The Wild South

The economic damage that the thefts do to independent farmers like Shai Dromi can be crippling.

dromi shai 248.88 ch 10 (photo credit: Channel 10)
dromi shai 248.88 ch 10
(photo credit: Channel 10)
There's a new, green-and-white bumper sticker on jeeps and vans driven by farmers in the Negev: "We are all Shai Dromi." Dromi is the Negev sheep farmer, who, after enduring years of repeated thefts of his flock and other indignities, such as the burning down of his house, shot two Beduin intruders in the middle of the night on January 13, killing one of them. Now under house arrest, he has been charged with aggravated manslaughter, which carries a maximum 20-year prison sentence. Dromi has pleaded not guilty, saying he acted in self-defense. His friend Menahem Tzafrir says: "When I heard about it the next morning, my first reaction was, 'Too bad he didn't kill all four of the Arabs.'" (Two of the intruders on Dromi's farm got away.) Tzafrir, a gruff, friendly farmer who wears an Australian-style leather cowboy hat, once took a baseball bat to the windows of the van driven by a pair of thieves he surprised at night on his own farm. He estimates he's been ripped off of "hundreds of thousands of shekels" worth of farm equipment and produce, including about 20 irrigation computers, two vans, a tractor, a generator, containers of insecticide, a calf and "tons" of fruit and vegetables. For protection, he employs a guard and drives around his 1,000 dunams (250 acres) of potato fields and his greenhouses at night, which is when the thieves usually strike. In his van are two baseball bats. "My wife won't let me carry a gun because she knows I'll use it," says Tzafrir, 49, sitting in his office on his farm at Moshav Kadesh Barnea, near the Egyptian border. On the morning after Dromi killed Khaled al-Atrash and wounded Ayoub al-Hawashleh - the latter has been charged with conspiracy to steal sheep and with poisoning Dromi's guard dog - SMS messages began flying from one farmer to another across the country. On the morning after that, more than 1,000 farmers drove to the Beersheba courthouse to demonstrate furiously for Dromi at his remand hearing. Several hundred gathered outside the courthouse again when he was indicted, and a similar number rallied outside the Knesset when several right-wing lawmakers, led by moshavnik Yisrael Katz (Likud), introduced a bill that would allow Israelis to shoot, even to kill, intruders who broke into their homes or property. The bill, not surprisingly, has been nicknamed the "Shai Dromi law." "These thefts have been going on for years, getting worse and worse, and the farmers' frustration has just been building," says Ramat Hanegev Regional Council head Shmuel Rifman, one of the Negev's leading public figures and a key organizer of the demonstrations. "What happened with Shai just set them off, like a volcano erupting." The settler movement has also taken up Dromi's cause, turning people out in large numbers for the protests against his arrest. The killing of Atrash was the first fatality connected to the crime wave that has struck farmers, particularly in the Negev, over the last five years or so. As a rule, the farmer is asleep in his house while the thief is at work in the fields, so they don't even see each other. In the unusual cases when the farmer or an employee does happen to hear or see something suspicious, the thief is usually gone in a cloud of dust before anybody can catch him. Last week, though, a Galilee farmer was reportedly shot at, but not wounded, while pursuing cattle rustlers. The economic damage that the thefts do to independent farmers like Dromi can be crippling; there is no insurance for property kept out in the open, notes Tzafrir. But maybe the worst part of being on the receiving end of this crime epidemic is the feeling of helplessness. Out of the thousands of break-ins at farms each year, police and Border Police make very, very few arrests. "I call the police after every theft. The nearest police station is in Dimona, so it takes them an hour to get here," says Tzafrir. The criminal is long gone by then. "I have a stack of police complaints like this," he says, indicating a mound several inches high. THE PROBLEM is that much, if not most, of the Beduin sector in the Negev is unofficial, unrecognized and effectively extraterritorial in the State of Israel; law enforcement officials treat it more or less as no-man's land. "If you don't catch the thieves in the act, it's very hard to find them afterward," acknowledges Border Police Insp. Eli Hochberg, who commands the several hundred volunteers who do night patrol in the Negev's farm region. If the police do somehow manage to track down the thief and arrest him, he tends to be let off very lightly in court. "They have nothing to lose by stealing from us," is the farmers' common complaint. Some farmers pay protection money to gang-connected Beduin clans, who, for a price, post a guard on the farm to warn rivals away from their turf. Sometimes this helps, other times it doesn't. And despite the farmers' abject vulnerability to the theft of their livelihood, if any of them decides to take the law into his own hands by shooting at intruders, he may end up like Shai Dromi. Two weeks after the incident at Dromi's Shem Farm, near the Beersheba suburb of Meitar, Border Police shifted dozens of officers and patrol vehicles from urban to rural areas to protect against farm theft. "You can feel the difference on the ground," acknowledges Tzafrir, who otherwise has nothing good to say about police protection. Like many of his neighbors, he is convinced Dromi's actions at least temporarily frightened the thieves. Hochberg reports that the thefts have started to decrease. I ask him if this doesn't mean that Dromi's shooting of the two thieves hasn't paid off for the Negev farmers, gaining them what they've wanted for years but never obtained: more security. Sitting in his office at a Border Police base, Hochberg, a genial, veteran officer in kippa and glasses, smiles a bit awkwardly and replies, "I'm not allowed to say that." ONE THING Hochberg does want to say, emphatically, is that Beduin are not the only thieves preying on vulnerable farms. "This is the image the public has - that all the thieves are Beduin, and it's so wrong," he says. "It may be that a majority of the thieves are Beduin, but many others are [non-Beduin] Israeli Arabs and Palestinians coming over the Green Line - and Jews." For example, Tzafrir remembers the time NIS 300,000 worth of bromide gas containers were stolen from a Negev farm, and the culprit turned out to be a Jew living near Ashkelon. "There are plenty of fine, wonderful Beduin; I work with them, I employ a lot of them," says Tzafrir. "But there's a hardcore of drecks among them who are causing a whole lot of trouble." There are Beduins who steal from farmers, but there are also Beduin farmers who get robbed. Friends of Dromi say that after he went to jail, some local Beduin farmers came to his house to show their support and to make it clear that there is a lot of opposition in the Beduin community to the constant thefts. And then there are Beduin who try to stop the thieves. Sitting in Hochberg's office are three volunteer border policemen from Rahat, the largest of the country's Beduin towns. Of the 1,332 volunteers nationwide, 40 to 50 are Beduin. Safian Alturi, a gardener in civilian life, says he also volunteers for the regular "blue" police. "Sometimes I walk around Rahat in my blue police uniform, or in my [olive green] Border Police uniform, and nobody ever bothers me. In fact, a lot of guys come up to me and ask how they can join," he says. Id Abu Za'ila, who works for Rahat's municipal services hot line, recalls taking part in a Border Police raid that confiscated a luxury van owned by a leader of one of the Beduin gangs that menace the farms. "The gang leader sent some sheikhs to my uncle to ask him to ask me to get his van back for him," Abu Za'ila says, pointing out that Beduin disputes are handled according to protocol. "I told my uncle to tell the sheikhs to tell the gang leader that if he wanted his van back, he should go to the police himself, and that if he ever approached my family again, I'd see to it that he and his whole gang were thrown in jail." Unfortunately, though, this is not the image of Beduin that predominates among Jewish farmers in the Negev. ON A BEAUTIFUL, cloudy-blue day after a rainy period, Eran Erez, who runs the cattle ranch at Kibbutz Revivim, south of Beersheba, is talking about how relations between Jews and their Beduin neighbors have changed for the worse. "I was born here. I've always loved hiking the area. It used to be empty. The Beduin were mainly in the Sinai," recalls Erez, 46, a talkative kibbutz manager with a ball-point pen tucked in the neck of his sweatshirt. Pointing toward the shantytowns of tin sheds and makeshift tents as close as half-a-kilometer away from the kibbutz, he goes on, "Now they're like a noose surrounding us. Every Shabbat we get to listen to the muezzin. It wasn't like this before." While Erez is no right-winger and is prepared even to divide Jerusalem for peace, he sounds like many West Bank settlers recalling pre-intifada relations with the Palestinians when he describes life with the Beduin neighbors of 10 and 20 years ago. "Then we knew them as Tsubeh and Sabih - by their names. They were the Beduin who worked here; there were two or three families of them. We ate pita in their tents, they came to our houses. Now we have hardly any relations with the Beduin around here. There's much more alienation." Arik Ephraim, who runs Revivim's fish farm, says that until about five years ago, the local Beduin "were about as law-abiding as any Israeli citizens you could find." Adds Erez: "You still had the occasional crime; a Beduin would come and steal a couple of chickens. But it wasn't a full-blown phenomenon like it is now." About a year-and-a-half ago, the kibbutzniks dug a deep canal around much of the perimeter fence to keep out the thieves who would drive up in their jeeps and trucks, cut a hole in the barbed wire and haul away the booty. But there are gaps in the canal for the kibbutz vehicles to come and go, and the thieves didn't have too much trouble finding them. Over the years they've allegedly stolen cars, irrigation equipment, scrap metal, cows and calves, racehorses trained to run in Europe, parrots, sheep and goats from the petting zoo, and catfish from the fish farm. "One morning about 3:30," recalls Erez, "I came out to the shed to prepare food for the cows, and I saw that the door was wide open and 12 of the cows were gone. I went and got my car and drove through the fields after the thieves, but I never caught them, and their truck kicked up so much dust I couldn't see their license plate." Ephraim, 47, who makes a sharp contrast with Erez with his long gray hair, early-Amir-Peretz mustache, earring and red scooter, says he, too, once chased a pair of thieves in his truck. He never caught them, but he did find the ton or so of scrap metal they'd dumped in a nearby wadi. "The only thing they don't steal is our children," he says, adding that sometimes the thieves vandalize property purely out of malice. Six months ago Ephraim deposited his pistol with the police. "I was afraid I'd get to the point where I'd either shoot somebody or get shot myself," he says. He used to be a left-winger, a Hashomer Hatzair member, a voter for Labor or Meretz, but between the intifada and the outbreak of thefts, he has shifted unapologetically to the Right. "In the last election I voted Kadima, and in the next one I think I'll vote Lieberman," Ephraim says, referring to Israel Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman, the most outspoken antagonist of Israeli Arabs in national politics. THE REASON most commonly given for the dramatic surge of farm theft is the radicalization that began to spread in the Beduin community with the intifada, together with the rise in popularity of the Islamic Movement. It should be remembered that in the Israeli Arab "October riots" of 2000, which coincided with the start of the intifada, the Negev Beduin, who number some 150,000, were conspicuous by their near-total absence. Another reason offered is that during these last five years, Beduin poverty has deepened, largely due to the sharp cuts in child allowances; Beduin have an average of eight children per family, the highest fertility rate of any demographic group in the country. The economic growth of the last few years has left Beduin, on the whole, even further behind. "A child grows up over there," says Ephraim, pointing to the shantytowns in the distance, "and he sees other children living here, 500 meters away, with everything they want, and he says to himself, 'I'm no different than he is - why can't I have what he has?'" At the same time, though, Ephraim stresses that being poor is no excuse for stealing. "It's partly our own fault," adds Erez. "No Israeli government from Ben-Gurion on has ever treated the Beduin sector fairly. We never gave them decent settlements, with infrastructure and municipal services like every Israeli citizen is entitled to. But on the other hand, we never demanded that they take the responsibilities of citizenship, like mandatory service in the IDF. We prepared the groundwork for the creation of a parasitic society." Aside from the Beduin gangs that steal from farms, there are other gangs that steal metal from every sort of infrastructure installation - electricity transformers, manhole covers, traffic signs and so on - and sell it for scrap. And, of course, there are the well-known Beduin gangs that smuggle drugs, tobacco, prostitutes and, allegedly, weapons from Egypt into the Negev and West Bank. These gangs are often clan-based, but they open their ranks to Beduin from other clans and also to non-Beduin, says Hochberg. The Border Police volunteers from Rahat say their local schools warn the children to stay away from crime, and so do the sheikhs. Yet Shmuel Rifman says he has asked local Muslim political leaders to take a stand against the gangs, but without any success. "They're afraid," he says. "They tell me that if they come out publicly against the gangs, their settlements will be targeted and their lives will be in danger." As a volunteer ambulance driver, Ephraim has considerable contact with the local Beduin, driving them to the hospital in Beersheba and seeing them at Kibbutz Revivim's clinic. Some of the younger men come to Revivim on Saturdays to play soccer with the kibbutzniks. "These are mainly IDF trackers, schoolteachers - definitely not part of the gangs. We've asked them to do something about it, to speak out against it, but they won't. One of them said to me, 'If Israel started punishing thieves like the Saudis do, there would be more one-handed Jews in this country than one-handed Beduin,'" Ephraim says. Smiling, he adds, "There's something to what he says." Just underneath the jokes, though, farmers in the Negev are feeling desperate. They've given up on the police being able to solve their problem. Rifman suggests creating a special force of former elite IDF troops to root out the thieving gangs like they do terrorist groups. Ephraim favors deputizing the farmers and letting them defend themselves - "like my grandfather and grandmother did in the Third Aliya." The farmers, however, realize that the Shai Dromi law has no chance of being enacted in its present, rather hot-headed form, whereby Israelis would be entitled to kill trespassers on sight. And, after venting their frustrations, they say that such a law, which many of them assume to be the law of the American West, is not what they want, either. "I'm not sure that American law is applicable here, but I'm not sure what sort of law would be," says Erez. "Maybe we should put the thief in jail for six months the first time, and 20 years the second time." Tzafrir says that if the Shai Dromi law were to pass, he would "go around with a gun all the time." But even he doesn't want to shoot thieves to kill. "The first time I would warn them. The second time I would shoot to wound, not to kill. Let him be crippled." Rifman, also a Revivim member, says the country is going to have to find a gun law that's right for its circumstances and principles - something between the law of "Texas and Arizona," he says, and the law here under which "every thief can do what he wants and no one can stop him." "We have to find the right balance," he says, "because it's impossible for us to go on this way." The story of a killing When Shai Dromi describes his two decades on his sheep farm before the night of January 13, when he shot and killed a Beduin thief and wounded his accomplice, it sounds like the story of Job. He started the farm in 1986 with 80 sheep. If not for all the thefts of his flock, he estimates he would have about 2,500 head by now. Instead, he's got 130. "It's never been a profitable business - it's been a bottomless pit," he says of Shem Farm, near the Beersheba suburb of Meitar, in walking distance from any number of Beduin shantytowns as well as the West Bank. For the last six years, ever since thieves stole his entire flock of 350 sheep in the space of a month, Dromi had been spending many nights in his shed to stay on the lookout. (He is single with an infant son who lives with the mother.) Then, when he was sleeping in his farmhouse about a month before he shot the two intruders, somebody broke into his shed, poisoned his five dogs so they couldn't make noise and made off with his tractor. He figures it was about the 20th theft he's suffered. "At that point I felt like I was naked against a brutal enemy, and everything I had was in danger," he says. "I realized I would have to stay up every night. I started catching a few hours of sleep in the evenings and after dawn, and staying awake in the shed every night, reading and listening to the radio." He also borrowed a guard dog from a neighbor. Dromi, 46, is now under house arrest for the January 13 killing of Khaled al-Atrash and wounding of Ayoub al-Hawashleh - the latter having since been charged with conspiracy to steal livestock and with poisoning the guard dog. Dromi faces a charge of aggravated manslaughter, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years. Friends and supporters are tending to his 2,000-dunam (500-acre) farm in his absence. This interview was held at the place where he is sitting out his house arrest; a court order, he says, forbids the location from being published. Born in New York, he came with his family at age four to Beersheba. In his mid-20s he bought the farm - encouraged, he says, by a state policy to settle the area with Jewish farmers to prevent encroachment and overgrazing by Palestinian and Beduin shepherds. A stocky, muscular man, highly articulate, Dromi has a still, quiet manner that is animated by a deep frustration that comes through when he's describing how he built up his flock again and again, only to have it picked off sooner or later by unstoppable thieves. "At first I thought somebody was watching over me from above. When the intifada broke out [in 1987], I didn't feel it. Then one morning I saw that a little hole had been cut in the fence, and when I counted the sheep, eight were missing." A few months later, he discovered one morning that the fence had been pulled down and his entire flock of 130 to 140 sheep was gone, except for a few lambs lying dead. "The thieves killed the lambs so they wouldn't make noise." The IDF tracked the flock to the West Bank town of Tarkumiya, and returned about 100 of the sheep. Another time Dromi himself tracked a stolen flock of about 60 sheep to a field near Arad, and police returned them all to him. "But two weeks later those 60 sheep were stolen again, and this time I never got them back." The other 1,000 or so sheep that have been stolen from him over the years were never found, either. Nor were any of the thieves. In 1990 he drove home and saw that his house was on fire. The arsonists destroyed it completely, and he spent the next six months living in a tent on the farm. "After a while," he says, "you develop this sense that somebody outside is watching you, that he knows what you have to steal, and he knows when to make his move." The first of the two times he had a tractor stolen, Dromi "called someone who called someone" until he made contact with a man who offered to sell the NIS 40,000 tractor back to him for NIS 17,000. He refused. Another time, though, he agreed to pay a criminal agent NIS 6,000 for the return of a stolen horse. About a year ago, the security fence was completed around the portion of the West Bank that faces Shem Farm, stopping the flow of Palestinian workers who came through every day and who, he suspects, included people scoping out his farm for sheep rustlers. At about the same time, his son was born. "I was optimistic about the future," he says with a slight, ironic grin. After his arrest, he spent a month in the Beersheba police jail before being placed under house arrest. When he has a court appearance, or on the few, brief occasions he has to leave the place of his house arrest, he is treated like a hero by the farmers who see and recognize him. On the Web site set up to support his defense, one proponent compares him to Alexander Zaid, the legendary founder of Hashomer, the century-old Zionist pioneers' self-defense force against Arab attackers. All this solidarity "helps, it helps a lot," he says. With routine caution, his attorneys Beni and Keren Nahari are not letting him discuss what happened at his farm that night of January 13. "Our position," says Dromi, "is that it was a clear-cut case of self-defense." For now he is concentrating solely on the legal battle at hand. In the back of his mind, though, he has plans. "I have a farm that is waiting for me; I have a flock of sheep that is waiting for me; and when this is over I definitely plan to return."