The Village Where Palestinians Are Completely Powerless

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Ashraf Amour and family members inside their home, in a cave in the village of Khirbet al-Rakiz, in the West Bank’s south Hebron Hills.
Ashraf Amour and family members inside their home, in a cave in the village of Khirbet al-Rakiz, in the West Bank’s south Hebron Hills.Credit: Emil Salman

"I blame myself for Harun’s injury,” said Ashraf Amour from the village of Khirbet al-Rakiz, near the cave where he and his family live in the West Bank’s south Hebron Hills.

“Ultimately, all that he did was come and help me when he saw soldiers confiscating my generator, and because of that, they shot him,” Amour said Sunday in describing the incident that left village resident Harun Abu Aram paralyzed from the neck down. 

'All that he did was come and help me when he saw soldiers confiscating my generator, and because of that, they shot him'

“It would have been easier for me if they had demolished my animal pen or my children’s swings or if Harun had been shot in the arm or the leg,” Amour said, not attempting to hold back his tears, “but the bullet hit his neck and came out the other side, hitting nerves. Now he’s lying in the hospital paralyzed.”

The incident near the town of Yatta occurred on Friday and the height of the confrontation was caught on video by one of Amour’s neighbors. The army issued a statement for this article saying that the incident is being investigated.

Ashraf Amour, left, and his son Mohammed stand next to the damaged generator in the village of Khirbet al-Rakiz in the West Bank’s south Hebron Hills.Credit: Emil Salman

Khirbet al-Rakiz is one of 12 villages in the Masafer Yatta region. In the 1980s, Israel declared about 30,000 dunams (7,500 acres) of it as a military firing zone. In 1999, the Israeli army expelled roughly 700 residents from the region and demolished many of their homes.

Petitions were filed to the High Court of Justice, which issued an interim order permitting them to return until a final verdict on the case was rendered, but they were not allowed to rebuild their homes. Efforts to settle the case failed, but any construction that the residents have undertaken, even of the simplest and most necessary kind, has been considered illegal.

The soldiers came to the village following a report from settlers that new construction was being carried out. That same morning, village residents said, a drone with a camera was hovering over Khirbet al-Rakiz. That wasn’t’ the first time. 

They said it belonged to settlers in the area. Some said that it belonged to the Regavim organization, which tracks new Palestinian construction activity in Area C– the 62% of the West Bank under full Israeli control – and which then reports the activity to Israeli authorities. 

Harun Abu Aram's parents at Khirbet al-Rakiz, January 2021. They lived in the cave for decades.Credit: Emil Salman

Around 1 P.M. on Friday, an army jeep arrived along with a car from the Israeli Civil Administration in the West Bank driven by Husam Muadi, the infrastructure officer of the Hebron District Coordination and Liaison Office.

“I was sitting with my brother-in-law and sister-in-law at the entrance to the house in the cave when four soldiers and the district coordination and liaison officer arrived,” Amour told Haaretz. “They entered the house as if it was their own, without an order and without saying why. ‘Where are you going?’ I asked, and the officer, who didn’t introduce himself, responded in Arabic, ‘Be quiet.’ We started to argue.

The soldiers searched the cave and pulled out a generator that provides the family with a few hours of electricity per day

I said, ‘What’s this ‘Be quiet’? According to the accepted rules of courtesy in the world, you need to ask permission before coming into someone’s house. My wife and children are inside.’”

But they insisted on going inside, first to an alcove with a tin roof that is used as a kitchen and then into the cave itself. Amour, who is 36, attempted to prevent them from entering. The soldiers pushed and hit him with their hands and the butt of a rifle, he said. His 11-year-old son, Mohammed, tried to intervene and was also pushed and hit in the same manner. His youngest son, Jabril, who is six, hid in fear under a couch. “We found him a few hours later, and he is still afraid to go out alone,” Amour recounted. 

The soldiers searched the cave and pulled out a generator that provides the family with a few hours of electricity per day. Israel has not permitted Khirbet al-Rakiz and other Palestinian villages in the area to be connected to the electricity grid or a running water supply, which is provided not only to the Jewish settlements in the area but also to the unauthorized Jewish outposts there. The Palestinians spend large sums on home electricity generation to power refrigerators, washing machines and lamps for several hours of the day.

“They didn’t say in advance that they came to confiscate the generator and didn’t provide me with any kind of order or receipt over the confiscation,” Amour said. Outside, the soldiers found a drill and cutting disks, which they also confiscated, as if they had decided on the spur of the moment what to take. “I argued with them all the way up to the path where they parked the cars,” he said, adding that Harun Abu Aram’s father, Rasmi, saw from his house in a cave up the hill that there was a problem and quickly came over.

Harun followed his father down toward Amour’s cave, which sits amid rocky ground and small olive groves. Amour and Rasmi   both recounted that a soldier fired into the air toward Rasmi. “The soldier aimed a rifle and told me: ‘go, go,’” he said.

They said Harun was highly upset by the rifle fire and ran to protect his father. The video of the incident begins when the soldier grabbed Harun by the neck and three other young men tried to free him and then take back the generator. The moment when a soldier shoots Harun in the neck is not on the video. 

A child swings in Khirbet al-Rakiz, January 2021. Credit: Emil Salman

“I stood at the side screaming,” said Amour’s wife, Firyal. “It was fortunate that my eldest son wasn’t here.” Harun fell to the ground, bleeding profusely. Amour’s brother-in-law started his car, intending to take him to get medical treatment, but a soldier shot out one of the car’s tires. The soldiers fired a total of 19 bullets in the vicinity of Amour’s house. 

News that something terrible had happened quickly spread to the adjoining village of al-Twani. Dozens of people began heading toward the scene on foot and by car and the soldiers quickly left. Harun, still bleeding, was put into a car that had arrived from al-Twani and taken to a clinic in the nearby village of Karmil, and from there to the hospital in Yatta. When it became clear how serious his condition was, he was transferred to a hospital in Hebron. 

The generator that sparked the confrontation was ultimately not confiscated and lay damaged outside the cave after falling several times as Amour and his friends tried to take it back from the soldiers. The tools were not confiscated either. 

“On Friday, a report of illegal construction was received in Al-Rakiz,” the Israeli Civil Administration said in its response for this article. “Following that, an Israeli army force and a representative of the District Coordination and Liaison Office came to the site to stop the illegal work and confiscate a number of tools that their owners were using during the construction. The confiscation was carried out in accordance with authority and the rules.” In light of what then transpired, it was decided not to confiscate the generator, the Civil Administration said, but "that is not an indication that it was being used legally". 

Children run in the village of Khirbet al-Rakiz. Credit: Emil Salman

Where any construction is illegal

Amour’s parents lived in the cave for decades. Now Firyal is responsible for maintaining and cleaning it. She has left up decorations that she put up when the couple’s eldest son, Khalil, passed his high school matriculation exams. 

The Civil Administration has issued demolition orders in connection with their kitchen and water cistern, where they store rainwater and water they buy from water tanks. “I can’t cook in the cave, and like everyone, we need water,” she said somewhat apologetically.

Like others in Khirbet al-Rakiz, Amour and his family are always working, scraping by with their herds of livestock and growing grain and vegetables that are mainly for their own consumption. Amour and Khalil also collect discarded items, including clothing from the garbage dump near Bethlehem. They repair what they can while Firyal cleans the clothes and then they try to sell the items at the Friday market in Yatta.

As a child, Harun Abu Aram, who is currently lying unconscious and paralyzed in the hospital in Hebron, also used to collect such things from the garbage dump for settlements in the Hebron area to help support his family. He is featured doing that in the 2012 film “Good Garbage” by Israelis Ada Ushpiz and Shosh Shlam. 

After Harun finished the 6th grade, his mother Farsi said Sunday, he went to work in Israel. About four years ago, he was caught in Israel without a permit and spent four months in jail. He was scheduled to appear in court that day for entering Israel illegally, she said. 

Since Friday, dozens of people have come to visit every day to show their solidarity with the family and the village.Credit: Emil Salman

Since his release from jail, he was mostly helping his father tend their herd. “He has 10 sheep that he really loves,” his mother said. Friday, the day he was shot in the neck, he had planned to celebrate his 24th birthday with his fiancée, Du’a. They were supposed to get married in another two months. 

Since Friday, dozens of people have come to visit every day to show their solidarity with the family and the village.
Israel has been demanding that residents of 12 villages permanently vacate their homes so that the area can be used for military exercises.

Khirbet al-Rakiz has been officially excluded eventually from this list, but the ban on any construction and connecting to the water and electricity infrastructure is still on. The Civil Administration considers the Hebron Hills a priority for enforcing demolition orders, as the head of the Civil Administration, Ghassan Alyan told a Knesset hearing in a presentation entitled “Preventing a Palestinian Takeover of Area C.”

In November, the Civil Administration demolished a house that the Harun Abu Aram family had completed there two weeks earlier. For decades, the family had been living in a cave that was plagued by leaks and deterioration. They have now returned to the cave. The abu Aram's home is just one of five that the Civil Administration has demolished there in the past three months. 

The forces sent in to carry out the demolitions also dismantled the water connection that had been installed by the villages' council. Now they as other families have to rely on supplies from water tanks that cost them 400 shekels ($124) per month, which is well beyond their means. 

On a hilltop north of the caves and huts of Khirbet al-Rakiz, one can clearly see the houses in the Jewish settlement of Ma’on. Farsi Abu Aram, who is 47, said she saw the construction for the settlement start when she was about 7 years old and went out to herd livestock. 

“The settlers tell us that we had migrated here not long ago,” said Abu Aram’s son-in-law, Hamed al-Nawaja’a. “I work in Israel and with every Israeli whom I ask, one comes from Morocco, the second one from Russia, while our parents and [their] grandparents and so forth were born here.”

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