Twilight Zone /'It's Better in Darfur'

Who said Israel doesn't evacuate illegal outposts? Twice the Civil Administration bulldozed the tent encampment of shepherds in the northern Jordan Valley.

A cloud of dust rose up, covering the desert landscape. A white jeep and a white truck descended from the hills - the auxiliary convoy of the International Red Cross is approaching. A Darfur-like sight with Swiss license plates. They have brought tents, blankets, canned food and household utensils, just like those brought to Darfur by similar convoys.

"It's better in Darfur. The whole world is interested in Darfur, and nobody is interested in us," sighs elderly shepherd Abdul Rahim Basharat (Abu Saker). This is the second time the Red Cross has come to him in recent days. The second time the Civil Administration, which upholds the law, has been seen here, in the middle of nowhere, bulldozing the miserable tent camps of the shepherds and destroying them totally.

Who said that Israel doesn't evacuate illegal outposts? Who said the law is not upheld in the West Bank? Look at the ruins of this miserable encampment - populated by "squatters," according to the Civil Administration spokesman - with dozens of chickens and barefoot children running round, helplessly seeking shelter from the burning sun in the middle of the desert in midsummer.

Yes, the High Court of Justice long ago confirmed that these are "illegal structures"; yes, everything is being done here according to the law. But what about justice? Where will these shepherds go - men who have been using this area for decades? And what kind of injunction is it that rules that they are squatters while the settlers around them are considered legal residents? And what kind of heroism is it to evacuate these most helpless of all people, rather than the violent, tough inhabitants of the illegal outposts, which are cropping up on every hillside?

These are questions that hang, unanswered, in the air, in the deserted Jordan Valley area, and in Humsa and Hadidiya, two remote villages where these shepherds are trying to find grazing areas for their cattle, their only source of livelihood. Oh, how efficient the occupation machine is! Not a single tent is hidden from it here, at the edges of a battered and bleeding country.

"To the valley from the Gilead / A young black lamb descended / A bleating ewe is crying in the sheep pen / It's her little son who is lost," wrote Leah Goldberg. How we love the shepherds: Dozens of songs have been written about the shepherd and his sheep, the joy of our lives; there is no other calling with as romantic an aura in our short mythology here. But nobody is going to write a song about these shepherds and flocks. Goldberg's "bleating ewe, crying" doesn't even have a pen now.

We left the empty Allon Road and descended to a dirt road, raising a trail of dust behind us, driving after the car of the local B'Tselem researcher, Attaf Abu Rob. Young deer frolicked near the green vineyards of Bekaot, a grass-covered settlement in the middle of the desert. The settlement of Ro'i in the distance is also verdant; there is no water shortage there.

After driving past several kilometers of sand, we arrived at the compound of the Basharat family: a pile of ruins. Last week the Civil Administration descended on them once again, confiscated a tractor and a water tank, almost their only means of survival, and destroyed the tents along with the pathetic property around them. Now the household utensils, the mattresses and the children are scattered under the sky. Chickens and dogs crowd together in the shade of the new water tank they have brought in. Five sheep have already died from the heat; a few more pregnant ewes miscarried.

About 30 souls live here; most are runny-nosed, neglected children. They are natives of the town of Tamun, but the source of their livelihood and the center of their lives is here, where the extended family raises 700 head of sheep. In the summer everyone is together; in the winter the women and children are in Tamun and the men remain with the flocks.

We sit in the shade of used flour sacks stretched between wooden poles, a substitute for the tents that were destroyed. The women crowd together on the ground behind a curtain made from another sack of flour. There is no electricity, no water, no sewer, no school. Nothing. Despite their lifestyle, these people are not Bedouin but rather Palestinian shepherds - even if the documents of the omniscient Civil Administration sometimes indicate otherwise. Abu Saker says his father was born here, too. For decades they have been shepherds in these deserted areas. So who are they disturbing, for goodness sake?

Abu Saker: "They want an empty area. They want to cause us suffering so we'll leave. It's part of the struggle against the Palestinians."

Since 1997 the administration has been persecuting them here. Before that they tried to gather them in closed encampments, to limit their freedom of movement; now they want to expel them entirely. Previously these people could travel to Tamun via the hills. Now the Israel Defense Forces has dug anti-tractor trenches and they have to travel four times as far to Tamun, not including the checkpoints along the way, which allow only those whose addresses are registered on their ID cards to descend to the Jordan Valley.

On Thursday of last week, at about 8:30 A.M., the demolition convoy arrived. A bulldozer, jeeps, trucks, the Civil Administration, the army - all those who uphold the law. Without a word they carried out their despicable work: Within an hour not a peg was left in place. The tents, the lean-to, the sheep pen, everything was trampled. In the evening the demolition team returned home. What did they say about their day's work? That they destroyed tents? That they harmed innocent shepherds? That they upheld the law. The operation was successful.

Shepherd Mustafa Basharat, a father of six: "What will we resist? How will we resist? Do we have a way to resist?" They sat silently, watching their lives being destroyed. The demolition team had been there 10 days earlier, and will probably be back again. They put the confiscated tractor and water tank on the truck, so no water will remain for the residents, God forbid. Only two tiny beehives remained in place, alongside the ruins. Maybe they were hidden from sight or the demolishers were simply negligent in carrying out their task.

The faces of the shepherds are tired, wrinkled by the sun. In February they were expelled from nearby Hadidiya and moved here, after failing the High Court test. Eran Ettinger, a senior deputy of the state prosecutor, wrote at the time to the court: "The decisions of the relevant planning institution on the matter of these structures were made on the basis of a professional planning standpoint, and there is no place for the intervention of this respected court in them."

Abu Saker picks up a rusty sheet of tin, lying on the sand: "Is this what you call a structure?"

A donkey is standing, tied, in the sun, thirsty for water. Where do you sleep, we ask. "Here." Where is here? "Here, on the ground."

Abu Saker: "Where should we go? Half a kilometer down, half a kilometer up. Where will we take 700 sheep?" Have you thought of selling the flock and leaving, we ask. "Of course. If the government opens up possibilities for us to work, we'll leave. But who will take us? We've never studied anything; we're shepherds. If we live here, like this, it's only because we have no other choice. Who would agree to live in these conditions? Does anyone in Israel live this way? But even in these conditions they don't let us live. Politics don't interest us. Who are we endangering here? Give us food to feed our children and we'll give you the flock. There is no other way - either to be shepherds, or to be thieves. If we sell the flock, that will be our only choice. But we don't want to be thieves."

In the adjacent encampment sits Abdullah Bani Oudi, leaning on his stick. About 60, he is partially paralyzed in both legs, and barely manages to stand up; his situation has worsened in recent years. He sits on the remains of a plastic chair that was rescued from the ruins, under fabric stretched between two poles. His tent was also destroyed, just as in the case of his neighbors.

"Israel Defense Forces. Injunction regarding security (Judea and Samaria) No. 378 1970. The Civil Administration, the central supervisory unit. Warning regarding the obligation of evacuation from a closed area. A sheep pin + three tents and a lean-to. A tractor, a water tank and a wagon."

The Civil Administration spokesman said in reply to Haaretz: "The structures to which you are referring were constructed illegally. Therefore, the supervisory unit of the Civil Administration carried out the final demolition orders, which are impending against them. The implementation of the demolition order against the illegal structures in Hadidiya has even been examined twice by the High Court, at the request of the local residents, and in both petitions the position of the Civil Administration was accepted."

The green of the surrounding settlements irritates, mocks, the misery of these people's lives. From the Red Cross truck the assistance being offered by the world to the refugees of Humsa is being unloaded. The group of shepherds indifferently observes what is going on. The Swiss woman checks the lists, the Palestinian driver unloads mattress after mattress, tent after tent, coffee set after coffee set. Everyone here knows that in a few days, they will also be destroyed.