“It’s hardest for the mothers. They bawl the whole time. It takes them about 10 days before they forget.”
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The mothers in question are the ewes who gave birth not long ago, and they are bawling because the top brass of the Israel Defense Forces has decided to separate them from their young lambs, which they have not yet forgotten. The speaker is the owner of the flock, Jamal Hanina of Qalqilyah.
His sheepfold lies amid Palestinian greenhouses and plant nurseries on the northern side of the separation fence (inside the occupied West Bank, but in a strip that has been annexed de facto for the benefit of the settlement of Alfei Menashe). But his pasture lands are on the southern, “Palestinian,” side of the fence.
Ever since the fence was built about 13 years ago, the IDF has let Hanina and his flock pass through an agricultural gate that is opened three times a day for an hour each time. Three months ago, the IDF forbade the sheep to pass through, but that was before they began giving birth. After a short time, the ban was revoked and the ewes resumed spending their nights in the sheepfold.
Last Monday morning, 120 sheep left their pens and crossed through the Habla agricultural gate to get to their pasture. They left behind “19 or 21 lambs, I forget how many,” Hanina said. But when they returned to the gate at noon, they discovered that the orders had changed. The soldiers said they were forbidden to cross.
Activists from Machsom Watch were there on their regular shift. For years, they had seen and even photographed the sheep passing through the gate.
“We saw a 15-year-old boy” – Hanina’s son – recalled Nina, one of the activists. “He was already on the northern side of the gate, waiting and waiting.” The sheep were south of the gate, milling around and bleating, bleating and milling around.
“I asked him what happened,” Nina continued. “He said, ‘The sheep, the sheep, they won’t let them through. What will the children do? What will they eat?’ At first I didn’t understand what he meant. Then I realized he was talking about the lambs.”
Nina wasn’t able to speak with the military policemen responsible for opening and closing the gate. “They were far off and didn’t want to make contact,” she explained. But she called the Israeli military’s Coordination and Liaison Office five or six minutes before the gate closed, at around 2:15 P.M.
“The CLO looked into it and said there really was an order from above. It said the military policemen had received an order that the sheep weren’t allowed to pass.”
Hanina also made a call, to the Palestinian coordination and liaison committee. It called the Israeli administration and received the same reply: It’s an order from above. The owner of one of the Palestinian plant nurseries said that “from above” means the commander of the Ephraim Brigade – Col. Ro’i Sheetrit, who has been in this post since August.
And how does one feed the lambs that have been separated from their mothers? “There’s a veterinary store in Qalqilyah that sells powdered milk, like they give to calves on the kibbutzim,” Hanina said. “I bought some and began preparing milk in buckets from the powder.
“The lambs are weak, it took them time to get used to this powdered milk,” he continued. “It took them time to get used to suckling from the buckets’ artificial teats. They were used to their mothers’ warmth. In the normal course of things, they ought to suckle from their mothers. And they missed them.”
Meanwhile, three more ewes have given birth, south of the fence.
Hanina, who is “50, but looks 30,” according to his own testimony, ekes out his living by working also at night as a guard in one of the plant nurseries on the northern side of the fence, near his sheepfold.
“We’ve had a flock since my grandfather’s time, since the Turkish era,” he said. “These lands have been ours since long before the fence bisected them. They’re always coming with a new prohibition, a new order. Now, it’s forbidden for the sheep. But the horses are still allowed to cross, and also the donkeys. May it never happen to you.
“My brothers also had a flock, but little by little, they cut it back. They couldn’t stand the checkpoint, the prohibitions: Sometimes it’s open, sometimes it’s closed. But I have to live in nature.”
A reminder: 65 gates were built in the separation fence to allow access to lands in the West Bank from the other side. Only 38 of them serve the Palestinian population, according to the B’Tselem organization. Of these, 27 are divided into two kinds. First are the daily crossing points; of these, some are open 12 hours a day, some are open twice a day, and a few are open 24 hours a day. The second are the agricultural gates, like Habla, for the use of Palestinian farmers whose crops need daily care (vegetables or greenhouses). Permits from the Coordination and Liaison Office are valid only for one specific gate.
Eleven of the gates are seasonal gates, meaning they’re opened only during certain agricultural seasons (for instance, for the olive harvest). Here, too, the permit is for one specific gate.
There are 24 gates in the fence in the Qalqilyah area alone. Nine are closed, three are seasonal and 12 are open. The multiplicity of gates indicates just how twisty and turning the separation fence is in this area.
For the benefit of the settlements, the fence in this area especially separated Palestinian villages from their lands. It cut villages off from towns and cut towns off from cities. Now, it is also separating nursing ewes from their lambs.
The IDF Spokesperson’s Office said that “the policy of not allowing flocks of sheep to cross through the Habla gate was instituted for security reasons” – surprise, surprise. It added that the policy “is now under review.”