Opinion

In the Jordan Valley I Saw Ethnic Cleansing With My Bare Eyes

Israel is persistently and systematically destroying the lives of the Bedouin communities throughout the Jordan Rift Valley, who once numbered in the tens of thousands, in order to limit these areas to Jews alone

A Palestinian boy herds sheep in Jordan Valley in the occupied West Bank March 13, 2018. Picture taken March 13, 2018
\ MOHAMAD TOROKMAN/ REUTERS

A month ago, had there been 12 of us and not just four, we could have stopped the three men who came from the Mevo’ot Yeriho settlement from making the goats and sheep flee the large natural pasture where there is still some sparse grass. The sheep were scared and ran off. And the female shepherds and their children withdrew after them. And we too left in dismay.

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Had we been 20 to 30 people, not just five, in the pasture next to Havat Omer, our spirit would have been strong enough to assert the imperatives of justice and reason, and to refuse to heed the orders of the soldiers who came to chase us and the shepherds away, citing an inane military injunction. First there were just three soldiers, then more vehicles and more soldiers arrived, and then the five of us – three elderly women and two not-so-young men, found ourselves facing 15 armed soldiers. And we left.

These are the basics of two chapters in a long story whose episodes have been coming more and more frequently. Almost daily, a handful of Israeli men and women pull themselves out of a car or two very early in the morning, stretch and yawn and gaze with pleasure at the hills and desert plains of the Jordan Valley, happily drinking in the silence and the still-slightly chilly air, look up at the feathery clouds floating in the bright blue sky above and at the gazelles prancing about on the ground below and at the birds that alight here and there on the rocks, and cock their ears for the sound of the bells from the flocks that are coming their way with the shepherds and dogs and donkeys.

If fortune shines on all of these creatures – a lot of animals and a few people – that have gathered here, they will get to enjoy an hour, maybe two, of marvelous tranquility. The shepherds tend their flocks, the sheep graze, the dogs scamper about, the donkeys stand around idly, and the Israelis, after greeting the shepherds, have sat down somewhat heavily on the ground, wiping sharp bits of gravel from their hands and rears, and proceeded to let their minds wander or tune into their feelings or chat a little with the others. Suddenly they have the time and quiet for it.

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Far from the eye, and especially from the heart, sit the large green pastures of Mevo’ot Yeriho and Havat Omer. From there they come, the expellers – whether it’s people from Mevo’ot Yeriho who run wildly into the flocks of sheep and scare the animals with shouting and shofar-blowing and the beating of pot lids, or the army jeeps and the soldiers that emerge from them, brandishing orders declaring the area a closed military zone. Right here, of all places, in the heart of the endless empty spaces, and right now, and just for the shepherds and for us.

This is what happened two Fridays ago, on April 27. The military vehicles drove up slowly from Havat Omer – a thriving and expanding illegal outpost of one violent guy named Omer. The commander of the force, a lieutenant, got out of the jeep holding a white sheet of paper, printed with the awe-inspiring heading “Israel Defense Forces” and below that, in convoluted language, “Injunction concerning security orders (combined formula) (Judea and Samaria), 2009. Announcement concerning area closure (entry and presence there prohibited) (Havat Omer, Mevo’ot Yeriho).” At the bottom of the page was the seal and signature of Col. Udi Tzur, military commander. 

The officer let us read the document – it said that it was to be presented “to all who ask” – and let us see from it that on exactly this day, between the hours of 5:00 and 20:00, the area where we and the shepherds and the animals were was closed to us and we were requested to leave it immediately. We also understood from the paper that this prohibition on entering and being in the area did not apply to anyone in possession of a permit to be there, by virtue of a declaration from or decision of Col. Udi Tzur or someone “authorized” by him. And those who have permission to be there are of course the residents of Mevo’ot Yeriho and Havat Omer; if they hadn’t settled here a decade or two ago, there would be no areas closed off at their behest to the Palestinian Bedouin, whose ancestors were born here and whose entire livelihood depends on these pastures.

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After we all read and photographed the document, in all of its horrible detail, a firm and sensitive discussion took place with the officer about the reddish spot that stood for the closed area on the small map appended to the document. The two map experts among us studied it together with the officer, heads touching as they huddled over the paper, trying to decipher exactly what this blotch meant and how to determine its borders in the surrounding wilderness. The officer suggested opening Google Maps on a cell phone, and the three pairs of Israeli eyes, military and civilian, seriously gazed at virtual reality. It wasn’t an easy issue to resolve, apparently, because the inquiry took a while. Meanwhile, in actual reality, the shepherds tended to their flocks and the sheep grazed and the donkeys stood around and the dogs ran about and the bells jingled.

And I felt like grabbing the long ear of one of the donkeys that was standing next to me and whispering to him: “Dear donkey, even you know there’s no need to check any map or any virtual site, not even the latest statistics from B’Tselem and the other human rights organizations. The eye can plainly see and common sense plainly says that what’s happening here is ethnic cleansing: Israel is persistently and systematically destroying the lives of the Bedouin communities throughout the Jordan Rift Valley, who once numbered in the tens of thousands, in order to limit these areas to Jews alone.”

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Most of you, enlightened readers of Haaretz, know all this just as well as I do. But what may not be so clear to you – for this the eye must see and the ear must hear – is that the Jewish settlers here, under the patronage of and with the support of a fanatical Israeli government, with its laws and military ordinances, are not standing still. The ethnic cleansing is taking place here and now, with increasing vigor and violence by the week, and may well reach its culmination shortly.

Opposing it stand a handful of Israelis, arriving there through the graces of an even smaller group of Ta’ayush activists responding to calls by these shepherds, coordinating meetings with them. The shepherds no longer go out and graze their flocks without Israelis accompanying them.

Ecclesiastes said: “Only that shall happen Which has happened, Only that occur Which has occurred; There is nothing new Beneath the sun.... I observed all the happenings beneath the sun, and I found that all is futile and pursuit of wind: A twisted thing that cannot be made straight, A lack that cannot be made good.” (Ecclesiastes 1: 9, 14-15). In saying this he gave a good excuse for many good people to remain bystanders. I dare contradict him in one small thing – the crooked can be made straight. Here, thanks to a few wonderful Israelis – whom being with is so much fun – the herds often get a few more hours of grazing, with their owners and their families somehow still surviving.

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More importantly: If there were hundreds of people joining them instead of a handful, the bureaucratic military machine, conducting its violent business with the help of edicts and bulldozers and guns, would finally start creaking and the grating noise would be heard at a distance, in Israel and farther away. Yes, it’s still possible to throw a wrench in these works even if the opponents are only a minority in this country. If this minority, which still numbers thousands of wise people with means, would only emerge from their homes and not just make do with reading or writing pieces in Haaretz.