‘Like a mafia’: Israeli settlers, forces squeeze Palestinian shepherds out

With two of his sons in prison and his cattle pens – his livelihood – all but emptied, Palestinian shepherd Kadri Daraghmeh, 57, was beside himself.

Inside their open-air tent, with no running water and minimal electricity, his sick wife fought back tears.

“My children are in prison, and every day it’s just more money I need to pay when we don’t even have money to buy food,” said a devastated Kadri.

Kadri’s woes began to worsen dramatically last month. On December 25, he says, settlers stole 100 of his cattle in the night, released some cows near a road, and then called Israeli police.

Cattle “roaming freely” is illegal under Israeli law, so the police confiscated the cows. Kadri was forced to pay 49,000 shekels ($12,900) to get 19 of his cows back.

Kadri could pay only with the help of friends and Israeli activists.

Kadri wanted to move on from the ordeal, but on the evening of January 7, two of his sons called to tell him they had been entrapped by a settler named Uri Cohen and arrested.

Cohen contacted Jaser, 29, and Rihab, 19, and offered them a spot where they could graze their cattle undisturbed. It was an offer that was difficult to refuse. In the earlier days of the war, settlers, including those working for Cohen, had been attacking shepherds and their flocks with weapons, unleashing dogs or even scaring the sheep away with cars, and in more recent weeks such confiscations by authorities were on the rise. And “each time [there was an incident]”, recalled Kadri, “Uri would say: ‘Why do you need these problems? Sell your cattle to me.’”

So Kadri’s sons decided to take up Cohen’s offer. But when they got to the spot, Cohen called the council inspector, a settler, who in turn called the police. Police came and cuffed the two men to each other and confiscated the 60 cows with them, for bringing the cattle onto “private land”.

When he got the call, Kadri, his wife and two other sons – Luay, 31, and Basel, 27 – rushed to help.

As Kadri was protesting to Shai Eigner, a local settler who is a land inspector for the Jordan Valley Regional Council, a border patrol officer arrived, who shortly thereafter punched him in the face, making him bleed, and threw him to the ground.Spooked by the violence, Luay and Basel ran back to the car. Shouting at Kadri’s sons to stop, the border patrol officer began to shoot at the car.

The Israeli officers arrested Luay and Basel and took them to the police station. Later, they were transferred to Ofer prison and then, a week later, to another prison. Basel was released after a week and a half, while Luay was released on bail after more than two weeks, accused by the border patrol officer of trying to run him over.

Jaser and Rihab, who had brought the cattle, were taken to a remote area the night of January 7 by Israeli security personnel – and left there to fend for themselves.

Kadri has been left with almost none of his cattle, his livelihood, and facing a 120,000-shekel ($31,600) bill he must somehow pay to retrieve the 60 cows the local settlement council is holding. The tab increases by 50 shekels per cow per day.

Attacks and harassment from settlers and soldiers were happening before October 7, the day the Hamas attacks on Israel took place. But, Kadri says, this incident was the first time it was premeditated and coordinated. “This was the first time the settlers, the police and the army came together, like this, to make one fist,” he said.

Facing insurmountable debt that only grows, Kadri and his family are beginning to see the writing on the wall: with increasing confiscations, restrictions, and now arrests and extraordinary fines, their way of life may no longer be feasible.

Now, two of Kadri’s brothers are selling their cattle to an intermediary who will sell them to none other than Uri Cohen. A third brother is likely to follow suit.

“The situation is very bad,” said a distraught Kadri. “No human rights, no justice. We want peace. We have no hate for anyone – Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Israeli, American, whatever. We have children, we want to live. But they make it so there is no future for us.”

‘They are working together in a way they hadn’t before’

The abyss confronting Kadri’s family also confronts most Palestinian shepherds across the Jordan Valley and much of Area C, a part of the West Bank that is under full Israeli military control. Many others in the area describe similar confiscations, detentions and restrictions by Israeli forces recently, often in conjunction with or carried out by settlers.

Another incident similar to Kadri’s occurred two weeks later, in which Palestinian shepherds Shehda Dais and Ayed Dais in al-Jiftlik had their sheep taken by security personnel and were forced to pay 150,000 shekels to prevent their confiscation. The settlement council allegedly threatened the shepherds and six families from the community that they would be forced to pay 1 million shekels ($271,260) if they attempted to bring their flocks out grazing.

For decades, the Palestinians of the Jordan Valley, which number approximately 65,000 according to rights group B’Tselem, have faced severe restrictions in access to critical resources such as water, 85 percent of which goes to settlers, though they number approximately 11,000 – a sixth of the Palestinian population – in the area. They are prohibited from collecting rainwater or accessing any water on their land. Kadri and his sons live along a spring that has been fenced off solely for settlers’ use.

While all settlements are illegal under international law, the Jordan Valley at least had settlers who were relatively less violent in the past, and Kadri describes amicable relations with settlers once upon a time.

But then the first Israeli settler outpost – illegal even under Israeli law, though in practice largely permitted by Israel and buttressed by its security forces – came in 2016, and attacks and harassment of shepherds have escalated since.

Ahmed Daraghmeh, 33, of Farsiya, said his hand was broken by settlers just weeks before October 7, incapacitating him for two months.

When the war started, violence erupted in the Jordan Valley and, as elsewhere in Area C, Palestinians reported attacks rising dramatically, with settlers invading their homes at night, threatening them to leave.

In the aftermath of the first spate of settler violence in the early weeks of the war, the United States exerted pressure on Israel, which subsequently took a few violent settlers into administrative detention. Though the violence has subsided somewhat, an emerging pattern in recent weeks suggests that legal procedures are being used more aggressively by Israeli forces and settlers – many of whom, through regional defence units, have been deputised to be the regional security force and now wear military uniform and carry assault rifles.

Yousef Bsharat, 47, is a shepherd from Makhoul. He, his wife and their 10 children tend to their hundreds of sheep, goats and chickens kept around their home.

On October 7, settlers attacked Yousef’s teenage son and their flock of sheep with stones and dogs; 23 sheep went missing. “But back then, the army helped to tell the settlers to go away,” said Yousef.

In the following weeks, home invasions began. A neighbour’s home was invaded at gunpoint, he recalled. “They came in with their guns and said: ‘You’re not allowed to be here any more,’” said Yousef.

Security forces came and arrested the Palestinian shepherds, who subsequently left for good.

“From that day, they’ve treated people here as if they are animals,” said Yousef. “But this is our land. I refuse to leave.”

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