Twilight Zone / Refugee Redux

The first time, 1948; the second time: 2007. Some 150 Palestinians who lived for years near the Tarqumiya crossing have been evicted from their homes again.

The old ruins can still be detected among the prickly pear cacti in the fields of Kibbutz Beit Guvrin. The newer ruins stand out on the hills above the huge checkpoint that is slowly being built not far away, at the Tarqumiya crossing. Abd al-Halim Natah is very familiar with both. He was a small child when his family was forced to leave their village, Beit Jubrin, and today he is an old man who is once again being forced to take his possessions, his children and his sheep, and leave his home. Israel is evicting him for a second time. The encampments and cave-homes in which he, his family and his neighbors live have been trampled because of the mega-checkpoint that is being built on the other side of the Green Line, on the site that has been their home for decades.

Now Natah is living in a building under construction - a temporary refugee, exposed to the cold and the winds, without electricity or running water, with the sheep in the yard, until he finds himself a new house. He is not alone: Along with him about 150 men, women, old people and children were evicted - members of several families who lived in the tiny village of Qasa, which Israel evacuated. They were evicted suddenly, the way sheep or animals are driven out, without being given alternative housing, without anyone taking an interest in their fate or where they should go or what they would do with their thousands of sheep, virtually the only things they own.

The evacuation of the "outposts" is continuing quietly: While Israel continues to postpone removal of every illegal trailer home that defiantly appeared in the middle of the night, it is evicting hundreds of Palestinians who have lived in various places for years and have nowhere to go. A small, involuntary transfer; some of those affected marched kilometers from their homes once before, carrying their property; now, 60 years later, they once again find themselves going the same route, once again eastward, once again refugees.

"What will come out of Annapolis?" asks Jamal Temaini, mayor of the town of Idna. Most of the evacuees have moved to this town, west of Hebron. A local official takes us to meet some of them. Hundreds of children pour out of the town's school in the early afternoon, every last one of them carrying light-blue schoolbags, a gift from Unicef, the United Nations Children's Fund. It is hard to make one's way through the sea of light blue, in a town that does not have a single sidewalk. Alone at the end of the asphalt road, which turns into a rocky path descending to the valley, perched on the side of the hill, sits the skeleton of a house, whose construction is still far from complete.

They climb the rocky hills, cross a tiny wooden bridge and somehow wriggle into the house by climbing through the window opening. This is where the Natah family now lives, and it's no fun. The parents and the children are on the first floor, a huge space with unplastered walls of gray brick and pane-less windows that overlook the landscape, with plastic sheets only partially covering them. The sheep are in the yard and the basement.

In a frying pan in the center of the residential area, on a pile of burning twigs, the family is preparing a dish of tomatoes and peppers. A cold wind is blowing; we will add another twig to the fire. The smell of the food wafts through the space, mingling with the smell of the smoke.

The ID card of the father of the family, Abd al-Halim Natah, tells the story: Born in Beit Jubrin, it says; 63 years old. In 1948 he was a little boy. During the first five years after the first expulsion they lived in a small village not far from Qasa, and since the early 1950s, so they say, they have lived in caves and in tents pitched in Qasa, on the border of the Green Line - the eastern side, of course.

The land did not belong to them, but to other residents, but they were allowed to live there and graze their sheep. That's how it's been for 50 years for these people, members of 32 nuclear families and their sheep. Abd al-Halim owns 400 head; all the evacuees together have about 3,000. The animals cannot be kept in the crowded town. Nor can they graze on asphalt roads. Some of the evacuees had winter homes in Idna or Dahariya, but they spent most of their time with the sheep in Qasa.

They received the first warning sign of the impending evacuation in April 2006. A man named Hamudi, a member of the Civil Administration (CA) in the region, came to Qasa and told the group that they would have to leave. Natah asked him where they would go: "You expelled us from Beit Jubrin and now we have nowhere to go," he said. Hamudi left without answering. Several weeks later they were handed the evacuation and demolition orders. They tried to tell the people from the CA that they had no houses, only caves and tents, but that didn't help. They hoped for the best and did nothing.

A few weeks ago, the people from the CA came again. This time the group of some 150 people were given three days to evacuate the area. That was several months after the start of construction of the Tarqumiya crossing, which is located east of the original checkpoint, beneath their homes. Four days later the demolition crew arrived. With bulldozers and shovels, "like those of the vehicles that clear away garbage," according to Natah, they wrecked the small community.

Next to the opening of one cave, where there were still sheep, there was an argument that escalated into violence. The sheep were rescued in the end, but that was the residents' only accomplishment. Even the fact that in recent months their freedom of movement had been limited and they had therefore stored large quantities of feed for the sheep, proved to be a problem: Many of the sacks were torn, trampled and destroyed.

At 2 A.M. the demolition work was completed. An officer from the CA told the group that "by 5 P.M. not a single person will remain here." Abd al-Halim tried to talk to the CA people. "You're a good man," they told him, and were kind enough to postpone the evacuation until the next afternoon. Afterward, the CA officials threatened, they would confiscate every sheep remaining on the site, and any person still found there would be arrested.

At night they slept under the sky, among the ruins. People from the Green Patrol, the group that is supposed to protect nature, came the next day and tried to confiscate the sheep. The members of the Natah, Abu Sadoun, Temaini and Awridat families, the residents of the compound, left the site, trying to salvage the remains of their property and, mainly, their livestock.

They went east on foot. With their mattresses, their water containers, their blankets, their sacks of feed and herd of sheep - once again, a procession of refugees as before, in '48. Like then, this time, too, they scattered in all directions. Some of them went to the homes of relatives in Idna, others went to Dahariya, which is further away. The Natahs settled in the skeleton of the new home of Taysir Tmeizi, at the end of Idna, about two kilometers from their former home in the cave. Tmeizi allowed them to live in his house until they find another place for themselves. A large house that is not yet completed was turned into a combination house-sheep pen. Isn't it cold at night? "It's very cold, but where can we go?" replies Natah.

A CA spokesman, Captain Tzadki Maman, said in response that, "the compound in question is a declared archaeological site. In 2001 it was first invaded and illegal construction was started by one family, which was joined by another family in 2004. In accordance with the law, and after following all requisite procedures, including permitting the right to a hearing and providing an opportunity to try to legalize the construction, demolition and eviction orders were carried out already in 2004 against the illegal construction at the site. After this, the families returned to the site and engaged in more illegal building, against which the requisite procedures were also implemented. In 2007 there was additional illegal construction on the site, which expanded the size of the structures significantly. At the time of the submission of the eviction order no more than 25 residents were living at the site. We can refute their claims that they lived on the site prior to 2001, on the basis of aerial photos that we have. We would also like to point out that these are residents of the village of Idna, who have plenty of opportunity for construction adjacent to their village."

Now they have begun to sell off some of the sheep, to pay for the purchase of new sacks of feed for the remaining animals. In the basement they built an improvised sheep pen; dozens of lambs bleated there this week, eating grain and chewing on the limestone rocks that surround the half-built basement. One sick sheep remained in the yard, refusing to stand up while the herd went to graze in the surrounding hills. Abd al-Halim tried to get the sick sheep to stand up, in vain. Her fate is apparently sealed.

The women of the family worked hard this week carrying the sacks of animal feed and unloading them in the yard. Only once since the eviction has Abd al-Halim visited his village. That was when the members of B'Tselem, Najib Abu Rokaya and Musa Abu Hashhash, wanted to take his picture on the backdrop of the ruins. Since then he hasn't returned there; the building at the new checkpoint prevents him from getting there.

What will you do? I ask Natah. His reply is a question: "What will we do?"