Mufaqarah Part 12: Paradise lost

The grain harvest continues in the South Hebron Hills. It meanders along week after week as people take their time, harvesting the grain by hand, grazing fields with sheep and pass around the threshing machine. There is no rain or cold coming soon so there is no hurry. The situation here is in sharp contrast to the Canadian harvest in which a chance bit of rain can cost a farmer a great deal of money and deadly cold of winter is approaching.

The neighbor across the valley is threshing square bales of grain. People in Canada don’t use square bales much anymore, and if they do then it is for hay, not for grain. It seems funny to me that you would make and transport bales of grain rather than threshing the grain immediately, shipping the seed and putting the chaff back in the field or feeding it to an animal nearby. But suppose you wanted to ship the straw somewhere as well? It makes sense to use a square bale. People here don’t seem to grow hay.

On this side of the valley we’ve purchased some wheat to eat. I mentioned earlier, way back in the 6th article of this series, that Mahmoud’s family purchases their wheat instead of growing it. It is purchased as animal feed, presumably because that is the cheapest way. The chopped straw, which is actually added after threshing because animals appreciate some straw in their grain, has to be removed by hand. The grain is submerged in a tub of water and the straw, which tends to float to the top, is taken off. There is a little bit of corn mixed in and I wonder where it comes from since I haven’t seen much corn growing here. After taking the straw out, the grain is dried and inspected by hand to look for rocks and other debris. This intimate and labour intensive process for preparing grain is almost unimaginable in Canada, where grain is planted and harvested by huge machines then purchased by most people with it’s germ and skin removed, pre-ground, preserved and bleached.

Drying the grain
Laying the grain out to dry.

The next day I go out with shepherds again and see a good example of swords to ploughshares. The shepherds here use old bullet casings as the inside of a bell for their sheep.

Bullet casing used for a bell.
Bullet casing used for a bell.

Rock throwing is another sort of swords to ploughshares example. The media usually shows rocks being thrown at people as a weapon. But the shepherds here use rock throwing for a relatively peaceful agricultural purpose; to guide the sheep. Rocks are lying on the ground everywhere here and rock throwing is a deeply entrenched cultural practice.

Throwing a rock to move the sheep.
Throwing a rock to move the sheep.

Shepherds with their sheep.
Shepherds with their sheep.

Near the end of the grazing trip, we see some sort of great big falcon flying above us, hunting. When we returned home I learn that the Operation Dove team was attacked again. The world is as it usually is, then; the hawks are hunting and the doves are being attacked.

I go along with Operation Dove when I can these days. Sitting around Mufaqarah is not that much fun, and I like the Doves. I have a story to tell you about when I went with some Doves and shepherds to eat the last of some grain in among a stand of olive trees.

The walk begins by going by an abandoned homestead. The shepherd I am with speaks excellent english and explains to me that the house used to belong to his uncle. The settlers would attack his house almost every night. Eventually, the family left because they were afraid of being killed. He moved to the nearby town of Yatta to try to make a living there. His house remains, as it will for generations since it is made of stacked stone. There are signs of new efforts to bring the garden back to life, with some young perennials and inverted soda bottles to deliver water to them. I recognize a castor bean and small palm tree. Nobody from the village feels safe enough to use the house, though. It is about a kilometer outside the village borders, which is too isolated to be safe at night. The deserted house is surrounded by beautifully built stone terraces and speaks powerfully of paradise lost.

The house reminds me of one I visited in Givat Zeev, which was my only incognito foray inside of a settlement in the West Bank. The homestead had been colonized and modified by settlers but was still very obviously an old Palestinian house and orchard. The new residents were making it into a “permaculture” project, albeit evidently without the usual Permaculture ethic of “people care”. There was a composting toilet, mud houses and a makeshift greywater system. An Israeli flag was flying above the house. It was a grungy but fairly safe place to party and smoke a great deal of marijuana. The residents seemed to make their living from selling beer and food to partiers who they invite in slightly sketchy ways through social networking websites. You can see the outskirts of Ramallah from the house. One occupant told me that he was afraid to walk to Ramallah although he couldn’t articulate a specific reason.
I met a gorgeous Swiss girl who worked in the propaganda arm of the IDF, and we chatted about things next to the bonfire while trying to pretend like nothing was wrong. I walked to the grocery store to buy some food for dinner, borrowed a dirty mattress and blanket to sleep in the kitchen with and left as early as possible in the morning, hurriedly snapping a few photos on the way out. It was an acutely strange and uncomfortable experience. A house in a stolen paradise, full of unspoken concerns and fear.
Paradise lost
Paradise lost

But back to the story. After walking past the deserted house near Mufaqarah, we come to the grazing area and move along slowly, letting the sheep eat as we go. Then we hear some whistling, which is often used as the first line of intimidation when settlers here are running a bit of neighborly harassment. Some settlers across the valley, in the outpost of Hivat Maon, have seen us and are trying to scare us away although we were quite far from them. With four observers and three shepherds present, the shepherds feel safe enough to continue grazing. The shepherd boys wave their sticks in the air in response to the whistling.

Soon enough, the settlers decide to provoke the shepherds by coming down the hill and swimming in the Palestinian owned and built cistern. I’ve shown this photo before, but I will bring it up again to discuss it a bit more.

Settlers swimming in a cistern.
Settler swimming in a cistern

I find this sort of childish, vindictive behavior embarrassing to watch. I have heard about it often enough, but to witness it first hand is really remarkable. After their swim the boys go up the hill again to hang out in the cover of the pine trees which extend to the edge of the outpost. These trees were planted by an Israeli organization, and are the only trees around which do not give food. They provide shade and eventually lumber, but their most obvious function at the moment is to provide cover for people to hide behind. They make approaching the outpost quite dangerous. You never know if someone is waiting in the trees, so it’s safer to not go near them.

I ask if the rest of the observers mind me going down to the orchard to take photos of some destroyed olive trees. Since the settlers are on the other side of the valley, and the orchard in the bottom of the valley this means going closer to the settlers. This brings about a curious situation which I have come across a few times in the West Bank. I don’t want to put us all at higher risk of attack than the observers and shepherds are willing to accept. But we all know why we are here: to see the situation. Seeing it means risk, there is no getting around that. It’s only a question of how much is acceptable. Operation Dove has already carefully counted the destroyed trees, and keeps meticulous track of the situation. But I want some photos of my own, and having seven people around is probably the safest I will ever be so it is my only chance. There is a constant a balance between safety for yourself and those around you and accomplishing the job of witness. In other words, it’s a balance between short term and long term safety.

It’s a strange feeling to be in the situation of deciding whether or not to tell someone they shouldn’t take photos of destroyed olive trees or soldiers harassing people. Discouraging people from seeing and recording criminal activity plays right into the colonizer’s hand, and indicates successful intimidation. Yet, a misplaced camera flash can trigger a soldier and escalate a situation quickly.

Then comes the question of whether I will go alone or not. We decide that I will go alone and the other observers will phone me if they can see the settlers coming to attack me, something which they can see from their post and I am unable to see from the bottom of the valley. As far as we can tell the settlers are not carrying guns, only the usual rocks and lawless aggression.

I walk down into the valley, and as I’m taking pictures the settlers threaten me with a whistle. I keep taking photos, and my phone rings. I take a few more to make sure I get something good, and head back up the hill trying not to run. Or trip.
Destroyed olive treeDestroyed olive tree

As you can see from the photo, the olive tree is cut partway with a saw, and broken the rest of the way. I guess it’s easier than cutting all the way through. The trees are destroyed in a rather haphazard manner: instead of a systematic cutting down from one end of the orchard, trees seem to have been targeted at random. There are some trees in the orchard which seem to be dead from something else, but I can’t get any answers about this.

The sheep finish eating, and we all head back towards the village. As we are walking back, a Palestinian boy with a donkey walks by the settlers, between us and them. The settlers watch and I am told that they want to attack the boy. But because there are enough of us watching, he is safe. This time. I can see why binoculars are considered contraband by the IDF. Watching carefully is often key to surviving in these hills. One of the resistance leaders carries around the tiniest pair I’ve ever seen, squirreled away in his breast pocket.

Of course, not everything around here involves settlers. Some activists would disagree with me on this, saying that colonization leaks into every aspect of life. But I disagree. Case in point,

A baby donkey; the newest addition to MufaqarahA baby donkey; the newest addition to Mufaqarah

Colonization in any way has little to do with the wonderful nature of this newest addition to Mufaqarah. When you see this little girl, only a few days old, jumping around hiding behind her mummy, not quite sure what to think of me, it’s pretty obvious that there’s not much colonial influence in her life yet.

As for the humans, that’s a different story.

A resistance leader sits in his house, thinking. His family is the one which owns the land now colonized by Hivat Maon.
A resistance leader sits in his house, thinking. His family is the one which owns the land now colonized by Hivat Maon.


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