Two perspectives on the same land

by Chris, Southern West Bank.

Sitting in the fields of the southern West Bank you have to pinch yourself to remember where you are, and why. The hills, in their coat of spring green, are beautiful at this time of the year. A pinch jolts the memory: we are here to provide a protective presence to shepherds who are regularly threatened by Israeli settlers from Otniel (a settlement that is illegal under international law).

The settlement of Otniel. Photo : EAPPI/Chris

When Shefdi and Safi were arrested at the beginning of March 2017, they were shocked by how severely they were treated, both during the arrest and when in custody. After they were released – they had done nothing wrong – the two shepherds asked us to increase our presence, particularly when the community was grazing sheep on its land near Otniel.

The hills of the area are planted with barley, lentils and collections of beautiful olive trees but turn 180 degrees and the view changes. There is a cluster of trailers on the hilltop, part of an outpost of Otniel. Loops of wire provide electricity and there is a barbed wire fence, a smoothly-surfaced road – and soldiers. In February 2017 the Knesset passed a land regularisation bill that retroactively ‘legalised’ all outposts. Until this point they had been deemed illegal by the Israeli government.

View from the fields. Photo : EAPPI/Chris

For some people living in the West Bank, circumstances are quite good: settlements are expanding in size and growth is facilitated by the government’s provision of well-constructed roads, water and electricity. But life is far more uncertain for the Palestinians in Area C, where the supply of water and electricity is restricted. Each day Palestinian shepherds wait to see if patrolling soldiers will permit them access to their land to graze sheep.

The presence of the EAPPI team does not deter the soldiers. On this occasion they approach with guns and mobile phones in camera mode. Israeli soldiers on patrol are armed and instructed to photograph anyone who might be perceived as a challenge. They wish to check our legitimacy, and explain that sheep must not stray within ten meters of the road to the outpost. The shepherds comply with a knowing shrug; a calm, watchful expectancy descends. This is part of the daily routine of a shepherd. “The soldiers”, say Shefdi and Safi, “would chase us away if you weren’t here”.

Soldiers retreating after questioning shepherds. Photo : EAPPI/Chris

The EAPPI team in the south of the West Bank provides a protective presence to a number of shepherding families. We are open to requests from any shepherds who come under threat. The harassment of shepherds by Israeli soldiers is frequent and takes place among farming communities across the West Bank. Our presence allows Palestinians to tend their flocks and plant their fields with confidence, ensuring their land remains tended – if it were not, the land could be confiscated by the Israeli government under an old Ottoman law.

Read further articles by Amira Hass in Haaretz: http://www.haaretz.com/misc/writers/amira-hass-1.278

For more details of life experienced by farming communities like Shefdi’s and Safi’s, see: http://www.btselem.org/topic/south_hebron_hills