Bazem Dilleh is a sheep farmer and the Mayor of Tawayel, a hamlet to the south east of Nablus in the West Bank. I meet him in at his house at the end of a long dirt road. He lives in Area C of the West Bank and as such he cannot get building permission to tarmac the approach to his house. His house itself has been demolished on a number of occasions and an animal feed shed is also currently awaiting demolition.
He welcomes me with warm smiles and impeccable hospitality. Ushering me out of the strong sun and into the shade he sits me down and offers me sweat tea. He looks around at the small amount of land which he can still call his own before speaking to no one and says, “this is the last point, if I retreat any further I lose it all…my land, my sheep, my dignity”.
Bazem used to own land all the way to the Jordan valley that stretches 15 kilometres to the east. Most of this is now considered a closed military zone – a term that often only applies to Palestinians and not always to the growing number of Israeli settlers who are living in the Jordan Valley and its flanking hills. Over the years Bazem has been pushed back further and further to the west by settlement expansion and a growing flexibility of what is understood as a ‘closed military zone’. As Bazem cynically commented during the meeting, “there seems to be a link between land which is called a ‘military zone’ and that which is soon ploughed for grapes by settlers”.
I ask Bazem if he has ever had any problems with the Israeli soldiers and he reels off a roll call of events: “In 1967 I had 30 sheep shot, in 1980 they came and arrested my father and I had to pay 700 dinar for his release, in 1982 they arrested 400 sheep and I had to pay 10 dinar for each of them to be released, between 2000 and 2009 I had 3 demolitions on my land and at the moment that hut has a [demolition] order on it” – he points to a small shack with animal feed in it.
Bazem describes his life as “simple, I don’t need too much”. Looking around this is clearly an understatement. His water supply for example is collected in a three cubic metre water tank which is towed behind his tractor. In the winter this will last him for “one month, maybe more” while in the summer, “I would be lucky if it lasts even a few days”. At £20 a tank-ful this is one of his few major expenses – not including paying the bail for his ‘arrested sheep’.
He insists however that he is “not short of money, just short of freedom”. In Area C, building permits for Palestinian buildings are routinely denied. This results in the majority of newly built structures being under constant threat of demolition. Once a demolition order has been issued a structure can be demolished any time 24 hours after this notice is given. A building however can go years or even decades with this threat of demolition hanging over it. Governmental and charity projects are not exempt. An International Red Cross water project was recently demolished in a nearby village.
I ask Bazem if he can access all of his now diminished land and he laughs out loud. “I sometimes think they only give me a permit to access my land to give the settlers a chance to attack me”. Settler violence here is an on-going problem. Just a few weeks ago some farmers from the village of Aqraba were attacked before then being detained themselves by the Israeli military. Farming near the settlements poses a continuous threat of attack or harassment. As EAPPI we try to mitigate this by accompanying farmers to their land but this tactic is far from a long-term sustainable solution. International support in the area remains central for everyday life to function though.
Three weeks ago Bazem finished a hunger strike which he said was “just so people would come and see [his situation]”. Bazem’s life has been a series of restrictions and limitations which has forced him to be both relaxed and accommodating but also to demand attention when it is needed. Slowly he has been pushed back further and further to the west off his land and I wondered how much more he could take before he finally breaks. He reiterates “[I can] go no further or ‘khallas’ – I am finished”.
I ask if he feels positive about the future and he again responds with the past, “we have been suffering since 1967, we have no future when it is like this”. I worry about what his future will hold for him.
He looks at the surrounding hills and starts to talk in metaphors, “at the moment the fire is in Yanoun [a neighbouring village] but I am preparing the water for here because fire spreads”. I wonder if he is referring to the rapid illegal settlement expansion (illegal under international humanitarian law and often under Israeli law). I play along with the fire metaphor and ask him what he thinks can put the fire out and he says “when there are no Palestinians or settlements left”. Suddenly his earlier comment about “having no future” seems even more pertinent.
I stand up and walk out into the warm afternoon sun and thank Bazem for his kind hospitality and for taking the time to see me on a Friday (the Muslim holy day). He smiles a warm smile and says “Ahlan wa-Sahlan” – you are welcome. Not for the first time I leave a Palestinian worrying about what the future holds for him. Equally however, I leave thinking about the incredible hospitality and kindness I have been met with in the face of such extreme human-made hardships. Maybe this determined pursuit of optimism and kindness will help to get him through the coming years.