Humans of the Holy Lad, Post #18: The Jordan Valley
Throughout this entire project, maybe nothing has left me more in shock than my time spent in the Jordan Valley. Maybe it was because it was one aspect of the occupation I wasn’t very aware of, or maybe it was the blatantly discriminate ways the occupation carried out its operations in the area, without regard for human lifeIt spurred an incredulous anger in me, for while activists and journalists flock to Jerusalem or Hebron, the fertile valley in which civilization once originated has seen its native population decimated by confiscations, prohibited access to water, military drills in backyards, and a general denial of a human being’s right to live.
Whenever I would look at the map of the West Bank, I would note to myself how all of the eastern half of the West Bank (the Jordan Valley) was entirely in Area C, Israeli control. While I was caught up in the Oslo matrix of Israeli control in other parts, I never thought to myself, ‘what about the people living in that area?’ That whole area was sparsely populated desert, right?
Wrong. The Jordan Valley provides for the majority of agriculture in the West Bank and is the main source of water for Israel.
However, the reality for the Palestinian people residing here for centuries has drastically changed under the occupation. With a Palestinian population of over 300,000 before 1967, this population has dwindled to 55,000 today under the harsh policies of the Israeli military.
Though this expansive area is over 20% of the West Bank, 93% falls under Area C — exclusive Israeli military control. 55,000 Palestinians still remain as compared to 10,000 Israeli settlers. Palestinians are in practice prohibited from expanding or building infrastructure of any kind in Area C. Without access to their land or water, the majority of the population in the agricultural center of the Holy Land is food insecure and the Jordan Valley’s people are desperate for water.
There are multiple aspects to the decimation of agricultural life here. 98% of water in the area is controlled and monopolized by Israel. As is the case in the rest of the West Bank, Palestinians are not connected to the centralized water system as Israelis and Israeli settlers are. The critical need for water in agriculture leaves Palestinian farmers in the valley desperate for more water than their paltry allotment gives. However, military laws prevent Palestinian farmers from having access to most of the water that flows through their homeland. Only 40% of the water in the area is available for 85% of the population, Palsetinians. With sole access to the wells drilled by Israel in the area and a subsidy of 75% of the cost for water (as all settlers are given), settlers in the region use 75 times the amount of water per capita than Palestinians in the West Bank. However, many Palestinian wells have simultaneously been fenced off, and those still remaining are prevented from being dug deeper. This leads to exceedingly salty water from these wells, which kills off most crops in the area. Without adequate access to water, many people are forced to drive two hours s to pay for expensive water; what water Israeli settlers pay 1 shekel for, Palestinian farmers may pay 20 shekels for. In the past five or six years, there has been a trend in which farmers returning with these water tanks have had them confiscated by soldiers.
The topic of soldiers brings up another unconscionable reality in this area — 55% of land is restricted as military zones. With its border position with Jordan, open spaces, and unforested hills, the area is extremely strategic for the Israeli army. Thus, most of the area has been set up as military zones, which are generally used for training and practice drills. However, these zones are not confined away from settled or agricultural land. Thousands of properties have been confiscated to be converted into military zones. Many of these newly-converted military zones become expansions of nearby settlements within a couple years, a key tactic in expanding Israeli agricultural dominance over the land. As is typical in Area C, many other homes and structures are demolished because they were built “without permits,” ignoring the fact that only 2% of Palestinian applications for building permits are actually accepted in Area C. In other cases, whole villages have been suddenly declared “military/ live-fire zones.” Dozens of civilians have been injured or killed during these military drills, and whole villages are forced to leave their homes so the army can do military drills inside, damaging property in the process.
Facing such intense systematic discrimination and without access to basic resources, the agricultural community of this area has suffered tremendously. Most of the population is food insecure, there is severe poverty, and without the ability to farm their own lands, many inhabitants are forced to work for the entity that is replacing them — the settlements.
All of these facts hint at the tragic and inhumane treatment to the people, but to truly understand the situation is to witness it. I came to the Jordan Valley on a November day with a dust storm giving this breadbasket a sense of desolation. I arrived in Fusayil to meet members of Jordan Valley Solidarity, an organization working to save the Palestinian population from complete ethnic cleansing in the region. Sitting around in the morning for tea and hummus, sounds of gunfire and groundshaking booms reached us. “They do drills almost daily,” commented one of the volunteers, “last week, a landmine blew up inside the village.”
Going through the valley revealed the gross picture of this fertile land. Palestinian wells were fenced off. Bulldozers were finishing clearing the remains of demolished homes and lands. Construction fenced off newly-confiscated land for military zones, and previously military zones were in the process of reverting to its previous status as agricultural lands — only under settlement control. Settler fields stretched for acres, lush and saturated with water. Palestinian crops were starved for water that lied meters away but inaccessible to Palestinians, their land matching the dusty air that was reminiscent of dystopic futures of Hollywood. At every point going down the road — other than where there were settlements — concrete blocks stood at the side, with the inscription, ‘DANGER: FIRING AREA. ENTRANCE FORBIDDEN.’ Not surprising for an area that is 55% military zones, but these concrete blocks were often placed in front of Palestinian homes. Nothing, nothingin all my time doing this project has shown so little regard for Palestinian life. There is no room when observing such images to stick with “neutral” language. It is simple: this is ethnic cleansing.
As is customary in my journey around Palestine, in spite of the suffering and injustice these people have suffered through, their hospitality by feeding me and taking me into their community continued unabated. Even while their plants and lives were being uprooted, they could still always crack a joke or a smile about the situation. In this land with such intense yet underreported injustice, here were some of the human beings I met.
I drove up a hill overseeing the whole area. At the top, there were some rubbish lying around, a water tank, and a shack-like house. Military bases, settlements, and checkpoints completely surrounded this lone house. This shack was the home of Mahmoud and his family, a home that constantly deals with demolitions, threats, and imprisonment from soldiers and settlers alike.
Mahmoud grew up on this very same land, the home and farm his family has owned for generations. During the First Intifada, he was away from the main struggles, but he and the rest of the valley suffered from home demolitions, military drills, and pressure to have the family leave. Already at that point, there was a military base, the Hamra settlement, and Hamra checkpoint all surrounding his family’s land. He studied at Al-Najah University in Nablus, but because of the checkpoints and road closures, he was forced to stay in Nablus rather than commute. “Sometimes, he would have to walk five kilometers to reach the university.”
In 2008, after dealing with the myriad of problems regarding his land (wait a bit for that), Mahmoud was unable to support himself and his wife and two children. He was driven to desperation, deciding ultimately to work on a settlement as paid labor. He worked there until 2010. Each day, he would receive 60 shekels [about $15] a day for working eight hours a day. “The boss of the settlement farm,” he said, “they didn’t care about us or our safety. Of course getting [$2 an hour] was still not enough. I needed at least [$5 an hour] for [the basic amenities]. They had us outside, in the sun, and they don’t care if we are suffering. All he cares is that we did the work. I didn’t have insurance. We would be given the hardest and most dangerous work. They would leave us for three, four, or five hours in the sun, six meters high in the date trees without water, food, electricity, nothing. They wouldn’t let us down before we finished. Many workers had to go to the hospital, [whether] it was from injuries at work, or the pesticides that we would breathe.”
While Israel is mandated to give at least 30 shekels an hour, settlements use Palestinian labor to pay them less than 10 shekels and hour. He went to court to retrieve money owed to him after becoming sick from the pesticides at work, but as is usual, he was denied. Mahmoud described how money was often withheld from him, receiving money only upon receiving his next pay check, which he wouldn’t receive in full, either.
Many Palestinians seeking work opportunities in the settlements are offered work permits only if they give information to Israeli authorities regarding nearby villages and activist networks. “It’s how they try to tear us apart,” said Mahmoud, “either we go against our friends, or we go against our families.”
“What kind of feeling can you have,” he said, “when you are working for your enemy? They are taking your land and making you work it for them, but when you need food and work, there’s no other choice.
“Eventually, I decided I don’t care. I couldn’t support the occupation any more. By working for them, I was giving them more money so they could get more soldiers, more weapons, and do more demolitions. I will starve if it means I don’t work at that place.”
Just at the time in which he decided to stop working at the settlement, he also had his work permit revoked. They revoked his work permit due to him and his family’s obstinacy in remaining on their family’s land.
For decades, the Israeli military has attempted to remove Mahmoud’s family from their land, in spite of the fact that they have been living there for generations. The hill they live on is very important from a strategic perspective, as it overlooks the area and is surrounded by a settlement, military base, and a checkpoint. Mahmoud’s father had his home demolished on the hill sixteen times, and Mahmoud and his brother have had their homes demolished as well. Each time they would rebuild, only to have their homes demolished once again. These demolitions occur under the premise that these structures were built without permits and on military land. This excludes the fact that Palestinians are essentially never given building permits in Area C and disregarding the fact that the family has lived on this land generations before the military occupation in 1967. Today, only Mahmoud’s home remains, with his shack being rebuilt just a few months ago after a recent demolition.
However, demolitions are not all this man has to face. He is unable to bring his sheep to graze ny the military. After six in the evening, he is unable to go to the market, for fear of being attacked or arrested at the checkpoint. “One time,” he recalled, “when I was going down to fill my water tank, they arrested me at the checkpoint for trying to fill my water tank. After fifteen days, they made me pay 3,000 shekels…and then they kept me in prison for another fifteen days.” He laughed at this. “Since five or six years ago, when I move from Area A to Area C to bring water to your home, they arrest, attack you…you see it, how the settlers, the soldiers, all of them are working together to make life here impossible.”
“Many times at the checkpoint,” he said, “they make me take off all my clothes. And then they make me sleep in the checkpoint while I can see my house above on the hill.”
“Five years ago,” he said, “they came to our house in the middle of the night to do military drills. We had nowhere to go, so we were forced to live at the side of the road in the cold. This is the life of apartheid,” he declared, “why can’t I attach my water here [to my house]? I have water meters from my home, but I can’t touch it. So I pay 20 shekels for water the settlers pay only a shekel for.”
Multiple times, these military drills have taken place on his land, with all of his property damaged in the process. Their house has often been raided. “The food, the mattresses, everything,” he said, “would be destroyed by the army.”
With his dignity, land, and rights taken away by the soldiers and settlers, Mahmoud expressed his disgust by international support of the settlements. “Most of the products,” he said, “are going to the United States and Europe. This is Palestinian land and water, but we get nothing and they get everything.”
Violence from settlers and soldiers are all too common. “The settlers and the soldiers are the same,” he said, a sentiment I’ve heard far too many times. “The settlers put down straw [in his sheep’s grazing area] that was poisoned. Many of my sheep were killed by the settlers. Other settlers confiscated and stole my sheep. My father, when he asked that the settlers give his sheep back, was arrested by the soldiers.
The soldiers have various methods to destroy the Palestinian farmers’ lands. “The worst are the pigs,” said Mahmoud, “they released a few years ago pigs all over our lands — apparently to sell to Christians. These pigs destroy our crops, our fields, and they bring many [pathogens] to our crops. Every couple months, they kill one or two pigs, but they leave hundreds in our fields still.
“This is the occupation for you!” he exclaimed, raising his arms.
Mahmoud could go on for days regarding the inhumane things the army and settlers have done to him and his family, but there was one story that revealed to me just how little the army thought of his family as human beings. “One night,” he said, “at about 9 PM, the soldiers came up the hill. They demanded that I turn this light bulb off,” he said, pointing to it, “because they could see the light from the checkpoint. They arrested me for it.” Wait, for keeping a light bulb on?? I couldn’t believe it. “Yeah, just for having a light bulb on that they could see.” We started laughing. Oh, how dark humor always rules the day here in Palestine. “They want to send the message to us, to scare us from this land.”
With minimal income and constantly having his home demolished, Mahmoud and his family relies on international and Palestinian humanitarian organizations to survive on the land. Though they face constant threats all around him, they will never leave their ancestors’ land. “In 2008,” he said, “it was winter when they demolished everything. We had no home, no water, no electricity, no food, nothing. I thought we would die if we tried to stay here. But we stayed, and we will always stay here. I will be resisting their occupation of my land no matter what — above the ground or below the ground. If they kill me, I will be buried beneath this land, and I will still continue to fight for it.”
Rashid was the man who helped tour me around the Jordan Valley during my time there. He is a coordinator at Jordan Valley Solidarity, a network of volunteers in the area to help chronicle human rights abuses and assist locals in asserting their rights in their struggle against the occupation’s efforts.
“Smile for the camera!” Rashid exclaimed while we passed by a junction filled with surveillance. “Oh, damn,” he lamented, “I hate it when the cameras get me from the right. My left is my prettier side.” Rashid loves the dark humor when it comes to the occupation. It’s often the ones who experience the most who inject humor in these situations. “A few days ago,” he said after we went through a checkpoint, “I was stopped at that checkpoint. They asked me where I was going from. I joked to them Tel Aviv. They looked at me and said, ‘What??’ And I said Tel Aviv! ‘Tel Aviv??’ Yes, I said again, Tel Aviv!” Rashid started laughing. “They didn’t like my joke, so they strip searched me, making me take off all my clothes. Man, these soldiers, they are always standing outside all day, you think they’d lighten up a bit!”
Underneath the dark humor is a man who has faced many struggles in his life, struggles that have only made him stronger as an activist, a family man, and as a person. After we rode around the valley during the day, I sat down with Rashid to hear about his life. Many activists hide their identity to avoid imprisonment and further persecution from the army, so I assumed Rashid would want to as well. “No, it’s fine,” he said, “At this point, I don’t really care. They have done everything they could at this point, other than kill me. Flash my face to Netanyahu, for all I care.”
When I spoke with Rashid about his life, his demeanor was markedly different than before. Tasking with revisiting the trauma of his life, the energetic jokester was now somber, even lifeless when detailing the experiences he has had.
Rashid was born and raised in Tobas, just nearby the Jordan Valley. When asked to describe his childhood, Rashid said, “I grew up with my parents, my aunt and uncle, in a big house. The main road was just nearby, about 15 meters. I was very happy with my family, playing with my friends. But I have only bad memories when the Israeli soldiers would come — screaming, shooting, kidnapping people, destroying the house, and I would never know what was going on. Why did they come to my house, to my parents? I was always very scared. This would also happen going to school. In the morning, going to school, there were soldiers shooting gas, bullets, trying to kill the chilren just because some would throw stones. This was a really bad memory. They destroy different things, like right to education, the life of children, our culture …these memories really grew with me. They would happen for years every day. I don’t wish this for any children in the world.”
After finishing high school, Rashid started working to support his family. In 1999, he was about to start his studies at the university, but the Second Intifada then started. “Every day,” he said, “I would see the army killing people, shooting, destroying houses, kidnapping…I started to think about how it affected my feelings, my heart, and it touched me with the pain of my neighbors and family. These are memories of blood. I was around 21. I wondered why we didn’t have justice, why we didn’t have freedom.
“I started to be active to help the people who don’t have houses because of demolitions, to help the children, those in the community. In our culture, we are one family together.”
In 2005, however, Rashid was imprisoned. They made his family pay a fine of 3,000 shekels and sent him to jail for two years. “I was a part of Fatah [Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades]. In Israel, I am a terrorist. But the ones who are killing children, destroying thousands of houses, confiscating our land and homeland, destroying culture, keeping us from our water, putting up walls…they are not terrorists. We as Palestinians, if you support your neighbor who is active, if you give them food, that is against the Israeli law, because they want to break our society.”
“In the prison,” he said, “people really suffer when you are sick. You are not allowed to see the doctor or go to the hospital. They don’t care about your humanity. They tortured me. They hit us with guns, sticks, everywhere in your body. They don’t let you call or see your lawyer. They don’t let your family or friends visit you, and when my family asked for the permit, they were refused for ‘security reasons,’ but there’s no security reason. They control you, your psychology in the jail. They tried to scare me to work with them, to give them information. They told me that they would kill my family, destroy my home, kidnap and rape my mother.
“The judge is Israeli, a soldier, and us, we are not prisoners because we are not [military], we are just people under occupation fighting for our justice and freedom, which is legal under international law. But the Israelis don’t respect that.”
After his release from prison three years later, Rashid worked a bit on his own, but then he became interested in the work of the Jordan Valley Solidarity campaign. “Now, I support people having houses, water, and access to education. We speak about nonviolent resistance, but the Israelis don’t respect nonviolent resistance, either.
As an activist, Rashid is often targeted. “In May 2014,” he said, “the soldiers came to my parents’ home. They took my computer, which I used for reports, one camera, and two months ago, they took my computer again, my camera, and my hard disks. They stopped us many times when we tried to build schools in the area, and they demolish the schools we build for the children. In 2011, they arrested me just because I was staying for three nights with a family attacked by settlers at Maskayyot. They didn’t arrest the settlers for beating these Palestinian children and telling him they would kill them and their families, but they arrested and fined me for protecting the victims.”
However, considering his upraising, Rashid is proud of his accomplishments as an activist. “I have helped build six schools in the area,” he said, “and that is about 700 children who would not have access to education because of the occupation [otherwise]. Also, we built 300 houses in the area, giving thousands of people homes that they lost because of the occupation. We hope not to just speak internationally about the occupation, but also to do these things directly on the ground to help the communities.”
“We need solidarity everywhere,” he declared, “In Palestine, internationally, everywhere. This is our right. No one can stop us. Our future is to have justice and to be in peace with our people, family, and friends without occupation. This is what we wish.”
Rashid worked part time to finally attain his degree, which he attained from Al-Quds University in 2013. In one week, he getting married, with hopes of having children. Just seeing Rashid play with his nephews and nieces at his family’s home, I could tell that he will be the “fun dad” everyone comes to love and cherish.
I asked Rashid to describe in his own words the occupation. Defeated by the memories of his past, Rashid paused. And paused. And paused. He didn’t speak for fifteen seconds before he spoke. “The occupation is the worst thing against humanity. It doesn’t respect humanity or international law. This is why there must be solidarity in all of the world. If the most important thing is humanity, then all in the world must be fighting the occupation. Each person in the world should believe and think this is their responsibility. Not just the authority, no — each person in the world, they can have the power, the right to fight for humanity and support those under the occupation. There is no border of humanity. Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, Palestinian, American, black, white — it doesn’t matter. We are all a part of humanity.”