June 30, 2016
Four months away provide just enough distance to see the madness and the cruelty for what they are. Who has set up this crazy system and kept it running for half a century? Is it not mad to deliberately deprive human beings—families, children, the elderly– of water at the height of summer in a scorching desert? It was at least 37 or 38 degrees Centigrade, almost 100 degrees Fahrenheit, today in Al-Hadidiya. No running water, of course, and almost no water at all. You can’t survive there without water.
I should warn you that reading the following report may make you thirsty, like watching Lawrence of Arabia. I had two liters of water with me, and I wasn’t fasting, unlike most of the Palestinians I met (it’s Ramadan), but still I was thirsty all day. Once the sweet morning chill was soaked up by a white-hot sun, the world turned to flame. You could feel the liquid stuff of life being sucked out of you by the merciless sun-machine. In such heat, stones melt. Metal melts. The sheep out on the hills, the cocks crowing in the tents, the dogs who can barely bark as they limp along the edges of the village—all of them are baked, singed, seared, charred, encindered. As for us, wandering over the hills in search of the lost, ruined wells that once served Al-Hadidiya, we are drunk on the light, giddy with heat. Will I ever not be thirsty?
Before I go any further, I had better tell you what you perhaps already know, that is, that the Israeli settlement of Ro’i, half a mile away, has no dearth of water. Water flows freely through their pipes, some of which run through the grounds of Al-Hadidiya, and their swimming pool is, I presume, blue and beckoning and, above all, full of water.
And there’s another thing you already know. Drying out the Palestinians of Al-Hadidiya is a matter of policy, not a random affair. The Civil Administration knows what it is doing. Without water, they must assume, these people will either die or leave. We are speaking of ethnic cleansing. No one should try to describe it as anything other than what it is.
Here is Abu Saqer, the strong-willed patriarch of this village on the golden slopes slipping down into the Jordan Valley. He has the sun-baked skin, the dark eyes, the breath-taking dignity of a man who was born in this tiny confabulation of black tents and who has lived all his life here among the rocks and the furrows. He is at once calm, lucid, and embittered. He’s a secular man, afraid of no one. He speaks a deep and elevated, even lyrical, Arabic, a mix of the standard literary dialect with the colloquial idioms of the farmer, with many rare words that Arabic-speakers love. He’s a friend. I know it at once. It’s still early, around 7:30, when we sit with him in the tent as the terrible light comes flooding in, and this is what he says.
“The settlers and the Israeli state have committed many crimes and will commit many more, but the worse crime, a moral monstrosity, is denying us water. They have polluted our wells, filled them with rocks and dirt, dried them up by their deep drilling, and dried up the natural springs. I myself owned between 60 and 90 wells on the hills over there, and all of them have been destroyed. It happened already in the 70’s. At the same time, hundreds of cubic meters of water are being wasted on the settlers, on their lawns and swimming pools. Whole communities have been devastated, their people driven out, displaced by army camps and settlements. Once a hundred families lived here in Al-Hadidiya; only 14 are left. We have to bring water in tankers from far away, and often we are held up at the roadblocks for long hours, and we pay more than triple what any Israeli pays for water.
“In a war, there is the one who kills and the one who is killed, but what has water to do with this? Why are they continually demolishing our homes? Are they experimenting on us like on rats? We live in Area C—where the shepherds are responsible for the eco-system, for the survival of many species of living beings. But they arrest the shepherds and put them on trial and force them to pay enormous fines—at first, it was 5 Jordanian dinars per head of sheep, then 11 dinars per head, just to free the herd from their clutches. A fine could easily add up to a thousand dinars. Helicopters sometimes chase the shepherds and the herds, and the soldiers come running out of them and shoot the animals. They claim this area is a security zone, but why do they have to shoot the sheep? They are enriching the Israeli state with these fines and impoverishing us.
“In the late 80’s, at the time of the Oslo agreements, there was hope, but in the end the disaster became even more terrible. Just look over there, you can see how they have destroyed our homes. They are doing whatever they can to drive us out. We are simple people, in Al-Hadidiya, in ‘Ein al-Hilwe, in Ra’s al-Ahmar, in the Jiflik. What do we want? We want to graze our sheep, to feed our families, to educate our children. Only that. The Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the situation here should be frozen, and no more demolitions take place, but the soldiers pay no attention to the court’s ruling. When a soldier comes to tear down my house, where is the judge? Last year there were demolitions (on November 26, 2015), and they are always threatening more. My daughter was wounded in front of my eyes by an Israeli girl (probably a soldier). What am I supposed to feel? How am I supposed to live with the Israeli people, in what they claim is the only democracy in the Middle East? A new generation is growing up. We are tired of being lied to. They have also poisoned our sheep—44 killed by poison in 2014. How can we live with them?”
Abu Saqer speaks slowly, weighing his words. An eloquent man. But the story he tells is not only his. All Palestinian communities in the Jordan Valley offer versions of it—the same litany of wrongs, of state terror, and, again and again, of unbearable thirst. They thirst for water as they thirst for justice, or perhaps it’s the other way around.
Saqer, his son, leads us over the hill dotted with black goats and long-haired sheep. Every few minutes he stops to show us another well that has been stopped up, blocked with stones and dirt. We count twelve on a very rapid circuit. At one of them Saqer peers into the dark depths and discerns a snake. He spends a few minutes hurling rocks at it, apparently killing it. Palestinians in this desert zone hate and fear snakes. Now that we’ve started cleaning the wells here, the activists have come across at least one large snake down at the bottom—but also something far more threatening, military ordnance, unexploded shells, that have been dumped in these wells.
Late morning. We drive to ‘Ein Hilwe, where Madi, apparently soon to be a candidate for the post of head of the Palestinian Regional Council here, speaks about water. It’s the topic closest to heart and mind. We cross the highway to Umm al-Jamal, where there’s a natural spring that the Bedouins use to water their herd of cows. They built a low stone wall around the spring, to protect it. Not surprisingly, this tiny structure is scheduled for demolition by the Civil Administration next week. Umm al-Jamal is dry, hanging on in the heart of the fierce desert. Like sleep-walkers, heavy cows move slowly through the haze of heat, or lie down in scraps of shade from scraggly trees.
Here’s the point. Suppose you want to build a pipeline for water—to be taken from well-known, legal Palestinian sources and paid for according to a water meter that you install—so that your tents and shacks would have the elementary happiness of running water. In theory, you could apply to the Civil Administration for a permit. Your application will be rejected. Almost all such applications are. Palestinians in the Jordan Valley cannot get water through pipes or wells by the standard bureaucratic procedures. In desperation, lacking any alternative, they may try to put a pipeline in place. They can be sure the Civil Administration will send its soldiers and policemen to demolish it and to punish them. It happened today at Al-Hadidiya. I saw it.
We rush back there when we hear that soldiers have turned up, two full jeeps of them. By now it’s a broiling high noon. The soldiers look pretty hot too. They’re loaded down with the standard hodge-podge of military metal and plastic. I can’t help feeling a little sorry for them. They seem confused: the Jordan Valley has not had the benefit of a continuous presence of Israeli activists, and as a result the heavy hand of the Occupation has been even heavier here, and more arbitrary, than elsewhere on the West Bank. The soldiers expect a docile, frightened Palestinian population. They’re certainly not used to having us, or others like us, confront them. The officer is not really hostile, but he’s doing his job. He says an order declaring Al-Hadidiya a Closed Military Zone is on its way. On what grounds? “Water works that have not been approved.”
There are eight of us activists, and we’ve all been through this many times before in one way or another. We try to talk to the soldiers, but the officer orders them not to speak to us. One of them is filming us with his cell-phone. This goes on for a long, hot time, as if to keep him busy with something that will take his mind off what he has actually come here to do. They’re waiting for the order to come through, or so they say. Anat asks the photographer how it feels to deny water to a thirsty family. He is not allowed to answer, so he shrugs and screws up his eyes. What does this gesture mean? Yossi says that it’s quite expressive and means something like “What can I do, these are my orders.” It’s an optimistic reading, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. It could also mean, “I don’t give a damn.” I’d like to think this soldier feels the faint stirring of inner conflict.
Now the police arrive, and the dogs go mad, sensing that something wrong and menacing is taking place. With whatever is left of their vocal chords, they try to warn Abu Saqer that an enemy has appeared. Then they fall silent. As so often, it’s a waiting game. An hour goes by, then another. The graceful white doves we know from South Hebron sail past, on fire with sunlight. The roosters crow. No sign of the order. Suddenly, a surprise, the soldiers clamber into the jeeps and leave.
But not for long. Soon they’re back with the same affable policeman who would perhaps prefer to be sitting in his distant, air-conditioned office, wherever that is. A higher-ranking officer has joined them, and together they set off through the village, examining every trace of the brazen water pipe, also passing by the jagged ruins of the homes that were demolished less than a year ago. They take pictures. Yesterday soldiers arrested Abu Saqer’s son and held him, handcuffed, for many hours. Today, perhaps because we are here, they refrain from anything as blatant and foolish as that. Again they depart, and again they return, this time following the line of the pipe at the farthest edge of the encampment. They photograph and take notes. Then—gone.
What, indeed, are they supposed to do? The pipe is illegal. The Occupation, too, is illegal. But it has its rules. Soldiers and policemen enforce the rules. Officers issue orders, which are obeyed. Fourteen families in Al-Hadidiya remain thirsty.
Maybe tonight, maybe tomorrow, Abu Saqer can expect another visit, no doubt to inform him that the evil pipeline the villagers have built will be destroyed, and so on—who knows what other forms of harassment are in store? Running water is not meant to reach the people of Al-Hadidiya. Not yet. We have work to do.
It was a day unlike any other that Al-Hadidiya has seen. Apart from our being there, and the unwelcome soldiers and policemen, large delegations from the European Union and the Norwegian Refuge Council also happened by at noon. Abu Saqer graciously entertained them all. For an hour or two, this little assemblage of black tents was a microcosm. Good intentions, bad intentions, outright wickedness, grace and courage—you could find them all, mingled together, melting down in the vast heat, each of us playing his or her role.
I write these words from my home, at nightfall. I’ve washed off as much of the caked sunlight as I could. I had a cold beer, which helped. I’m a little burnt and sore, and a little sad. Also buoyed up by the miracle of friendship, new and old. By now the sheep and goats are in their pens. All over the Jordan Valley and South Hebron and East Jerusalem and the northern West Bank, people are celebrating the end of today’s fast with the festive Iftar meal. Next week Ramadan will end. Someday thirst, too, will end for Al-Hadidiya and ‘Ein Al-Hilwe. We’ll see to that. I’d like to think that in Abu Saqer, a deep and simple man, Netanyahu and his henchmen have met their match.
with thanks to Guy Hircefeld and Amir Bitan
text © David Shulman 2016
thanks to Anat Lev and Guy Hircefeld for permission to use their photographs