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The Palestinian village of Bir al ‘Idd is perched like an eagle’s nest on a hillside of South Hebron Hills, and offers amazing views over the vast, arid landscapes of the southern West Bank. This place takes my breath away every time I come there. On the surface, the place appears so peaceful. However, the villagers of Bir al ‘Idd are very unfortunate with their neighbors.
On both sides of the village, extremist Israeli settlers have established their outposts over the years. The infamous settlement of Mitzpe Yair lies to the north and controls the access road: In November we witnessed that the road was blocked with truckloads of sand. And the Israeli Army keeps blocking it at regular intervals.
Our contact in Bir al ‘Idd, the 65-year old farmer Ismael Adara, can tell us that the settlers and soldiers in the area harass him frequently. Last time we met him, soldiers had been throwing stones at his tent just a few days before, waking him up in the middle of the night. Ismael had ran out just in time to see the Israeli soldiers speed away in their jeep. A few days before that, the settler Jacob Taljah from the neighboring outpost Nof Nesher, or Lucifer’s Farm, came up and accused Ismael of steeling his sheep.
In the South Hebron Hills, Jacob Taljah is known as an extremist settler who moved here from South Africa 20 years ago, after he converted to Judaism.
It’s not the first time he accuses the Palestinians living in the vicinity of theft. So Ismael suggested:
-Let the sheep walk freely, and see which way they prefer to go. If they are yours, they will of course go to Lucifer’s Farm. Now if they’re mine, they’ll come to me.
Jacob could only accept this proposition, and the lambs immediately ran back to Ismael’s pen.
That situation ended well, but Ismael has been in real trouble before. In August last year, settlers from nearby Mitzpe Yair attacked him in the fields and beat him up so badly that Ismael had to be hospitalized in nearby Hebron for three days. The Ecumenical Accompaniers (EAs) in Hebron visited him in hospital.
-The Israelis came onto me when I was herding my sheep alone. They knocked me down with a direct headbutt, and kicked and beat me savagely with their sticks. Ismael is not a young man anymore, and he couldn’t possibly have dealt with several attackers. Luckily for him, the Israeli Army had an ambulance nearby, and Ismael was rushed to the Aliyah hospital in Hebron. He could go home after three days, but when we meet him, he says his shoulder still hurts badly, and he has had to return to hospital for further scans and follow-up three times over the last 6 months.
-My shoulder still hurts when I work, Ismael says.
And life in Bir al ‘Idd entails a lot of hard work.
The settler assault on Ismael was actually widely disseminated in the media, and this is not the only time the inhabitants of Mitzpe Yair have committed severe acts of violence.
The settlement of Mitzpe Yair (“Yair lookout”) was established in October 1998 by people who wanted to take revenge on the local Palestinians for the alleged murder of a settler named Yair Har-Sinai. Today, Mitzpe Yair consists of an encampment of mobile homes on a windswept hilltop close to Bir al ‘Idd.
There have been so many reports of violence by the settlers of this encampment, that the Israeli Police last fall conducted an operation to test their behavior.
According to our guide Ayal Kantz from the Israeli organization Breaking the Silence, the policemen dressed up as Palestinians and approached the hilltop. They were then fiercely attacked before they could even explain that they were police.
The incident created quite a scandal in Israel, and the Minister of the Interior had to promise that the Police would not use such tactics again. So can the settlers attack people with impunity? I wonder who controls the settlers and their organizations.
No one was ever sentenced for the attack on Ismael. Furthermore, the villagers of Bir al ‘Idd continue to experience pressure from the Army, which administers the area. There were several demolitions in June 2012, even though an Israeli court annuled the demolition order. Ismael and Abu Tareq, the two heads of families in the village, are not allowed to rebuild anything. Hence, the families live in tents which give no protection against the winter storms. And the weather can be harsh in the South Hebron Hills.
All these episodes point towards a deliberate Israeli policy of making the lives of Palestinians in the area miserable, so as to drive them out. But Ismael is not giving up.
In fact, Bir al ‘Idd was abandoned for ten years after the Army evicted all the Palestinians. However, the Israeli organization Rabbis for Human Rights fought for the village in Court, and the four families of Bir al ‘Idd could finally return in 2009.
Despite ongoing pressure by the Army and the settlers, Ismael intends to stay: He has experienced displacement once before, and he will not let it happen to his family again.