My Word: 'We are all Shai Dromi'

Life on a Negev farm is not just hard. It can be frightening.

dromi shai 248.88 ch 10 (photo credit: Channel 10)
dromi shai 248.88 ch 10
(photo credit: Channel 10)
When Myra Dromi left Jerusalem a few years ago to live with her son on his Negev ranch near the Beersheba suburb of Meitar, it was not to live out a dream. Which is fortunate. Because the reality was like the desert itself, beautiful but harsh at the same time. I spoke to Myra briefly in January 2007 when her son Shai was arrested for shooting a group of four Beduin intruders who broke into his farm in the middle of the night - killing one of them, Khaled el-Atrash, and wounding another. At that point, she didn't really want to talk to me, neither as a journalist nor as a former colleague. Last week she was more forthcoming, the relief evident in her voice which seemed to break up not only due to the poor reception on her mobile phone in her isolated home. "I felt the court understood quite well that he acted out of a feeling of being threatened and they had to find a way to express that," she told me a few hours after Shai had been acquitted of manslaughter on July 15 (although he was found guilty of possessing a weapon without a valid license, a rifle given to him by his late father). WHEN SHE left Jerusalem for the South it was not out of some kind of idealism or Zionism. "I did my Zionism 50 or 60 years ago," says Myra, 76, who made aliya from the US in 1950 and lived on a kibbutz and in Beersheba. "Although for my son that was probably part of his decision. My son built up the ranch true to a vision. For him, I think, it was part of his love of the Land." Another son, Amir, has an organic farm in Judea and is embroiled in a struggle with the Israel Lands Administration which leased him the land. Does Myra regret her decision to leave the capital? "Definitely not. I still love it here... It's still pastoral. We live simply. We don't have electricity yet although I think we're going to get it soon." For 20 years, Shai Dromi hasn't been allowed to link up to the national grid, says his mother, which certainly makes life more what she frequently calls "challenging." "I wasn't surprised [with what I found here] because I knew what I was coming to. In a way, I hoped my presence would help deter the intruders," she says, speaking in the way that mothers have when they wish they could make everything all right for their children. "I wouldn't say I was surprised but I was challenged. And the intensification of the robberies and attempted robberies brought with it a tension I hadn't expected," admits Myra. What the court heard, and apparently accepted, was that the tension - after the constant thefts and even having has his first home burned down - mounted until it turned into fear. "At night you hear a noise and wonder if it's the sound of a branch rubbing against something or a sheep rubbing against something or someone trying to get through the fence.... "After seeing seven dogs dying - and dying in agony - I didn't have any illusions. It's not a person, but seeing a dog die..." I DON'T know whether her voice has faded because of the poor reception or whether something has distracted her. Perhaps I'm the one whose attention has wandered, drawn to the memory of the death of Myra's daughter a few years before she left Jerusalem. "It's not great grazing land or farmland but my son has done his best [since he started the farm in 1986]. There's an atmosphere here that some people love and I'm one of them," she says. "There are good things as well as problems that come with living off the beaten track. But I have become friends with my son, appreciate the quiet and the nice neighbors and the people and volunteers who pass through." The problem, of course, is not the volunteers who pass through but the trespassers and the Beduin who have entered again and again, stealing whole flocks of sheep - ruining Shai Dromi's livelihood as well as his dream and very nearly his life. "We live right on the Green Line and can see the infiltrators coming through, avoiding patrols. The vast majority are simply looking for work but one never knows..," says Myra. ONE OF the unexpected results of her son's case was the passage of what is known as the Shai Dromi Law, an amendment to the Penal Law aimed at giving property owners more freedom to use lethal force against people who break into their homes, businesses or farms. Although the decision caused a public uproar, with many Arab MKs in particular claiming it was a racist act giving Jewish farmers license to kill, at the same time bumper-stickers appeared on cars nationwide bearing the phrase "We are all Shai Dromi." It turns out it wasn't just farmers who have been feeling threatened but many homedwellers in rural areas who also suffer from burglaries and fear. Even after Dromi's acquittal last week, Arab MKs launched a blistering attack on the decision, apparently oblivious to the way that, in effect, they were besmirching the sector they claim to represent. If the decision is "racist" for "targeting the Beduin" as their responses had it, they are basically saying that the Beduin are guilty. Perhaps they could have, more honorably, called on their public to distance themselves from such crimes, which Jewish farmers say is an accepted way of life. Even the man that Dromi killed had previously served four years in jail for agricultural theft. And, of course, there are also Jewish rustlers and thieves, although the police say in far fewer numbers. Among those who welcomed the court's decision was Haim Dayan of the Cattlebreeders' Association, who once asked me, as if starting a bad joke: "How many calves can you get in a pick-up truck?" The answer, if I recall correctly, was 14, because the cattle thieves take out the seats and don't care about the animal suffering caused by stuffing the creatures in. And it's not just cattle that are stolen: tractors, irrigation computers, pesticide, generators and other equipment also frequently disappear from farms in the North and South. While I'm naturally pleased for Myra, as gentle a soul as they come, and for the other farmers struggling to live a dream against the odds, it's clear the Shai Dromi Law has its drawbacks. A week ago, two IDF officers shot at the newspaper delivery guys outside their home, claiming they thought they were burglars. As usual, prevention would be better with more law enforcement, even in isolated areas, and a cultural shift in which theft was not accepted and fear did not rule our lives. "It's been a long and stressful morning," Myra tells me. "I'm going to sleep." This time, perhaps, she can sleep peacefully.