Life in the Northern Jordan Valley, An Open Fire Zone

At the northeast corner of the West Bank there is a remote, mountainous area known as al-Malih. To the north is Israel, to the East is Jordan and in between there are a number of scattered Bedouin camps. They are pockets of families in metal-framed tents, piece-meal corrals, squawking chickens and small plots of barley fields. They are shepherds of the Jordan Valley.

The valley begins as the Jordan river drains out of the Sea of Galilee and ends, along with the river, in the Dead Sea. Al-Malih is dry and blistering hot in the summer, rainy in the winter and deep green in the spring. Spring is the best season for milk because food for the animals is plenty. It has been this way for millennia.

Since the 1970s, this area has also been an open fire zone for the Israeli Military. 45% of the Jordan Valley, in fact, has been claimed as a firing zone.

Israel took control of this area in 1967 after the Six-Day War and has remained in control ever since. It is known as an Area C zone in the West Bank�a nondescript title meaning Israel retains exclusive control over police, community planning and construction. Over 60% of the West Bank is considered Area C.

In al-Malih, the firing zone means the Israeli Military can train at anytime. In an otherwise quiet and tranquil countryside lies a military outpost. The shepherds, the families, live under the constant, looming presence of armored military vehicles criss-crossing the countryside, semi-trucks transporting tanks, low flying aircrafts, gunfire and explosions.

If Israeli forces want to use the land around a family compound, they do. They pull up to a family tent and demand everyone leave for a distinct period of time, often for days. With no control and no rights, they pack the few things they can, they gather their animals, and they leave. They don’t go anywhere in particular, just away, and sleep outside until they are allowed to return. Often returning to trampled crops and turned up earth where Israeli tanks passed through.

Khadir Brahim lives in al-Malih on land owned by a Christian church. In the past few days, Brahim explained how the military were performing exercises and making people leave their homes. He did not have to evacuate this time but he has in the past. [We] take the minimal, the goats, the sheep and just go, Brahim told Palestine Monitor. If anyone is caught staying in their home, Brahim said the army would physically throw them out and sometimes beat them. One time, he said, they [even] shot a camel.

Ezra Nawi is an Israeli human rights activist for Palestinians and has been working in the Northern Jordan Valley for years. For him, it’s the same story as it is in the South Hebron Hills or East Jerusalem. It’s the story of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians�push them out of the land. It is the police, the army, the intelligence. It’s the same body with many arms. All of them with the same target, how to squeeze them out, Nawi said.

Mahyoub al-Meer is a shepherd living with his family on land his grandfather owned. He is in a unique situation because he actually has papers to prove his family’s ownership. However, papers and rights are not synonymous. Under a tree and over tea, al-Meer described life for he and his family. Everyday there is the army, the settlers, the exercises, everyday there are problems, he said.

Three days prior, the army came to his family and declared his land a closed military zone. There were no military exercises he could see but they still forced him to leave. He resisted, he asked why? He asked if it was just him or did the settlers two kilometers away have to evacuate? The army then asked for his papers. His response to this question was; why do I need a license? I was born here.

He left and took his family away for two days. As proof of the normalcy, al-Meer laughs as he explains his points.

It’s not a fair game, Nawi says. And it is clear, fair has little to do with it.

Al-Meer lives with his family nestled into a depression, with three hillsides cradling the cluster of tents and sheep pens. One hillside has been cut through with a road to the newest settlement, built in 2017, just two kilometers away, planted on his ancestral land. The adjacent hill, directly above them is a military outpost with a watchtower, cellphone tower and permanent feeling of being watched. These hills were once for grazing, now, al-Meer keeps his distance unless Nawi or other volunteers are with him.

This reduction of resources is a common theme in the Jordan Valley. Due to Israel being in control of construction, al-Meer cannot dig a well. He also does not have access to the water line going directly up to the military outpost. Instead, for water, he has to pay for transportation water tanks from the nearest town. He has been cut off from his pastures, reducing the available food for his sheep and goats.

In 2015, his family homes, built of mud and earth, were demolished by the military. They also tore down a small kindergarten on his land. The small schoolhouse was for children from the neighboring camps, to give them a start before they went to Tabus for advanced education.

Between the army and the settlers, the Palestinians have very little options. Nawi told the Palestine Monitor the government uses the law and the system to force them out. Israel banks on the Bedouins inability to navigate the legal system and have the patience to incrementally, slowly, make life harder and harder.

The army, al-Meer says, won’t let me progress.