‘Like a mafia’: Israeli settlers, forces squeeze Palestinian shepherds out

Palestinian farmers face heightened campaign of intimidation by illegal settlers, confiscations and detentions.

Jordan Valley Palestinian lands confiscations
Illegal Israeli settlers harass Palestinian farmers and shepherds with support from the armed forces [Al Jazeera]

Ein al-Hilweh, occupied West Bank – With two of his sons in prison and his cattle pens – his livelihood – all but emptied, Palestinian shepherd Kadri Daraghmeh, 57, was beside himself.

Inside their open-air tent, with no running water and minimal electricity, his sick wife fought back tears.

“My children are in prison, and every day it’s just more money I need to pay when we don’t even have money to buy food,” said a devastated Kadri.

Kadri’s woes began to worsen dramatically last month. On December 25, he says, settlers stole 100 of his cattle in the night, released some cows near a road, and then called Israeli police.

Cattle “roaming freely” is illegal under Israeli law, so the police confiscated the cows. Kadri was forced to pay 49,000 shekels ($12,900) to get 19 of his cows back.

Kadri could pay only with the help of friends and Israeli activists.

Kadri Daraghmeh, whose family have been harassed by settlers and his cows stolen [Al Jazeera]

Kadri wanted to move on from the ordeal, but on the evening of January 7, two of his sons called to tell him they had been entrapped by a settler named Uri Cohen and arrested.

Cohen contacted Jaser, 29, and Rihab, 19, and offered them a spot where they could graze their cattle undisturbed. It was an offer that was difficult to refuse. In the earlier days of the war, settlers, including those working for Cohen, had been attacking shepherds and their flocks with weapons, unleashing dogs or even scaring the sheep away with cars, and in more recent weeks such confiscations by authorities were on the rise. And “each time [there was an incident]”, recalled Kadri, “Uri would say: ‘Why do you need these problems? Sell your cattle to me.’”

So Kadri’s sons decided to take up Cohen’s offer. But when they got to the spot, Cohen called the council inspector, a settler, who in turn called the police. Police came and cuffed the two men to each other and confiscated the 60 cows with them, for bringing the cattle onto “private land”.

When he got the call, Kadri, his wife and two other sons – Luay, 31, and Basel, 27 – rushed to help.

As Kadri was protesting to Shai Eigner, a local settler who is a land inspector for the Jordan Valley Regional Council, a border patrol officer arrived, who shortly thereafter punched him in the face, making him bleed, and threw him to the ground.

Spooked by the violence, Luay and Basel ran back to the car. Shouting at Kadri’s sons to stop, the border patrol officer began to shoot at the car.

The Israeli officers arrested Luay and Basel and took them to the police station. Later, they were transferred to Ofer prison and then, a week later, to another prison. Basel was released after a week and a half, while Luay was released on bail after more than two weeks, accused by the border patrol officer of trying to run him over.

Jaser and Rihab, who had brought the cattle, were taken to a remote area the night of January 7 by Israeli security personnel – and left there to fend for themselves.

Kadri has been left with almost none of his cattle, his livelihood, and facing a 120,000-shekel ($31,600) bill he must somehow pay to retrieve the 60 cows the local settlement council is holding. The tab increases by 50 shekels per cow per day.

Attacks and harassment from settlers and soldiers were happening before October 7, the day the Hamas attacks on Israel took place. But, Kadri says, this incident was the first time it was premeditated and coordinated. “This was the first time the settlers, the police and the army came together, like this, to make one fist,” he said.

Kadri’s cattle pens are empty again – his cows have been stolen and confiscated by settlers and police [Al Jazeera]

Facing insurmountable debt that only grows, Kadri and his family are beginning to see the writing on the wall: with increasing confiscations, restrictions, and now arrests and extraordinary fines, their way of life may no longer be feasible.

Now, two of Kadri’s brothers are selling their cattle to an intermediary who will sell them to none other than Uri Cohen. A third brother is likely to follow suit.

“The situation is very bad,” said a distraught Kadri. “No human rights, no justice. We want peace. We have no hate for anyone – Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Israeli, American, whatever. We have children, we want to live. But they make it so there is no future for us.”

‘They are working together in a way they hadn’t before’

The abyss confronting Kadri’s family also confronts most Palestinian shepherds across the Jordan Valley and much of Area C, a part of the West Bank that is under full Israeli military control. Many others in the area describe similar confiscations, detentions and restrictions by Israeli forces recently, often in conjunction with or carried out by settlers.

Another incident similar to Kadri’s occurred two weeks later, in which Palestinian shepherds Shehda Dais and Ayed Dais in al-Jiftlik had their sheep taken by security personnel and were forced to pay 150,000 shekels to prevent their confiscation. The settlement council allegedly threatened the shepherds and six families from the community that they would be forced to pay 1 million shekels ($271,260) if they attempted to bring their flocks out grazing.

cut off
Palestinian cattle moving beside the Ein al-Hilweh spring which has been blocked off to Bedouins [Al Jazeera]

For decades, the Palestinians of the Jordan Valley, which number approximately 65,000 according to rights group B’Tselem, have faced severe restrictions in access to critical resources such as water, 85 percent of which goes to settlers, though they number approximately 11,000 – a sixth of the Palestinian population – in the area. They are prohibited from collecting rainwater or accessing any water on their land. Kadri and his sons live along a spring that has been fenced off solely for settlers’ use.

While all settlements are illegal under international law, the Jordan Valley at least had settlers who were relatively less violent in the past, and Kadri describes amicable relations with settlers once upon a time.

But then the first Israeli settler outpost – illegal even under Israeli law, though in practice largely permitted by Israel and buttressed by its security forces – came in 2016, and attacks and harassment of shepherds have escalated since.

Ahmed Daraghmeh, 33, of Farsiya, said his hand was broken by settlers just weeks before October 7, incapacitating him for two months.

When the war started, violence erupted in the Jordan Valley and, as elsewhere in Area C, Palestinians reported attacks rising dramatically, with settlers invading their homes at night, threatening them to leave.

Palestinian farmer
A Palestinian shepherd in Ein Hilweh, close to a spring which has been made inaccessible [Al Jazeera]

In the aftermath of the first spate of settler violence in the early weeks of the war, the United States exerted pressure on Israel, which subsequently took a few violent settlers into administrative detention. Though the violence has subsided somewhat, an emerging pattern in recent weeks suggests that legal procedures are being used more aggressively by Israeli forces and settlers – many of whom, through regional defence units, have been deputised to be the regional security force and now wear military uniform and carry assault rifles.

Yousef Bsharat, 47, is a shepherd from Makhoul. He, his wife and their 10 children tend to their hundreds of sheep, goats and chickens kept around their home.

On October 7, settlers attacked Yousef’s teenage son and their flock of sheep with stones and dogs; 23 sheep went missing. “But back then, the army helped to tell the settlers to go away,” said Yousef.

In the following weeks, home invasions began. A neighbour’s home was invaded at gunpoint, he recalled. “They came in with their guns and said: ‘You’re not allowed to be here any more,’” said Yousef.

Security forces came and arrested the Palestinian shepherds, who subsequently left for good.

“From that day, they’ve treated people here as if they are animals,” said Yousef. “But this is our land. I refuse to leave.”

Yousef Bsharat, 47, a Palestinian shepherd whose family has been attacked by settlers [Al Jazeera]

On January 11, Yousef was detained by the military while out herding – no clear reason was given – and brought to a nearby army camp where, he said, he was blindfolded and kept for six hours, soaked through from being out in the rain with his sheep. The soldiers tied him up and turned the air-conditioning up to make him even colder.

Several instances of similar treatment were described to Al Jazeera by shepherds and Israeli activists, who say it has become common to detain, blindfold and handcuff shepherds for shifting reasons, including grazing on nature reserves, military firing zones or private land. Most of the area was declared military firing zones years ago, but shepherds had mostly been left alone to graze there.

Others described being tied up and subjected to extreme cold or beatings.

“The settlers and police, they’re working together in a way they weren’t before,” said Yousef. “[Before the war,] when settlers came to make trouble, we called the army, and the army sometimes told them to go away.”

“Now when we try to call the army,” said Yousef, “there’s no one to talk to.”

Farmers are forced to buy expensive fodder for their sheep to avoid taking them out and risking violence from settlers [Al Jazeera]

‘Why gang up on us?’

In an atmosphere where settlers, often in uniform and carrying weapons, seem more empowered and part of the Israeli security apparatus than ever before, Palestinians face a fraught economic situation reaching a breaking point.

Shepherds describe having to pay for expensive animal fodder to avoid violence from settlers – and now restrictions from settlement councils – if they graze on land they have used for years. Yousef says he has not been able to sell his products like cheese and lamb meat since October 7 because his customers do not have money and the entrances to nearby market towns like Tubas are closed.

And now, as winter rains mark the start of the ploughing season, Palestinian farmers also cannot plough their land because of the settlers and security forces.

Ahmed Daraghmeh estimates that three or four of his sheep have died of hunger every month since October 7, even as winter rains bring lush green grass across the valley. He says his herding and farming are frequently interrupted by security forces, often spearheaded by settlers within the security establishment.

“I’m arrested constantly,” said Ahmed. “Most of the time, when I’m with my sheep, I’m taken and put in detention. Every time, it’s a different reason – [the land is] a nature reserve, or a military zone, or you don’t have the right to be here.”

At about 9am on January 5, security forces visited the plot he had been farming for 20 years and told him that part of the land was on a nature reserve. Ahmed insists he has papers to prove his ownership.

They ordered him to bring his tractor to the Umm Zuka army base, where they detained him from 9:30am to about 5:15pm, blindfolded. They did not address him, and “when I tried to ask questions”, Ahmed said, “they just told me to shut up.”

Ahmed was released but did not get his tractor back. Without it, he says, not only is his land unploughed, but he cannot transport much-needed water and has to pay up to 200 shekels ($54) per trip to do so. To get his tractor back, he must pay 4,740 shekels ($1,286) to the local settlement council.

“But these days, I can barely afford supper for my children,” said Ahmed, who describes having to choose between feeding his sheep or his family.

“Without fields and without income, and with outrageous fines, there will be nothing to keep the isolated communities in Area C. And that is the plan: to concentrate the Palestinian population in Areas A and B,” said a group of Israeli activists, who loosely call themselves Jordan Valley Activists. The activists often accompany Palestinian shepherds when they go out grazing with their animals and take turns sleeping in the homes of the shepherds to try to reduce the risk of settlers attacking them in the Jordan Valley, 95 percent of which is in Area C.

“It is clear that institutionalised economic violence is much more effective than occasional attacks, and it is made possible thanks to the deep ties the settlers cultivated with and within the army and the police,” said the group.

The constant harassment and confiscations are taking their toll on shepherds like Ahmed. In this context, a few isolated Palestinian encampments have been dismantled since the war,  and now a growing number of shepherds like Kadri’s brothers are selling their flocks due to the near-impossible conditions they face.

“They are working exactly like a mafia. It’s the police and the army that keep creating confrontations with the community,” said Ahmed Daraghmeh. “They’re all just acting like gang members.”

Shepherds say they feel besieged and bewildered by the actions and reasoning of the authorities.

“We don’t know what they want from us,” said an exasperated Ahmed. “It’s just illogical what’s happening. We’re peaceful.

“We want to live our lives and have our livelihood. So why gang up on us?”

Source: Al Jazeera