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Interview with Yair Bunzel

Yair Bunzel is a former Captain in the Israeli army who decided to join Combatants for Peace after after an unforgettable encounter with Palestinian shepherds. Since then, he’s dedicated a large portion of his time to monitoring the situation in the Jordan Valley and to helping Palestinian communities defend their rights. In February, the Israeli army returned to Humsa al-Foqa to displace the shepherds settled in the area, exactly three months after the army’s first massive demolition operation. Here is his testimony.

Can you tell me about the situation in Humsa al-Foqa?

 Israel has declared 90% of the Jordan Valley in the West Bank to be a military zone.  Even though they don’t use all of that land, the military can announce evacuation orders at any time for anyone living in those areas. In the small community (Village is not the right description for these tents) of Humsa, the shelters for shepherds and their families, and the land for grazing, are inside the military training area. The army has issued standing orders to evacuate, but the residents have nowhere else to go.

 Without warning, in November the Israeli military brutally destroyed the entire community, leaving shepherd families homeless during the ongoing pandemic, and leaving their herds exposed to winter cold and rains.  The shepherds rebuilt, but the military came again. 

This time, they said they were going to evacuate the village by taking all of the residents’ belongings several kilometers outside the firing zone. The problem is, other Palestinians live in those areas and the land is used for agriculture.  The displaced shepherds cannot herd over fields used to grow vegetables or wheat, so there’s no way for them to survive in the other location.  This scenario took place three times during one week, which is very unusual and brutal.

How does the situation usually play out?

 We’ve seen the military issue orders for an evacuation, but it usually takes a few months or a few years for the army to follow up on their threat.  Usually, the demolitions seem to be a scare tactic, and villagers are able to rebuild.  But in Humsa, the demolitions came one after the other.

We don’t know why this amount of aggression is leveled against this one community, over and over.  But trying to find the logic behind the Occupation forces is hopeless. At the end of the day, we don’t really know, and it doesn’t really matter.  

As an activist who has spent more than a dozen days throughout the winter rebuilding shelters and cattle pens, after the massive destruction in early November, how did you feel when you saw the infrastructure being destroyed again this week?

 It was very emotional.  It is painful to see a bulldozer annihilate – in just one hour – weeks of a collective reconstruction effort.  Tears come to my eyes when I think about the families whose homes are destroyed, but the sadness reinforces my motivation to fight against this injustice.   

 Do you ever get discouraged?

 Of course I do. Working long days in the field is absolutely draining.  But when I receive a phone call that says help is needed right away,  I jump in my car and try to get there as quickly as possible.  

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

 My message is this:  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 politicians – and this helps the cause. 

 To my fellow Israelis, I say: let us learn from our history. Let us not stay silent in the face of injustice. We are educated to fear a new Holocaust and to defend our national territory. But the fact is that 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 settling 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! 

Antisemitism exists and this is a problem. But it has absolutely nothing to do with what Israel is doing in the West Bank. What is taking place now is nothing less than gradual ethnic cleansing. Even if the soldiers 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 can people in other countries support local activism and the Palestinians living under threat? 

 First, there’s the humanitarian level which physically supports people living in the Occupied Territories. You can send money and it really helps.  The second and more challenging thing is to try to influence the political system through public opinion and to organize people to come and see the situation on the ground. We need major international pressure on Israel.  In the last five years there has been a dramatic change in the way young Jews in America approach Israel, and this brings me hope. I hope that people will get involved, speak out, and use the democratic process to achieve the change we need.