Worried about fires, they moved up the wheat harvest, even though the crop still wasn’t ready. No, this is not about the fields of the kibbutzim near the Gaza border, but Palestinian land in the northern Jordan Valley. Six fires that didn’t make it into the headlines in Israel broke out there from the middle of the week of May 5, four of them this past week and all as a result of military exercises.
When it became known that the army planned to hold live-fire exercises during most of Ramadan and the Eid al-Fitr holiday in the middle of their fields and grazing land, the first thing many landowners and tenant farmers did was rent combines and send them to the carpets of wheat and barley. Having learned from experience, they knew that the intensive exercises in the harsh heat would cause fires and wanted to rescue as much of their invested energy and money they could.
They also assumed that there would be no one to put out the fires that were far enough from the army bases and settlements, but close to the community of herders. Naturally, when a fire breaks out, the shepherds first try to extinguish it by themselves, but especially during periods of live-fire training exercise the fear is that a dud piece of ammunition will blow up in their hands.
Like a faded Van Gogh painting, last Tuesday the bales of hay between the cut stalks greeted everyone coming to Khirbet Khumsa al-Foqa – five groups of Bedouin shepherds from the Abu al-Kabash family, who live only a few hundred meters from one another at the edges of curving and yellow hills in a dozen shades. East of Allon Road, the communities are raising more than 1,000 sheep and sow wheat and barley for home consumption, on land they lease from the residents of the town of Tamun. The groups received the orders to move their encampments the week before because of the exercises in the area, known as Firing Zone 903.
“We were surprised, of course we were surprised,” said Harb Abu al-Kabash. “We didn’t think they would come to train in the month of Ramadan. Once they respected Ramadan, but no longer.”
Someone in the family tent remembered that there was an exercise in Ramadan a year or two ago, but only for one day. This is the plan of the exercises for this year, which Yigal, a coordinator in Israel's Civil Administration, gave them when he arrived in a jeep with three other soldiers to give the evacuation orders for 98 people, including 56 children.
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From Sunday 2 P.M. to Monday 10 A.M. From Monday 4 P.M. to Tuesday 10 A.M. Wednesday 7 A.M. to 2 P.M. And so on for four weeks, including the first day of the Eid al-Fitr holiday.
Told where to go
On Sunday this past week, just before 2 P.M., five military jeeps were at the encampment, with Yigal in one of them, to make everyone leave their homes. “Go to Atuf,” the soldiers told Yasser Abu al-Kabash, who is from the easternmost encampment.
Atuf is a community in Area B of the West Bank. During previous evacuations and house demolitions, people said the representative of the Civil Administration or the army told them “go to Area B,” which is under Palestinian civil control. In other words, forever.
The people began to leave. Some in trucks, others by tractor, some in an ancient Skoda and others on foot. Everyone was fasting from 4 A.M., and ahead of them were more than five more hours of the daily fast.
Seven Palestinian journalists and the field researcher for the rights group Al-Haq came to Harb Abu al-Kabash’s encampment to document the evacuation. The researcher, Fares Fuqha, told Haaretz that everyone was arrested because they were in a closed firing zone and were taken to a military camp in the Umm Zuka nature reserve (Arayot Hayarden), where they were held until 8:30 P.M. Everything they photographed was erased at the soldiers’ orders. Fuqha wasn’t allowed to call his family or colleagues and explain what happened.
When the time came for the meal to break the fast and they were still in the camp, “we didn’t receive water to drink or anything to eat,” he said. The journalists’ two cars were seized because of entering a closed firing zone, but Fuqha told Haaretz that the cars were returned on Wednesday.
Harb Abu al-Kabash and his two brothers moved the adult sheep with their families – 26 members all together. The lambs, including some two months and two weeks old – “soft as chicks” – and the sheep who gave birth were left in their pens. During the break in the exercises Monday, between 10 A.M. and 4 P.M., the men hurried to the tents to attend to the lambs. Then they left them behind, again.
“When we returned in the morning,” said Harb’s wife Layla, “we heard them bleating and crying from fear and thirst. They forced us to leave in the past, by why during Ramadan? And in this heat?”
The thermometer in the car showed 43 degrees Celsius (109 Fahrenheit). In the more distant tent encampment, Yasser’s, all the sheep were left in a pen while the 12 family members were forced to leave on Sunday afternoon. It's too far for the sheep to the plain along the road, where the communities spread out for two straight nights.
“The entire time I thought about what was happening to them,” Yasser said. “Once, a few years ago, a shell fell right next to us. I was wounded once from shrapnel. What if the fire reaches them and there’s no one to save them?”
When they returned Tuesday, the first thing one of the sons, Saned, did was take the restless sheep out to pasture. Yasser's eldest son, Ahmed, is in his fourth year studying dentistry at Al-Quds University. Immediately after he found out about the evacuation, he drove north to be with his family during these difficult days. “I want my daughter to be a lawyer,” said Yasser, the father, who only finished fourth grade.
“We didn’t manage to sleep for the two nights we were outside the house,” Layla said. They stayed outside, women, children, babies, youths and men, without a roof over their heads and with a few blankets and jerricans of water – every community a bit away from the other on a plain alongside the main road between the settlements of Ro’i and Beka’ot.
“The girls played in the dust and water,” Layla said. “The smaller ones cried, were frightened by every noise, and fell asleep. We saw civilian cars on the road, Israeli. I don’t know if they saw us.”
She heard noises of explosions and shooting, and was scared. Some said they had the impression that these exercises weren't especially intense. “Normal shooting,” they said.
So what did they eat for iftar, the daily evening meal to break the fast? Everyone answered with a question: “And what would we eat? Bread, tomatoes, Greek yogurt, olives and dates.” Yasser summed it up: “They know that it adds psychological pressure when it’s during Ramadan.”
On Sunday, attorney Roni Peli of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel wrote an urgent letter to Maj. Gen. Nadav Padan, the head of the Israel Defense Forces’ Central Command, asking not to evacuate the families. Peli said that such exercises violate international law. “The scope of the coming exercise is unprecedented,” she wrote. “Even more serious is the fact that the coming month is the month of Ramadan.”
Maj. Hagai Rothstein, the head of operations for the military legal adviser in the West Bank, said that the exercises are essential and that the people were illegally in the area after it was declared a closed military firing zone. Therefore, he said, “the exercises in the firing zone will continue as planned, while evacuating the residents in a temporary and focused manner according to the plan for the exercises.” Not a word about Ramadan and the exceptional length of time for the exercises.
The IDF spokesman also did not comment on Haaretz’s question on the holding of the exercises during Ramadan. The spokesman commented on one of the fires – of the two Haaretz mentioned in its question – broke out “during a routine training exercise of the Kfir base in the firing zone near the town of Beka’ot. The soldiers called in firefighting forces. No one was hurt."
On August 1, 1967, two months after the capture of the West Bank, the commander of the West Bank, Uzi Narkis, signed orders for nine closed areas for training along the eastern strip of the central hills. Firing Zone 903 was one of them in the Tamun Bloc.
This was when the IDF’s training areas were still in Israel, as a researcher on Israeli settlement policy, Dror Etkes, noted in his 2015 study “A Locked Garden.” That document shows how the large-scale “closing of territories” for various reasons was intended from the beginning to make the Israeli takeover of the Palestinian territory easier.
Today Firing Zone 903 covers 80,000 dunams (20,000 acres). According to the study, only 19 percent of that is used for training. About 15,700 dunams was declared “state-owned land." In other words, even Israel recognizes that the great majority is registered and known to be under private ownership. In 1979, the settlement of Hemdat was established as a Nahal outpost inside the firing zone and it became a civilian community in 1991. In 1999, the firing zone's borders were amended in a way that added to the settlement about 700 more dunams.
Unrelated to this change, Etkes writes that “it's clear that construction of a civilian settlement in the heart of a training area, which in practice surrounds it on every side, shows that it cannot be that this is entirely a training area, because a civilian community cannot exist in the heart of an active training area.”
On Thursday, Peli filed a petition to the High Court of Justice in the names of Yasser and Walid Abu al-Kabash, requesting a halt to the evacuation of the families during Ramadan and the beginning of the holiday.
“The army has already admitted that it uses exercises to try to force the Palestinians in the Jordan Valley to leave the place,” she wrote in the petition. “As if the regular bullying were not enough, this time they went even further and decided to harm the residents during the most important religious period and at a time when they are fasting.”