His mother gave birth to him “under the sheep,” says Ribhi Al Battat, 60, hence his unique ability to translate the animal’s every bleating and gesture. I forgot to ask him at the end of my visit if this was a metaphor. However, one thing is certain – his mother gave birth to him in one of the caves inhabited by the people of the small Palestinian village of Zanuta in the West Bank, some 30 kilometers northeast of Be'er Sheva.
Battat says his mother, Mariam, gave birth to her own children and midwifed many of his relatives and neighbors in the caves that once served as homes for centuries on end and are now used primarily as pens for sheep, or for storage.
Only the sheep and the goats in the village are unafraid these days, blissfully undisturbed as they go through their daily routine. However, their shepherds and the rest of the village – from children to adults – live each day in tension.
“We are like lost lambs, sheep without a shepherd,” says Battat. “No government cares about us. They just want what we have – this place – and aren't interested in us.”
His sister-in-law Mughaiza shares these sentiments. “All the time we are tired from our thoughts,” she says. “What if they throw us out of our home?”
If the story sounds familiar, that is no coincidence. As they did in other West Bank villages such as Susya, Jinba and Duqaiqa that are situated in Israeli-controlled Area C, the Civil Administration is demanding that the residents of Zanuta leave their homes and move elsewhere. They want them to pick up and move to the crowded enclaves in the West Bank's Areas A and B, which are administered by the Palestinian Authority.
Like the other villages, Zanuta is a community of shepherds and farmers whose fathers or grandfathers arrived decades ago from their hometown (ad-Dahariya) in search of fresh grazing and farm land. They have maintained family, social, economic and cultural ties with their home village, which has since become a city, but they live in their own permanent community.
The inhabitants originally lived in the caves, but in the 1980s the caves began to collapse and people were afraid to continue living in them. Instead, they set up tents and re-purposed ancient stone structures as residences. Israel's prohibition on construction in the area prevented the residents from building permanent houses.
As with other villages in Area C, even simple structures such as sheds, cisterns, and tents result in demolition orders from the Civil Administration under the pretext that there is no zoning plan that permits their construction.
Several hundred meters to the east of Zanuta lies the Meitarim industrial zone, established for the benefit of the settlers who live in the area. The same hand in the Civil Administration that approves the zoning plan for the Jews, fails to recognize the Palestinian village that has existed even before the establishment of the State of Israel.
With nightfall, Zanuta is flooded with the harsh stench emitted by the fuel refinery in the industrial zone. The water and electric infrastructure that serves Meitarim does not reach the small Palestinian village. Instead, the village's residents depend on two generators, cisterns that collect rainwater and water purchased from tankers at triple the normal rate because of the added cost of fuel.
The children feel the tension that consumes their elders. “What will become of the sheep?” they ask anxiously. “What will happen if the court rules against us, if it decides to expel us? Where will the sheep go?”
On Monday, the High Court of Justice will discuss the fate of Zanuta's 130 residents. The state is requesting that the village's residents be evicted to the West Bank city of Dahariya or the town of Shweika. The court must also rule on similar plans by the authorities to demolish Susya and the villages in Firing Zone 918 set aside for IDF training.
Zanuta's legal odyssey began in 2007, when the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, on behalf of Zanuta villagers, filed a petition against the Civil Administration demolition orders, and asked the authorities to draw up a zoning plan for the village. An interim injunction froze the demolition orders and the case file fell into a coma.
The case came back to life after the non-profit organization Regavim, which monitors and documents illegal construction by Arabs in the pre-1967 Israel and the West Bank, filed an amicus brief with the court. On its Facebook page, Regavim describes itself as “a public movement that works toward a Zionist land policy in the State of Israel.”
Only following Regavim's amicus filing – three years after the original legal petition – did the state provide its response. It would evict the inhabitants and demolish the structures in the village and it would not approve a zoning plan for the village. Moreover, the response asserted that the village was built atop an archaeological site.
The short time between Regavim's request to join the case and the state's response is not coincidental. Bezalel Smotrich, the group's director, has described the non-profit’s cozy relationship with the authorities. “Another parameter of the success of Regavim's activities is the treatment by authorities in the establishment,” he said in an interview with the settler website Hakol Hayehudi on July 31, 2012. “Among the ranks in the field and in a lot of departments of the Interior Ministry, Israel Land Administration, the Justice Ministry and more, they view Regavim as a positive factor that is coming to their aid to steel them against the pressure they receive from the left. Most of them are good people, idealistic people… happy for the counter-pressure we exercise after years in which they absorbed so much heat in the form of pressure and letters from left-wing organizations.”
After the first hearing of the petition in July 2012, the state declared it had no intention of introducing planning or any other type of solution for the village and its residents. It presented the village as happenstance collection of illegal structures situated on the grounds of an archaeological site. ACRI, for its part, offered an expert planning opinion from the NGO Bimkom, Planers for Planning Rights, that presented an outline for a building plan for the village that would enable its residents to continue to live there while protecting the archaeological site.
Inhabited for three millennia
Shards of pottery found in the area indeed attest that there has been continuous habitation at the site since the Iron Age, with evidence dating back to the eighth and seventh centuries BCE. The archaeologist Avi Ofer tentatively identified Zanuta with Dana, an ancient Judean city in the south Hebron Hills. In a letter written by Ofer to the court and submitted by ACRI, he confirmed that most of the tents and sheds at Zanuta were located in the direct vicinity of the archaeological site, but said this was not unusual. “This occurs frequently in the past and present of this type of community amid ancient ruins,” wrote Ofer. He also pointed out that the authorities have permitted the construction of Jewish neighborhoods amid archaeological sites considered much more important than Zanuta, such as in Jerusalem and Hebron. Ofer emphasized that in Zanuta, contrary to what one often finds at such sites, there were no signs of archaeological plundering.
Rashad al-Tal, 37, a village native who works as a porter in Be'er Sheva, promises that the people of Zanuta will continue to protect the archaeological site as they have done until now. “For us it is like a document [proving] that Islam was here.”
Tal says the Israelis are lying in their assertion that the place is important purely because it contains antiquities, especially given the fact that in Hebron, Jerusalem and even the Palestinian city of Dhariya, people live among antiquities without problems. He says the real reason is political.
“If there is an agreement between the Palestinian Authority and Israel,” says Tal, “Israel will be able to say that this place is empty [of Palestinians], and, therefore, can and should be part of Israel. We here are like a thorn in their eyes, so they want to kick us out.”