2015 Freedom Ride, Day #9: South Hebron Hills

Friday’s activities included informative and inspiring visits with representatives of shepherd communities that continue to survive after multiple demolitions, as well as observation and presence support with one of our Palestinian hosts during a confrontation with the Israeli occupation forces.

After our morning circle groups and a hearty breakfast in Atuwani, we walked a few hills over to the 158-person village of Al Mofaqara. Sipping tea in a large tent, we met and heard from Sausan Mahmoud Al Sen Hamade, a young woman who walks 2 hours on the way to and back from the university where she studies. Sausan’s family lives under the tent in a carved-out cave that housed her ancestors, with bare rock walls blackened by the fires they light inside the cave in the winter months. Sausan told us of a day in 2011 when the army came and demolished her house, which sat where the tent is now. She was arrested and imprisoned, but her family was not notified of her whereabouts. Sausan asked all of us to tell our governments, wherever we live, to put pressure on Israel to stop evicting people from their ancestral homes and destroying their way of life.

We returned to Atuwani for lunch, and then headed out on foot again for Um Elkheir, also a sheep herding community of about 130 people that abuts the fence of the colony whose settlers consistently harass children and adults in surrounding communities. The walk to Um Elkheir ends in a barbed wire barrier that has wounded their sheep. The barbed wire was erected to protect the settlement. In Um Elkheir we were greeted by an elder Bedouin shepherd, Sleman Al Hadelin. Sleman was so delighted to see us that he implored us to skip the community work we had promised to do and just sit and have tea with him. He told us of how the army came and demolished buildings here despite the fact that he has papers showing he owns the land. He reiterated with great pain how unfair this is, and pleaded with us to share his story. Freedom Riders eventually persuaded Sleman to let us do some work. It was brief but meaningful. One group moved stone rubble from a demolished house to the ground under what will be the foundation for a new caravan (mobile home), while a second group helped rebuild a stone wall nearby.

We retired for tea with Sleman but were quickly interrupted by the presence of Israeli soldiers nearby. Called to provide support, we marched behind and around Sleman as he led the soldiers on a walk around his land. Surrounded by internationals and hearing the spirited protest of Sleman, the soldiers retreated, and Sleman was lifted in triumph. He had already told us that the community would pay the price for our visit for the next three months. After some playback theatre, many of us reflected on the difficult dynamic we create for locals, although we knew that Sleman wanted us there and appeared to feel that today’s victory was worth tomorrow’s likely outcome, which is that the Army will return in the night and destroy everything.

If there is hope on a longer term basis, part of it comes from the presence of Operation Dove volunteers with whom we met in the evening. These human rights workers are from Italy, and do accompaniment on an everyday basis. The two volunteers who spoke to us are committed to doing this for 2-3 years, while other volunteers come for a month or two. I was in awe of their work, but even more of the courageous villagers whose lives we all want desperately to help protect.

Written by Todd Davies, 2015 Freedom Ride participant
Photos by Bridget Mullins, 2015 Freedom Ride participant

Sausan Atuwani

Samer oud

Playback Um Elkheir

Sleman Al Hadelin

Advertisements

Day Eight: Stand with At-Tuwani!

On the penultimate day of the September Freedom Ride, the Freedom Bus visited the small village of At-Tuwani in the South Hebron Hills. The village has a long history and archaeological investigation has uncovered evidence of Byzantine, Roman and Ottoman buildings in the village.

At-Tuwani is located in Area C, which means that it is subject to Israeli administration in all civilian matters. As a result, the villagers of At-Tuwani have had to defend their houses from demolition, as they are not included in Israel’s master plan for the region. They have also struggled to gain access to water, while the surrounding settlements are supplied by Israeli water system. The settlers themselves also frequently attack and harass villagers, shepherds and children on their way to school. The children and shepherds of At-Tuwani are accompanied by human rights volunteers from Operation Dove who act as observers and record acts of violence committed by settlers. Indeed, shortly before we visited, an Israeli activist accompanying Palestinians near At-Tuwani was blindfolded, mugged, beaten and threatened by three Israeli settlers outside the illegal outpost called “Avigail.”

 

The actors of the Freedom Bus performed outside with a back drop of ancient olive trees. The audience were asked to share their stories, with a focus on experiences with settlers.

A very old woman came forward to tell her story. One day she was in the fields with her sheep when she was attacked by settlers and beaten. She screamed and screamed. People from the village came and started shouting, chanting and protesting. The settlers called the Israeli police. They came and started to arrest her son. At this point she became very angry and started shouting at the police. She took off her slipper and hit a policeman in the face! This story elicited great cheers from the crowd.

A man came forward and told a story of an altercation with some settlers. He called the Israeli police to come and intervene. One policeman came. He stood near to the policeman so that we would be protected from the settlers, who fired shots in their direction. His mother was shot. They called for the ambulance but it did not come. He had to carry his mother to the hospital on the back of a donkey.

 

Finally, an older man, a shepherd, told a story about settlers. He had wheels made for his car that were decorated with the colours of the Palestinian flag. A settler came and stole one of the wheels from his car. The entire village and people from the surrounding areas went to protest outside the settlement to demand the return of the stolen wheel.. The protest was mainly made up of children, because it just so happened that the wheel was stolen at the same time that a summer camp for the local Palestinian children being held. The army sent more soldiers than there were children protesting to police the demonstration.

The soldiers told everyone to go home, promising that they would find the wheel and return it. The man (pictured above) said, “No! We will not go home until we get the wheel. And we will not go home until the settler who took the wheel returns it to us in person.” Eventually, the settler who had stolen the wheel came with his pick-up truck and gave the man a wheel. But it was different wheel, not the one with the Palestinian colours, but a new one that was better quality.

“This story has nothing to do with the wheel,” the man said, “The point is that we made the settlers concede to us. That is the victory.”

 

Images by Al Mayuk.