NABI SAMUEL, WEST BANK // Ibrahim Ahmed Abu Dahouk remembers when he could walk the seven minutes to his brother's house in the nearby village of Bidu. He remembers when he could herd his sheep into Jerusalem or over to Ramallah. He remembers when all he saw on the horizon on a clear day was the Mediterranean to one side and the mountains of the Jordan Valley to the other.
Mr Abu Dahouk remembers when times were better. But that was then. Now, he said, he has had to sell two-thirds of his sheep, eight of 10 camels and he can hardly move in the hills he and generations before him have used as grazing land and called home. "Everything is closed to me," said the 56-year-old shepherd, a Bedouin from the Dahouk tribe. He estimates that his income has fallen from 2,500 shekels (Dh 2,350) a month to nothing. "I live on what the animals give me. That's the only way to feed my family."
His home, he said, this hilltop with the fine views not far north of Jerusalem and some three kilometres inside the occupied West Bank, had become "a prison". And he could literally point to the reason. "There," he said from one side of the Nabi Samuel hill, "is the Givat Zeev settlement." And, from the other side, "there is the Ramot settlement. That is Rekhov Shufat. That road down there," he pointed down the hill to an adjacent lower lying hill around which a brand new road snaked its way. "That is part of the wall [Israel's separation barrier]. It's for the army. I am not allowed closer than 50 metres from that road."
Indeed, Mr Abu Dahouk, his wife and the eight of 10 children still at home, a traditional Bedouin tent encampment, live on a settlement. At the very top of the Nabi Samuel hill, where a mosque long ago was built on what is believed to be the tomb of the biblical prophet Samuel, Jewish settlers live side by side with the small indigenous Palestinian population, part villagers, part Bedouin. It is an uneasy coexistence and there are no relations between the two communities, said Mr Abu Dahouk.
The mosque itself is now divided, much like the more famous Ibrahimi mosque in Hebron, with one part, as well as the tomb, exclusively for Jews. Muslims are still allowed to pray there, on the ground floor, but are checked by an Israeli guard for their IDs when they enter and are escorted by Israeli soldiers when there is a Jewish holiday. The muezzin is not allowed to call to morning prayers. The Nabi Samuel hill has been enclosed from two sides by Israel's separation barrier, completed here only last year, but lies on the "Israeli" side. The some 300 Palestinian residents are therefore in an extremely precarious position. They hold West Bank IDs, but live in an area West Bank ID holders are barred from entering. Their very existence there depends on the Israeli civil administration, in charge of the civil affairs of the occupied territories, continuing to grant them exception. They are not unique. The route of Israel's separation barrier, which dips in and out of occupied West Bank land specifically in order to include Jewish settlements on the "Israeli" side, has left some 10 per cent of occupied West Bank territory, including East Jerusalem, between the barrier and the 1967 borders. Once the barrier is completed, according to a 2008 UN estimate, nearly 50,000 Palestinians in 38 villages with West Bank IDs - this figure does not include Jerusalemites who have their own separate ID cards - will find themselves in similar closed areas.
For Mr Abu Dahouk it is an unmanageable situation. He has to graze his sheep in a severely circumscribed area. He is barred from going to Jerusalem, the only place not closed off by the separation barrier. But if he wants to go to the West Bank side of that barrier, he can reach it only through one of two gates. Hence it now takes him at least half an hour to get to his brother's house in the nearby village of Bidu, a house he can see with the naked eye.
Through neither of those gates is he allowed to take his livestock or their products, at least without a special permit from an Israeli vet. Nor is he allowed to bring back much feed. That is why he sold most of his flock, but even that he had to do under cover of night. "It felt like we were smuggling goods across a border. I was only going to Bidu. But I had to hide from the soldiers. And we had to walk a long way to get around the barrier."
It is, he concluded, a situation he cannot live in for long. "They won't have to throw me out. They know they won't have to throw me out. It is impossible for me to make a living. I am going to have to move." The much publicised spat between Israel and the US administration under Barack Obama over a freeze on settlement construction comes too late for people like Mr Abu Dahouk who have seen the settlements slowly but inexorably grow and spread since the mid-1970s, when the Israeli settlement project began in spite of the clear prohibition under international law. The Israeli human rights group B'tselem calls the settlement project a creeping annexation. Palestinians simply call it a land grab.
Sheikh Mohammad Abu Dahouq, the mukhtar (chief) of the three Bedouin tribes of northern Jerusalem, has a different description. The settlements are, he said, an expression of Israel's power over the Palestinians. "There is no law, there is only power. Israel wants the land for itself. It has the power. The powerful make the law." And even as Israeli officials try to play down their disagreement with US officials over settlements, as Palestinian officials try to take advantage of a seemingly new tone from Washington on the issue, this "law" is felt daily on the ground. Nearly half a million Jewish settlers live in 132 settlements in the territory occupied by Israel in 1967, not counting the over 100 settlement outposts ? those not directly sanctioned by the Israeli government. Settlers and Palestinians live under different laws. Israeli settlers are dealt with under Israeli civil law. Palestinians with West Bank IDs live under Israeli military law.
Mr Abu Dahouk, with green Palestinian licence plates on his car, cannot drive the few kilometres on the nearby 443 motorway that would take him to the Qalandiya checkpoint and straight into Ramallah. Only yellow-plated Israeli-licensed cars are allowed on that road, and Mr Abu Dahouk, as a West Bank ID holder, is not allowed to drive a yellow-plate car. The Bedouin, said Sheikh Mohammad, would soon disappear from Jerusalem and its environs after dozens of centuries. Their lifestyle is in danger. Some of it, he conceded, was partly a natural development of what he called the "age of education". All his children are in school. He did not know if they wanted to follow in his footsteps and stay living in the tented encampments of their forefathers. He did know that the ability to do so was disappearing with every inch of land taken by settlements.
"It was only after the settlements started appearing that the harassment began. Before that, under Jordan and immediately after the occupation, we were free to roam in safety." Mr Abu Dahouk is teaching his sons the ways of the Bedouin. Fadlallah, 16, and Khaled, four, both helped tend sheep on a recent warm summer morning. But he held out little hope that his sons would be able to walk the same hills that he and his own forefathers had.