For shepherds watching flocks in Holy Land, rural life is facing a modern threat

Palestinian residents of Mufaqarah village have faced attacked by Israeli settlers

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Postcard from West Bank

On the windswept hills of the southern West Bank, shepherds have tended to their flocks for millennia.

They were there when the angels came, according to the nativity story, to announce the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem.

But for those whose sheep now graze the land, such as Fadel Hassan Hamamdi, their rural way of life is under threat.

Sitting in one of the caves found within Mufaqarah village, Fadel recounted his family's history of shepherding while empires rose and fell around them.

“Everyone. My grandfather, my father, and now me. For a long time, since Turkey,” he said, referring to the centuries-long Ottoman rule.

Since those soldiers were usurped by the British little more than a century ago, the West Bank had been controlled by Jordanian troops, who in turn were expelled by Israeli forces.

Fadel gets up each day at 5am, long before the winter sun rises, taking his flock out to pasture and growing wheat and barley.

“Close-by, because there are no [others] grazing areas due to the settlers and the army,” he said, sitting on a mattress with relatives, a teapot resting on the ground beside them.

Mufaqarah and dozens of other villages nearby are under the control of Israel, which has occupied the West Bank since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Palestinian shepherd Fadel Hamamdi with part of his flock, in a cave in Mufaqarah village. Photos: Rosie Scammell/The National

Israeli settlements have been built across the Palestinian territory, including around Mufaqarah, while other parts of the West Bank have been declared military zones.

Fadel’s village is home to around 180 people, according to B’Tselem, an Israeli NGO which monitors the area. They live in single-storey homes while making use of the caves.

“They want to kick the people out,” said Fadel of settlers who have launched assaults on the village.

In one incident in September, armed settlers attacked shepherds on the outskirts of Mufaqarah and then raided the village once the Palestinians fled towards their homes.

Israeli soldiers intervened with stun grenades, as well as firing live rounds in the air and using tear gas, B’Tselem reported. Multiple villagers were wounded.

The Israeli military “acts to prevent violence within its area of responsibility,” a spokesperson said, adding that a commander visited the village following the attack.

Sheep in an enclosure in the village of Mufaqarah, southern West Bank.

Sitting beside a pile of chopped wood, Fadel described “lots and lots of problems”.

In the next cave, lambs were taking shelter while one of the children collected eggs laid by the clucking chickens.

“I like the peace, staying living on the land,” said the shepherd.

“Without the occupation, without problems from settlers and the army."

Despite the violence, the farming community has continued their traditions: making cheese, butter and yoghurt with milk from their sheep, who are wearing thick wool coats as winter sets in.

Rain has finally arrived, with winds whipping clouds across the landscape. A disgruntled dog barked as it sat tied up outside, but Fadel was relieved.

“Hopefully, more will come,” he said, a red keffiyeh wrapped around his head. “By God, I want rain.”

The hills appeared barren after the scorching summer months. But when spring arrives, the West Bank countryside will once again be blanketed by bright green grass.

Updated: February 10, 2022, 8:14 AM