Amjed Zahweh is 10 days old. Last week, Civil Administration inspectors demolished his family's tent in the Jordan Valley. Now he's lying in his iron crib, covered with a blanket and rags in the stifling heat. His family sprawls on the ground near him in the tent that was destroyed but was rebuilt again this week. With them are dozens of families that live without running water, without electricity, without minimal sanitary conditions. Across from their encampment are verdant settlements.
We have visited here dozens of times in recent years. This time we heard that the Civil Administration had apprised some 40 families in the northern part of the valley that they had a few hours to vacate their homes and encampments for a period of 24 hours, because of a live-fire drill by the Israel Defense Forces. The announcement came practically without warning, and none of the families was offered an alternative dwelling.
In the Jordan Valley, which a majority of Israelis do not consider to be occupied land per se, there actually aren't any fanatical settlers with long earlocks. Here we are dealing with moshavniks. From their zooming cars they can see a barrier of dirt dozens of kilometers long that Israel built in recent years, to imprison the Palestinian occupants of Ain al-Hilweh, thus preventing them from being able to reach the road easily. "Good" Israelis - who rush to volunteer for relief and rescue delegations dispatched to the four corners of the earth - do not come here in response to the humanitarian disaster that is taking place just an hour-and-a-half's drive from Tel Aviv and about an hour from Jerusalem.
Only a handful of Israeli women, those from the Machsom Watch organization, are still coming here, to provide some humanitarian aid and to try bring this locally made disaster to the knowledge of Israelis and the world.
Arif Daraghmah stops his car on the deserted road. He heads the regional council on behalf of the Palestinian Authority and he shows us a thriving olive grove belonging to the settlement Rotem that was planted on lands that once belonged to Palestinians.
Some 450 families live in Daraghmah's district. Ain al-Hilweh is in the Hamam al-Maliah region, in the northern part of the valley. "Why don't they do live fire exercises in the settlements too?" he asks.
During the next hours we will drive along the rocky paths to encampments of the region's residents, one after the other, each with its own story of hardship. At the entrance to all of these encampments, the IDF installed concrete blocks two years ago that declare this living space a firing range.
In the first tent: Bissan is on the ground, her legs crooked and distorted, paralyzed from the waist down. This child, 7 years old, was also compelled to vacate her tent last week with her family, in honor of the IDF excercise. They received notice that they must be gone by 6 P.M. the following day, for 24 hours, with no recourse to appeal. She spent a day and a night last week as well, under the heavens at the side of the road. After he was ordered to do so, her father loaded her onto the tractor cart, along with the rest of the family, 13 children, and took them to their place of refuge on the side of the road until the exercise was over.
Bissan's brother Ali, 14, was just then recovering from abdominal surgery at Rafidia Hospital in Nablus. Now he is here as well, in the tent, exposing his scarred abdomen to the photographer at his mother's request. His sister's dilapidated wheelchair lies tossed in the back of the tent.
"We live here, our children live here, in peace we live here - so why do you [Israelis] do this to us? How is this tent in your way? We didn't do anything, we only live here to provide for our children. And if you want to get us out of here, give us another place. In any case this is not a life here. And that I will tell you many more times today," Daraghmah says, adding, "The settlers from Maskiyot say that they don't want to see Arabs from their windows."
Some of the lands here are privately owned, by Palestinians or the Church, and the goatherds pay the owners leasing fees. They do not have building permits, nor any chance of getting them.
We head down the hill to the Zahweh family's tent. An UN Releif and Works Agency team was here this morning leading a program for the kids, who have nothing to do during the summer vacation. Their school is 10 kilometers away. The kids from the area gathered here this morning beneath the family tent that arose on the ruins of their previous tent; the folks from UNRWA handed out puzzles, paper and crayons, juice boxes and chocolate cake. A short while later the UN people drove off in their jeep and all the puzzles remained dispersed on the floor of the tent. The children went back inside.
Eid Zahweh, in the next tent, is a scion of a clan of Bedouin refugees from the Negev. The white jeep of the Civil Administration reached him too last week, and informed him and his family about the fire drill. Zahweh, too, loaded up his two wives and 12 children. "It's the government - what can I do," he says. He left the flock at the encampment. Not long ago, in Ramallah, he bought himself a tiny solar device for generating electricity, for NIS 1,100, and since then he and his family can watch television.
We drove a little eastward, to Al-Mitta. Amid the demolished tents sits Ibrahim Abu Sabha, 64. His tent was knocked down last week as well, and the trailer containing his water receptacle was confiscated. He says that the inspectors showed up at 6 A.M., shoved a form into his hands, and returned at 9 to raze his tent. Now he is already building new one, with the help of his sons, out of pipes and sacks. Abu Sabha says that he has lived in the area for 40 years, all his children were born here, and for 10 years he has dwelled in this exact same spot.
Two weeks ago, the Civil Administration arrived. According to the residents, its inspectors emptied out the water from the receptacles, right in front of the children. Twelve water trailers were confiscated in recent weeks by the inspectors and have not been returned to their owners.
"Just let people live!" Daraghmah exclaims over and over. He produces the document file on the residents in his voting jurisdiction: It contains 150 stop-work, vacate and demolition orders. One details meticulously the confiscation of a water trailer: "The Israel Defense Forces - the Civil Administration for the Judea and Samaria region. The Central Inspection Unit. Order regarding defense instructions No. 5730, 1970. Seizure of goods No. 42/12. By the authority vested in me by Clause No. 80 of the order regarding defense instructions, I seized the goods detailed immediately below. Reason for the seizure: There is cause to suspect that an offense was committed with regard to the goods, in violation of the law and/or the defense legislation. There is cause to suspect that the ... goods were used to commit an offense. Detailed goods: Water trailer. Gray with a green number on it. Storage place of the goods: Beit El. Seizure performed by: Avi, inspection coordinator. Telephone for inquiries: 02-9704656.
Avi must love his job. He probably returned home in the evening, and rushed to take a shower in his house. I imagine Avi likes the water pressure in the shower to be nice and strong.
The IDF Spokesman's Office told Haaretz, in response to a request for comment: "In recent weeks, we have witnessed a growing phenomenon of Palestinian residents in the area stealing water from the existing pipeline at the Hamam al-Maliah intersection. As part of the law-enforcement activity to battle this phenomenon, the water tanks were confiscated, on suspicion of water theft from the pipeline in question. It should be emphasized that under the law, the owners of the containers are entitled to apply to Civil Administration officials to request the containers be released, but such a request has yet to be made by the owners."