“We chase harmless shepherds and sheep in the fields and desert, in the name of our national security”

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Yair Bunzel, 59, decided to join the activism of Combatants for Peace in 2017 after a first face-to-face encounter with Palestinian shepherds which he will never forget. Yair, a former Captain in the Israeli army, since then has dedicated a large portion of his time to monitor the situation in the Jordan Rift Valley and to help Palestinian communities there defend their rights. Here is his testimony, when the Israeli army came back this week to Humsa al-Foqa to crush the shepherds settled in the area, exactly three months after the army’s first massive demolition operation there.  

Yair, you stayed very late, until 10pm yesterday (February 3) with the families of Humsa al-Foqa after the Israeli army had come for the second time that week to demolish and confiscate Palestinian belongings. Where and how did the families manage to sleep?

“Even when you are on the spot it is difficult to assess the situation exactly and keep track of the moves of all the families affected by a demolition. As far as I understand, some of them tried to find shelter a few kilometres away from the so called “firing zone” mapped by the Israeli army. The problem is that the households who then host these families don’t have enough blankets or mattresses to accommodate everyone.”

As an activist who invested more than a dozen days throughout this winter rebuilding habitation shelters and cattle pens after the massive destruction of early November 2020, how did you feel when you saw all infrastructures being once more taken down this week?

“I get very emotional. Not when I see the demolition work actually happening, but when I report about it. Then tears come to my eyes. It is crazy to see one hour of a bulldozer working, annihilating days of a collective reconstruction effort. But that is not the point. My thoughts go the families, and that reinforces my motivation to act again and again against the injustice.”

Don’t you ever get discouraged?

“Of course I do. When you spend long days in the field, from dawn to sunset, you become exhausted. But this state of mind changes very quickly when you receive a phone call telling that you are once more needed on the spot. I then jump in my car, do some work from my cellphone and try to get as quickly as possible alongside the shepherds when they are attacked.” 

What do you say to the families you meet?

“You have to know the Arabic culture and accept to not talk a lot. When I first started to visit Palestinian communities, victims of demolitions perpetrated by the Israeli army, I would say “Good morning” and then ask how I could be helpful. This is not the way it works. First, you don’t say anything. You shake hands and exchange looks. It already means a lot. After I sit with a family during five long minutes of silence, I may eventually wish them that some rain comes to make the grass grow for their animals. That’s about it. I simply make them understand that they have all my respect for what they endure.” 

What is your message today to the Israelis, to the Palestinians and to the people abroad who will read this interview?

“First, I would like to repeat that it is in our hands, Palestinians and Israelis together, to change reality. Our biggest enemy is the fear of each other. Every time we have a chance to establish contact between people, we are there – without uniforms, rifles and or any politician’s attributes – and this helps the cause. That is what we promote as Combatants for Peace.

To my Israeli fellows, I say: let us learn from our history. Let us not keep our mouths shut in front of any injustice. We are educated to fear a new Holocaust and to defend our national territory. But the fact is: we are strong enough to defend ourselves without occupying the West Bank and without supporting more and more settlements. We were strong enough to protect ourselves against Egypt without sitting on the Suez Canal or the Egyptian desert. And what do we do today in the Jordan Valley? We chase harmless shepherds and sheep in the fields and desert, in the name of our national security… This is simply absurd! You have to see it with your own eyes to believe it.”

At the international level, lots of people fear to speak up against Israel…

“Well, I am saying loud and clear that our government manipulates the trauma of the Holocaust in a cynical way, to get compensation and unjustified political support. Antisemitism exists and this is a problem. But it has absolutely nothing to do with what Israel is doing in the West Bank. What we see taking place there is no less than gradual ethnic cleansing according to all international standards. Even if the soldiers for once don’t destroy the shepherds’ tents but fold them nicely on their trucks, as we observed at the beginning of this week, they force families to relocate kilometers away from land where they have been living for generations. This is an unlawful transfer of population.” 

How do you see the situation developing? Humsa is by far not the only community of Area C harassed by the Israeli occupation regime…

“We need major international pressure on Israel. Replacing the Trump administration was an important step, but I am convinced that the European governments are the key to change for this situation. The Israeli population has to understand, from outside too, that the price of occupation will one day be too high. How long will the international community tolerate and support this situation of constant harassment and devastation against simple shepherds? At the end of the day, it is always the same story of refugees around the world: children looking for a blanket in order to survive.”