On Wednesday, April 9th, we visited some of our shepherd friends in Tuba, Mufaqara and Susya. Two young journalists – from the US and Germany – joined us for this visit.
Talks with the shepherds yielded the following general picture of the situation:
The shepherds of the South Hebron Hills region (more or less the entire local population, in other words) are trapped in a vicious circle that at least in the near future looks hopeless. This dangerous state of affairs is a result of the following processes:
- The long-term process (ongoing for the past 25-30 years) of a gradual but steady reduction of grazing areas open to Palestinian shepherds as a result of the establishment and expansion of Jewish colonies in the region (four colonies + five permanent outposts + several smaller, provisional outposts). The local Jewish colonists are constantly active, de-facto-annexing more and more land into their direct control, all under the auspices and with the blessing of Israeli government and Occupation authorities, thus further significantly reducing the grazing and sowing fields accessible to Palestinians.
- The annual cycle of sheep-raising is bi-seasonal: The season from mid-winter to the beginning of summer, during which – after rainfall – pasture is usually abundant, and the livestock grazes directly in the fields. The second season – from early summer until renewed growth following the winter rainfall – is one in which as soon as the grass is gone, shepherds purchase ready-feed.
The previous rainy season (2007) was average, or close to average. The significant development during this period of time was the steep worldwide increase in ready-feed costs, of about 100%. Last summer and fall, shepherds already had to pay an especially expensive price for maintaining their herds, but they were still looking forward to winter and spring which would relieve part of the expenses. This hope has now been completely dashed: in a highly unusual manner, the current rainy season ( 2008 ) lasted only three weeks (from late January until mid-February), instead of five months as is normally the case (November-March). Precipitation in this short period was absolutely insufficient and created hardly any pasture. Consequently, unlike a normal year, the shepherds do not have that few months’ space in which they are less dependent on purchasing ready feed, which in its turn remains very steeply priced.
To these factors, one must add the following:
- The sheep and goat trade market in the West Bank is run in Jordanian Dinars and not Israeli Shekels, although the overall Palestinian economy basically runs on Shekels. Lately, the exchange rate of the Shekel has grown stronger vs. most other currencies, including the Dinar. Thus, a Jordanian Dinar that was traded last year for 6-6.5 Shekel, now trades for 4.5-5 Shekel. In other words, this year the sale of a sheep on the market at an average price of 100 Jordanian Dinar will bring the Palestinian shepherd an average sum of 450-500 Shekels, instead of 600-650 Shekel last year.
In previous years, such as 2006 which was relatively dry (but far better than the current year), international organizations mobilized greatly to help the South Hebron Hills shepherds. Thus, for example, during the summer and fall of 2006, the international organization Oxfam conducted a comprehensive support project in feed and water, enabling the shepherds to survive that year’s drought which was less severe than the present one. Considering that the present crisis of rising prices of feed is worldwide, it is not yet clear whether, when and to what extent, international organizations such as Oxfam will be able to rise up to the occasion again for the communities of this area, while they are engaged with an equally severe crisis-reality in numerous regions and countries. * (see OCHA update)
At such a moment – and let us remember we are now only just out of winter – it is difficult to predict how the shepherds will survive the many months remaining until the next grazing season. In the meantime, their debts to feed suppliers are growing steadily, while the value of their livestock keeps dropping. They face two practicable options:
- Hand their herds over to their children or younger brothers and search for work inside Israel: legal employment in Israel, though, requires permits, and these are only issued to men over thirty years of age. Among these, many are not eligible for such permits because they are blacklisted as “Shin Bet prevented” or “Police prevented”. Work without a permit involves risking arrest and imprisonment, a risk which family men are not usually ready to take. The younger single men, on the other hand, do take this risk, run the perilous travel into Israel and report serious difficulties finding work. Most of them do not manage to work more than a few days a month, on the average.
- The other option facing the South Hebron Hills shepherds is to temporarily abandon their dwelling caves and relocate to the nearby town of Yatta. This possibility, that was common in past as a solution for hard times, now entails a very high risk – the shepherds are aware of the fact that if they abandon their locality even for a very short while, their Jewish colonist neighbors will leap at the opportunity and immediately take over their lands, possibly ruining and burning down the dwelling areas themselves (as has happened at a number of places not too long ago). This fear has so far kept the shepherds near the colonies from taking this measure of temporary evacuation.
As for now, the survival efforts of the South Hebron Hills shepherds are clear in the high risk they run while introducing their herds into fields that have been demarcated as forbidden for local Palestinian grazing. The colonists’ reactions to what they conceive as “trespassing” are swift and cruel: Three weeks ago, three shepherds from Sha’ab al-Butum were badly beaten by people from the neighboring Yair Farm. Two week ago, shots were fired from Havat Maon outpost towards sheep grazing nearby, belonging to a resident of Mughar al Abid. Two sheep were killed and one goat wounded as a result of the shooting. Last week, a twelve-year-old shepherd from Khirbet al-Nebi was brutally beaten (and hospitalized) by youngsters from the Yair farm near Susya. Such incidents are now a part of a near-daily routine in the area of the South Hebron Hills, a direct result of the distress and desperation of local Palestinian shepherds, on the one hand, and the sense of brute force and immunity against any vestige of law and order by the local Jewish colonists, on the other.
Having spoken to an employee at the Hebron bureau of OCHA, we learned that the organization has initiated a series of encounters among support organizations active in the area, following which they presented a joint working-paper, including a support program of 850,000 dollars for shepherds in the strip of Area C stretching from the southern part of the Jordan Valley to the western part of South Hebron Hills. This plan is supposed to be implemented from May on, according to a working division agreed upon by the organizations.