Salem, Occupied West Bank – Muhammad’s sheep have been eating each other’s wool out of frustration and misery.
Their pasture is just across the road and beyond the hills of al-Jabal al-Kbir (The Big Mountain), but since their owner is Palestinian, they cannot go anywhere near it. Instead, they spend much of their day cooped up in a pen. They can roam in the near vicinity, but the thorns and thistles here are no substitute for the grass fields across the road.
“They want to be outside grazing in the pasture; they’re used to going out every day,” Muhammad, a 40-year-old shepherd who spoke under a pseudonym for fear of reprisal, said sorrowfully.
His sheep are suffering, but there is not much that he can do for them.
Over the decades, the settlement of Elon Moreh has swallowed thousands of dunums of pasture from the neighbouring villages of Salem, Azmut and Deir al-Hatab, located about 10km east of Nablus. Ninety percent of Muhammad’s land is located across the road, which is accessible only to soldiers and settlers.
Most of the time, he said, a local settler prevents Palestinians from going anywhere near their lands. Years ago, the settler established an illegal outpost on their land, where he herds hundreds of his own sheep. Sometimes he shoots at Palestinians with a machine gun; other times he calls upon soldiers to intervene, Muhammad told Al Jazeera.
“Even the sheep know when it’s time to run away,” he said. “He’s so crazy. As soon as we see him, we head back. He patrols with his car, too, so we’re always trying to find a place to go where his car can’t reach.”
Eight years ago, Muhammad’s cousin and his herd of sheep were killed after being struck by an Israeli bus while attempting to cross the road.
Despite such risks, Muhammad still crosses the road from time to time out of necessity. But he has not attempted the crossing since May, knowing that if he loses any of his remaining sheep, he will not be able to feed his family.
The shepherds feel besieged. Wherever they turn, there are barriers. When they try to take their sheep north, the soldiers stop them, as there is a military camp nearby, Muhammad said.
He leads the way down a winding dirt path to show the road that physically separates Palestinian shepherds from their farmland and natural water resources. It was built in 1996 to connect the settlements of Elon Moreh and Itmar. A barrier has been erected on the path, blocking Palestinians from accessing it.
Muhammad stops hundreds of metres from the barrier; the road is barely visible in the distance. Asked if it is possible to get closer, he hesitates: “We better not. They might arrest us.”
Across fields of olive trees, an Israeli watchtower overlooks the entire landscape from atop a hill.
Muhammad’s family have been shepherding for generations. As a child, he and his siblings walked more than an hour after school each Thursday to the Jordan Valley, where they would help their parents herd a flock of 400 sheep for the weekend. For the children, it was “like vacation”, he said.
Today, working as a shepherd in the village of Salem is much more dangerous. The 400 sheep that belonged to Muhammad’s father have dwindled to about 60, and they barely have enough to eat. With nowhere to graze, Muhammad spends a huge sum of money to feed them seeds in their pen, taking loans that he will never be able to pay off.
“We don’t live a normal life. Our guard is always up; we’re always under pressure,” Muhammad said. “We can’t even eat normally; there is no stability in our lives because of the settlers and the soldiers.”
According to a 2016 report by B’Tselem, since 1967, Israel has used various measures to dispossess Palestinians from their land and transfer it to settlers. The illegal Elon Moreh settlement was first established in 1980 on 128 hectares of village land. Two years later, a “nature reserve” was declared on some of the remaining land, and five years later, the nature reserve became “state land”.
The Palestinian villagers were further separated from their land by bureaucratic means. In September 1995, after Oslo II, most of their land that was already built up was designated as Area B, while their farmland and pastures were labelled Area C, under full Israeli control. Using the lands for any purpose, including grazing, requires Israeli approval, which is almost always withheld.
“In practice, each and every restriction Israel has imposed on the residents of Azmut, Deir al-Hatab and Salem has enabled settlers to encroach on these lands and increase the land under settler control,” B’Tselem stated in its report.
“The separation Israel has created between the Palestinian residents and their farmland and pasture land allows settlers to build houses, establish outposts, dig pathways, plant crops and groves, graze flocks, and take over natural water sources on that land.”
Asked why Palestinians are not allowed to cross the road to get to their pasture land, a spokesperson for the Israeli army told Al Jazeera that “there is a passage to cross the route, and it’s open daily for shepherds to go through”, but did not clarify where this passage is located.
Over the years, Israel has confiscated more than 200,000 hectares of land from Palestinians and built settlements. Sometimes lands are declared “closed military zones”; other times, the land is confiscated by force. Many Palestinians who once relied on farming and shepherding now live in poverty, their local economy destroyed.
“I’d like to go back to a time when we could go out, stay overnight and safely come back. It was like vacation to go out herding the sheep. I would love to visit my land and take care of it. It’s my life; I don’t know how to do anything else except to be a shepherd,” Muhammad said.
“Now, we feel miserable and stressed all the time. The Israelis took our best land. There’s a sorrow in my heart because I can’t reach the lands I used to go to with my father.”