Kicking up small dust storms, Daphne’s car bumps over a parched, rock-strewn field to reach two Palestinian shepherds she spotted from the road. At the end of the field, rows of plastic greenhouses and a barbed-wire fence mark an Israeli settlement. We exchange greetings – marhaba, salaam aleikum – with the shepherds, weather-burned men in their thirties. One of them hands Daphne an official-looking document, which she translates for them from Hebrew into halting Arabic. She tells me later that she’s in the process of learning it.
The document was issued by the Israeli military: the shepherds are now forbidden to cross the road with their sheep as they have always done; the fine is 1000 shekels, more than $300, an unthinkable sum to people who live as marginally as these shepherds. “All these rules are completely arbitrary,” says Daphne, her voice tight with anger. “It’s nothing but harassment, anything to make their lives more difficult.”
On the road we pass concrete slabs bearing a stark warning in Arabic, Hebrew and, mysteriously, English: “Danger. Firing zone. No entry.” In late May 2009 the army placed one of these slabs next to each Palestinian dwelling throughout the Jordan Valley. Hundreds of people received demolition orders, and soon after, Israeli soldiers arrived in the middle of the night to smash houses, tents, livestock corrals and water tanks. They shot sound bombs into sheep pens, and arrested many young men.
One day in mid-summer Daphne got a call from a community leader; he had just been informed that the army would be holding manoeuvres on their land, and they had three hours to evacuate. “I started raising hell,” she says. “I called the Associated Press, Reuters, human rights organizations, the UN, the British and US embassies, anyone I could think of. By eight in the evening, the army told the people that they didn’t have to leave, the manoeuvres had been postponed. But we know that as soon as the world stops taking notice, they’ll be back. It’s very simple. They want these people out of the way.”
We stop at a checkpoint on a remote hill by an army base. Daphne’s beat embraces the whole Jordan valley, but as a member of the Israeli women’s organization MachsomWatch, her primary task is to monitor and report on the checkpoints.
This is one of three that control all passage for Palestinians between the Jordan Valley and the rest of the West Bank. Given its location, miles from Israel, it is spectacularly clear that it has nothing to do with security, only control. “From 1967,” says Daphne, “Israel’s plan was to put settlers into the valley, not religious ones but secular ones from kibbutzim, people with some farming background. The object was to annex the whole valley as soon as there were more Israelis than Palestinians. But despite all the special benefits they get, many Israelis left. Life was too hard for them here, too hot, too isolated. There are maybe 6-8,000 Israelis in the valley, and about 55,000 Palestinians. So the aim of Israel now is to make the Palestinians leave. That’s why they demolish their dwellings, restrict their movement, and don’t let them have water.”
At the checkpoint we watch soldiers stand idle, while people wait. Daphne greets Palestinians who get through on foot. Most respond in kind, a few stop to chat. A young man laden with plastic shopping bags tells her that yesterday the checkpoint was closed. The soldiers gave no explanation, they hardly ever do. Come back tomorrow, they say.
In a small yellow taxi van waiting to go through, Daphne recognizes the driver, a thin Palestinian man with receding grey hair and a clipped mustache. “He used to call us on his cellphone about abuses he saw at the checkpoint. But somehow the soldiers got onto him, and they beat him up. Now he doesn’t call any more.” Though we are in plain view, the man looks straight ahead. I think about the many instruments of terror.
Since mid-summer 2010, demolitions of Palestinian homes, encampments, water tanks and animal pens have escalated sharply in the Jordan Valley.
On the way back to Tel Aviv, driving west into a livid dusk, Daphne Banai told me of her deepening connection to the shepherds, her anger, and her despair. Just before we parted, I asked her one of the hardest questions in Israel, even for seasoned activists: how does she feel about the growing movement for BDS, boycott, divestment and sanctions?