Village life is one of the cornerstones of Palestinian society, but harassment by Israeli settlers is increasingly forcing people to leave.
"There are attacks all the time but especially around the Sabbath [on Friday and Saturday]," explains Jamal, a farmer from the village of At-Tuwani in the South Hebron Hills.
"They poisoned [our]cistern in 2004 and 2005. About 100 sheep died because they poisoned the wheat and barley. It took 20 days to clean up. The police did nothing and never do."
The children of At-Tuwani were being attacked so routinely by settlers that in 2006 the Israeli Knesset ordered the Army to escort them to their school. The decision followed settler attacks on international human rights observers who were accompanying the children. But even now the Army does not always escort the children.
"On 2 May [this year], we were escorting the children to school alone," Jamal tells me. "The settlers threw rocks at us and broke some of our cameras [used to film such attacks]. They hit some of the villagers with their rifle butts. When the Army and police came they just stood there and watched."
Remarkably, Jamal and other men from the village were arrested and spent the next two nights in an Israeli jail. "The settlers come to our homes, destroy everything. When we try to protect our homes we are taken away."
"We are here to protect both people[s]," says Yossi, a young Israeli soldier from north Tel Aviv. He was in the final two weeks of his three year compulsory military service and was keen to avoid any "trouble".
I spoke to Yossi outside his military base in the South Hebron Hills following a small clash between children from At-Tuwani and the neighbouring Ma’on settlement. Attached to almost every settlement is an Israeli military outpost identifiable by its signature red and white communications tower. After the clash began, Israeli soldiers arrived within five minutes and confronted the Palestinians while the settlers continued to hurl abuse.
Most of the families here farm wheat or barley or herd sheep. But farming no longer provides enough money because so much land has been expropriated or is too close to settlements to be cultivated. According to the soldiers, the settlers "have a right to be there". The Palestinian villagers need not be reminded of this astonishing sense of entitlement. Settlers routinely invade Palestinian communities, particularly the more remote ones and especially at night during the Sabbath.
In At-Tuwani three years ago, some settlers decided to pick all the olives during the harvest period. "We couldn’t do anything because we would be punished just for complaining," recalls Jamal with a surprising degree of nonchalance. "They have stolen tractors and even my sheep. I know this because relatives in Jenin [120kms north of At-Tuwani] found a tractor of mine abandoned in the field." I heard stories similar to Jamal’s in villages I visited near Nablus, Jenin, Ramallah and Hebron, seven different communities in total.
Israeli law allows settlers to carry weapons, and it is not uncommon to see teenage boys carrying M-16s. But Palestinians are forbidden from carrying anything that might be construed as a weapon, even knives or clubs. Most Palestinian men in the region have been detained at some point, often merely for not possessing a valid ID card or on the suspicion that they were involved in clashes with settlers.
Only last week, the BBC uncovered video footage of a settler attack on Palestinians from Susia, a village just to the west of At-Tuwani. The video depicts three people – an old couple and their nephew – being lynched by four youths. The cameras may have helped reduce the scale of the attack.
"The settlers and army are afraid of cameras," a villager from At-Tuwani told me. "When there are no internationals – no cameras – we are not safe.."
Despite the footage, Israeli authorities appear unwilling to investigate settler violence. The Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz reports that police have already conceded that it is unlikely those filmed at Susia will be prosecuted. B’tselem‘s media spokesperson told me that no one from the neighbouring settlements has ever been charged or convicted for attacks on Palestinian villagers.
At Assira Qibliya, a village to the south of Nablus, settlers routinely set fire to crops. According to villagers I interviewed, Israeli soldiers have on occasion assisted or stood idle while settlers torched the crops.
"They set fire to our crops and [the soldiers]just stand there next to the settlers, they do nothing," a local resident named Abdullah told me. "Sometimes they shoot at our sheep and water tanks." Such claims have been back up by an investigation recently released by B’tselem.
The Israeli Army itself is also on occasion involved in attacks on Palestinian villages. Sean, a peace activist from the United States with Christian Peacemaker Teams, who lives in At-Tuwani, told me about an incident last month. "The Army came in around 1am and were here until 3am setting off flares, sound bombs and tear gas and pulling people out of their houses and IDing the men.
"It could have just been a training exercise because they’re known to do training exercises in live villages like that. But the families they targeted for specific harassment are organisers for this area. It seemed to be thought out, it wasn’t just random. The village and villages around it have been organised for a few years to resist the Occupation non-violently. For example, the road was blocked to Yatta [the nearest major Palestinian town]so they got all the people together and the media [to try to force the Israeli Army to reopen the road]."
In all the villages I visited the one common feature was the constant sense of insecurity, something Jamal constantly pointed out during our conversation. "Life is very difficult and I am always worried that one of my children will wander near the settlement and I will never seem them again."
For the past two months Mustafa Qadri has reported for newmatilda.com from
Israelis and Palestinians.
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