The Ties That Bind

A number of years ago an urban friend came out to the farm during harvest season to ride in our combine with me as we were harvesting our crop.  She was thrilled to see the ripened grain as it was gathered from the land.  As we worked our way up and down the field, we talked about our lives and our shared passion and commitment to food justice.  We began to discuss how to elicit change so as to make our world more food secure, and my friend explained how she had moved from an extremely successful academic career in food policy analysis to that of ministry.  She had come to realize that “once you change people’s hearts, you change their actions.” Her words have stayed with me.  Justice happens when people’s hearts are moved to understand that change is necessary.  A simple intellectual understanding does not cause us to change our behaviour.

This past fall, while serving as an EA, I met a young Palestinian mother living in a herding village located in Masafer Yatta, in the extreme southern portion of the West Bank.  For cultural reasons, she has asked to remain anonymous.  I will honour her request and refer to her as YY.

Our team met with YY on a number of occasions and I felt that we achieved a high level of trust between us.  As a young mother, she was striving to make positive changes in the educational system in her village.  I am a Canadian school trustee with a commitment to ensuring access to quality education for rural students.  Together, we worked on improving the educational opportunities in her village.  She is a sheep farmer, committed to providing excellent care for her livestock.  I am a Canadian farmer.  We used to raised sheep and lambs on our farm.  The sheep served as another common bond between us.

Beyond our shared interests in education and sheep, we shared a common respect and care for one another.  We became friends, learning from one another about our respective lives and cultures.  We trusted one another.  We enjoyed being together.

There are hardships to living in a Palestinian herding village.  Limited access to water, no electricity, armed and violent attacks from nearby settlers, army harassment, difficult access to larger communities (the road in and out of the village is impassable for all but the hardiest of 4 wheel drive vehicles), limited medical access, and lack of educational supplies and teachers are all challenges she lives with on a daily basis, challenges I have never had to deal with.  Nor have I had to deal with the poisonous snakes she found under her mattress one morning!

But I did understand exactly what she meant when she explained to me one day about why, in spite of the ongoing challenges to life in her village, she and her family choose to live where they do. “I love it here” she said.  “I love being able to look up at the stars at night.   I love the quiet here.  And I love looking after our sheep.  This is our home.  This is our land.  We do not want to live in the city.  We would not fit in there.  This is our home.  All we want is to be left alone to live our lives here in peace.”

The last time we visited YY, she was eager to show us around her village, and in particular to show me her sheep and her home.  Her sheep and lambs were beautiful animals that were the clear recipients of meticulous care.  I was amazed at the absolute cleanliness of the sheep shelters and of the cleanliness of the animals.  There was not a speck of manure on them.   She obviously spent a considerable amount of time and energy caring for her sheep and lambs.  Her tent home, although basic, was also spotlessly clean and  well taken care of, with a small garden outside the door.  She gave me some fresh garden mint for our tea.  Today I grow mint in our garden, and think of her each time I see it.

YY’s sheep and lambs in their winter pen, a cave dwelling used to protect the small lambs from predators.  Lambing takes place in late fall.

YY’s outdoor lamb pen, used when the lambs are past the newborn stage.

YY’s residential tent and area outside her home

The interior of YY’s tent home.

YY’s village in the Masafer Yatta area of the South Hebron Hills. Notice the sheep grazing in the foreground with the shepherds, with the village in the central portion of the photo and the desert hills beyond.

Today, YY’s hopes of raising her children in the small Palestinian village she and her family live in are in severe jeopardy.  After a 12 year court battle, the Israeli’s have declared this portion of the occupied Palestinian Territory as “Firing Zone 918” and the Israeli Defense Minister has declared plans to demolish 8 of the 12 villages in the area, including the village YY and her family have lived in for decades.

Here are excerpts from an article published by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), dated July 25, 2012.

The area designated by the IDF as “Firing Zone 918” is located in the south Hebron hills near the town of Yatta.  Spread over 30,000 dunams (note = approximately 7500 acres), it includes twelve Palestinian villages, or hamlets: Tuba, Mufaqara, Sfai, Majaz, Tabban, Fakheit, Megheir Al-Abeid, Halaweh, Mirkez, Jinba, Kharuba and Sarura. According to OCHA figures, 1,622 people lived in the area in 2010, and according to local residents the number of inhabitants currently stands at about 1,800.

The residents of the twelve villages maintain a unique way of life, with many living in or beside caves, and relying on farming and husbandry of sheep and goats for their livelihood.  Most of them were born and raised in these villages to families that have been living in the area for several decades – long before 1967.  The historical existence of the hamlets is well documented, including in research endorsed by the Israeli Ministry of Defense [see Ya’akov Havakuk, Life in the Caves of South Hebron (1985, Israel Ministry of Defense)]…..

The villagers maintain that they are permanent residents of the villages. Security forces, on the other hand, argue that they are non-permanent, as some of them are seasonally nomadic. For security reasons, the IDF is authorized to remove persons from a firing zone or limit their mobility within the area, except in the case of permanent residents.  It follows that the IDF is attempting to remove these Palestinian residents from their land by characterizing them as non-permanent. While it is true that a small minority of the villagers spend six months working their land and six months outside of the area, security forces conveniently deny the significance of the six months of cultivation within the fire zone. If successful, this approach will lead to the forced removal of all residents from Firing Zone 918, possibly resulting in the de-facto annexation of this area by Israeli security forces….

It should be noted that the legal proceedings have extended over twelve years, during all of which time the Palestinian residents of the twelve villages have lived under the threat of evacuation. At the same time, the communities have continued to live and work on the land, and have developed and expanded.

Furthermore, according to a 2005 report by B’Tselem (“Means of Expulsion: Violence, Harassment and Lawlessness against Palestinians”) in the Southern Hebron Hills, the army no longer holds live-fire training in the firing zone. Moreover, the two main military bases located in and around the firing zone, Adasha Infantry and Um Daraj, have been closed down.  It follows that the “need” for Israeli security forces to take over this area and expel Palestinians from their homes becomes even harder to understand and justify….

On 22 July 2012, after several delays, the State Attorney submitted a response to the Court, based on a position formulated by the Minister of Defense, according to which “permanent residence will be prohibited” in most of the area declared as a firing zone. The meaning of this position is that the evacuation of 8 out of the 12 village – that is, the expulsion of some 1500 people from their homes. The Defense Ministry is offering to allow the residents of these 8 villages to cultivate their land and to herd their sheep on Fridays, Saturdays, and Jewish holidays, and also during two periods throughout the year, each a month long. The 4 villages that are not supposed to be evacuated according to the Defense Ministry’s position are small khirbes in the northwestern area of the firing zone – Tuba, Sarura, Megheir al-Abeid, and Mufaqara.

According to the response of the State Attorney’s Office, using this area as a firing zone is essential to maintain the “required capability of IDF forces.” However, using an occupied territory for a general need of this sort exceeds the authority of the military rule in this territory. According to international law, the occupying force may not use the occupied territory as it sees fit and is not allowed to use it for general military needs, such as “maintaining the capability of the forces.” The military commander must refrain from harming the rights and resources of the local residents unless it is essential for specific security needs that relate to military activity in the area. The State’s response did not describe any such specific need.

The evacuation orders issued to the Palestinian residents are based on the State’s claim that they are not permanent residents of the area and therefore are not supposed to be without a permit in the firing zone, which is in fact a close military zone. However, this claim completely ignores clear historic documentation, including Defense Ministry publications, that shows generations-long Palestinian settlement in these villages, previously only in caves and later on also outside of them. The State’s position ignores the fact that evacuating the residents from the area means the destruction of these historical villages and would leave entire families, including children and the elderly, without a roof above their heads. All of this contravenes Israel’s obligations towards the Palestinian population under its control in this area – both according to international law and Israeli law.

The Court instructed the petitioners to submit their response to the State’s position by 2 August 2012.

The entire ACRI report, can be found at

Current EA’s working in the area, along with Maan newspaper, report that roads into the 8 affected villages have already been closed by the IDF.

As the ACRI report explains, military bases in the area have been closed and the area is no longer used as a firing zone.  This is land that is clearly within the Palestinian Territory, on the Palestinian side of the Green Line.  If indeed the Israeli’s feel there is a definable need for a firing zone for military practice, why do they not build it on Israeli land?

As any farmer knows, the concept of “offering to allow the residents of these 8 villages to cultivate their land and to herd their sheep on Fridays, Saturdays, and Jewish holidays, and also during two periods throughout the year, each a month long” is totally unworkableLivestock must be cared for on a daily basis.  As well, the ambiguity of “two periods throughout the year, each a month long” does not indicate which months.  Will these be months where the grass is growing and there is good pasture for the sheep, or will they be the dry months when farmers must supplement their sheep because there is no grass?  Will there be compensation for the costs of moving the animals, for the costs of lost grazing during good grass growing periods?  Will there be compensation for lost housing and other structures, or for help in establishing new living quarters, for finding new employment,  and for other costs of relocation?  Obviously, there will be no compensation.  Fridays are the Muslim holy day, a day for prayers and family gatherings.  This edict does not respect that.  Furthermore, as has been documented in the West Bank over and over again, settler violence towards the Palestinians is greatest on the Jewish Sabbath and other Jewish holidays.  Personal safety is a valid concern for these villagers.

I cannot imagine what it would be like to have courts outside of Canada declare that our family’s farm has been declared a military firing zone and have our family forcefully pushed off of our land and relocated to an urban area.  My heart aches for YY and her family.  I can only imagine what they are feeling. If the Israeli’s act upon their stated intentions, an entire way of life that has endured for several decades for these villagers and their families, will end. 1500 people, including YY and her family, will suffer a loss of livelihood and the pain and the humiliation of displacement.

As the ACRI report states, all of this contravenes both international and Israeli law.  The illegal Israeli military occupation of Palestine has been going on since 1967.  That’s 45 years!!  At what point will the world stand up and say “stop?”   The facts are clear, but the world in its silence continues to allow this and other human rights abuses and atrocities in the occupied Palestinian Territory to continue.  Is it because we view this situation from an intellectual perspective – a perspective that allows us to turn a blind eye to the suffering that is happening to innocent individuals and families such as those living in “Firing Zone 918”?  Maybe it’s time we gave up our practice of intellectual isolation and began to look at the world with open hearts, hearts that allow us to actually feel the suffering and the joy of other human beings.  Maybe then we would understand that we are more alike than we are different.  Maybe then we would understand the deep desire of those who live in places of ongoing conflict to live their lives in peace.  Maybe then we would understand that as we hurt one another, we too suffer, and that as we are silent in the face of injustice against another, we silently damage ourselves.  Maybe then we would risk touching the pain of those who are hurting, and risk having our hearts moved to understand that change is necessary.  Maybe then we would have the courage to actually stand up for justice – to make justice seeking an action, rather than an intellectual exercise practiced by those who have the luxury of living out their lives in places of relative peace and prosperity.

I pray for justice.  I pray for peace.  I pray for my friend YY and her family, her village, and her neighbouring villages in this time of turmoil and deep injustice.   I pray that our world will finally act to bring an end to this brutal, cruel and illegal occupation.

Peace, Salaam, Shalom,


Further information can be found in today’s Haaretz article “Israel orders demolition of 8 Palestinian villages, claims need for IDF training land” at

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