Sheep Grazing Despite Intimidation: EAPPI accompaniment in the Jordan Valley

By: Vanessa Clarke

Mahyoub is thrilled to see us. Meanwhile, he calls us his family since we come to see him twice a week and accompany him and his sheep into the mountains. He doesn’t feel safe going on his own any more.

Mahyoub is a Bedouin from Khirbet es Samra, a small community in the north of the Jordan Valley. His family owns about 200 sheep and goats. Mahyoub has not enough money to pay for fodder, so during the day he takes his sheep into the surrounding areas where they can find enough plants to eat. The land where the animals graze actually belongs to his family and he has the papers to prove it. Mahyoub and his cousins have pitched their tents in a valley. On the hill opposite is an Israeli military post and since December 2016, there has also been a settlement outpost. According to international law, Israeli settlements and outposts are illegal in the occupied Palestinian regions.

Life as a shepherd in the Jordan Valley has always been hard. But since the outpost was built, it is becoming increasingly unbearable. Mahyoub is afraid of the settlers. On his own, he only dares to go along the side of the valley directly behind his tents. But meanwhile, there is not enough grazing any more for his animals. That’s why we from EAPPI have been accompanying Mahyoub and his cousins for the past few months when they go with their sheep onto the other side of the valley towards the outpost.

We call this protective presence. Our presence allows Mahyoub to bring the sheep to green pastures and he is less frightened of violent confrontations with settlers or the Israeli military. They are less likely to start a confrontation when international observers are present. Members of Ta’ayush, an Israeli human rights group, are also regular visitors to Khirbet es Samra. We like exchanging information with them and we agree on observation times so that the shepherds are not alone.

Although we laugh a lot, drink tea and Mahyoub enthusiastically boasts about his knowledge of German history, there is always a feeling of tension in the air. The outpost stands prominently on the mountain and Uri, the settler who lives there, often drives in his white Jeep along the road around the area where we are with the sheep. He drives very slowly each way and observes us in his binoculars, takes photographs and this is what makes the shepherds nervous. Sometimes he calls the military. On that day, the soldiers told us that this was Uri’s land and we should leave it. The Israeli authorities have marked parts of the area as a nature reserve and parts belong to a military training area. According to Mahyoub’s papers, the land belongs to his family. We were ordered to cross over onto the other side of the road, the side which is the military zone. On that side, it is supposedly permitted to graze sheep. Every time, Mahyoub is told something different and every week we see the settlers.

Sometimes, they even come at night and drive their Jeep around the tents and sheep. They want to frighten the family and intimidate them. Once, Mahyoub’s mother was alone at night in the tent when she heard the Jeep. “It was terrible. I could hardly move for fear and I didn’t know what to do.” With life stories such as these, it is difficult to keep hoping for an end to the occupation and a just peace. However, we pin our hopes on cooperating with Israeli partners such as Ta’ayush who are fighting for reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis. And our hopes are with the children. They are unbelievably happy when we blow up balloons for them to play with. Once they came up with the idea of filling the balloons with water and washing liquid. This ended with them throwing water bombs at each other. When a balloon finally burst, we couldn’t stop laughing. At moments like these, the girls are simply children and are diverted for half an hour from the hard life under the occupation. The children’s laughter is confirmation for me that we must continue and we should not lose sight of hope.

Vanessa Clarke was ecumenical accompanier from November 2017 to February 2018.

EAPPI INFO: Since 2002, the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme for Israel and Palestine (EAPPI) has supported local and international efforts to end the Israeli occupation and contributes to a fair and peaceful solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. All activities are based on international law and the relevant UN resolutions. EAPPI is a programme of the World Council of Churches (WCC) based in Geneva.

This article was originally published in the 1/2018 issue of Schneller Magazine, which can be found here: https://schneller-schulen.ems-online.org/en/#c846.

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