‘It’s 2022 and we live in caves’: herders besieged by Jewish settlers on West Bank but still clinging to hope

Nu'man, a 58-year-old shepherd, shows a wound received during an attack by Jewish settlers (Manal Massalha)

Manal Massalha

The Guardian  /  July 27, 2022

Images of pastoralist communities living under Israeli occupation in the West Bank and the impact of the attacks by settlers on the Palestinian shepherds’ lifestyle and livelihoods. Words and photographs by Manal Massalha

Attacks and demolitions in the occupied West Bank by the Israeli military and settlers have left Mahmoud, a shepherd, feeling “under siege”. The 58-year-old pastoralist faces eviction from his home in Umm Fagarah, following an Israeli high court ruling in May that sanctioned the forcible removal of people from eight herder villages in Masafer Yatta, south of Hebron/Al-Khalil, to allow for military training. The UN says removing people to make way for the firing range could amount to a war crime.

“Herding is our prime source of livelihood,” says Mahmoud.

Masafer Yatta is home to 1,144 people, half of them children. As part of the region’s larger Palestinian pastoralist community, the herders have lived in caves here and farmed for generations, livelihoods that rely on free and unhindered access to pasture and water.

For two decades violence has been a daily feature of life as Israelis seek to take control of Area C – the more sparsely populated sections of the occupied West Bank that are under full Israeli control and threatened with annexation. With the emergence of the one-farmer settler phenomenon, whereby Jewish settlers establish illegal outposts and claim swathes of land, Palestinians have reported an escalation in attacks. About 450,000 Israelis have settled in the region.

Herders claim they have been intimidated, endured beatings, have had livestock stolen, and crops and property set on fire, creating a constant state of fear and anxiety. Cut off from swathes of pasture and water sources, the herders say their way of life is under threat.

Umm Fagarah, home to 22 households, was attacked on 28 September. Between two settler outposts – Havat Ma’on and Abigail – its location makes it “a thorn in the settlers’ throat”, says Mahmoud.

“At 11.30 in the morning, about 40 settlers arrived at the new farm in Abigail,” says Mahmoud. “The next thing we heard was settlers chasing a local herder, his two children, aged nine and five, and their 100 sheep. When we heard the commotion we ran to their rescue. We were unarmed. Confrontations erupted.” Mahmoud says some of the settlers had guns.

“We started to throw stones. When the army showed up, we were worried they will attack us and arrest us. We made sure not to be close to them.” He says the army fired teargas and grenades at them. Then other cars full of settlers arrived. “We were surrounded.”

Mahmoud says they “smashed cars and windows, slashed tractor tyres and assaulted us in our homes”.

Nine people were injured, including a four-year-old. Five sheep were stabbed and property was damaged. Farmland used to grow barley, wheat and lentils is now off-limits, say herders.

“We have set up a 24-hour guard tent,” says Mahmoud. “Within a month the tent got confiscated, but we didn’t give up. We set up a site made of tyres. We take it in turns to guard. Personally, this attack made me more determined to stay put. We demand international protection.

“Havat Ma’on and Abigail are expanding and connected to water, electricity and roads, and we’re shrinking,” he says. “We’re deprived of the basics of rights – the right to a decent home, the right to water.

“We have no infrastructure and live under the spectre of demolitions and transfer. Four of my sons and their families had their homes demolished in 2020; 26 people in total were displaced. They had no choice but move to the nearest town of Yatta.”

Waa’d, 27, from Al-Ganoub in south Hebron, says: “Settlers’ intimidation is routine. Even in the sanctuary of our homes sometimes.” She says her husband was attacked in April 2021 by five settlers who hit him with their vehicle and her daughter has been left traumatized by the experience. “When hearing a car passing by, she panics, thinking it might be settlers.

 “Herding is becoming harder and harder. God only knows how we make it to the end of the month. We’re struggling.

“My sons get offered work but it requires them staying away from home. They cannot take it. They have to guard us day and night; they rotate. It’s frustrating living under relentless pressure, in constant fear, not knowing when the next attack by settlers and the army that protect them would be.

“We’re defenceless – we have nowhere to go. This is our home and our land,” she says.

Traditionally cave dwellers, some people started to build homes as the community grew and more would like to do so. However, any construction in this controlled area requires Israeli authorization.

According to Yesh Din, an Israeli human rights organization that monitors settler violence, the Israeli police failed to investigate 81% of complaints against Israelis filed between 2005 and 2021. More than 90% of all investigations were closed without charges.

“In 2013, I was out grazing my sheep when settlers from Nof Nesher [outpost] attacked me, handcuffed me, then called the army to complain that I attacked them and tried to steal their sheep,” says Ziad, 64, from Bir al ’Idd.

“The army handed me to the police. I was only released the following day on bail. I had to pay 2,000 shekels [about £480]. For six years, and twice a year, I had to go to [military] court. The file was finally closed in 2019.

“That was not the first or last time I would end up accused of being the perpetrator, not the victim,” he says.

Jumaa, 48, from At-Tuwani, says he has been left with a permanent limp after one of at least 30 attacks he has experienced. “I lodged over 100 complaints about settler violence to the Israeli police. All to no avail. The settlers and the occupation render life bitter.

“What does life mean when one feels defenceless? Can’t defend himself, his children. Or his home. When one cannot access his land?

“Young and old are terrified,” Jumaa adds. “The settlers behave like the lords of the land. Their aim is to displace us. But this is our life and our land. We’re ordinary people who want an ordinary, peaceful, just and dignified life.”

The rising cost of living is adding to their problems. Mahmoud says fodder for his flock of 100 sheep costs about 350 shekels a day (£84) compared with 150 last year. “In 2018 I had 350 sheep. Today I only have 100. We have to sell them to cover the cost and provide for our families. Life is hard,” he says.

According to a report published last November by B’Tselem – the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, there are close to 290 settlements in the West Bank – 138 built by the Israeli government, and about 150 outposts, illegal under Israeli law.

Although outposts are not officially recognized, the government provides settlers there with security, roads, water, electricity and financial subsidies, and more than a third are fully or partially on Palestinian-owned land. About 40 of the outposts appeared in the last decade, mostly livestock farms in south Hebron.

Mahmoud says Havat Ma’on and Abigail are expanding. “They’re provided with infrastructure while we are deprived of the basics and have got demolition and stop-work orders. Even the water cistern has got a demolition order.

“It’s 2022, and we still live in caves. We want to be above the ground. Have windows and fresh air. Be comfortable.”

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‘It’s 2022 and we live in caves’: herders besieged by settlers on West Bank but still clinging to hope | Global development | The Guardian