Before the fires: July 22, 2017, ‘Auja
Fields were burning in the fall of 2017, but in late July the story was different.
Ta’ayush is an Israeli activist group that works with Palestinian shepherds and farmers in occupied Palestine. Its volunteers accompany shepherds to their grazing grounds and farmers to their fields to confront settlers who have chased them away with the cooperation of Israeli occupation soldiers. It had been three years since I had begun following, joining, photographing and, when I was not there, thinking and writing about the work of this group.
For years Ta’ayush had worked in the South Hebron Hills, but the Jordan Valley was still rather new territory. After months of visits, and many cups of sweet tea, local shepherds decided to throw their lot with the volunteers, let their sheep out of their pens and visit their traditional grazing grounds.
It took time, courage, and many confrontations with soldiers and settlers, but at the end of the day, on July 22, 2017, the shepherds were finally able to savor a special moment: the end of two consecutive days of undisturbed grazing.
Even a visit from settlers in their jeep passed uneventfully.
The celebration, if that was what it was, was low key.
It involved nothing stronger than tea, prepared in the open as usual.
But there were handshakes, high fives, blessings and tears, including some of mine.
Was it because I was grateful to share in this celebration?
Or because finally, briefly, the beauty of the radiant field matched what happened there?
Or was it because I already knew how fleeting this moment would be? Already, the next day, someone – soldiers? settlers? – chased the shepherds away. We weren’t there that day, so some of us returned the next and the shepherds were allowed in. But whenever we were absent, the Civil Authority would bar the shepherd’s way.
When we arrived on Friday, everything and everyone was serene. But we turned to leave after a few hours. The shepherds asked us please to stay. It was heartbreaking to disappoint them but we had somewhere else to be that day. There were not enough of us then, and three years later, there still are not enough of us.
Back in the United States, during the following weeks, I began to hear about the Civil Administration’s new strategy of closing a different part of the grazing lands every day. Settlers started getting bolder again, and then there were fires . . .
A Long Day, May 15, 2018
May 15, 2018. It was a tense moment. On the previous day, the United States Embassy officially completed its move to Jerusalem at President Trump’s directive. Palestinians were killed along the border between Gaza and Israel in the protests known as the Great March of Return. Settlers in the Jordan Valley felt empowered; Palestinian shepherds felt afraid, and even we considered canceling our plans. But we didn’t, and here we were, bound for Al-Hammeh in the northern Jordan Valley. We would not see many sheep or goats. The flocks would be staying in their pens. It would be mostly tea and talk, and driving. Our first stop was at the home of Abu Rasmi.
The tea was less sweet today because Ezra insisted, and the talk was not sweet either, but serious, concerned.
We left knowing that we would see Abu Rasmi later.
People at Um al-Jmal expected us, so we turned south.
When we arrived there was more tea.
Then we headed back north. But we turned around. Settlers from Maskiot, we heard, had just taken a Palestinian into custody and hit a boy, Mohane. We arrived at their village, Wadi al Faw, just in time to follow a police car leaving the village with the boy in tow.
For a while we followed the police car. But then we passed it, figuring that we’d beat it to the station; Ada and I would stay with the boy and the others would head back north. There were some shepherds there who were having problems with soldiers even though they were keeping their flocks at home.
But a “flying” (temporary) checkpoint stopped us and the police car with the boy inside sped past. The soldiers manning the checkpoint could care less about our objections.
We gave up, returned to al Hammeh, where everything seemed to be happening at once. Soldiers were there when we arrived. After they left, two men asked me to photograph their arms, where heavy duty zip tie handcuffs had been secured too tightly, leaving a still-visible imprint.
Abu Rasmi arrived from his house, a short distance away, and a meeting began. A farmer in the village had a bad experience after he started working with Ta’ayush.
Settlers had attacked him, and destroyed one of his large tents and an animal shelter. Now he was refusing our help and recommending that others do the same.
Abu Rasmi sought to persuade the farmer not to give up. He wanted to involve us in the process. Guy and Ada were reluctant. It is not the job of Ta’ayush to “push” people into risky situations.
I’m not sure how many times we almost left. But Ezra, master of delaying tactics, kept thinking of reasons to stay a little longer. When he eventually strolled off to sit with the shepherds under their canopy, we knew we had to let him practice his other specialty, drinking tea over negotiations.
In the end, Ezra was right to stay.
After he worked his tea magic,
Arif, a local leader, took over. He addressed the assembled farmers:
“The more you put your head down the more people will step on it.”
If they kept their heads up, Arif, a Palestinian, and we, mostly Israelis, would take risks along with them and have their backs. In the end, they promised to go out with their flocks on Thursday if we would join them. We left amid a flurry of smiling faces and handshakes.
Except that there was that boy after all. Ada suggested that we return by way of the place where the flying checkpoint had been. It was now dismantled, and there we found him, alone, empty handed, and far from home. He had no form of communication, no form of transportation. This is standard: You haul a minor into a police station; you keep his parents from accompanying him; and eventually you release him in the middle of nowhere with no obvious way to get home.
In the car, Mohane was still a little anxious, but once back in Wadi al-Faw, there were smiles, his mother,
and another round of handshakes, our second for the day.
We had just time enough for one more reunion. A vehicle arrived with a she-goat tied to it. The driver struggled to release it and Mohane came to help.
He set her on her feet and she ran to her kid.
watching the joyous reunion, I said, “This is a Hollywood happy ending.”
Guy heard me and answered: “nothing is ending.”
And nothing did.
text and photographs Margaret Olin © 2020.