18 Palestinian Shepherding Communities Have Been Recently Erased in the West Bank. This One Might Be Next

12:00 May 18 2024 Bedouin communities of Arrab al-Milihat (عراب المليحات) & Wadi Seeq (وادي سيق) etc; Israeli settlements Kokhav HaShahar (כּוֹכַב הַשַּׁחַר), Rimonim (רִמּוֹנִים), etc

18 Palestinian Shepherding Communities Have Been Recently Erased in the West Bank. This One Might Be Next 18 Palestinian Shepherding Communities Have Been Recently Erased in the West Bank. This One Might Be Next 18 Palestinian Shepherding Communities Have Been Recently Erased in the West Bank. This One Might Be Next
Photos: Published by Haaretz

Children in Arrab al-Milihat, this week. "Where would we go? We're here, we have nowhere else," say people who were born on this land, long before the settlers' incursions. Credit: Alex Levac

Arrab al-Milihat, this week. A population transfer, as silent as it is violent, is proceeding here unimpeded. Credit: Alex Levac

Arrab al-Milihat, this week. Settler-raiders in Israel Defense Forces uniforms can rampage uninhibited. Credit: Alex Levac

by Gideon Levy and Alex Levac for Haaretz
May 18, 2024

This is what it looks like when a community of shepherds is suffocating. The sheep are locked up in their pens and all the grazing land in the vicinity is blocked by violent settlers who have seized control of the area, and all that, combined with the high price of food, deprives the shepherds of the possibility of existence. The children are terrified. A masked 12-year-old boy walked about in the hamlet this week – he'd dressed up as a settler, like one of those who raid the shepherds' homes at night.

The community's leaders are desperate; they don't know how to carry on from here. The people of Arrab al-Milihat have lived on this land for decades, and are on the brink of cracking. If the situation persists, they too will be forced to abandon their homes and leave – and the settlers' unrestrained violence will chalk up yet another success.

There is no one to save Arrab al-Milihat. The army is, patently, collaborating with the settlers, along with the military government's Civil Administration, and the police aren't lifting a finger. A population transfer, as silent as it is violent, is proceeding here unimpeded. The ethnic cleansing of the Jordan Valley is at its height. Since the start of the war, inhabitants of at least 18 pastoral communities have abandoned their homes in the West Bank, driven out by settler terror. In this area, on the ridge of the central Jordan Valley, four entire communities and another 25 lone families have left, according to the data of Aref Daraghmeh, the local field researcher for the Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem. And all due to the intimidation of settlers.

Route 449 descends from the West Bank to the northern part of Jericho. By the roadside, about halfway to the Jordan Valley, lies the Bedouin enclave of Arrab al-Milihat. All around are settlements: Rimonim, Kochav Hashahar, Mevo'ot Yericho and Yitav, beefed up by the settler outposts and wild farms that were established in their wake, some of them nameless.

Relations that began relatively have well deteriorated over the years as the settlers coveted all the lands for themselves. Then this past fall came the Gaza war, which removed the final constraints: Neighbors became enemies, the settler-raiders donned Israel Defense Forces uniforms and were equipped with arms and military vehicles – posing as "emergency forces" – and they could rampage uninhibited.

The Jordan Valley and the slopes of the hills have become a battleground, for land. Not a day goes by without an incident. The goal is as transparent and clear as the sun: to make the lives of the folk here miserable until they emulate other pastoralist communities and abandon their lands and villages, rendering the area all-Jewish and all-settler.

When we arrived in Arrab al-Milihat this past Monday, Memorial Day in Israel, a military vehicle was plying the hamlet's dirt trails, back and forth, around and around. A closed white pickup with yellow emergency lights on the roof and army license plates. Why was it there? The IDF Spokesperson's Unit would undoubtedly have replied that it was for operational reasons – we won't even bother with a query. But it's obvious to everyone that this military presence is intended solely to ratchet up the fear of the local inhabitants and to tighten the settlers' iron grip on the small village, until it too is evacuated.

The residents arrived here in 1981, after having been expelled twice from their previous homes: once, in 1948, from the Negev to the Jordanian West Bank, and then from there to the present location, after the IDF established a base on the West Bank site and removed them. When they were relocated here, someone from the Civil Administration promised them: "As long as the State of Israel is here, you will be here." The State of Israel has been here nonstop since then, but a heavy shadow hovers above the possibility of their remaining here. You have Israel's word.

Suleiman Milihat, 33, is the community's unofficial spokesperson. Married and the father of four, he herds a flock of 130 sheep. His uncle, Jamal Milihat, who's 40, married and the father of five, had a flock of 150 sheep, but 35 animals were stolen recently by settlers. (We'll get back to them below.) We're sitting in the hamlet's diwan, or receiving room, a prefab structure with plywood-covered walls. All told, the community has 5,500 sheep, all of which are now in danger: There is no place they can be taken to pasture, because the settlers have forcibly seized all the land in the vicinity.

At first they ordered the Bedouin not to come any closer than 2 kilometers from any settlement or outpost. Afterward, brazen lone farms began to crop up in the area, like the one inhabited by a man named Omer, who according to the villagers took control of about 2,000 dunams (500 acres) of land and prohibited the shepherds from approaching. Another settler, one they call "Jibril," is also intimidating them. Since the war he has taken to walking around in uniform with a weapon, threatening and chasing off the shepherds.

"Ten years ago, Jibril used to have coffee with us, we were like [good] neighbors, but since the war he's been a different person," Suleiman says. Another settler, Zohar, from the farm that bears his name, seized around 3,000 dunams with his sheep, the shepherds relate, and blocked the members of the community from accessing the area.

The local inhabitants talk of organized attacks on their homes and on the animals, by day and by night, including stones being thrown at their sheep or attempts to ram them with all-terrain vehicles. When the police are summoned, the shepherds say, the settlers indicate to the officers whom to arrest, and the latter obey. Quite a few of the shepherds have been taken into custody in the wake of the settlers' attacks.

On the night of January 17, for example, Suleiman relates, at 12:30 A.M., five armed and masked marauders, apparently settlers, arrived at the tent of Ibrahim Milihat, 25, pulled him out and took him to the outskirts of the village where they beat him – apparently because he had dared to pasture his sheep in a "forbidden" place. His family followed the settlers and when the latter saw them, they fled in the direction of Zohar's farm.

Suleiman called the police, but they didn't show up. Sometimes they arrive hours after an event, after the settlers have left. If the shepherds go to the Binyamin District police station in person, they are usually not allowed in – only a lawyer may enter, if they are accompanied by one.

No complaint has so far spawned a genuine investigation: The shepherds hear nothing back from the police. That scene was played out this week too. On Sunday, some of the shepherds went to the police station to file a complaint about settler violence, but were prevented from entering.

A few weeks ago, the shepherds were astonished to discover three pits dug not far from the hamlet's tiny school. They're certain that the settlers created simulated graves in order to frighten them – as if to say, "If you come close to us, we'll bury you." Quite a few areas nearby have also been declared "closed military zones," but the settlers graze their sheep there without interference.

A few months ago, a neighboring shepherding community in Wadi Seeq left en masse, in the wake of settlers' threats. The shepherds here know they are liable to face a similar fate, but in the meantime are not giving in. "Where would we go? We're here, we have nowhere else," say those who were born on this land, long before the settlers' incursions.

Three small children in identical plaid shirts attract attention. The military pickup, with four soldiers inside, is again making its way back and forth, boding ill. In January, a settler hit sheep with his all-terrain vehicle, killing 10 animals and injuring two, Suleiman says. They went to the Binyamin police station and waited nine hours together with Israeli volunteers, who protected them and thanks to whom they succeeded in entering the station and filing a complaint – though they have heard nothing since.

On November 28, 2023, masked settlers got into Jamal's sheep pen while he was away. He says they pierced the ears of 35 animals and marked them with their numbers, then summoned the police and claimed the sheep had been stolen from them, the settlers. Jamal was taken into custody and fined 17,000 shekels (about $4,700), and since then has been watching his sheep on the farm across the way. His children also recognize the lost sheep as the animals graze on land that was once theirs.

In another case, settlers planted an Israeli flag in the center of the enclave, and when a shepherd uprooted it he and his neighbors were attacked and beaten by settlers. There was also a case in which settlers poisoned the shepherds' dogs. "We don't know how to sleep anymore, we keep one eye open all night," Suleiman says. "Everyone keeps one eye open. We're afraid of the settlers."

"All the Palestinians have been afraid since the war started," says Daraghmeh, the field researcher. "A 16-year-old settler can beat an elderly man and everyone will be afraid" even to respond. "A boy can order 20 Palestinians to get off their land – and they will be afraid. Thirteen new settler outposts have appeared since the war started" in the Jordan Valley alone, Daraghmeh adds. On one occasion, he says, a settler told the shepherds, "I am looking toward the horizon. Everything I see is mine."

Daraghmeh had an inscription on the screensaver of his laptop: "We are all born equal," in Hebrew, English and Arabic. On one occasion, a soldier who arrested him and saw the motto, told him, "You are a terrorist. You are like Hamas. B'Tselem is like Hamas."

The masked boy has removed the settler costume, revealing himself to be Abed al-Hai, a sweet 12-year-old with a shy smile. A few months ago, masked settlers broke his arm. Since then he sometimes walks around masked in the hamlet.

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