Mufaqara 10: Avigail

When I return from Bethlehem there is a neighboring shepherd who has decided that it’s time to graze his fields right next to the outpost known as Avigail. Outposts are small Israeli settlements inside the West Bank, unrecognized by Israeli law.

Avigail is only a few years old, in contrast to Mufaqara’s considerable age. Yet Avigail has a normal electrical system, running water and plenty of above ground buildings. There is even a pizzeria. None of this is allowed for Palestinians. The campaign that Mufaqara is running to build their own above-ground houses and infrastructure brings this point in frequently; they are simply trying to implement the same systems that they see their neighbors building. Throughout the history of the Palestinian village’s struggle, they have timed their efforts to coincide with their neighbors in order to highlight this point. For example, when the Israeli neighbors got electricity, Mufaqara saw this and subsequently built their own power pylons with clear public statements that if the colonizing Israelis are allowed to install electricity, native Palestinians should be able to do so also. The Israeli military destroyed Mufaqara’s power pylons and left Avigail’s alone.

It’s this sort of treatment, where Israelis are allowed to do things that Palestinians aren’t, that results in the term “Israeli Apartheid”. There are all sorts of rules like this, even streets that Israelis can walk down but Palestinians can’t, roads that only Israelis can use. Normally only Israelis are allowed to build wells, have water towers, have a normal electrical system, leave Palestine without permission and last, but not least, own guns.
Some people don’t like the term “Israeli Apartheid” because it implies that Israel is a legitimate state. I see their point but at least I think the second part is very apt, and I might mention that this is affirmed by the government of South Africa.

In this context, Avigail is sitting on the hill next to Mufaqara, a technically illegal settlement which is left alone because it is populated by Israelis rather than Palestinians. As we are about to see, it is not only left alone but supported and helped to expand by a willing Israeli military.

As I previously described, but am happy to repeat, the way outposts like Avigail expand and take over more land is by scaring farmers away from their borders with intimidation or direct violence. Then, when the shepherds or olive orchardists have been unable to access their land for three years, the land is declared abandoned. The government then takes it and hands it over to the settlers. The process iterates with new borders. Emphasis is laid on areas that will amalgamate existing colonies and cut the Palestinian territory up into isolated sections which have difficulty coordinating and resisting the advancing colonization. You can recognize this as the old tactic of Divide and Conquer manifested in a physical way (as opposed to the also common psychological divide and conquer techniques). I’ve written previously how this is happening to Bethlehem, which is being prepared for an economic siege by surrounding it with settlements, and how Mufaqara is in between two colonies which are trying to amalgamate.

The shepherd we are with today is foiling this process of land appropriation by using his land and documenting it, despite intimidation from one of the strongest armies in the world. He is a non-violent resistance fighter.
Operation Dove with the shepherd, to the right you can see a building of Avigail.Operation Dove with the shepherd, to the right you can see a building of Avigail.

Two people from Operation Dove and myself are accompanying the shepherd to document the process.

Things begin quietly, with the sounds of munching grass and the heat of the afternoon sun. It’s tense, but quiet. I’m day dreaming about the food system here. The Operation Dove activists are more alert, watching for attacks from settlers or any other signs of aggression. This place has a bad history; just days ago some Operation Dove volunteers were attacked here. My camera is out and ready and it is unnerving to be so close to settlers so notorious for their violence. I can’t help but remember that every settler is allowed to own an assault rifle. The settlers a bit further north have taken to shooting at people like us. But each colony is different. Each one has its own character, gangs, and philosophy. There haven’t been any shootings here recently. There is already trouble brewing, but we don’t know it yet.

Soon, we are finished grazing this section of field, and move a little bit north, ending up in a shallow saddle. That’s when the trouble that started before starts bubbling over. It started earlier with a phone call from inside the outpost.
The shepherd watches approaching soldiers as he tries to graze his sheep.The shepherd watches approaching soldiers as he tries to graze his sheep.

The military comes. Five soldiers, one woman and four men. They gather at the guard post. The shepherd starts to move away from them with his flock, and we take his cue, without saying anything. Technically, there is no reason to walk away from the soldiers but the conflict is full of this sort of ground-level compromise to reduce tensions. The leading Operation Dove volunteer is quickly on his phone, asking for backup. The male soldiers approach the shepherd and ask for his identification. Every Palestinian has an identification card that soldiers often ask for. It’s usually how harassment starts. By this time the Op. Dove guys have their video recorders set up from two different angles. If the soldiers physically attack the shepherd the video will be on youtube traveling around the world before the sun goes down, with the credibility of an international observer behind it. It’s harder to keep secrets these days than it used to be.
Soldiers demand the shepherd's ID card. Operation Dove records video.Soldiers demand the shepherd’s ID card. Operation Dove records video.

The female soldier and one male soldier remain behind at the outpost. It’s not coincidence that three men came out and the only woman remained behind. After reading some entries from an organization called Breaking The Silence, I’ve learned a bit about the rampant sexism inside the army.

Our shepherd friend is detained. Apparently someone inside the outpost called the military and accused him of entering the outpost. I know this is not true, having watched since the time we arrived. And I can prove it since I have plenty of photos. I clarify this point with the people who speak Arabic to make sure that the army knows that we know, and can prove, that the shepherd was never inside the outpost. This situation is a good illustration of how the settlers use the military to intimidate and harass people.

Meanwhile, the sheep are wandering away. But they seem to know where to go. Two anti-colonial Israelis also arrive in response to being phoned by Operation Dove. They are well known activists in the area, a married couple. The husband starts giving the military a hard time in a much more aggressive way than the Operation Dove people or myself are willing or able to do.
From the left, an Op. Dove volunteer, the shepherd, an Israeli activist, a soldier, another Israeli activist, a soldier taking video and a soldier on his radio-phone. I love this photo; each person is taking their role in the situation in such a distinct way. The one Israeli activist and soldier are video taping each other. The water tower for Avigail is in the background, a structure Palestinians are not allowed to build.From the left, an Op. Dove volunteer, the shepherd, an Israeli activist, a soldier, another Israeli activist, a soldier taking video and a soldier on his radio-phone. I love this photo; each person is taking their role in the situation in such a distinct way. The one Israeli activist and soldier are video taping each other. The water tower for Avigail is in the background, a structure Palestinians are not allowed to build.

In the photo above, one soldier is using his mobile phone to record video. The Operation Dove volunteers are taking video also. I found this behavior fascinating. Video is used for both aggression and defense. Often I have seen stand-offs where two people take video of each other. I have even seen this in Canada between the RCMP and indigenous activists. Many soldiers take video with their mobile phones. Some reports in Breaking the Silence indicate that soldiers take it for their own personal records. This reminds me of people in killing fields who pretend that what they are seeing is happening on TV, and this helps them to mentally cope with the situation. I know that the Israeli army uses facial recognition from video to identify activists, but I think that a lot of the video taken by soldiers is too low quality for that. Maybe it is used for their own internal reports, staying low in the hierarchy, and personal use. Activists on the Palestinian side know that cameras obscure their face from facial recognition, and looking through the viewfinder can be a convenient defense.

The shepherd, waiting, detained, for about an hour.The shepherd, waiting, detained, for about an hour.

Soon, the police arrive, and so does Mahmoud from Mufaqara. Settlers who live in the outpost drive by. Some are vindictive, some ask what is going on in a much more legal, cool, fashion. By the time the military is done making a big show, the shepherd has been detained for over an hour. I would say he has been detained for nothing, but actually the purpose is clear; to intimidate and harass. They decide to let him go, eventually. The Israeli activists and Mahmoud go home. Operation Dove generally stays until things are thoroughly over, and decide to walk home with the shepherd. I’m staying with them. It’s a celebratory atmosphere, being set free. Although we know that the injustice of an arbitrary detainment stands, it’s still nice to be free again.

Walking away.Walking away.

But in only lasts for a minute. As we are walking away they call us back.
Walking back
Walking back.

It seems to me that this was a trick to isolate us; a faux release to encourage the collected crowd (in this case, Mahmoud, the Israelis, Operation Dove and myself) to think things are over and go home. Who knows, perhaps the military people feel like they have a legitimate reason to call us back. To me, none of this is legitimate. In any case, the military always seem to prefer to have less people around when they detain Palestinians. Operation Dove’s policy of staying until the end is a prudent one. With a phone call the Israeli activists return. In 15 minutes we are released again, this time for real.

The next day, June 20, is a bit more quiet, by which I mean to say there is less military involved. I spend most of the day studying Arabic, have lunch with some Operation Dove folks at the neighbor’s place and take a look at the progressing building. The guys have been working hard on putting it together, and the walls are complete. The kids are happy to have visitors and show us their cute little white rabbits.

Inside the latest building
Inside the latest building.

The sheep, as usual, escape the heat in their manger by staying still and in the shade.
Quiet life in the manger
Quiet life in the manger.

Around 4pm I go again to graze near Avigail, with Mahmoud’s family. Today is the first time I have seen clouds here. They are very small and far away. The weather is unusually cool and comfortable. Life is fairly normal, without any immediate trouble. We even see some antelope in the distance. The pomegranates are kind of in the middle of their season, I’ve seen some some flowers and some mature fruit. The tasty and fuzzy loquats are mostly finished.
Grazing near Avigail

By this time the days are kind of running into each other. I don’t keep journal entries as carefully as I should; on the 21st the only thing I write is that iPhoto keeps crashing. I am writing almost exclusively late at night because the children don’t interrupt me as much then.
I see one of the more curious gender divides. It seems that the boys are in charge of milking the goats and the women in charge of milking the sheep. I suppose they cross over some.
Milking the goatsMilking the goats.

The next day is absorbed fully by a protest at Susya, and my photo collection for that day is full of flag waving, military, explosives and various chemical weapons being directed at us. But that, dear readers, is detailed elsewhere.

Good Night and Good Luck,

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