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Out in the cold

Hundreds of Bedouin and Palestinian farmers have lost their homes to a cruel deal between the Jewish settlers and the authorities

By Gideon Levy, Ha'aretz Magazine 02/01/2000

Fatma Jahalin is crying in the dark. She was born two months ago in a wind-beaten tin shack her father built at the entrance to the Abu Dis junkyard, where the Israeli Civil Administration permitted him to erect a home. Three years ago, Fatma's family and some 1,700 other Bedouin from the Jahalin tribe were driven off the land they had inhabited for decades. For Fatma's grandfather, this was a familiar experience: In the 1950s, he and his tribe were forced to leave their lands in the Negev. Last week, the strong winds blew away Fatma's makeshift home. Now she lies crying in the darkness of a neighbor's cold shack.An hour's drive to the south, Souheib and Rasha also sit in the dark. They, however, are not crying. He is a year old; she is his older sister. On Sunday she stood in the center of their cave-home and wiped her brother's runny nose with a crumpled tissue. Both children's eyes were blank, neither smiling nor sad. Rasha just stood there, dabbing at her baby brother's nose, wiping her own nose, trying to straighten out his ragged, filthy clothes, and staring vacantly into space. A sharp smell of smoke, soot and mildew filled the air.

Two months ago, the Civil Administration forced Souheib and Rasha's families and 300 other Palestinian shepherds to leave their relatively well-appointed caves in the southern Hebron Hills, where they had lived for years. Their expulsion was the result of a deal cooked up with the Yesha Council of Jewish Settlers: The Palestinian shepherds would be driven off, and in return the belligerent inhabitants of the Maon Farm would agree to evacuate their illegal stronghold.

Now the displaced shepherds huddle in the homes of local villagers. Though they are grateful to their benefactors, they know that when spring comes they will have to leave; they have no idea where they will go. An attorney is currently working on their behalf, trying to have their homes returned to them. In the meantime, Rasha and Souheib's parents were planning to visit their cave this morning, provided that no Israeli soldiers or settlers stop them on the way to retrieve some more of their property. Souheib, a one-year-old who has already experienced deportation, now looks at us with a baby's suspicious frown, wary of strangers.

On Sunday I ventured into the province of Israeli evil - the evacuated caves of the southern Hebron Hills and the shacks of the Abu Dis junkyard. It was cold there, and crowded, and sad. Very sad.

A waterskin filled with goat's milk hangs suspended from metal rods in the dark, smoky depths of the Jinadiyeh family's cave. An hour's drive from Jerusalem, and you are in the Third World. Mutira and Ibrahim Jinadiyeh have 12 children, ranging in age from 5 to 22. Now the family members, all 14 of them, share a room in an ancient and decrepit house in the village of Tawana. The owners are letting them stay for a while, until they themselves return in the spring from their other house in Yata. Then the Jinadiyehs will once again find themselves without a home.

Two months ago, Civil Administration officials showed up and drove them from the cave where they had lived, they say, for decades. This was the big expulsion agreed upon in the Maon Farm deal, which was somehow carried out in hair-raising silence: Hundreds of people, many of them children, were removed by force from their homes/caves, and the Israeli media did nothing. Only now, two months after this great injustice, have a number of notable writers and poets organized a petition. The Meretz ministers even raised the subject at this week's cabinet meeting, leading to a decision that the deputy defense minister, no less, would tour the area, accompanied by the officers who had driven the shepherds away. Only then would he decide what to do.

The settlers, predictably, reacted with dismay: If the Palestinians were allowed back, they said, the people of Maon Farm would also return. "It isn't right that only the Arabs are always allowed to stay," spokesmen for the chronically shortchanged settlers lamented this week, easily equating the 300 destitute shepherds with the zealous thugs of Maon Farm.

For Mutira Jinadiyeh, all this is very far away. She blows air into her waterskin, pours in milk, shakes it, and proceeds to churn the sharp-tasting cheese known as labaneh. All she wants is to go home, to the cave village of Tuba, now empty. Yes, her cave was a spacious home, unlike this crowded room, which serves as kitchen, bathroom, nursery and living area all in one. The old stone house her family now inhabits is only a temporary shelter; its floor is spiky with rocks, and menacing spider webs hang from the ceiling.

True, the cave was only a cave, but there, on the edge of the desert, she had room to breathe. There she was at home, not a guest living at someone else's mercy. Her husband, Ibrahim, was arrested on the day that the family was driven out, for trying to resist the soldiers. He spent 10 days in jail. For four days, his wife and 12 children lived outdoors in the rain and wind. No one in Israel protested.

A red clock hanging on the stone wall is the only sign of progress in this house. There is no furniture, no electricity, no running water. Even the sheep are cold here: In Tuba they had a cave for shelter, but here the family's 150 sheep are crowded into an improvised pen, exposed to the cold gusts, and many have already died. In the distance, the Maon settlers' large, modernized cowshed is clearly visible.

The one advantage of the move has been the proximity of the school. Before, the children had to walk an hour each day to reach the school here, in Tawana. Now it is right near their temporary home. But even this advantage is short-lived, as the Civil Administration has condemned the half-built schoolhouse and plans to have it torn down.

The authorities can be counted on to carry out their demolition plan, even if it means leaving these penniless children without a school. Only recently, the Civil Administration impounded a tractor belonging to the Jinadiyehs' neighbor, Ali Raba. He had been plowing his land, and the Jewish settlers were quick to tattle on him. The officials came, took away the tractor and fined him NIS 500. He is only allowed to plow on Fridays and Saturdays. His neighbors say the incident in question actually occurred on a Saturday, but try to prove that. Now he has nothing to plow with. "The settlers can plow, but we can't," the neighbor sighs. Meanwhile, Mutira moves on to her next task: she brings in water from the well, sets it on the smoking twigs to boil, and washes her children's clothes. She does all this in the same place where the family slept last night, the same place in which she churned the labaneh.

A large, rusty steel key hangs on the wall of the next dark, smoky space we enter, another temporary shelter. Zahariya Abu Jinadiyeh, a laundress, leaves her washing for minute and wonders aloud where she and her family will go next month. She has nine children. She gives us the key to her own cave in Tuba, so that we could see what she was forced to leave behind. I once saw a carrot-juice vendor on the streets of Ramallah produce a similar rusty key from his pocket; It was the key to his family's abandoned home in Jaffa, left to him by his father. Now Zahariya the laundress is holding on to her own key. Before handing it to us, she pours oil over it, to ensure that it will function well. It's been two months since the key was last used; the Israeli soldiers and settlers have kept the family from going near the cave.

Outside, a white Red Cross tent ripples in the cool wind. Mahmoud Hamamda, his wife and 12 children lived in it until the last storm, which threatened to blow away the tent and freeze its inhabitants. Kindly neighbors took them in until the weather improves. "We are not Bedouin like the Administration claims, and we don't have homes in Yata," someone declares in agitation. "They won't even let us live our lives. Don't think that we are primitives. We want to have progress. We want electricity, water, homes - but they won't let us have them. They're doing all this to us to make us leave our land. But we will never leave. It's our land."

In their host village, Tawana, bare wooden poles tower overhead, bereft of power lines. The Civil Administration would not allow the villagers to hook them up to the power grid. "We don't want handouts," villagers say, "we only want to be allowed to build." Having seen the cave dwellers expelled from their homes, the villagers fear that their turn will come next.

A red road sign warns those who enters the area of the caves: "Caution, firing zone. No entry. Access must be arranged with the Central Command's Coordination Center, open 24 hours a day, not including weekends and holidays." This is Ibrahim Abu Jinadiyeh's land, our escorts say, now being plowed by the settlers. In the valley below stands a tent: A lone settler has erected it there, next to his parked van. The caves themselves are dug into the stony mountainside, accessible through rocky paths. That, over there, is Ibrahim's cave, and the one next to it is his brother's. These caves have obviously been cared for. Each has a door at its entrance and is guarded by a stone wall. From a distance, the sight is spectacular, one cave next to another, all overlooking the valley. Six cave villages in all, now turned into ghost towns.

We approach the empty cave, still showing signs of the family's life within it. Here a pair of baby shoes, there a sweater. This was the kitchen; its rock stove is still covered in soot. Over there they used to sleep and receive their guests. Eight families lived here before they were expelled, almost 100 people.

Zahariya's key just barely opens the heavy door. We enter a large, spacious room. When they lived here, they used curtains as partitions to divide the space, twice the size of the house where they now stay. A rusty scythe lies on the floor, a bag of tea still hangs suspended from the ceiling. Maybe we should take it to Zahariya.

Two young shepherds, 16-year-old Jihad Issa and 12-year-old Mohammed Alian, approach us with their herds. Jihad has never gone to school. Mohammed left after the sixth grade. They were also forced to leave this place. Now they bring their sheep back to graze on the land they had thought was theirs. They say the sheep return to it on their own. The two boys' families have found shelter down below, in Umm Kheir, with the Bedouin. "There I see what the devil is," says Mohammed. They come here every day, to let their sheep graze, and longingly look at their lost homes. "This was our paradise. On your own land you feel comfortable. On someone else's, you're a stranger."

Ibrahim Abu Jinadiyeh now also approaches us. We stand facing the caves of another ghost village, Sarura. About 200 people live here during grazing season, but only a few remain all year round, and even they were driven out. Mahmoud Hamamda tells us that his sister-in-law was pregnant when they were forced to leave. The stress led to premature labor and her baby, Omar, died last week at the Jericho hospital. "The baby didn't take his time," Mahmoud explains. His parents are now in Jiftlik, far away from here.

Sheets of tin lie scattered among the shacks of the deportees' village near the Abu Dis junkyard. These are the roofs of the shacks destroyed by last week's storm. For three years now, the Civil Administration has allowed the Jahalin Bedouin to live here. Only those recently driven from their homes are allowed to build new, permanent residences. Those who were expelled three years ago cannot get the promised building permits. In the distance, the giant settlers' city of Ma'aleh Adumim is steadily encroaching. Dozens of barefoot, disheveled children run between the shacks. Some 170 families live here, not far from Jerusalem, at the entrance to a junkyard, in unbelievable squalor. Being removed from their natural habitat in the desert has destroyed their lives. Baby Fatma's crying carries into the distance.

The large container inhabited by Abu Ahmed, chair of the village committee, was set down with its entrance facing the cold wind. Abu Ahmed says he asked if it could be turned around, to provide some shelter from the cold. But the Civil Administration official, he claims, said it would be left as it was, because of all the trouble Abu Ahmed has caused


© copyright 2000 Ha'aretz. All Rights Reserved

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