10 November 2006 - “Your heads will be on the stones if you don’t leave this place”, threatened an Israeli settler from illegal outpost Havot Ma’on (Hill 833), to members of Christian Peacemaker Teams in the Palestinian village of At-Tuwani. Captured on video, but ignored by district Israeli police, the threat is part and parcel of daily life for Palestinians - and the reason for the continuous presence of international human rights workers here since 2004. A few days later, during a “routine check”, I witness my neighbor being physically abused by Israeli soldiers. Such abuse often ceases when soldiers become aware that internationals are present, filming their actions.
Ancient At-Tuwani is located in the South Hebron Hills of the West Bank, home to some one thousand Palestinians who reside in natural caves, living off the land and grazing their flocks of goats and sheep. The topography is harsh; there is no running water or electricity. Under complete Israeli control in “Area C,” many South Hebron residents have been expelled and had their homes and property destroyed. Israeli settlers have attacked villagers and human rights workers, and destroyed olive trees. Villagers’ livestock and one water cistern have been poisoned, an act UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) Director Robert Kennedy calls a form of chemical warfare.
The Israeli separation barrier along route 317 near At-Tuwani restricts villagers’ access to their farmland and to vital services such as health clinics, education and markets in nearby cities. Multiple UN reports describe the South Hebron communities as “once self-sustainable, now having one of the highest poverty levels in the West Bank” due to the Israeli occupation. Prominent Israeli human rights group B’Tselem reports that the regions’ “proximity to the Green Line and the sparse Palestinian population living there make the southern Hebron hills a ‘natural’ candidate for annexation [by Israel], as well as an attractive site for settlement that will create a contiguous Jewish presence on both sides of the Green Line.”
In the village of Sussia, the Israeli military has crushed the residents’ cave homes. Now the villagers live in tents. I travel there to take the testimony of a village elder assaulted that day by masked settlers. Days before, settlers had strewn metal spikes across the road attempting to prevent the truck carrying desperately needed water from reaching the community. Three tires were pierced and the water was delayed.
Back in At-Tuwani, my neighbor served me tea as we watched his children play near their home. “It’s hard watching my children grow up under the same occupation I did,” he says. “I don’t want them to live in fear.”
Until the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands is ended, the basic human and civil rights of such families will never be assured. And the fear which my neighbor knows so well will remain a constant.
Joel Gulledge is a human rights worker with Christian Peacemaker Teams and a co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. All reports mentioned in this article are located at the author’s website: Tuwani.org.