Tuesday, September 29, 2020

The struggle to remain in south Hebron hills

Juicebox Gallery

By Samuela Galea - December 07, 2013
Section: [Main News] [IN PICTURES] [Life under Occupation] [Features]
Tags: [Jerusalem municipality] [demolition] [House Demolition] [ethnic cleansing]

Photography by Gabriel R.


A shepherd, an activist, and a father of seven, Mr. Hafez Hreini also serves as the coordinator for the Popular Struggle Coordination Committee (PSCC) in the south Hebron hills. Last week, he welcomed the Palestine Monitor to his home in At-Tuwani to talk about his family's history intertwined with that of the PSCC's work in the region, and about the long, ongoing experience of their village since the start of the inhabitants' collective resistance against Israel’s occupation. "I have had to adjust, adapt - we all have had to do so. This is not just my issue, we are fighting together in a constructive way, for a better future," he said, "and we are trying to transmit all this to our children, for them to keep resisting in a productive, non-violent way."

He explained that many of the Bedouin, farmers and shepherds in the south Hebron Hills live very simply, mostly in caves. "For many of them, the land is their main source of income," he said, explaining that it is therefore a great disadvantage and hindrance to the lives of many dependent family members when they are refused access to their land. "Even when the shepherds manage to acquire a permit to access the land, to plant, to graze their sheep, they are stopped by Israeli authorities, or attacked by settlers," he said. 

Activists from Operation Dove, (an Italian NGO aimed at supporting and advocating for disadvantaged communities in conflict zones across the world) who live in At-Tuwani  have been accompanying the shepherds and the farmers since 2004, attempting to protect them from attacks and report infringements on laws and rights. Yet even this international presence does not hinder settler attacks. "They come out with dogs, with iron chains, to beat up the Palestinians and us too," said one of the activists of Operation Dove. 

Many have been injured or arrested during such attacks. Just last week, on Saturday 23 November, about 15 people, including 2 international activists and several Palestinian children (the youngest of which was only 7 years old), were arrested after trying to protest peacefully at Umm el Ara'is, a nearby village in the south Hebron hills. "They were beaten severely by settlers," explained an activist from Ta'ayush, an Arab and Jewish activist and humanitarian group, in an interview with the Palestine Monitor. 

"Instead of stopping the settlers' aggression, Israeli police added considerably to the violence and finally arrested the very people being beaten," the same activist continued. Even after years of work and support in the south Hebron hills, he is shocked each time by such happenings. "The police seized two of our cameras and broke one of them in an attempt to destroy the evidence, but thankfully one camera and one video still survived for others to see," he said. The activists were soon released, while a fee of 5000 Shekels had to be paid for the release of the arrested Palestinians. 

Activists from Ta'ayush and Operation Dove also accompany children on their way to school each day. ''The children were constantly being attacked, settlers threw stones at them,'' explained Mr. Hreini, "then we managed to acquire an Israeli Military escort for the children." Although it proved to be helpful at first, nowadays the escort consistently shows up late, causing the children to be late for school and miss lessons. "This behavior has increased lately and its purpose seems to be to annoy the Palestinian community here and discourage them from staying," an activist related to the Palestine Monitor. 

Indeed there is a long list and history of hindrances to the Palestinian communities’ attempts of living a simple life in the south Hebron Hills. "In the 70's, Israeli authorities declared a large part of the land as a military firing zone," relates Mr. Hreini. "There were people already living in this area—around 15 villages—and they were evicted. It was then that we started to realize and understand the crucial necessity of collaborating with Israeli and foreign NGOs in order to fight for all our rights combined." He explained how they had managed to achieve the right for these people to return to their land, "but now they have started renewing eviction orders again." A recent case is that of the al-Kaabna area of Um al-Daraj, where houses and agricultural land will be confiscated for the building of an Israeli military base, as reported by Ma'an News Agency. 

We are not victims but survivors.

Meanwhile, after a long battle with demolition orders, the entire village of Zanuta, with around 27 families, still awaits the verdict regarding whether or not it will be completely demolished, on the basis that it lies over an archaeological site. The hearing has been postponed for the second time with no set date, causing Zanuta’s villagers further anxiety and tension. In Al Mufaqarah, another area in the south Hebron hills close to At-Tuwani, the mosque has been demolished and rebuilt and demolished again; a pile of rubble now lies in its stead. People are deprived not only of their right to build but also their sacred place of prayer. 

"We have no permission to build anything, so we try to construct simple edifices by night. But they come and destroy by day. We try to pass electricity cables, but they destroy those too,'' said Mr. Hreini, "Every day, every week, there are aggressive procedures against the Palestinians - it has become part of our lives." At-Tuwani is situated between the settlement of Ma'on, the outpost of Havat Ma'on and road 317, a settlement bypass road access to which is forbidden to Palestinians.  Fences surround the village, and the only access to it is via a long and winding unpaved road. With restrictions even on the construction of roads, as well as owning and/or operating any form of heavy machinery to facilitatee the construction of houses, At-Tuwani is a clear example of the intricately difficult situation for Palestinians in the south Hebron hills. 

Adding insult to injury is the ongoing expansion of the outpost Havat Ma'on, as recorded by Ta'ayush last month in an attempt to provide information sufficient enough to halt the illegal construction. While Palestinians are endlessly restricted from building even the most basic and necessary of structures, Ma’an News Agency stated that Israeli outposts and Settlements are constantly expanding with no enforcement of the law, according to Dror Etkes, an expert on Israeli settlements and land policy in the West Bank.

Mayor of the Um al-Daraj area, Hassan al-Basaita, was quoted by Ma’an highlighting that the Israeli authorities' main aim is to restrict the locals' lives and displace them. This opinion is strongly shared by Ta'ayush, Operation Dove and PSCC activists, who separately but unanimously emphasize that all the problems caused by the different sectors of the Israeli authorites are a collective effort with the sole purpose of forcing the people to leave. "It is a great effort to drive Palestinians away from Area C, a long process of ethnic cleansing. The last few months have seen a considerable increase in this pressure - the methods of doing this might be different, they use various excuses, but these excuses are all part of one and the same thing," a Ta'ayush activist explained to the Palestine Monitor, with great, horrific realization behind his passionate words. 

Demolitions, building restrictions, farming and animal grazing restrictions, lack of facilities such as electricity, water, roads and healthcare, violent aggression from the neighboring settlers and equal hostility from military forces, near weekly arrests....This might seem overwhelming to digest all together, yet it is the reality in the south Hebron hills and needs to be seen as a whole. It would not do justice to the truth to consider and focus on each aspect separately whilst forgetting the underlying, more serious aim causing and connecting them. 

"If there is one thing we have learned here," says Mr. Hreini, "it is that we can never know what to expect or what will happen." A relatively peaceful day could easily turn upside down at the will of the Israeli authorities, as happened last October when Israeli soldiers and settlers from a number of settlements including Havat Ma'on, Avigayil and Mitzpe Yair, marched into At-Tuwani, fired shots, blocked cars from accessing the village and broke into homes in search of something they did not find, providing no clear explanation as to the reason for such actions. 

Despite the violent intrusions, At-Tuwani’s villagers are clearly dedicated to non-violence and peaceful resistance, as was evident that night in October. "The people of At-Tuwani did not try to stop the soldiers from entering their homes, instead, they welcomed them and offered them tea," said Mr. Hreini with content eyes and a smile.."People are not afraid anymore... They used to be afraid and hide in their houses, but now.... They go out to meet the Israeli forces." 

"We have managed to construct a small clinic, a hospital and a well in At-Tuwani, so that all the neighboring Palestinian villages can access basic facilities and are not forced to leave,'' said Mr. Hreini. Despite all the odds, their collective hard work is bearing fruit and families have actually started to return to At-Tuwani and the surroundings. The population had been reduced to 100 from 700, yet recently the number has gone up to 350, a very encouraging fact for the village. "It is a transformation point,'' explained Mr. Zawahra, another PSCC coordinator. "It is the impact of non-violent resistance. The people have faith in their rights and this gives them inner strength." 

So while Israeli forces incessantly persist in finding creative excuses to make villagers' lives seem almost impossible, the Palestinian community in the south Hebron hills focuses on responding with similarly creative and unique methods of resistance – from uniting together and collaborating with NGOs, to planting trees and serving tea to their aggressors. They are able and ready to perform great sacrifices for what they believe in and what they hope for on a long-term basis, a fact which competes well against Israel's desire to drive them out. They resist by existing, by being. "We are not victims but survivors," said Mr. Zawahra. 

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