Shai Dromi sits in jail awaiting trial for shooting a Bedouin intruder on his ranch. His family now struggles to take care of his Negev farm.
Dromi moved out to the site of the ranch in 1987. Since then he has been repeatedly robbed, seen his home burned down, and suffered repeated losses at the hands of local Bedouins. The latest intrusion ended with Dromi shooting two thieves in the legs. One died, and Dromi has been imprisoned ever since without bail as his family struggles to keep the farm alive.
Mira Dromi, Shai’s mother, who immigrated to Israel from the Bronx in 1950, was not surprised by the arrest. “When I was informed of what happened, I knew what would happen. But I was surprised at the rigor with which they tried to make a case of it. They said he is dangerous, when the real issue seems to be impotency of the government and its various arms in dealing with the reality here.”
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“In my mind this is an issue between law abiding people who are working very hard under difficult conditions just to make a living, opposite criminals of whatever kind,” Mira says. “We have no issue with law-abiding people no matter who they are or from where they come.” Indeed, a Bedouin man from the neighboring village of Hura still works at the ranch, grazing the sheep.
Living Among Strangers
The Dromi ranch is located just south of the Green Line, on the pre-1967 side of the Partition Fence that has been erected in the region, cordoning off the south Hevron Hills from the Negev desert. The ranch lies at the end of a long dirt road behind the small Be'er Sheva suburb of Meitar.
Getting there feels like driving to any of the handful of small farms in Judea and Samaria classified as unauthorized outposts by the Israeli government. Dromi’s farm, however, is not only authorized, but is located in the area considered to be at the heart of the Israeli and global consensus.
In this desert, Bedouin tribal leaders used to call the shots. Interested in preserving their way of life and benefiting from the desire of the Jewish State to foster good relations with its Arab citizens, many Bedouins serve in the IDF and have benefited from the Jewish tourists’ penchant for authentic desert hospitality.
But now a new guard has risen. Groups of young Bedouin men have formed organized crime rings, cruising nightly for agricultural equipment and livestock to steal from the dozens of Jewish farms and ranches.
“Everyone knows you can pay a certain amount to a certain Bedouin and receive ‘protection,’" says Y., a farmhand who volunteers at the ranch in exchange for room and board. “But the amount is exorbitant and besides, why should someone pay for the police not to have to do their job.”
Everyone on the ranch has stories of police unwillingness to go after the Bedouin crime rings. “I was working on another farm in the region, and they just pulled up in a car, casually got out, held a gun to a guy’s head and just cleaned him out,” Y. says. He asked that his name not be used because he fears that the tribe of the thief who was killed will come after him.
Other farmhands say that the man whom Shai shot, Khaled al-Atrash, had been shunned by his own tribe after he was suspected of stealing from another tribe member. He had been forced by his tribe members to swear that he did not commit the crime. It was decreed by the tribunal that if he was lying something terrible would happen to him within two weeks.
That was a few days before al-Atrash and his gang paid their last visit to Shai Dromi’s farm.
They had stealing from the Jewish farmers down to a science. First, they threw poisoned meat to the guard dogs manning the perimeter, killing them within minutes. Then they cut the padlocked gate, and made off with generators, farm equipment and entire herds of livestock.
This was probably not al-Atrash’s first visit to the Dromi Ranch either. Just months ago, an expensive tractor was stolen and the well-trained guard dogs were all killed. Since then, Dromi began sleeping out in a small room built into the sheep pen. Several meters away is an old bus, which serves as a residence for three of the volunteers.
Al-Atrash and his men were inside the sheep pen when Dromi awoke. He grabbed the old .22 caliber rifle his father had brought with him when he immigrated from the U.S. and ran outside. When the thieves stayed their ground and did not flee, Shai shot at the thieves’ legs.
Dromi had no way of knowing whether the men were armed. A recent shooting attack in the region was carried out by a Bedouin man, and firearms are smuggled in great numbers through the lengthy Egyptian border - particularly following the withdrawal from Gaza - much of which is unsealed and unguarded.
The plague of crime is not only financially motivated, farmers say. The Bedouin simply do not want to see the settlement of the Negev by Jews – a project that is embraced as a noble goal by Israeli and Jewish organizations around the world.
Many Jewish organizations have transferred funds to the Negev, which once went towards settlement building in Judea and Samaria. To that end, Vice Premier Shimon Peres’s ministerial portfolio is responsible for development of the Negev, as well as the Galilee.
There is a struggle for the Negev that nobody will admit is underway. The Bedouin see themselves as the indigenous inhabitants of the land, and are often supported by human rights groups.
Police arrived as Shai was performing CPR on al-Atrash. Dromi was immediately arrested and has only been home to reenact the incident as required by Israel’s police.
Dromi has now become a symbol to many. Hadas, his niece, who is taking care of Shai’s infant and managing the house in his absence, says that there has been a flood of volunteers pitching in to ensure that the farm does not suffer financial loss in addition to the crippling blow to all its residents' morale.
Chaya Kurant is from Pardes Chana. She came to the Dromi Ranch just a week before the incident in order to volunteer. “I got more than I bargained for,” she said. “But it is all the more important that I am here.” She says that her faith in Israel’s justice system has been badly shaken by the imprisonment of a man who was so obviously acting in defense of his family. “I don’t understand why, before there has even been a trial, he is being kept in prison.”
Others venture a guess. They say his incarceration is meant to be a deterrent for other Jewish farmers forced to swallow the stream of losses and bear the police inaction.
A Mother’s Words
Shai’s mother Mira came on Aliyah at the age of 17. Mira first settled in the Negev at Kibbutz Kvutzat Urim, together with a core-group of friends from the Labor Zionist HaBonim Dror youth movement.
The Dromi children were raised in Be'er Sheva, the Negev’s largest city, where they stayed until Shai decided to apply for farmland in 1987.
“This area was designated as grazing land and made available for those slightly crazy individuals who were willing to forgo the comforts of urban living in order to establish a farm,” Mira says. “Without electricity, without telephones, without decent roads and without any subsidies, [my son] came out here in order to live in harmony with nature.”
Shai purchased a small herd of sheep, which he hoped to cultivate into a larger herd. “It is a slow painful process,” Mira recalls, “where you forgo simple comforts in order to buy just one more sheep and one more sheep.”
The entire herd was stolen several times over. “Three times Shai managed to get some or all of them back, usually on his own, without any help from the police – but three times, he just lost everything,” Mira recalls, with the sadness of a mother who has seen her child’s dream crushed again and again.
“The last time it happened was six years ago,” Mira recalls. “Shai was so happy that he had finally arrived at a good-sized herd – 300 head – which is the number at which it starts to be financially viable. The whole herd was stolen. I thought he would be broken, but he just started again.”
Today, the herd totals 150 sheep. The heads of all the sheep are all striped blue. The mark, meant to help identify the sheep later in case of theft, renders them looking like punk bleaters.
Many times since then Shai prevented his sheep from being stolen again. He built a bedroom out in the middle of the sheep pen and would wake up upon hearing the creaking of a gate or the snap of a cut latch. “But other times you wake up in the morning and see they have cut through six-inch bars and stolen one of your horses,” Mira says.“One time, when Shai was away in Be'er Sheva for the night, they burned the house he was living in to a cinder, with everything that was in it. As far as I know, over all these years, I don’t know of any arrest that has been made.”
Just two weeks before Shai’s arrest, thieves returned, killed Dromi’s dogs and stole the ranch’s only agricultural tractor. “This is the fifth time our dogs have been poisoned,” Mira says. “The dogs, by the way, are generally our main line of defense, because we have no electric alarm system. Until now, we have had no electricity altogether.”
The electricity now lighting up the usually candle-lit ranch at night comes from a generator brought by a man who has a farm in the Jordan Valley. “He just heard what happened, looked us up in the phone book and called to see what he could do to help,” Mira says. “We have received many expressions of support from all walks. From kibbutzim, city dwellers, people from the Golan – really all over.”
Mira and her granddaughter Hadas both agree that the family is holding up quite well, considering the circumstances. “Shai is holding up well,” she says. “He believes in himself. The most frustrating thing for him is that he is not involved, that nobody is running my shop (a clothing and gifts store in Be'er Sheva). We can’t call him to consult where to put this tree, what to give that sheep.”
Volunteers have been coming to the ranch to shoulder the responsibility of guard duty. “The police stationed someone at first, but now they cut it down and come by a couple times a night,” Mira says. She says she is not worried about retribution for Shai’s actions. “I am frequently told that the guys who broke in, according to their culture, got what was coming to them. That’s more or less what they say.”
The symbol that Shai has now become is not lost on his mother. At a time when so many members the government are under investigation for criminal activity and corruption, many people have their eyes on Shai Dromi. “What will be the fate of a man whose actions were so straightforwardly just in a world of unjust and corrupted considerations?” they ask. “For many, Shai’s case is the litmus test of the Israeli justice system.”
Shai’s appeal of his continued pre-trial incarceration will take place on February 11. In the meantime, help is welcome by the family. The Hitachdut HaChaklaim B’Yisrael (The Israel Farmers Association) has opened an account to help pay Dromi’s mounting legal expenses (Bank HaPoalim Branch 532, Account #249909) and volunteers are welcome to call Mira Dromi directly at 054-755-7920 (from abroad, replace the leading 0 with 972).
The Honenu Legal Aid organization is handling US-tax deductible contributions (Tax ID: 30-0198003) Click here to contribute via website. In the box "My donation is for:" note "Shai Dromi Defense Fund." Checks should be labeled "For Shai Dromi Defense Fund" and send to:
Honenu, 8204 Lefferts Blvd, Suite 381, Kew Gardens, NY 11415
“It is good if people let us know what they can help us with," she says. "Are they skilled in some way, can they fix things, are they available to help with guard duty. Any help at all is so greatly appreciated by Shai and by us, his friends and family.”
Asked about her feelings if her son is in fact convicted of manslaughter and sent to a long prison term, the veteran Israeli-by-choice says she would still refuse to lose hope in eventual justice. “It will still be my Israel, for better or for worse. But they would be missing the mark. When the victim has to pay the price, the criminals will soon be out to operate again."
Fax the Justice Ministry at: +972-2-646-7085
Fax the Attorney General: +972-2-646-6521
(Photos: Josh Shamsi, Arutz-7 Photojournalist, and Ezra HaLevi)