Palestinian Hamlet Embodies Fight for the West Bank’s Future

HUMSA, West Bank — Until last November, Fadwa Abu Awad’s mornings followed a familiar rhythm: The 42-year-old Palestinian herder would rise at 4 a.m., pray, and milk her family’s sheep. Then she would add an enzyme to the pails of milk and stir them for hours to make a salty, rubbery, halloumi-like cheese.

But that routine changed overnight in November, when the Israeli Army demolished her hamlet, Humsa, in the West Bank. When the 13 families who live there resurrected their homes, the army returned in early February to knock them down again. By the end of February, parts of Humsa had been dismantled and rebuilt six times in three months because the Israelis viewed them as illegal structures.

“Before, life was about waking up and milking and making cheese,” Ms. Abu Awad said in a recent interview. “Now we’re just waiting for the army.”

The vigor with which the Israeli Army has tried to demolish Humsa has turned this small Palestinian encampment into an embodiment of the battle for the future of the occupied territories.

Humsa is at the northern end of the Jordan Valley, an eastern slice of the West Bank that the Israeli government planned to formally annex last year. The government suspended that plan in September as part of a deal to normalize relations with the United Arab Emirates.

The army has since destroyed more than 200 structures there, saying they were built without legal permits.

“We’re not shooting from the hip here,” said Mark Regev, a senior adviser to the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. “We’re going through with the implementation of the court’s decision. There is no doubt that due process has been served.”

But some Israeli politicians still hope the area will one day be folded into the state of Israel as a buffer against potential attacks from the east.

Rights activists and some former Israeli officials say they fear that the ferocity of the campaign against Humsa, which they saw as exceptional in its fervor, is indicative of a wider desire to push seminomadic Palestinian herders out of the Jordan Valley, bolstering Israeli claims to the territory.

There are some 11,000 Palestinian herders in the Jordan Valley and their presence in places like Humsa complicates Israeli ambitions there, said Dov Sedaka, a reserve Israeli general who once headed the government department that manages key parts of the occupation.

“The idea is, yes, let’s keep the Jordan Valley clean,” said Mr. Sedaka, who added that he opposed the idea. “This is the word that I am hearing. Let’s keep it clean from these people.”

The Israeli Army has demolished 254 structures that it considered illegal in the Jordan Valley in the six months since the annexation plan was suspended, including some of the actions in Humsa. That is more than almost every other six-month stretch throughout the past decade, according to figures from the United Nations.

The Israeli government’s explanation for the demolitions dates back to the 1990s Oslo Accords with the Palestinians. The agreement gave Israel administrative control over more than 60 percent of the West Bank, including most of the Jordan Valley, pending further negotiations that were meant to be completed within five years.

But over two decades of talks, the two sides have failed to agree on a deal, so Israel retains control of the lands — known as Area C — and has the right to demolish homes built there without planning permission.

The Israeli authorities began demolishing Humsa after Israeli judges rejected several appeals from the residents over nearly a decade. The government offered the villagers an alternative place to live near a Palestinian town.

Israeli officials say the villagers need to leave for their own safety because the hamlet is situated within the 18 percent of the West Bank that Israel has designated a military training zone. And they argue that the herders arrived there at least a decade after the military zone was established in 1972, in the early years of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.

Today, Humsa does not look like much, strewn with the debris of successive demolitions — a broken pink toy, an upturned stove, a smashed solar panel. Even before it was first demolished, it was a community of just 85 people living in a few dozen tents, spread across a remote hillside.

The residents say the Israeli arguments miss a wider injustice.

“We’re the original inhabitants of this land,” said Ansar Abu Akbash, a 29-year-old herder in Humsa. “They didn’t have this land originally — they’re settlers.”

Israel captured the land in the Arab-Israeli war of 1967. The first herders moved to Humsa in the 1980s because they say they had already been displaced by Israeli activity elsewhere in the West Bank.

The slopes where the herders live and graze their 10,000 sheep are still owned by Palestinians living in a nearby town, to whom they pay rent.

For the herders, the solution is not as simple as moving to the location suggested by the army: They say there is not enough land there for their sheep to roam.

“This is the only place where we can continue our way of life,” Ms. Abu Awad said. “We live through these sheep, and they live through us.”

The Israeli authorities rejected the herders’ applications to retroactively approve their modest encampment, said Tawfiq Jabareen, a lawyer representing the villagers.

That is a familiar dynamic in Area C. Between 2016 and 2018, Israel approved 56 of 1,485 permit applications for Palestinian construction in Area C, according to data obtained by Bimkom, an independent Israeli organization that advocates Palestinian planning rights.

And while the Israeli authorities have targeted Humsa, they have turned a blind eye to unauthorized Israeli construction in the same military zone as the herding community, Mr. Jabareen said.

The army has left untouched several Israeli structures built inside the military zone in 2018 and 2019, even though those structures were also under demolition orders, he said.

“These parallel tracks for dealing with Palestinian and settler communities are a stark illustration of discrimination,” he said.

The government agency that oversees demolitions declined to comment on this issue.

The nearby Israeli settlement of Roi, a village of 200 people built in the 1970s, was designed to fit within a narrow gap between two Israeli military training zones, in compliance with Israeli law.

The residents of Roi appear to have little sympathy for their neighbors. Some said it was the Palestinians who were the interlopers on the land and the Israelis who redeemed it from a barren wasteland.

“Look at what we did here in 40 years and you will understand,” said Uri Schlomi von Strauss, 70, one of Roi’s earliest settlers. “We built the land, we plowed the land, and this gives us the right to the land,” he added. “Why should I have sympathy?”

Across the valley, the herders of Humsa were counting the cost of the most recent demolition. The army had confiscated their water tanks, which the military considers unsanctioned structures. That reduced the water they had to drink and wash with, let alone to give their sheep or prepare the cheese.

One woman had lost all her embroidery, another her prized coat.

Aid groups had given them new tents, but not enough to house their sheep. So the sheep were sleeping in the cold, which the herders said meant they were producing less milk — which in turn meant less cheese to sell at the market.

“I’ve become a very angry and anxious person,” Ms. Abu Akbash said. “I’m overcome with stress.”

As an Israeli-registered car slowly approached the Abu Akbash family tent, the children ran to scoop up their toys, fearing another demolition was imminent.

“Every car they see,” Ms. Abu Akbash said, “they think it’s the army.”

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