject to villagers, they express faith in Israel’s strength and in its ability to deal with the threat from the north in general and to defend Arab al-Aramshe in particular. According to Latif Suweidan, during the years Israel’s army was involved in activities in southern Lebanon, local men developed a reputation as outstanding IDF soldiers. The village was particularly famous for the skilled trackers that came from there and faithfully served the state, he said. Local men still serve in the army, but in lower numbers today.
The time had come to find out whether there was any truth to the stories that initially prompted me to visit the village. Perhaps they were all part of a kind of local mythology? When I asked Suweidan about the courageous shepherd who fought the leopard and his daughter Talija, he replied confidently that it was all completely true. Abed al-Hamid died in 1997, he explained, adding that I could go to the museum in Hanita, the neighboring kibbutz, and see the leopard for myself.
There is indeed a stuffed leopard in the little museum at Hanita, and at least according to the kibbutzniks, it is the very same unfortunate leopard that fell into Abed al-Hamid’s hands.
As for Talija, he told me that she lives not far from Arab al-Aramshe, in a small tin shack, in the company of her goats. He also told me that exactly one month earlier, Talija’s brother, Ali Mahmid, fell to his death as he was herding his flock of goats near the steep cliffs alongside the Namir Stream – the same stream where his father had wrestled with the leopard so long ago.
A short time later, I left Arab al-Aramshe. As I departed the village, the setting sun had been almost entirely swallowed up by the sea. From the steep road leading down from the village, it was still possible to make out the now mostly dried-up stream, leading almost all the way to the main highway. I could not help but think about Abed al-Hamid and his two children who had such a fateful connection to the environment in which they lived, and to the stream itself, which in the twilight looked like a far more palpable testimony to the heritage of the people of Arab al-Aramshe than the stuffed leopard in the neighboring kibbutz.
Aviad Tal is an artist and photographer who is engaged in projects that focus on environmental and social concerns, in Africa and the Middle East.