HUMSA, West Bank – Until November, Fadwa Abu Awad’s mornings followed a familiar rhythm: the 42-year-old Palestinian herdsman would get up at 4am, pray and milk the sheep of her family. Then she would add an enzyme to the buckets of milk and stir it for hours to make a salty, rubbery, halloumi-like cheese.
But this routine changed overnight in November when the Israeli army demolished its hamlet Humsa in the West Bank. When the 13 families living there rebuilt their homes, the army returned in early February to demolish them again. By the end of February, parts of Humsa had been demolished and rebuilt six times within three months because the Israelites considered them illegal structures.
“Before, life was about waking up and making milk and cheese,” Abu Awad said in a recent interview. “Now we’re just waiting for the army.”
The zeal with which the Israeli army Humsa is trying to break down has transformed this small Palestinian campsite into an embodiment of the struggle for the future of the occupied territories.
Humsa is at the northern tip of the Jordan Valley, an eastern part of the West Bank that the Israeli government formally planned to annex last year. The government suspended the plan in September as part of an agreement to normalize relations with the United Arab Emirates.
The military has since destroyed more than 200 structures there, saying it was built without legal permits.
“We are not shooting from the hip here,” said Mark Regev, a senior adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. ‘We are continuing with the implementation of the court’s ruling. There is no doubt that due process has been done. ”
But some Israeli politicians still hope that the area will one day be folded in the state of Israel as a buffer against possible attacks from the east.
Rights activists and some former Israeli officials say they are afraid that the ferocity of the campaign against Humsa, which they say is exceptional, indicates a greater desire to expel Seminomic Palestinian shepherds from the Jordan Valley, undermining Israeli claims in the field.
There are about 11,000 Palestinian shepherds in the Jordan Valley and their presence in places like Humsa complicates Israeli ambitions there, said Dov Sedaka, an Israeli general of the reserve who was once head of the government department covering important parts of the occupation. management, said.
“The idea is, yes, let’s keep the Jordan Valley clean,” he said. Sedaka said, adding that he opposed the idea. “That’s the word I hear. Let’s keep these people clean. ”
The Israeli army has demolished 254 structures it considered illegal in the Jordan Valley in the six months since the annexation plan was suspended, including some of the actions in Humsa. According to United Nations figures, this is more than almost every six months period over the past decade.
The Israeli government’s statement for the demolition dates back to the Oslo agreement with the Palestinians from the 1990s. The agreement gave Israel administrative control over more than 60 percent of the West Bank, including most of the Jordan Valley, pending further negotiations intended to be completed within five years.
But over two decades of talks, the two parties have not agreed on an agreement, so Israel retains control of the lands – known as Area C – and has the right to demolish houses built there without permission for the planning. .
Israeli authorities began demolishing Humsa after Israeli judges rejected several appeals from residents over nearly a decade. The government offered the residents an alternative residence near a Palestinian city.
Israeli officials say the villagers must leave for their own safety because the hamlet is located in the country 18 percent of the West Bank that Israel has designated a military training zone. And they argue that the herdsmen arrived 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 does not look much, littered with the rubble of successive demolitions – a broken pink toy, an inverted stove, a shattered solar panel. Even before it was first demolished, it was a community of only 85 people living in a few dozen tents, spread over a remote hill.
The residents say the Israeli arguments miss a wider injustice.
“We are the original inhabitants of this country,” said Ansar Abu Akbash, a 29-year-old herdsman in Humsa. “They did not originally have this land – they are settlers.”
Israel conquered the country in the Arab-Israeli War of 1967. The first herdsmen moved to Humsa in the 1980s because they say they had already been displaced by Israeli activities elsewhere in the West Bank.
The slopes where the herdsmen live and graze their 10,000 sheep are still owned by Palestinians living in a nearby city, to whom they pay rent.
For the herdsmen, the solution is not as simple as moving to the place suggested by the army: they say there is not enough land for their sheep to walk around.
“This is the only place where we can continue our way of life,” she said. Abu Awad said. “We live by these sheep, and they live by us.”
Tawfiq Jabareen, a lawyer for the villagers, rejected the Israeli authorities’ applications from the shepherds to retroactively approve their modest camp.
This is a known dynamic in Area C. Between 2016 and 2018, Israel approved 56 of 1,485 Palestinian permit applications in Area C, according to data obtained by Bimkom. an independent Israeli organization that advocates Palestinian planning rights.
And although the Israeli authorities directed Humsa, Jabareen said they were baptizing unauthorized Israeli construction in the same military zone as the shepherd community.
The army left untouched several Israeli structures built within the military zone in 2018 and 2019, although the structures were also under demolition orders, he said.
“These parallel tracks for dealing with Palestinian and settler communities are a clear illustration of discrimination,” he said.
The government agency in charge of demolition did not want to comment on this issue.
The nearby Israeli settlement of Roi, a village of 200 people built in the 1970s, was designed to fit into a narrow gap between two Israeli military training zones, in accordance with Israeli law.
The residents of Roi apparently have little sympathy with their neighbors. Some said it was the Palestinians who were the land in the land and the Israelites who delivered it from an arid desert.
“Look what we’ve done here in 40 years, then you will understand,” said Uri Schlomi von Strauss, 70, one of Roi’s earliest settlers. “We have built the land, we have plowed the land, and that 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 most recent demolition. The army seized their water tanks, which the army considers to be structures without sanctions. This reduces the water they had to drink and wash with, let alone feed their sheep or prepare the cheese.
One woman lost all her embroidery, another her precious coat.
Aid groups gave them new tents, but not enough to house their sheep. The sheep therefore slept in the cold, which according to the herdsmen meant that they produced less milk – which in turn meant less cheese on the market.
“I have become a very angry and anxious person,” she said. Abu Akbash said. “I’m overwhelmed by tension.”
When a car registered by Israel 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,” Ms Abu Akbash said, “they think it’s the army.”