[ethnic cleansing] Yet another shepherding community is driven out by Jewish settler violence

Gideon Levy & Alex Levac

Haaretz  /  July 22, 2023

They loaded their belongings on two trucks and two tractors, and left the place they’d lived for decades. A brutal history, repeating itself.

Just Bobi remained under the broiling-hot, 40-degrees Celsius sun. At first he tried to run after the convoy, but he quickly became exhausted and returned to what had been his home. Confused, helpless and frightened, he ran to and fro, not understanding what had happened, where his master had gone, where the sheep had disappeared to. The flames and black smoke that rose from the bonfire of tires and animal waste only heightened his anxiety, as well as the heat that enveloped him. He stood there at the top of the hill, casting furtive, heartbreaking glances in all directions. Not a slice of shade or a drop of water, nor any food, was left for him.

The small, sad convoy moved slowly, for the last time, along the winding dirt trail that descends from the hill. Two families of shepherds with their children, their flocks and their belongings. They were compelled to abandon their small enclave for fear of the violent Jewish settlers from the outlaw outpost glaring at them from the top of the hill across the way. They had also been forced to abandon Bobi, at least for the present. It had been impossible to help him. Whenever his master, Salah Abu Awwad, tried to approach, Bobi bared his teeth, snarled and barked furiously. As for his other three dogs – Sahmoudi, Handor and the one-with-no-name – Salah managed somehow to squeeze them into a small, makeshift cage that he covered with canvas, against the punishing rays of the sun, tying it to the side of the truck that carried away his life.

But Bobi insisted on putting up a struggle and sticking to his home at any price.

This is where the dog was born and where he will most likely die; his sumud, or steadfastness, might bring the end more quickly. Try explaining to a dog that his only chance for survival is to join the human convoy on its way to somewhere else. Even amid the tumult of departure, the result of violent, criminal acts, and even as one witnesses the heartrending sight of people forced to forsake their homes out of fear – even then Bobi’s loneliness and suffering etch themselves deeply one one’s heart.

Meanwhile, Salah promised us that he would return that evening to collect him. Will Bobi survive until then?

The Abu Awwad men – Salah, 27, and his brother Radwan, 29 – were born in this place, Khirbet Widady. Salah has eight children from two wives, Radwan has one wife and three daughters. When we visited them this past Monday, they had abandoned their native home. Yes, the population transfer in the South Hebron Hills is alive and well.

The departing families set the sheep manure on fire to keep it out of the hands of the settlers from Havat Meitarim, who forced out the Abu Awwads; the latter also tossed in a few old tires to strengthen the blaze. Just before leaving, Zinab, Salah and Radwan’s stepmother, who’s 51, added yet another tire to the waning flames, adding drama to the final moments of abandonment.

The families will not be returning. They left behind the bonfire, four stone structures in which they lived, which they didn’t have the strength to demolish, and a despondent sheepdog. The settlers were in evidence already, monitoring everything: Their drone was constantly hovering above our heads, hazing, chirping, brazen, provocative.

The drone is one of the reasons that Salah decided to leave. During the past few weeks, the settlers had operated it day and night, to harass the shepherds and frighten their flocks. Salah says 12 female sheep and two goats lost their unborn young while fleeing the drone. Now it’s directly over our heads, rising and dipping, executing something that resembles an insufferably arrogant and repulsive victory lap. For its operators this is undoubtedly a festive day, a day of happiness. Yasher koach, more power to you, settlers. The land has been purged of two more Palestinian families, people who had lived here all of their lives. Now you can go on and seize more land that isn’t yours.

When one looks up at the illegal outpost on the hill across the way, one can see a residential building and an elongated structure that serves as a barn or a pen; there may be other buildings there. The settlers showed up there three years ago and turned the life of the nearby shepherding community into an ongoing nightmare. Until they established Havat Meitarim, life here was “a thousand,” as Salah puts it – perfect. But lately, his little community found itself caught between the separation barrier a few hundred meters away – beyond which the families had pasture land that is now totally inaccessible to them – and the outpost and the adjacent Meitar checkpoint. They felt like they were choking. Attacks and harassment by settlers aimed at them and their flocks added to the daily dread and terror.

The way into Khirbet Widady, a packed-earth road, passes below another ridge that settlers have taken over and where work is now underway to create a large vineyard. This week, a tractor was busy there, an all-terrain settlers’ vehicle by its side. The black smoke of the fire set by the departing shepherds was visible from afar.

When we arrived at Khirbet Widady, the last of the families’ possessions was being loaded. They placed a mobile toilet, along with the base of a water tank, on a trailer pulled by a small tractor that they had leased. On another truck they piled the blankets, the mattresses, the solar panels and the beds, with the skill of professional movers. It was hard to watch how the dogs were forced onto the vehicle. The men also shackled a white donkey to one of the two tractors they had, forcing it to trot along behind them in the heat. Life here was difficult for humans and animals alike.

For his part, Salah, who oversaw the packing and loading, seemed to be brimming with energy, even though he told us that in recent months he was getting two hours of sleep a night. This morning he had awoken before sunup, to get things moving.

“It’s heartbreaking,” says Nasser Nawaj’ah, the South Hebron Hills field researcher for the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem. Nawaj’ah himself had lived in Susya, a Palestinian village abutting an ancient site of the same name, and he and his family and other families had also been expelled to make way for settlers, to another place. “What can I tell you, it’s heartbreaking,” he says again.

Nawaj’ah, who has already seen everything in these hills, is now documenting the departure on video. Some black pigeons have been squeezed into a small cage, which is placed on the small truck. Bobi is whining. The sheep were brought earlier to a neighboring shepherding community; after their owners settle into their new home, located not far away, the flock will be moved there. The beehives below the abandoned site will remain there until they too are relocated. A girl carrying a pigeon catches the eye.

Salah was born in the hospital in Dura, southwest of Hebron, and grew up in Khirbet Widady. The land there, he says, belongs to the extended Abu Awwad clan. The decision to depart ripened over a period of months. In February, settlers had shown up in the dead of night, poured out the metal containers of milk and cheese, and said they were looking for money or weapons, but found neither. On another occasion they sicced their dog on the shepherds’ flocks.

The last straw came earlier this month, after Eid al-Fitr, the festival of the sacrifice: The settlers corralled Salah’s flock of 150 sheep and began walking them toward the highway. Salah immediately called his family in the nearby town of Samu, who rushed to rescue the animals. The thieving settlers fled, but it was after that incident that Salah made the final decision to leave. His father died five years ago, but Salah is certain that if he were alive he would have supported the move. “The government, the police, the army and the settlers do not recognize that this is our land,” he declares drily.

Last Sunday night, he slept there for the last time. He and his brother and their families would be moving to a plot of land of four dunams (one acre) that belongs to their extended family, on the outskirts of Samu. Salah tells us he is planning to erect a few tents there Monday night, in the knowledge that the settlers and the military government’s Civil Administration might show up there, too. “Inshallah, the [Civil] Administration will not come and the settlers will not come, and then I will see how to move on from there,” he says.

The remaining possessions, along with the animals, the children and the memories, have been loaded onto the trucks. The convoy sets out slowly. It’s a 1948 image – only in slow motion compared to the panic-stricken flight then. Salah took the wheel of the first tractor, which pulled the trailer with the mobile toilet, whose contents spilled along the way, as though to mark the route of the exodus. He drove wildly, as though to put this painful scene behind him as fast as possible. He was followed by the two trucks, with the dogs and the birds and the children and so on. The white donkey trotted along, but at one point the animal somehow severed itself from the tractor and refused to budge.

Salah whistled to Bobi and signaled him to run after them. He kept whistling and the dog followed until he became exhausted. But then he went back to his home, not knowing that his home was gone.

Postscript: On Tuesday, following their evacuation and move to the new locale, members of the Abu Awwad family reported that Civil Administration officials showed up there and ordered them to leave in two days. When queried by Haaretz, officials from the administration and the IDF Spokesperson’s Office looked into the matter and stated that they knew of no such directive.

Gideon Levy – editor

Alex Levac – photojournalist