The Bedouin village of Um al Kher lies in the southern portion of the West Bank, nestled in the desert hills of the northern Negev desert. Community members moved there as refugees in the early 1950’s after having been pushed off their land in the Beersheva area of Israel, a few miles south of where they now live. In the 1980’s Israeli settlers arrived and began taking land adjacent to the community to form the Karmel settlement.
The land on which the village is located is designated as Area C and is therefore subject to full Israeli control, which has included regular military presence, forced evictions and home demolitions, loss of agricultural lands and harassment by settlers. Due in part to its location, Um al Kher is considered by international organizations to be one of the most vulnerable in the southern West Bank.
Traditionally a herding community relying on their sheep and goats for income, events of recent years have jeopardized this basic way of life. Poverty and unemployment rates are high. Access to water is limited (and expensive). Villagers are not allowed to hook up to the power grid and rely on small solar panels to provide subsistence electricity. Shepherds endure frequent harassment from the nearby settlers as they graze their sheep, and settlement land confiscation has further limited their access to grazing lands. Dry seasons with lower than average rainfall have produced insufficient plant growth to sustain the sheep. Unable to obtain building permits, the village has endured 4 separate rounds of home demolitions, the last occurring in Oct of 2014 when 6 homes, several outhouses, and the village bread baking oven were demolished. (see postings from Oct, 2014) In spite of these ongoing challenges, the villagers are firm in their resolve to remain on their land. To do so, a better income source is required.
In 2013, a generous grant from UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees) provided funds for a trial thyme growing project. Thyme is the main ingredient in a herb mixture called “za’atar,” a staple in the Palestinian diet. The project proved successful. In the first year of production alone, the cultivation and sale of thyme provided much needed additional income for the community, helping individual farmers and contributing to community projects.
HIRN (Hebron International Resources Network) has become involved in supplying thyme seedlings to the community to extend the project beyond the trial phase. The project is ongoing, with additional plantings happening as HIRN funds allow.
On Thursday, we delivered plants to the village and coordinated a planting. We were joined there by volunteers from EAPPI, visiting British and Swiss volunteers, local Israeli’s from the Villager’s Group, Palestinian villagers, and international members of the Center for Jewish Nonviolence. Together, we planted the thyme seedlings.
In a time when there is so much violence in the West Bank, it was a bright beacon of light to bring locals and internationals, Muslims, Christians and Jews to work together on a project that offers such hope to a struggling community.
Peace, Salaam, Shalom,