Soil and soul
Day eight of the Freedom Ride and we are in Atuwani – a beautiful village in the South Hebron Hills. After a great morning circle, sharing where we are all at with the roller coaster of emotions that comes with a trip like this, we are sitting on top of a hill with Nassar from the Popular Struggle Committee for the region. To the left of us the village is nestled neatly among the slopes, sheep roaming, scattered olive trees, and traditional stone walls lining the roads. To our right, an illegal settlement is plonked on the hill top, surrounded by fences.
It’s hard to digest what Nassar describes of the problems the village faces. In addition to the usual struggles in Area C – where people are not allowed to build at all, not even plant a tree, or develop infrastructure in any way, Palestinians living in these hills face consistent and violent attacks from the settlements.
Just a few days ago, a six year old girl suffered injuries to her head and leg after being hit with stones by settlers. This is not unusual, children travelling to the school in Atuwani from the neighbouring villages have to pass close to a settlement, often incurring attacks and abuse as they make the daily journey to get an education.
In order to report an assault, Palestinians in the region have to go to the Israeli police station. Despite hundreds of incidents, with incontrovertible evidence presented, not a single settler has ever been charged with anything. The rule of law simply does not apply to them.
After a long process of complaints from Palestinians and internationals, and following news coverage of a settler attack on international solidarity activists, the Israeli occupation decided an appropriate solution would be an army escort for the children, to protect them from the settlers. Rather than use normal methods of justice for these radical and violent settlers, the occupation prefers this non-solution. Needless to say, the army takes their role less than seriously. The children are often waiting for hours for their army escort which may or may not show up.
Last week, one child had a panic attack faced with their usual route to school, past the settlement. Today, a couple were assaulted; thankfully they were not hurt, but badly shaken by the experience. It is practically a daily occurrence, Nassar tells us, and for most attacks, the psychological impact remains a lot longer than the wounds.
Just as we were all feeling quite depressed and concerned about what Palestinians in this area are having to face, their lack of safety in their own homes, and the pure lack of humanity shown to them by the settlers and occupation authorities, we were reminded once more that it would take more than even this to destroy their spirit!
Celebrating Palestinian heritage day we were treated to wonderful acts of singing, dancing and theatre from children in the school, and people of the community. It was Palestinian culture at its most vibrant, energetic, and fun.
After speeches, graduations, and lots more dancing, we ate a feast of traditional Palestinian dishes. The food was delicious, with an amazing variety of flavours and textures.
It was disturbing and incredible to witness these people, with such a wonderful rich culture face such injustice. The occupation and the settlers are trying every tool in the book to make their lives here not worth living, but the resolve of these Palestinians in the South Hebron Hills is strong and powerful. They are not leaving their land so easily.
In the afternoon, we split into two groups. One group rebuilt a tent, which the children can shelter in while they wait their escort to go to school. The Freedom Ride built this last year (and the year before!), but it has consistently been destroyed by the Israeli military. We will keep rebuilding; while they destroy, we will create. Now the children have somewhere to wait in the shade, and will have shelter when it rains. Let’s hope the bulldozers stay away.
The other group was helping maintaining and building the stone walls that line the roadside. We were taught the traditional technique and were able to complete this work, even when a military jeep turned up and two soldiers got out and watched us from the road. It was clear that had there not been a big international presence, the Palestinians of the village would have been prevented from carrying out this basic maintenance work by the army.
As the sun set on another day, we sat on the hill playing, singing, and enjoying Palestinian songs. Once again, the Palestinians we’ve met have been an example of strength, resilience, and determination.
Written by Bella Croaks, 2015 Freedom Ride participant
Photos by Bridget Mullins, 2015 Freedom Ride participant