Umm Rashid, the most intrepid of the ‘Auja shepherdesses, has sold off most of her sheep and goats. I don’t have all the details; a close friend of hers sold her herd a few months earlier. I assume she couldn’t take any more of the ceaseless harassment, beatings, and threats from the settlers. But I don’t think this is the end of the story.
Nearby, at Muarrajat, they need us. Six or seven herds come out to graze every day. The hills are the exquisite, subtle color we could call “evanescent green.” Ada and Allen take up their position on the ridge where they can keep track of all the herds and see if any of them are in danger. Noa and I spend a long morning with Jamal and his sons down in the valley, also keeping an eye on the other shepherds nearby. At one point a crazed settler from the toxic new outpost just up the hill seems to be closing in on one of the Palestinian shepherds. We move toward them. Apparently, our presence scares him off—that’s what the shepherds say. Momentary relief. Like in ‘Auja, the people of Muarrajat live in constant fear.
Here’s some of what Jamal said to us over those hours:
“Yesterday a settler shot and killed one of our sheep dogs. The same thing happened a week ago. Every day they come at us with their guns and clubs. They beat up the children. They threaten the young girls. Once they kidnapped one of the young women. They come with weapons into our tents late at night and demand to see our identity cards, as if they were the police or the army. They threaten us at every step.
We have no electricity, and we are not allowed to have water. Mamnu‘: it’s forbidden. We buy water in bottles, sometimes we manage to bring in a water tanker. There’s not enough for us even to shower and wash. Our life is hard, actually hellish. Hell should be somewhere under the earth, shouldn’t it? And heaven is in the skies above. We could be living in heaven right here, Palestinians and Jews, peacefully, were it not for the violent settlers.
We were born to live in peace with one another. Those so-called Muslims who belong to Daesh, the Islamic State, are depraved and perverse, and very remote from Islam. You can’t even call them Muslims. And the Israeli settlers are likewise depraved. The Jews are supposed to be ahl al-kitāb, a People of the Book, but does not their book say, “Do not murder. Do not steal. Do not commit adultery. Do not take the name of God in vain”? The Qur’an says the same. So what book are the settlers living by? They bear the names of the holy prophets—Yaaqub, Musa, Sulayman, Ibrahim, the very first, the father of both our peoples. How can they steal and desecrate those good names?
At first, when we were living near Mikhmas and the first settlers came, we got along well, like two fingers of a single hand. [This phrase, and the gesture that goes with it, are from a well-known hadith attributed to the Prophet: “When I was sent, I and the Hour were like these two” (pointing at his index and middle fingers.)] That was a different time. Today’s settlers are violent and cruel.
There is such a thing as human rights, huquq al-insan. But not here. We have no rights whatsoever and no safety, amān, and there is no law, qanun. And animals, too, have rights. But they abuse the animals, our sheep and goats, our dogs. Sometimes they kill them. God has given all of us these basic rights along with our humanity. But when it comes to the Palestinians and to Israel, America speaks only lies.
You see that herd over there? It’s my nephew the doctor. He studied at Al-Najah University [in Nablus], then went to medical school in Egypt; then he came back to Palestine. He works in the hospitals, in Nablus and also in Hadassah, five days a week; on Fridays and Saturdays he comes home to Muarrajat and goes out with the herds. He loves this place. We’re proud of him.
I studied until ninth grade in the school we have here, in the village. I learned Qur’an, good Arabic, and all the other subjects. Now my sons are at school here. Maybe they, too, will go on to study like my nephew. But—we have been here for over seventy years, since they drove us out of the Negev at the time of the first war. We ask ourselves: How long can we survive?”
Jamal speaks like Abu Isma‘il and many others we know. He is a man of peace; gentle, and wonderfully kind with his children (he has four sons and one daughter). The boys come out with him to the grazing; he keeps them near him.
Our instructions are to stay with the shepherds until the last herd crosses the road toward the tents and cabins of Muarrajat. Noa reformulates, and we follow her rule: We will stay until the last sheep is safely home.
text David Shulman © 2023; photographs as credited