Palestinians Are Home for the Holiday – at Least for Now

Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy
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Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy

Othman Abu Kabeita drove this week to bring his family food for the Id al-Fitr holiday marking the end of Ramadan - bottles of cola and date cookies, as usual. But Abu Kabeita, who was driving alone, according to his brother Abbas, had the audacity to drive on a dirt path that the Israel Defense Forces has deemed is only for the use of Palestinian tractors. An IDF force appeared immediately, as did the police. A policeman gave Abu Kabeita a NIS 1,000 fine, but an IDF officer decided to confiscate his car as well. Now the jack and the bottle of motor oil for the car are sitting on the floor of the Abu Kabeita family's cave, while the vehicle is parked at the military facility near the Beit Yatir checkpoint.

The IDF Spokesman's Office said the soldiers, in cooperation with Israel police, "carried out an activity ... in the course of which the vehicle of a driver of illegal residents was confiscated and transferred to the police. At the conclusion of the police investigation of the issue the fate of the vehicle will be decided. It should be noted that this is a vehicle that lacks the registration and licensing required by law, and belongs to a driver who collaborates with illegal residents."

Welcome to the land of the caves in the south Hebron hills, where the ongoing and systematic attempt by Israel to remove residents from these dwellings, as well as tents and homes, continues, on behalf of all the Jewish settlements, outposts and farms that have cropped up here in the last few years. Recently there has been an increase in the confiscation of cars and tractors, in addition to demolitions and the expropriation of water containers - the same types of activities Palestinians in the Jordan Valley are facing.

Such was the start of Id al-Fitr, one of the most important Muslim holidays, for the Abu Kabeita family. Abbas, welcomed in the holiday last Sunday, sitting alone in his family's cave watching his tiny television set. At least he, who lives in a strange and crowded enclave behind the Yatir checkpoint, bordering the settlement of Beit Yatir, has solar electricity.

But the other families we visited over the holiday are not so lucky. They lack not only power, but running water as well. In the past few months, the Israel Civil Administration destroyed the electricity poles in the area; they are still lying crushed in the Fakara compound, in the cave-neighborhood of the Hamamdi family.

Meanwhile, another four new trailer homes were erected recently in Mitzpeh Avigayil, the nearby illegal outpost, the reason that the IDF has been trying to evacuate Fakara for the past few years. Here's what the Mount Hebron Regional Council says about the outpost on its website: "In all the communities of Mount Hebron there are attractive permanent homes, playgrounds and lawns, well-developed transportation, electricity and water infrastructure, educational and cultural institutions and many memories of the early years ... In Mitzpeh Avigayil they are living the memories that veteran communities have managed to forget."

It's all true: playgrounds, lawns, electricity and water infrastructure in an outpost named after the wife of the biblical Nabal the Carmelite. The street lamps of the settlement shine day and night. At its foot, in Fakara, live 16 families, about 180 souls, in harsh conditions, without electricity or water. Only the three new trailer homes - provided to the village by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs - lend the place a semi-modern look. Those homes were a replacement for the caves that were destroyed, but Israel has issued demolition orders against them as well.

Mahmoud Hamamdi is the unofficial leader of the Fakara village and of its battle to stay on the land. He is 47 years old and, like his father and grandfather, was born here in the cave.

Mitzpeh Avigayil was built overnight, on Yom Kippur, in 2001.

Last week forces from the IDF and the Civil Administration raided the village and photographed every cave and every tent, every bathroom and every sheep pen. The entire area, except for Mitzpeh Avigayil, was declared an IDF training area.

"That's the politics of the State of Israel," says Hamamdi, "to come and say that our village is a closed military area but not the settlement. Any child will laugh at these politics. There's no country that evicts residents because of a firing range. Why wasn't there a firing range in the 1980s, and now there is? Only because Avigayil was built here. Everything is because of the settlers. What an embarrassment it will be for the State of Israel if they evacuate us and not the settlers."

All the village children were dressed festively for the holiday today - meaning new T-shirts over ragged everyday pants for the boys, and colorful lace dresses for the girls. After the morning prayer came the family visits, the heart and soul of this holiday that brings an end to the hot and difficult Ramadan month of fasting. According to tradition, brothers travel to visit their sisters.

Hamamdi, for example, traveled this morning to visit his sisters in Yatta, and brought them special gifts for the holiday: a handful of bananas, some apples and NIS 100 for each one. It's the custom, he says: "We explain to our children on the holiday that we're living on our land. That land is more important than children. Children - you can take another wife and make more children, but not land. I saw Palestinian refugees in Lebanon on television, how they cry on the holiday. They have children but they don't have land. They've lost everything. Land is more important than you yourself are. If you die, you die, but as long as you're alive you have to guard the land. That's what we explain to the children today. I bought them new clothes, and the main thing is for them to understand that this is their place."

This is Hamamdi's first holiday without his eldest son: Mohammed has been in prison in Israel for two months, after being caught living illegally in Rahat, where he worked. He was sentenced to four-and-a-half months in jail and his father does not even know where his son is being held. This morning, Mohammed phoned his father in honor of the holiday. Hamamdi says that it would have been better had he not called: "Every year he's with us and it's hard this time."

Here too, last week, they confiscated two cars of residents who were driving in the "firing range."

Some two dozen men from Yatta enter the cave, paying a holiday visit. They shake hands, drink tea, munch on date cookies and remain silent in the cool space, with "air conditioning from Allah." Hamamdi says that tomorrow he'll go back to working with the sheep, although Id al-Fitr lasts for three days.

"It's like your holidays," he tells his Jewish guests. "You have a holiday of seven days and you don't work, you only impose a closure on the territories. We have only two holidays a year and we work even on them. All during Ramadan we didn't think about the eviction. But now, with Ramadan over, we've started thinking about it again."

In the afternoon everyone returned from the family visits to their tents and caves; a burning-hot sun was high in the sky of this hilly desert. One neighbor, Fadel Hamamdi, gathered his family in one of the "defiance houses" that was recently built here with the help of international volunteers and the members of Ta'ayush, a Jewish-Arab partnership working for coexistence. It's a hut of gray bricks, without mortar and without a roof; they're living there instead of in a cave that was destroyed.

An infant coos from his iron cradle, completely wrapped in a thin blanket to protect him from the rays of the sun that beat through the cloth roof of the uncompleted house. Ezra Nawi, one of the most dedicated Ta'ayush activists, who comes to this land of the caves almost every day, embraces the tiny baby, whose name is Ahmed, and says: "He doesn't know yet what kind of life awaits him here." Nawi is distributing balloons here today to all the children in the area, and there is great happiness.

In the neighboring Bir Ayad cave-village, there is even greater joy. Ismail Adara has 33 children, he is 67 years old and married to four women, two of them here in the cave and another two in Dirat, another hamlet on the mountain. In Dirat the authorities have already destroyed almost everything belonging to him, but have not yet done so here. His wives and children are inside. Adara welcomes us in a white tent. Thanks to the Palestinian aid organization Comet-ME there is solar electricity in the dwellings, and batteries and other electrical equipment are kept inside and protected.

Adara's hundreds of offspring, his children and grandchildren, have come today to visit him. His village is planted between Mitzpeh Yair and Lucifer Farm, and sometimes the settlers destroy the pipes that bring water to the slope from the well. The sight of the dozens of children blowing up the balloons that Nawi brought them, and then proudly displaying them, gives the village a joyous appearance, even if it is the joy of the poor and oppressed.

Jubilation, albeit momentary, among cave-dwellers in Bir Ayad.Credit: Alex Levac