Opinion

Israel's Ethnic Cleansing Continues

Soldiers arriving to prevent Bedouin from grazing their land in the West Bank, August 2019.
Ilana Hammerman

No more occupation? No, that slogan has become hollow. Write it in your opinion pieces, scream it at demonstrations.

Apartheid? Yes, that’s the right term to define the situation in the West Bank. But quashing this apartheid is a far cry because the military and political-power balance binds the hands of those who want to destroy it, both here and around the world.

The civil struggle of the minority we’ve become in Israeli Jewish society could become more focused if we directed it against the ethnic cleansing that has been carried out for years in the Jordan Valley. An ethnic cleansing generated by Jews. In my eyes, the eyes of a Jew, this is still inconceivable.

Once again, this is what it looked like a few days ago. A flock was grazing the yellow grass and thorns, a month-old donkey foal suckled its mother’s teats. The Bedouin shepherd and his 10-year-old son gathered broken twigs from dry trees and lit a small fire to make tea. Sweet tea for them and us – two Israeli women who came to accompany them, one of us a believing Jew, the other secular. Without that Jewish escort, the shepherds there and in many other places in the Jordan Valley don’t go out to the pasture.

At the edge of the plot where the small herd was grazing, fields stretch out into the distance. Under the army’s sponsorship, a settlement outpost is cultivating a farm and bestowing, under the education system’s patronage, the army’s nationalist-racist values to at-risk youth. From there, as it did the other day and the day before, an army jeep showed up. Four male soldiers and one female soldier got out, young, healthy and good-looking. The children of us all. They marched armed and resolute toward our small group. Their leader came up to the shepherd and shouted: “Get up!”

The shepherd hesitated, his boy cringed, pulled his cap over his face and froze.

“Get up! Get up!” It was almost a roar now.

The shepherd rose. The soldier told him this was a closed military area and if he didn’t get out with his herd right away he’d be arrested and the flock confiscated. Right there. The shepherd started moving away with his son, followed by the donkey, who was followed by the foal, with the sheep and goats on their heels. The four fighters urged them, the retreating enemy, to hurry up.

“This is a closed military area, you’re not allowed to be here either,” the female soldier told the two of us.

“Where’s the order? Why a closed military area? From where to where is it closed, and from when to when?” we asked her. She took out her phone. “Here’s the order,” she said.

The small screen, shining like a mirror in the fierce sun, showed, under the title “Israel Defense Forces,” only my face. In no way could I decipher the order’s message. The soldier, with a pony tail and uniform instead of the pinafore of yore, one arm holding a rifle, raised her other arm and marked the borders for me. The entire huge empty space beyond the fields had been declared a closed military area.

Joining the other evictees

“Why military? There’s a farm on it,” I said.

“That’s what the order says, there’s no why!” she answered.

“Still, why?” I insisted.

“Because it’s Omer’s land,” she said, naming the farmer, “and also a firing zone and a training area.”

“When is the order from?”

“From this morning.”

“Until when?”

“It gets renewed every 24 hours.”

“Until when will it get renewed?”

“Forever!” she snapped at me. “Now get out of here, you two.”

We got out, defeated, and joined the other evictees: a shepherd and a child, a foal and a donkey and a flock, with four male soldiers and one female soldier pushing them farther and farther away. The yellow land became barren of dry grass and even of thorns.

“That’s it! Here you’re allowed to graze,” one of the soldiers suddenly said in the middle of the wasteland. The shepherd and his boy sat on the ground, bent, the flock crowding around them in the narrow wadi.

A few moments passed. Still standing, we saw the children of us all return to their jeep. They seemed to have accomplished their combat mission. But no, soon enough the young fighters returned with their vehicle to the battlefield, because a terminal battle between the Jewish military power and the Bedouin is still raging there. This is where they and their fathers were born, to parents who in many cases were evicted again and again from other places in Israel and from land Israel has occupied since 1967.

The ethnic cleansing of the Bedouin from every place Israel reaches is an extremely sinister chapter in the country’s history, and the campaign isn’t over – it continues in the Negev, in the South Hebron Hills, south of Jerusalem and in the Jordan Valley. This is what we learned that day from Israeli soldiers, who now parked their jeep near the place where they evicted the shepherd and his flock, opened the doors and languished on the seats, their legs stretched out, a rifle in between each soldier's legs.

The shepherd watched the goats and sheep wandering around in search of vestiges to eat, and an hour later he despaired and mounted the donkey with his boy to set off back on the very long way home, over dry hills and wadis. There, at the edge of the village of Nueima, his father’s house had already been demolished. About seven years ago, his family’s two other structures were about to be demolished too.

But this time, wonder of wonders, the Supreme Court banned the demolition. Those were the days. Now he’s forbidden to build even a tin hut for a toilet, and the flock has nothing to eat.

I saw this with my own eyes in my two visits with the family. There aren’t even leftovers of leftovers there, as far as the eye can see.

I also see with my own eyes, almost every week, the small outpost on the valley slope under the settlement of Rimonim; its handful of residents won’t let the shepherds graze their flocks in the land below. About a year ago, using clubs, they nearly smashed the head of one of the youths who grazed his sheep there – the same age as the children of us all – and now his family too doesn’t dare approach the area without Jews accompanying them.

For 40 years the family’s encampment stood near the outpost and the pasture. After the boy was attacked they left, leaving behind the tabun oven and a few tent sheets. To the father this is a memorial of his childhood home, the place where he and his children were born. To me it’s a memorial for the victims of ethnic cleansing.

Stealing water

About two weeks ago one of the outpost thugs filled a large tank from a faucet that wasn’t his, in front of its Bedouin owner who was afraid to approach him. I watched that too with my own eyes from up close. For half an hour he stood, armed with tefillin and singing holy psalms, keeping the tap open, letting the water flow into the blue tank through a pipe he had attached to it.

My companion and I filmed him and the tractor that was lugging the tank, and the tractor’s license-plate number, which we gave to the police as we filed a complaint. That night the outpost men set fire to a nearby Bedouin vineyard.

All this is but a tiny bit of what I’ve been seeing and hearing for more than a year on my travels with a handful of activists in the rights group Ta’ayush, who have become quasi tour guides for us in body and spirit. The rest of the documentation is kept in my computer. The photos show the multiplying outposts, their fanatic residents and the areas they’re taking over. They also show the soldiers – men and women – who have nothing to do but help them. Strong against weak, soldiers against civilians – that’s the image of the Israel Defense Forces today. These are the battles waged by those who serve in it.

I’ve written in this newspaper about ethnic cleansing before. I was told, why write for the converted? My answer is, I’m writing to you. And if the editors allow me, I’ll continue to bear witness and implore you: Get out into the field, strengthen us, help make our presence there meaningful.

To the converted I’ll make my cry even clearer: no more organizing tours, you from Breaking the Silence, Combatants for Peace, the women of Machsom Watch. After all, the hundreds and even thousands of “converted” who have taken part in these tours in the “occupied territories” have quickly overcome their despair and rage and returned to their daily routine.

You must lead them to the protest, to protest vigils near those outposts, which are illegal even according to the state’s laws, and demand that they be evacuated. A nonviolent civil protest of hundreds of people out of the thousands of "converted" may perhaps be heard in Israel and around the world.

And let our struggle be a reminder to both secular and religious people that Jews who are a partner to ethnic cleansing, by action or inaction, have forgotten – and if they grew up in Israel maybe never knew – what it is to be Jewish.