The Illegal Settler Outpost Has Running Water. Its Palestinian Neighbors Don't. This Is Apartheid at Its Starkest

The activists who were attacked by Israeli soldiers in the South Hebron Hills were bringing water to the Hamamdi family – who are denied that resource by Israel. Opposite them are the water pipes and electric cables of an outlaw settler outpost

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Ahmad Hamamdi at his farm.
Ahmad Hamamdi at his farm.Credit: Alex Levac

The yellowish water in the large plastic jug is for irrigating the crops. The clear water in the 1.5-liter plastic bottles is for drinking. Ahmad Hamamdi, a 71-year-old farmer, displays the wretched water system of his well-tended and almost miraculous homestead. Up the hill is the half-wrecked pen he tried to build for his 10 sheep. Opposite the small cabin he resides in are the ruins of another room he built. Between them lie torn seats removed from old cars, along with other junk. The sight evokes a village in the Afghan mountains. But we’re not two hours from Kabul, we’re two hours from Tel Aviv, across from the unauthorized settler outpost called Avigayil, which is of course hooked up to the water system and the power grid, and to which an illegally built road leads, here in the South Hebron Hills.

Umm al-Shukkhan is home to three elderly persons: Ahmad Hamamdi, a straight-backed, resilient man with a hearing aid; Halimi, his wife, 67; and her sister, Zarifi, a mentally disabled woman, aged 52. Zarifi is a pitiable sight. She doesn’t utter a sound, her gaze is mostly fixed on the ground, occasionally she clasps her face in her hands. Her sister and brother-in-law see to all her needs – she is wearing a fine, clean, striped robe. Ahmad and Halimi’s 12 children have all married and left home, and against all the odds and against the violence of the occupation authorities and the hostile local settlers, the couple have created a splendid single-family farm.

Ahmad built a fence around the pomelo tree, and when troops of the military government’s Civil Administration arrived to uproot it, two years ago, he begged in the name of the tree’s soul, shouted haram – “have pity” – and succeeded in staying the executioner’s hand. Also spared were the tomato, okra and cucumber plants, along with the five beehives and the lemon tree. In place of the 150 olive trees that were uprooted two years ago, he quickly planted a few dozen new ones, which are now blooming. And all of this in the rocky desert land, in the heat of the summer, which so far has refused to abate.

A video of the incident.

Combatants for Peace, an Israeli-Palestinian NGO, chose to come here last Friday, not because this is the only place in the South Hebron Hills that is crying out for water (it isn’t), but because the apartheid here cries out to the heavens more starkly than elsewhere. Unlimited water and a hookup to the electricity grid for the unauthorized outpost of Avigayil, which also has a large, recreational wading pool, and opposite it the compound of the Hamamdi family, which clings to earth that belongs to Halimi’s parents, with no hookup to water or electricity.

Combatants for Peace wanted to bring water to this family, but Maj. Maor Moshe – a deputy battalion commander in the Engineering Corps of the Israel Defense Forces – took a dim view of the plan. His soldiers fired stun and tear-gas grenades at them, one even by aiming at them directly, pushed them back violently and in a fit of unbelievable rage wounded six of them and arrested a few others, in one of the IDF’s ugliest and most repulsive displays in memory. All that remained on the ground from the incident this week were a few plastic bottles and plastic handcuffs.

The Hamamdi family has lived here for the past five years, having moved from the village of Taban, to the west. The South Hebron Hills lie completely in Area C of the West Bank, in which the Palestinians are not allowed to build anything, and where Israel has declared almost everything either state land or a firing zone, the better to expel the Palestinians.

Ahmad serves dark Argaman grapes from the vine under which we’re sitting – large, fleshy, honey-sweet. Last week he laid a screen on the stone pen he built, in order to create shade for his few sheep, but within a short time two Israeli soldiers appeared and ordered him to remove the screen or face arrest. The Avigayil settlers apparently reported this severe security infringement. The screen now lies folded, ashamed, in a corner of the improvised porch, and Ahmad moved the sheep to one of his children in the nearby town of Yatta until the heat lifts. He’ll bring them back after the olive harvest, in October. On the night after he was told to remove the screen, settlers showed up and demolished part of the pen’s walls – the stones now lie scattered on the ground.

Umm al-Shukkhan is home to three: Ahmad Hamamdi, a farmer with a hearing aid; Halimi, his wife, 67; and her mentally disabled sister, Zarifi, 52.Credit: Alex Levac

The Combatants for Peace group bought water for him, and Ahmad hauled the container with his tractor from the nearby village of Tawani. Usually he brings a container, spills the water into the cistern and from there pumps it into a raised container from which the water flows to his crops. It’s a very small tract of land, on which every tree and bush is extraordinarily well cultivated, like the urban vegetable patches in Israeli parks.

Access here is via the paved road to Avigayil, illegally built by the settlers, and then via an extremely bad dirt path to Hamadi’s compound. Last Friday, a few meters before the turnoff to the dirt trail, the Israeli major stopped the tractor, attacked the driver, Ahmad, and confiscated the keys. Water he will not get, that’s an order, not even after MK Mossi Raz (Meretz), who was present, reached an agreement with the officer by which the demonstrators from Combatants for Peace would withdraw and the water container would be allowed to continue on its way. Immediately thereafter, however, the soldiers started to fire the grenades and then Maj. Moshe pounced on one of the demonstrators, and knocked him to the ground. Moshe was subsequently reprimanded. The IDF stated the next day that an investigation, which was carried out by Brig. Gen. Yaniv Alalouf, found that “the army force erred when it decided to use crowd dispersal means of the stun and gas type against the demonstrators, who were bent on carrying out provocations. The officer who was documented pushing a demonstrator was reprimanded by his commanders.”

Hamamdi pays 500 shekels ($155) for 20 cubic meters of water, which lasts for barely two weeks. That’s 1,000 shekels a month for water, which in Avigayil is almost free. “Water is life,” says Nasser Nawaj’ah, a resident of the nearby village of Susiya and the local field researcher for the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem. Nawaj’ah was also present when the soldiers attacked the Combatants for Peace group. Nawaj’ah relates that he didn’t know that the new officer, who has been serving in the region for a few months, is named Maor Moshe – the Palestinians thought his name was Itai, because that’s how he introduced himself. There had already been several violent incidents with him, Nawaj’ah relates, adding that “he does not keep his word.” In this remote region, where every Palestinian hamlet is surrounded by a few outlaw outposts and the battle is for the cleansing of the indigenous inhabitants, every officer is a king.

The illegal settlement of Avigayil.Credit: Alex Levac

A police force that arrived on the scene took the tractor keys from the officer and returned them to Hamamdi, but didn’t allow him to head home. He was compelled to turn around and take the water back to Tawani and leave it there. He’s now very fearful of hauling the container to his home – since the incident he’s been using only plastic bottles. Last April, during Ramadan, the police confiscated his Toyota van, which was “mashtuba” – a vehicle without papers – and now he has a new mashtuba, a rickety Mitsubishi van about which Hamamdi says, “It almost drives.” The tractor and the container are now with his children in Yatta, as he’s afraid they will be confiscated here. Now he plans to find a different way, bypassing Avigayil and far longer, to haul the water. Instead of a quarter of an hour, when it’s in Tawani, it’ll take an hour – whatever it takes to get around his neighbors in Avigayil.

Hamamdi gets electricity from the solar panels that were given to him by the wonderful NGO Comet-ME, which supplies such panels to the remote shepherd communities and villages that Israel doesn’t permit to hook up to the grid. Those panels haven’t been confiscated so far, as they have been in many other locales.

A scrawny ginger cat prowls hungrily around the compound. The family’s living room resembles nothing so much as an especially crowded jail cell: 13 square meters (140 square feet), including a mini-kitchen. This is the space in which three adults, none of them young, one with special needs, live. Three steel beds are arranged in a U around the small room, in the center of which a bag of bread hangs from the ceiling from a rope secured by a hook. A few green tomatoes lie on a rusting tray. The room is dim, the ceiling is made of tin, the kitchen is meager, the clothes too hang on the walls, there is nothing like a closet. The diminutive cave a bit down the hill from this structure contains a chicken coop and a dovecote. Another room, closed off, is used for visits of the couple’s 12 children and their families. Havat Maon, Avigayil and Mitzpeh Yair surround them on three sides, all of them unauthorized outposts, some of their residents violent.

Ahmad’s favorite spot is at the end of his small compound. There, in the shade of a young eucalyptus tree, stands a gray, three-legged plastic chair that is tied to the tree trunk. In place of the missing fourth leg, Ahmad has placed a gray brick. Here he sits solitary and silent, gazing at the desert landscape that is being despoiled before his eyes.

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