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Palestinians Struggle to Hold on to Land, Watering Holes

by Henry Norr
Berkeley Daily Planet

Life in the tiny Palestinian hamlet of Qawawis seems straight out of the Old Testament, but that doesn’t stop the Jewish settlers in the hilltop outposts that surround the place from doing their best to destroy it. And if something isn’t done soon about the settlers’ latest threat—denying Qawawis’s shepherds access to watering holes their flocks depend on—the villagers might have no choice but to abandon their ancestral homes and lands.

Qawawis, located near the southern tip of the occupied West Bank, south of the city of Hebron, is home to just four extended families and a few hundred sheep and goats. Only one of the families has a house; the others live in caves carved—originally by nature, later by human hand—out of the region’s limestone hills.

Like their neighbors in nearby At-Twani and dozens of other villages throughout the south Hebron hills, the residents of Qawawis have faced harassment from the settlers since the 1980s. (See “Means of Expulsion: Violence, Harassment and Lawlessness against Palestinians in the Southern Hebron Hills,” a report released in July 2005 by the Israeli human-rights group B’Tselem, and the reports of the Christian Peacemaker Team on the poisoning of wells, the beating of schoolchildren and international monitors, and other forms of settler harassment in At-Twani.

For a while things in Qawawis got so bad that the villagers had to move out altogether. When they left, settlers promptly moved into their caves, until the Israeli military decided to clear everyone out (for “security reasons”) and brought in bulldozers to seal the caves with rubble.

But in March of this year, after winning an order from Israel’s High Court confirming their right to their land, the villagers came back to Qawawis, cleaned up the mess left by the settlers and the army, and reclaimed their homes. In hopes of deterring settler retaliation, the villagers requested help from progressive Israelis and internationals, and ever since the International Solidarity Movement has provided a steady stream of volunteers to stay in the village and accompany the shepherds to their fields.

Neither the court order nor the international presence has stopped the harassment, though. At first the settlers showed up almost daily, often wearing masks, shouting insults and threats, waving guns and throwing rocks, sometimes attempting to enter the villagers’ caves, and beating locals and internationals alike. (See the account posted on April 1, 2005 by Kasper Lundberg, an ISM volunteer from Denmark, at electronicintifada.net/v2/article3735.shtml.)

While I was in Qawawis in late July, the settlers came up with a new trick: two of them showed up on horseback, galloping through the village’s olive groves and right past the caves. They didn’t stay long and caused no particular problem, but under the circumstances, their very appearance on village land was an act of intimidation. As I followed them, trying to snap their pictures, I could only imagine what would happen to a Palestinian who had the temerity to approach the settlers’ outposts.

What really has Qawawis’s residents worried at the moment, however, is the threat to its always precarious water supply. In July, after a suicide bombing in the Israeli coastal city of Netanya, the settlers informed the villagers that they are no longer permitted to graze their sheep and goats within 150 meters of a road that leads to one of the outposts.

That order, which appears to have no legal basis—not even one of the military orders that provide pseudo-legitimacy for most of the occupation’s abuses—denies Qawawis a significant portion of its land. But the immediate problem is that the prohibited strip includes two watering holes to which the village’s herders have taken their sheep and goats since time immemorial. To keep the animals alive in the area’s stifling summer heat, the villagers have had to share the water from their own wells in the village. But the capacity of those wells is limited, and the villagers say it’s insufficient to supply both them and their animals (not to mention the internationals) for long.

Time standing still
At a glance, you might wonder why the settlers bother with Qawawis. The population usually totals only about 20, though it sometimes rises to 50 or 60, depending on how many offspring and relatives are at home at a given moment, as opposed to staying in the nearby town of Al-Karmel (a 40-minute walk), sleeping in the hills with their flocks, or—as in the case of one young man I met—studying electrical engineering at the university in Hebron. If you drive by on the highway that runs near the place, all you see are the solitary house (three bare rooms, no plumbing or kitchen) and the stone walls that surround the cave entrances and pens for the sheep and goats.

There’s no running water, just a couple of wells. Electricity arrived only this summer, in the form of a generator provided by Ta’ayush, a progressive Israeli organization with both Jewish and Arab members; the generator runs for just an hour and a half or two every evening. Each cave, as well as the outdoor platforms the families sometimes eat on and the canvas-roofed shelter the villagers recently built for visiting internationals, now has a bare light bulb and an outlet, but so far they have had no visible effect on the residents’ lifestyle: there’s no radio, TV, or any other appliance except a video camera left by a visiting international, which remains something of a mystery to the locals.

Daily life revolves around the sheep and goats, as it has in this area for millennia. At sun-up, men from each family take their flocks—about 30 or 40 animals each—out to graze on the rocky fields that surround the village, or sometimes to the adjoining olive groves. The women, meanwhile, prepare the food and tend to the homes, crops, and kids. (Except for constant infusions of tea and sugar, all the food I was served during my three-day stay was homegrown, including delicious flat bread baked in tabuun, or traditional outdoor ovens.)

By around 10 a.m., at least in the summer, the heat begins to get overwhelming, and the shepherds bring the flocks back to their stone-walled pens in the village. Then everyone seems to disappear for a rest and the midday meal. At 3:30 or 4 p.m, it’s off to graze again until dusk. By 9:30, when the generator cuts out, most everyone seems to have retired, until the routine begins again the next morning.

All in all, it’s a simple, peaceful life—or it would be if not for the settlers and the warplanes constantly audible and occasionally visible overhead. (There’s apparently an Israeli air force training base nearby—perhaps they’re practicing for a raid on Iran’s nuclear sites?)

The planes, though, are easy to ignore. The settlers are not. The shepherds continually look over their shoulders to see who might be sneaking up on them; the boys study each car that passes on the settler road.

Running dry
So far, the villagers have complied with the settlers’ demand that they stay away from the road and the watering holes near it—though they seem to value the presence of the international volunteers, they obviously don’t believe that we’re capable of protecting them from the consequences of defying the order.

The villagers have, however, tried to interest international humanitarian organizations in the threat they face. While I was there, a jeep from the International Committee of the Red Cross pulled up to the village, carrying an investigator, a translator, and a three-person film crew.

At the time the family that owns the house was away (they were in town with relatives visiting from Saudi Arabia), but one of the other elders had a key, and the house was quickly opened, and a half-dozen of the men, plus the two internationals, assembled there to meet with the ICRC team.

In addition to describing past incidents of harassment, the villagers explained the impending water crisis. The ICRC investigator tried hard to get the villagers to give him exact figures for Qawawis’s population as well as for the capacity in cubic meters of each of the “water systems” in question. The men were unable to respond with the precision he wanted, but after much consultation among them, they arrived at the key conclusion: if the sheep and goats as well as the human residents have to use the village wells, they’ll likely run dry in as few as thirty days, or sometime around the end of August.

The ICRC investigator promised to file an urgent report with the Israeli authorities. Whether that will do any good remains to be seen. But unless someone intervenes, the residents of Qawawis may again be forced to leave, and the settlers will have succeeded in cleansing another small piece of Palestine of its legitimate owners.

After this article was written, activists from the Israeli grassroots organization Ta’ayush brought a water tanker truck to Qawawis. With the activists standing by to deter settler interference, the truck pumped a tankful of water out of one of the prohibited watering holes, then into one of the wells the residents still have access to.

This emergency response has apparently eliminated the immediate threat to the survival of Qawawis, but it’s obviously not a long-term solution. That, of course, would begin with the removal of all Israeli settlements from the occupied Palestinian territories, as required by the Fourth Geneva Convention, United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, and dozens of subsequent U.N. resolutions.