'What Hell Feels Like': Israel Demolished This Palestinian Family's Hut. They Have Nowhere to Go

For 20 years, a diabetic woman who is going blind lived with her family in a wretched encampment in the Jordan Valley. In recent weeks, Israeli forces demolished the site twice, and they threaten to return

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Maryam Nawarwa, outside the tent erected by her family.
Maryam Nawarwa, outside the tent erected by her family. Credit: Alex Levac
Gideon Levy
Alex Levac
Gideon Levy
Alex Levac

Here’s what Daphne Banai, a Machsom Watch (Checkpoint Watch) activist, wrote on her Facebook page last weekend: “This is my third visit to them, and each time I return even more distraught and grieving afterward… Maryam is about to lose her leg and her eyesight. Once a month, she gets an injection into her eyes in an attempt to save them. She looks old and frail; she’s diabetic. Lives with her husband... her son and her daughter-in-law on the driest, toughest outskirts of Fasayil,” a village in the West Bank.

“The August-September heat exceeded 45 degrees [Celsius; 113 Fahrenheit] on most days. On August 25, the soldiers arrived early in the morning and demolished the wretched tin huts, the kitchen and the sheep pen. Since then, they have been out in the sun. Other than a small tent donated by the International Red Cross. I’m not able to understand how they survived. We, after 10 minutes, felt that we were about to pass out, and we fled. This is what hell feels like…”

But this wasn’t the end of the ordeals endured by Maryam Nawarwa and her family. The demolition force of the Civil Administration – the Israeli governing body in the territories – returned a month after that initial visit, on September 30, and removed four mobile homes that the Palestinian Authority had donated in order to enable them and a few neighbors to go on living there. And this past, Monday Civil Administration personnel were back, this time only to photograph the shabby tents the family had again erected. The officials also promised to return, to demolish the only residential structure left standing – Maryam’s hut, where her family now huddles together against the heat and where some of them also spend the night – as well as the rickety sheep pen that was rebuilt, where 70 animals are crammed in, seeking shelter from the merciless heat of the Jordan Valley.

It’s a heartbreaking sight: rubble, heaps of garbage, plastic containers, broken pipes and more, and amid it all the sheep and stray dogs – and 54-year-old Maryam, leaning on her cane, groping half-blind among the ruins, one leg swollen after a toe was amputated because of her diabetes. Four other family members also have the disease, but Maryam’s condition is the gravest.

An unusually large measure of insensitivity and lack of compassion are required to demolish this woman’s home. Of all the thousands of houses and mobile homes build with abandon by settlers in every nook and cranny of the West Bank, it’s precisely this encampment, which lies next to an internal road connecting Lower and Upper Fasayil – two tiny Palestinian villages in the valley – that the occupation has decided to enforce its laws, though they are in violation of international law. But when the goal is to cleanse Area C (the part of the territories under full Israeli rule) of as many of its Palestinian inhabitants as possible, it’s the weakest who are chosen first. They are expelled and their tents and shacks are bulldozed, even if they have lived here for two decades.

The Fasayil ruins.
The Fasayil ruins.Credit: Alex Levac

A rickety fan set up outside the hut – the family is still hooked up to the Fasayil power grid – makes a feeble effort to offset the heat. For two weeks now, Imad Nawarwa, at 34 the eldest of Maryam’s children, has stayed home from work as a laborer in the pepper fields and vineyards of the nearby settlement of Tomer, where for a day’s work, he’s paid the exploitative wage of 70 to 80 shekels ($20-$23). He’s afraid to leave his mother and his wife, Dalal, alone in the encampment, in case the army shows up again to wreak destruction. The head of the family, Mussa, 60, has gone to Jericho, about 14 kilometers to the south, to shop and do errands. Six of the nine Nawarawa children live with their parents in the encampment; three daughters have married and left. Imad and Dalal, who smiles shyly from the far side of the makeshift kitchen, have been married for 12 years and are childless, apparently due to the diabetes from which he also suffers. In the past they were offered fertility treatments in Nablus for the prohibitve sum of 15,000 shekels.

The family has been here for 20 years, after moving from the Bethlehem area where they lived in a swath of land between the settlements of Tekoa and Nokdim, after hearing that work was available in the Jordan Valley settlements. Their current neighbors, in the encampment opposite them, are from the Taamra family, the largest clan from the Bethlehem region. Their tents and huts are still standing. Since this is all part of Area C, none of these Palestinians has ever received a permit to live here, nor is there any chance of getting one. A good many of their settler-neighbors on farms and outposts built in violation of Israeli law are a lot less legal.

On the other side of the Nawarwa encampment is a dig that was excavated by Israeli archaeologists years ago, where garbage has collected. For years, Mussa was employed as a guard at the site, continuing with that work even after the dig was completed, although but in recent years his salary hasn’t been paid.

Maryam removes her shoe and shows us the diseased sole of her foot. She is toothless and her deteriorating vision allows her to see only a few meters away; at night she can’t see at all. The injections she gets in a Jericho clinic are intended to save her eyesight, but each injection costs 600 shekels ($177), which is not covered by the Palestinian Authority, and Maryam can no longer afford them.

In all the years the family has lived here they never had any problems with the Civil Administration, they say. Until a year ago, that is, when they received an eviction notice. A lawyer sent by the PA tried to get the order rescinded – unsuccessfully. And then the army showed up.

It was late on the morning of August 25. A large military force with about 15 vehicles and a bulldozer descended upon the site.

“You are forbidden to be here. Leave now,” the troops ordered the family, while demolishing almost everything standing.

The Fasayil ruins.
The Fasayil ruins.Credit: Alex Levac

“We will not leave this place. You are destroying our houses and we will remain on the land,” Mussa replied.

Only Maryam’s hut remained standing, a decrepit structure consisting partly of brick walls and partly of cloth and tin. Also left intact was the family’s tabun oven, its fire fed by sheep droppings.

That night the Nawarawas slept on the ground, together with their herd. The next day the Red Cross brought them four white tents. A few weeks later, on September 20, the PA brought them the four mobile homes, which they placed on the other side of the road that connects Fayasil’s two parts, figuring that if they weren’t allowed on the east side of the road, maybe they could live on the west side. But then it took only a few days for the forces of the Civil Administration to show up and confiscate their new mobile-home dwellings, loading them onto trucks.

At present the father of the family is sleeping outside on top of an iron door that was wrenched from its hinges and somehow escaped destruction; his wife and children sleep on the floor of the one remaining hut, which serves as a kitchen during the day. A small hut housing a toilet, which they received as a donation, is not in use, because the installation was ripped out during demolition of the site. “It’s for decoration,” Imad says, with a biter smile. The family purchases water from a tanker that comes to the site.

This week Haaretz submitted the following question to the office of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories: “On August 25 and again on September 30, forces from the inspection unit of COGAT destroyed the tent encampment of the Nawarwa family in Fasayil, in the Jordan Valley. They have lived there for 20 years. The mother of the family is very ill and has been left without a roof over her head. Why was there a demolition and why now?”

The response from COGAT: “On Tuesday, August 25, the inspection unit from COGAT undertook an enforcement operation against a sheep pen and four tents that were illegally erected, without the requisite permits and authorization, in Petza’el [the nearby settlement] in Area C. Similarly, on Wednesday, September 30, the unit was involved in an enforcement operation against two illegal tents and two tin huts, erected in the same area. We would like to stress that these enforcement activities were carried out in accordance with proper authority and protocol, and in keeping with the order of priorities and operational considerations.”

The Fasayil ruins.
The Fasayil ruins.Credit: Alex Levac

“We have nowhere to go,” Imad tells us, perspiring and exhausted. “I will not sleep on the street. Let the army give me a house in place of the one they destroyed. Until then I am staying here. In the summer it’s very hard, because of the heat, and now winter will come, and it will also be very difficult.”

This week, he and his wife crowded into a small tent they had received from the Red Cross, which can barely accommodate them; next to this meager dwelling lie the ruins of a hut, far more spacious, that was their home. The shattered ceramic tiles spread on the ground were part of the bathroom.

Meanwhile, the stray dogs, too, are trying to grab a bit of shade. Their bodies are festering with sores and bruises, and they wait for scraps of food.

The human rights activist Daphne Banai concluded her post with the following words: “The father of the family, in his misery, tries to persuade us that he is a good citizen, that he and his sons have a clean slate with the Shin Bet security service, that he always, always followed the law. The law of those who expelled his family from the Negev in 1948 and again expelled them from every other place on Earth – and even now, when not even a small slice of hell remains to them, an arid desert where not even a thistle grows, they are bringing down their home on them.”

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