Mufaqara Part 9: Sheep

Middle of June, 2012

Every day in the afternoon someone takes the sheep out to graze. This job belongs to the boys, and today it’s an outing for 4 brothers to take about one hundred animals out to pasture. They split the herd into two so that it is more manageable. Each half can be led by a single person, but it’s nice to have more people to help.

Mahmoud owns several pieces of land, and today since we are going to an especially dangerous piece one of the boys made it a point to ask me to come along. We are going to graze the sheep near an outpost and are therefore at risk of settler attack as well as harassment by the military. The name of the outpost (a small settlement illegal even under Israeli law) is Avigail.

We leave Mufaqarah and cross a valley, stopping for a drink most of the way up on the other side. The water comes from a cistern built for this purpose. The cistern has recently been cleaned, all the silt being removed by hand, one bucket at a time, from the tank. A dry river of soil lay downstream of the tank provides a dramatic illustration of soil erosion in the catchment area. All of this soil emptied from the tank represents destroyed topsoil.
Soil emptied from the cistern
Soil emptied from the cistern

The flock takes a drink at the cistern
The flock takes a drink at the cistern

4 brothers keeping the sheep
4 brothers keeping the sheep

At the top of the hill I watch especially closely as we all cross the road, as settlers often use this road and it would be easy to hurt someone with a car as we cross (1). Nothing happens, and we continue down the other side of the hill, into the nearest valley to Avigail.

Erosion is generally terrible in this area, with exposed bedrock in most of the hillsides. But there has been some effort made to terrace the valley floors, preserving what soil washes down there. At the top of the valley we are in now, the terrace is made from some enormous stones. One of them is about two by three meters on the face and must weigh many tons. It must have been quite a project to move them into place, especially long ago when no heavy machinery was available.

The sheep eat the leftover grain from the field. The harvest is a messy process and there is lots of grain lying around. There are some areas on the valley floor where the grain has grown thinly, with a low yield. Areas like this are not worth the effort to cut by hand, and the sheep are simply brought to it. On the hillside the animals eat a different kind of grain planted especially for them and generally not harvested by hand since it gives a low yield. My understanding is that the plants on the hillside are tougher and although they do give a small yield, the are at least able to live and be healthy while the grain on the valley floor is able to produce more food per square meter but also demands more luxurious conditions.
A shepherd prays in the field next to the sheep
A shepherd prays in the field next to the sheep

The shepherds seem to have an entire language of hisses, and clicks which they combine with throwing rocks and smacks with a plastic hose to control the sheep. I begin to wonder about the supposed “herding instinct” of sheep as they seem determined to wander off in all directions. It’s obvious that it takes a fair bit of skill to move the sheep around, and I suppose a more skilled shepherd can handle a larger flock.

The animals are extremely aggressive grazers, and they seem to hoover the mostly bare ground, sucking up any plant matter available. They will also eat olive tree leaves if the shepherd does not repel them from the trees. Although a grazed tree will obviously not produce many olives, I notice that some isolated olive plants seem to adapt to being grazed, and become a sort of thorny bramble, protecting themselves from complete destruction. In such a situation, wild spiky plants thrive and walking around in sandals can be a very uncomfortable experience. True to Eeyor’s depiction, the donkeys do eat thistles but they don’t like them very much. Wild trees are completely absent and there is a great deal of completely bare soil(2).

Happily, the trip is uneventful and after about two hours we escort the crowd of sheep and goofy goats back for milking at the manger. When we get back, about thirteen of the animals are lined up against the wall, their heads tied there with a simple rope. Two women milk all of them in about half an hour.

Mahmoud’s daughter and her friend, both young enough that I’m allowed to take pictures of them in the open air manger and milking parlour. The sheep are lined up for milking in the background, their heads tied to the stone wall.
Mahmoud’s daughter and her friend, both young enough that I’m allowed to take pictures of them in the open air manger and milking parlour. To my right the older women are milking the sheep. The sheep are lined up for milking with their heads tied to the stone wall.

The next day we make the same trip which is also, thankfully, uneventful. In the evening we visit Susya, but I’ve written about that in its own entry so I won’t discuss that here.

A landscape photo of the valley we cross on the way to the field next to Avigail
A landscape photo of the valley we cross on the way to and from the field next to Avigail.

The next morning the soldiers are back. It’s Saturday, and they know that we like to build on Saturdays so they are here for a morning intimidation session. The village resistance responds in a hilariously creative way :-).
A boy carries rock past the soldiers in defiance of their orders and threats.
A boy carries rock past the soldiers in defiance of their orders and threats.

The military is convinced that the mosque on the top of the hill is a priority for this village, and that the villagers are pushing mainly to build it. The place of worship for these shepherds for ages has been in the middle of life; the field, the dining room, outside under the stars and clouds, not in a concrete building. The villagers, therefore, use this misunderstanding as a distraction. They make a big show out of working on the mosque, which draws attention away from the campaign to build 15 new living quarters.

Today, when the military arrives the children of the village are the ones on stage, and they enthusiastically begin moving rock into the mosque, ostensibly to level the floor. This creates a hilarious spectacle as the children defy the soldiers. They are actively defying a threat by the military, given in the form of a written order to stop working on the mosque. The combination of some energetically rebellious children who are too young to arrest without a public outcry, and some international observers to generate such an outcry if needed, turns the military’s threatening visit into an inspiring act of theatrical resistance and strategic smokescreen. I have a good laugh and in a few minutes the soldiers leave and the show is over.

Later that day I catch a ride with Ta’ayush to Bethlehem for a break. The city is inside Area A, which means that it is Palestinian controlled and it is much more peaceful than Mufaqara. I’ll spend a weekend there living in a refugee camp enjoying the idea of a bed, running water, electricity, internet and decreased likelyhood of running into M16 toting soldiers or rock-wielding settlers. Not that the camp hasn’t been attacked before, and one resident shows me his three bullet wounds, pointing out the hotel nearby where Israeli snipers used to shoot into the camp at anyone who came out onto the street. But that’s a story for a different time.

An Operation Dove activist and a shepherd have enough courage to graze the sheep next to Hivat Ma'on, in an area too full of violent criminals for me to normally go into alone.
An Operation Dove activist and a shepherd have enough courage to graze the sheep next to Hivat Ma’on, in an area too full of violent criminals for me to normally go into alone.

On my way out of Mufaqara, I walk with Ta’ayush past the outpost called Hivat Ma’on. I’ve never been so close to the outpost before, because people tell me it is too dangerous to go near the coniferous trees which surround the outpost. The danger comes from a lawless bunch of settlers who attack shepherds and observers if the try to use the public road. Today, however, I am with a group of 18 rather daring Israelis which is apparently too many to comfortably attack. By walking this close we are delivering a message to the settlers that they are not able to act with complete impunity; people are watching, and do care.

We pass destroyed olive trees, which aren’t re-habilitated because it is to dangerous to tend them. And near the end of the walk we come across a shepherd and Operation Dove activist accompanying each other into this dangerous area.

During my time in Bethlehem, I find some of Bansky’s art by accident, on the wall of a gas station. Always an inspiration, I’m happy to have come across this hidden treasure. By the time I head back into Mufaqara I’m ready to meet the situation again which is just as well because it’s time to graze closer to the Avigail outpost, and the Operation Dove observers have been attacked again while I was away.
A work by Bansky, on the side of a gas station in Bethlehem

Our message to the Israelis is that if they demolish in the morning we will build at night. If they demolish at night we will build in the morning. We will never leave. We are born here and we will stay here.” – Mahmoud Hamamda, Spokesperson for Mufaqara, South Hebron Hills.

1. When I was in the nearby city of Hebron international observers stated that settlers have often tried to hurt people with their cars.

2. Some good farmers I’ve spoken to consider bare soil the equivalent of an open wound; a very bad situation for an agroecosystem.

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