One hundred soldiers, four shepherds, 3,000 sheep and some dogs and donkeys

By EA Margaret, Northern West Bank

Just when I was wondering what my next blog could possibly be about, along came over 100 soldiers on military exercise, followed by four shepherds with 350 sheep, and half a dozen dogs and donkeys. While we were on our way to a local Palestinian permaculture farm – for me to have some time with the beehives – a local shepherd rang to say the military was conducting exercises, with live ammunition, close by.

As we drove down the valley we caught sight of the army camp tucked into the trees. We stopped at the roadside a little further on and met four shepherds with their livestock. Two hundred sheep were grazing on one bankside and 150 on the other. High on two mountains we could see more shepherds grazing goats and sheep. Altogether, they say, 3,000 sheep are grazed in this valley every day. The shepherds make us sweet tea with fresh mountain herbs on an open fire and explain they have been stopped from grazing their sheep down the valley because of the military presence.

Israeli forces conducting a military exercise on land where Palestinians graze their sheep Photo:EAPPI/Eda

Israeli forces conducting a military exercise on land where Palestinians graze their sheep. Photo:EAPPI/Eda

They point to Abed’s living tents and animal shelters high above us on the mountainside where he lives with his wife and seven children. We can see two of his children, just dots walking across the mountain. Yesterday the army came at 10.30am and told Abed to evacuate his family and 300 sheep for ten hours for firing practice. The army set up its targets across the mountainside in front of Abed’s tents. When he was eventually allowed back to his home at 1.30am the next morning there were bullet holes in his living tent. This is against international law, as Article 53 of the Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits the destruction by the occupying power of any property of those under its control.

As we talked, several groups of around 20 soldiers with heavy backpacks came down out of the camp and crossed the road into fields towards another valley. All were young and heavily armed. It wasn’t long before they were adjusting their backpacks and swapping loads. One group went up the mountain towards Abed’s family; we could see them setting out targets and lying down on the grass.

The shepherds also pointed out Bassem’s family, who live in the valley across the fields where most of the soldiers were walking. Yesterday they took his son for half an hour and shot holes into his water tank. The detention of children in these kinds of situations is very common across the West Bank, and breaches International law: the Convention on the Rights of the Child prohibits depriving a child of his/her liberty arbitrarily.

A freelance journalist and a cameraman joined us and filmed the activity up on the mountain while we took photographs. Soldiers in a military vehicle began to take an interest, driving up and down the road, and stopping to view us from distance. Four fully armed soldiers approached. They directed us to leave and ordered the cameraman to delete his footage. We complied.

We moved further down the valley to the group shelters, where most of the shepherds live. As we turned to look back, we saw Abed’s wife and children moving down the mountain. They had been directed to leave again. Abed’s wife had been making bread and morning cheese – the family’s staple diet –  when she was told to leave. What will her family eat tomorrow? Abed’s and Bassem’s experiences are not unique – these kinds of evacuations for military activities occur regularly all across the West Bank (read more). In addition, according to the Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem, large areas of the West Bank have now been designated as firing zones, severely restricting Palestinian access to the affected land.

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Palestinian shepherds removed from land due to Israeli military training. Photo:EAPPI/Margaret

We spent the next three or four hours providing protective presence for the families; simply by being present as international observers, we can deter violence and harassment. We chatted with the women, played with the children, drank coffee, ate taboon bread, fresh tomatoes, olive oil, za’atar and some of the morning’s cheese. Their welcome and hospitality was generous and humbling. It was too dangerous to visit Abed’s home to record the damage, or Bassem’s to hear about his son’s detention and see his water tank, but we promised to return and do so when the army left.

The names of the shepherds in this story have been changed.

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Many Palestinians have been permanently displaced to make way for military activities across the West Bank. Follow updates on this issue by B’Tselem, and help spread the word to prevent further evacuations and expulsions.