Troglodyte Tribulations

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Since the beginning of time cave dwelling has been a way of life in the South Hebron Mountains, the area bordering on the Negev desert to its south and the Judean Desert to the east. It is an area of marginal rainfall and difficult soil, an area where the years swing between enough rain for a meager harvest and bountiful grazing, and total disaster.
Since the end of the ice age people have learned how to utilize this fringe land. Wandering between the larger settlements higher in the Hebron Mountains where olives, grapes, and almonds can be grown and harvested in summer, to the desert fringe where goats and sheep can be grazed in winter. Nabal the Carmelite, the father of Abigail, King David’s first wife, lived like this in the Hebron Mountains. His orchards were in Maon and his flocks in Carmel we read in I Samuel,Chapter 25. David, hiding out in the desert, made his living by preying on Nabal’s shepherds and demanding protection money. When Nabal refused Abigail, Nabal’s wife, manages to pay David off. On hearing of this Nabal dies of a heart attack and David marries Abigail.
The soft chalk layers that make up the South Hebron Mountains are capped with a hard crust, that once penetrated allows for easy quarrying. For thousands of years the farmers and shepherds of this area have learned to cut through the hard crust and dig wells and caves in the impermeable soft chalk. The chalk itself was burnt to make plaster. Cave dwelling became a way of life in this area – dozens of temporary winter villages developed around these caves. During the days of Rome the Jewish villagers hid their produce in the caves, to avoid taxes. When the Bar Kokhba rebellion broke out the warren of caves under the villages were used to hide the rebels and to sally out to attack the Roman troops.
Jewish villages in the south Hebron hills hung on until the 8th and maybe even the 10th century. But as Christianity become the new power in the land, most of the population converted to Christianity. When the desert warriors of Islam overran the area in the 7th century there was again a mass conversion – this time to Islam. But traditions hung on. In the early 20th century, when future president of Israel, Yitzhak Ben Zvi, travelled through this region, he recorded interesting village traditions of putting candles in the window during Hannuka, and prayers reminiscent of ancient Jewish traditions.
The troglodytes of the southern slopes of Mount Hebron continued their ancient way of life until the late 1970s when Israeli settlement began to covet this area. Archaeologists rediscovered ancient Carmel and Maon – two villages harrowed by David three thousand years ago. Then in the cave village of Susiya a wonderful 8th century synagogue was excavated with a warren of caves underneath with mezuzah niches carved on their entrances. In the late 1980s the Israel Defense Forces declared a large 10,000 acre chunk of territory in this area a closed military training area, and a line of new settlements were built, Carmel, Maon, Susiya and so on.
In 1999 the army evicted 700 of the 1000 cave dwellers claiming that they had no legal tenure over their caves. Their property and flocks were confiscated and Nature and Park Authority Rangers capped the wells with concrete and bulldozed the caves – some of them having being used as dwellings for thousands of years and containing valuable historic data.
A year later the Association for Civil Rights in Israel in the name of the evicted families filed a petition in the Israeli High Court to stay the eviction until the army explained on what grounds it is carried out. The court stopped the evictions and allowed the return of the families – until the government present their case and a final ruling can be made. Since then the government of Israel has applied 27 times to the court in order to cancel the court order and allow the army to evict the cave dwellers. The attempt was overturned every time. In January 2013 the cave dwellers petitioned the high court to give a final ruling against the eviction. The case will be decided in the coming months.
Thus, for the last fifteen years later in the south Hebron Mountains, in an area called “Firing Range 918”, one thousand Palestinians living in 150 caves in 8 villages eke out a precarious existence. Water is supplied by a tractor with a tanker attached to it – that sells water at an exorbitant price. The caves have no electricity; no roads lead to the village, no toilets, or any other services. Any attempt to build a permanent structure is destroyed by the army. They are harrowed by the Nature and Parks Authority Rangers every time they graze their flocks in what the Nature and Parks Authority have declared a temporary no-grazing area. The shepherd, usually a youth, is arrested, having to leave the flock untended until a replacement from the family – usually a young girl –can arrive. In the meantime the family has to collect money from friends and relatives to pay the fine to get their son released.
To go to school the kids have to walk two hours in the scorching sun, leaving home at six in the morning in order to get to school be eight. The school is a collection of three cardboard shacks built by volunteers in 2009. Two years ago the army tried to bulldoze the school, and only a last minute injunction by the high court stopped the destruction. The school gets its electricity from solar panels built by Israeli physicists Elad Orian and Noam Dotan, the founders of the CometMe NGO (http://comet-me.org/) that supplies natural energy to 21 Palestinian villages.
In a recent expose in the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot, 14 year-old Zahara was interviewed at the school. She is only in the sixth grade, because she waited three years for the school to open. She gets up every day at three and a half in the morning, to help her parents make goat cheese in the cave. Then she walks for one and a half hours to the school. During rainy days she remains at home. She wants to be a teacher. “this is the land that keeps us alive,” she says, “I would like Jewish children to come and visit us, to see how we live. Maybe that will make things better between us.”
On a hill overlooking one of the cave villages is the Jewish settlement called “Lucifer’s Farm”. The Israeli High Court ruled in 2007 that the settlement is illegal. Running water is brought to the settlement by Mekorot, the government water company, the Israel Electric Company supplies electricity – and a nice modern paved road leads to the spacious stone houses on the hill.

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