Palestinian Hamlet Embodies Combat for the West Financial institution’s Future

HUMSA, West Bank – Until last November, Fadwa Abu Awad’s morning followed a familiar rhythm: the 42-year-old Palestinian shepherd rose at 4 a.m., prayed and milked her family’s sheep. Then she added an enzyme to the milk buckets and stirred them for hours to make a salty, rubbery, halloumi-like cheese.

However, that routine changed overnight in November when the Israeli army destroyed their hamlet of Humsa in the West Bank. When the 13 families living there revived their homes, the army returned in early February to put them down again. By the end of February, parts of Humsa had been dismantled and rebuilt six times within three months because the Israelis viewed them as illegal structures.

“Life used to be about waking up, milking and making cheese,” Ms. Abu Awad said in a recent interview. “Now we’re just waiting for the army.”

The force with which the Israeli army tried to demolish Humsa has made this small Palestinian camp an embodiment of the struggle for the future of the occupied territories.

Humsa is at the northern end of the Jordan Valley, an eastern part of the West Bank that the Israeli government officially wanted to annex last year. The government suspended this plan in September under an agreement to normalize relations with the United Arab Emirates.

The army has since destroyed more than 200 buildings there, claiming they were built without legal permission.

“We’re not shooting from the hip here,” said Mark Regev, a senior adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “We will implement the decision of the court. There is no doubt that due process was followed. “

However, some Israeli politicians still hope that one day the area will be incorporated into the State of Israel as a buffer against possible attacks from the east.

Human rights activists and some former Israeli officials fear that the ferocity of the campaign against Humsa, which they viewed as exceptional in its fervor, points to a broader desire to evict seminomadic Palestinian shepherds from the Jordan Valley and bolster Israeli claims on the U.S. territory.

There are around 11,000 Palestinian shepherds in the Jordan Valley, and their presence in places like Humsa complicates Israeli ambitions there, said Dov Sedaka, a reserved Israeli general who once headed the government department that manages important parts of the occupation.

“The idea is, yes, let’s keep the Jordan Valley clean,” said Mr Sedaka, who added that he was against the idea. “This is the word I hear. Let’s keep it clean from these people. “

The Israeli army has demolished 254 buildings it deemed illegal in the Jordan Valley, including the houses in Humsa, in the six months since the annexation plan was suspended. According to the United Nations, this is more than almost every other six-month trip in the last decade.

The Israeli government’s declaration of destruction goes back to the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians in the 1990s. The deal gave Israel administrative control of more than 60 percent of the West Bank, including most of the Jordan Valley, pending further negotiations, which should be completed within five years.

However, in two decades of talks, both sides have failed to reach an agreement, leaving Israel in control of the land known as Area C and the right to demolish houses built there without a building permit.

Israeli authorities began demolishing Humsa after Israeli judges denied multiple appeals from residents over nearly a decade. The government offered the villagers an alternative place to live near a Palestinian city.

According to Israeli officials, the villagers will have to leave for their own safety as the hamlet is within the 18 percent of the West Bank that Israel has designated as a military training zone. And they argue that the Shepherds got there at least a decade after the military zone was established in 1972 in the early years of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.

Today Humsa doesn’t look like much, littered with the wreckage of successive demolitions – a broken pink toy, an upturned stove, a smashed solar panel. Even before it was first demolished, it was a community of just 85 people living in a few dozen tents spread out on a remote hill.

Residents say the Israeli arguments overlook a greater injustice.

“We are the indigenous people of this country,” said Ansar Abu Akbash, a 29-year-old shepherd in Humsa. “They didn’t originally have this land – they are settlers.”

Israel captured the country in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. The first shepherds moved to Humsa in the 1980s, saying they had already been displaced by Israeli activities elsewhere in the West Bank.

The slopes where the shepherds live and graze their 10,000 sheep are still owned by Palestinians who live and pay rent in a nearby town.

For the shepherds, the solution is not as simple as moving to the place proposed by the army: they say that there is not enough land there for their sheep to roam.

“This is the only place where we can continue our lifestyle,” said Ms. Abu Awad. “We live by these sheep and they live by us.”

Israeli authorities denied the shepherds’ requests to retrospectively approve their humble camp, said Tawfiq Jabareen, a lawyer representing the villagers.

This is a known dynamic in Area C. Between 2016 and 2018, Israel approved 56 of 1,485 permit applications for Palestinian construction works in Area C, according to Bimkom. an independent Israeli organization that advocates for Palestinian planning rights.

And while Israeli authorities have targeted Humsa, they have turned a blind eye to unauthorized Israeli construction in the same military zone as the pastoral community, Jabareen said.

The army has left intact several Israeli structures that were built inside the military zone in 2018 and 2019, although those structures were also under demolition orders, he said.

“These parallel paths for dealing with Palestinian and settler communities are a strong example of discrimination,” he said.

The government agency overseeing the demolitions declined to comment on the matter.

The nearby Israeli settlement of Roi, a village of 200 people that was built in the 1970s, was supposed to fit in a tight gap between two Israeli military training zones under Israeli law.

The residents of Roi seem to have little sympathy for their neighbors. Some said it was the Palestinians who were the invaders of the land and the Israelis who redeemed it from a barren wasteland.

“Look at what we’ve been doing here in 40 years and you’ll understand,” said Uri Schlomi von Strauss, 70, one of Roi’s earliest settlers. “We built the land, we plowed the land, and this gives us the right to the land,” he added. “Why should I have sympathy?”

Across the valley, the shepherds of Humsa counted the cost of the final demolition. The army had confiscated their water tanks, which the military consider to be unauthorized structures. This reduced the water they had to drink and wash with, much less to feed their sheep or make the cheese.

One woman had lost all her embroidery, another her precious coat.

Aid groups had given them new tents, but not enough to house their sheep. So the sheep slept in the cold, which, according to the shepherds, meant they produced less milk – which in turn meant less cheese had to be sold in the market.

“I have become a very angry and scared person,” said Ms. Abu Akbash. “I am overwhelmed by stress.”

As an Israel-approved car slowly approached the Abu Akbash family tent, the children ran to pick up their toys, fearing that another demolition was imminent.

“Every car they see,” said Ms. Abu Akbash, “they think it’s the army.”

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