SOUTH HEBRON HILLS: Weekly protest led by Ta’ayush 10April10 April 10, 2010

As in every week of the year, we woke up at 07:00 on a Saturday morning to oppose injustice. We, is a group of about 15, mostly Israeli and some International Activists lead by Ta’ayush, a Jewish-Arab organization opposing the occupation and trying to promote equality.

The South of Hebron Hills is one of the most difficult regions in the West Bank. Much of the native population of this area is Bedouin, a minority in Palestinian society to begin with, and generally invisible to the Israeli occupation authorities.

We first arrived to a location which became a focus of attention in recent weeks – the lands of Umm Zaytouna, near the village of Tuba (not that you could know, since the road signs only name the Jewish settlements in this area – did we say invisible?). Tuba’s misfortune is its neighbours. About 1km the east and north lie two Israeli settlements – Ma’on and Carmel. We will talk about Carmel later on.

The story here is quite simple. The whole land area around Ma’on is either private Palestinian land or “state lands”. This means of the settlers have no ownership rights over them. But, of course this doesn’t concern those whose land ownership is god-given. They don’t want Palestinians damaging the view. But Tuba’s residents need to make a living, and their Sheppards want to feed their herds on the land. When they do, they are expelled by the army – normally by shouting, threatening and sometimes even by taking a goat hostage (yes, that’s right). If the sheppards demand their rights on their own, they would be imprisoned and harassed in the better scenario, or physically hurt in worse scenario. Needless to say that all of this is illegal, either by international law (the mere existence of Ma’on) or by the occupation laws (forbidding the sheppards). The Israeli supreme court and legal advisor ordered the army that an area can be closed for Palestinians only if one of two conditions applies: an immediate security threat or immediate negative interaction with settlers. None of these exist here.

That’s where the activists come into the picture. We accompany the sheppards, demand their rights be realized and confront the army and police if they are not. The goal is to allow the herds to feed.

Today, as usual, we first stalled the army as much as we could, for about 10 minutes. As verbal interaction began, some of us explained the legal and moral situation to the soldiers/police and asked them to secure the sheppards or just leave. This was met with firm indifferent rejection. Soon thereafter the officer read “This is a closed military zone, you have 10 minutes to leave or you may be arrested”. One of the soldiers pointed his gun to the most experienced, knowledgeable and articulate activist in the scene. 10 minutes later, none of us left. Their hierarchy oriented thinking demanded to get our leader – the one who was marked – and only him. This will also them paperwork at the police station. There’s nothing which they hate more than paperwork.

We do not have official leaders, of course, but for them it doesn’t matter much. Three 20 year old soldiers began arresting a person whose age is equivalent to that of their parents’. Some of us held each other strongly and tried to prevent the arrest by passive resistance and kept saying: “if you take him, take all of us”. Others documented with film cameras. Eventually 5 were arrested in solidarity (“detained”), and were taken to the police station in Hebron. They were kept there for 3 hours and later received restriction orders.

The others went on. We stopped to rest and meet the Bedouins of Umm al-Kher. These people used to live in what is today in Israel, near Arad. In 1948 they moved to the West Bank and settled in Umm al-Kher in beginning of the 70s. In 1981 Israel chose the lands near Umm al-Kher as a perfect location to build the settlement of Carmel. The fence of the settlement is adjacent to Umm al-Khers last houses Bedouin-shacks. We already said Bedouin Palestinians are invisible. Since they’re Bedouins, they can’t always prove land ownership. But they also can’t be nomads anymore, since there’s less land and times have changed. But if they want to modernize and build permanent homes in their village, they need construction permits from the occupation authorities. They are always denied. It’s a policy whose goal is to encourage them to leave to the urban areas. Eventually, those who couldn’t or didn’t want to leave, built illegally. So nearly every single tent or shack in the village have a demolition order waiting, which could be executed at any day. Many shacks and tents have been destroyed here before.

Later we paid a visit to Otniel. This is another settlement, 13km to the west. We walked peacefully from the nearby village of Khirbat Karme, to take pictures of private Palestinian land to which access is denied. We had a small map, specifying where the land is private and who it belongs to. The maps clearly shows that all of the surrounding land is Palestinian, as well as some of the actual built up area of the settlement villas.

After making about halfway, we had company. Settlers have guns, and a security person. He followed us while 15 of his settler friends came down on foot with their loaded M-16 automatic weapons.  They are the emergency squad – meant to deal with security threats, when the army is busy or far away. This authority is often abused and used to harass or expel Palestinians rather than protect Israelis.  Meanwhile, we passed a lone watchtower from which a female soldier smiled and asked us “what are you doing here?”, to which we replied decently with “what are YOU doing here?”.

The armed settlers stood in our way and asked us to identify. Why should we identify? We do not pose a threat to anyone. We’re all civilians and so are they. Only that they have guns. We refused to identify and were denied entry to the settlement. So we decided to sit down and rest, in the shade of a privately owned Palestinian olive grove near the settlement’s last villas. It was uncomfortable to sit, with all the thorns which grew around us. Palestinians are denied of weeding and ploughing or even visiting their lands here, and it’s easy to see/feel the difference. Meanwhile the army and police joined in and about 8 jeeps came from here and there, to save the day from our little courtesy visit. Once again, it was declared a closed military zone and we had to leave. On the way out, soldiers walked with us to ensure that we don’t do anything funny. To make the most of our time, me and a friend walked slowly and told the soldiers why we came all the way over here. We explained to them about the legal situation in the territories and local injustices. We asked them to look up in their books or internet when they get home, about the history of the conflict. We also told them to ask their higher commander in his periodic talk, whose interests they’re promoting with their operations. Some listened. A young agressive officer tried to argue, but slowly lost his arguments when confronted with the facts. I’m not naive. But I want to make sure they are fully aware of what they are doing. Many times they are not, or at least say that, and avoid facing the moral and legal consequences of occupying.

These actions may seem sisyphic but over time do have an impact. In other locations, such as the nearby village of Mufakara, persistence proved victorious. Where herding was once completely impossible, after several similar actions, today goes on without any disturbance. Our hopes are that persistence in Tuba will bring similar results.

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