Monday, January 17, 2005

Planting with Bedouin in Israel

On Saturday Bill Baldwin, a retired Anglican priest from Ottawa now with CPT in Hebron, and I helped to plant olive trees, this time in Israel, not Palestine.

We travelled from Jerusalem in a hired coach with Israelis and a handful of other “internationals” to the Bedouin village of Al-Sidr in the Negev Desert, not far from the Dimona nuclear station and right next to the Nevatim air base. The Israeli air force had moved there in 1983 after the signing of the peace treaty with Egypt. The base stood on Bedouin land, but the Bedouin were permitted to build close to the fence surrounding the base.

The Bedouin village remains officially “unrecognized” by the authorities. This means that the Israeli government does not provide mains water, electricity or sanitary services. About forty other Bedouin villages in the Negev desert are in the same predicament. Without electricity, children have to do their homework by candlelight in the winter. The Bedouin are Israel’s forgotten citizens.

Last June the Israeli authorities issued “warnings before demolition” for every house in Al-Sidr, presumably to extend the air base. No alternative accommodation was offered. This stands in sharp contrast to the treatment of another group of Israeli citizens – the settlers in the Gaza Strip who have been offered generous compensation and alternative sites for the settlements they are to evacuate.

Not for the first time in Israel, military requirements are taking precedence over human needs. So Bill and I were glad to join the coach-loads from various parts of Israel, converging to plant olive saplings in Al-Sidr and to help draw international attention to the fate of the village. The fence of the air base is in the background of the attached photograph.

For me there was one disappointment. The shortest road from Al-Sidr back to Jerusalem passes close to Hebron. How convenient! But no: Israeli civilians are not generally allowed to enter the occupied West Bank. Our coach was diverted to avoid crossing the Green Line separating Israel from Palestine. Look at the map. Trace the journey from the Negev to Hebron via Jerusalem and you will understand my exasperation.

Planting in Negev Posted by Hello

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Violence against children, from Belfast to At-Tuwani

Families in At-Tuwani, including the Christian Peacemaker Team (CPT), have to draw all their water from a well at the foot of the hill on which our new hut is built. While I was at the well on Saturday morning a blue Israeli police jeep drew up and an officer asked me at what time that day an Irish big-wig was expected to arrive in At-Tuwani. I had no idea, though we now have a steady stream of journalists and international officials coming to see for themselves the things we are reporting from the South Hebron hills. The officer seemed friendly but worried, and assured me that if I had any trouble he was here to help. I replied politely that if he had any trouble I was here to help.

School had broken up on Thursday, and the school building was being prepared as a polling station for Sunday’s Palestinian election. With no need for `school patrol’ Cal Carpenter from CPT, Monica from Operation Dove and I set off on foot across the hills to visit the Palestinian village of Mufakra (spelling questionable – not on any map I’ve seen) about 3 miles away, where a week ago Israeli settlers had attacked Palestinian shepherds injuring two of their sheep
which had subsequently died. We were anxious to discover whether CPT accompaniment was needed.

On that short journey across country we passed two abandoned Palestinian villages; a photograph of one is attached. All the families in Mufakra are cave-dwellers. In this tiny village there are only three flocks of sheep, so it was easy to spot the shepherd on the hillside. With typical Palestinian hospitality he invited us to drink tea in his family cave.

We were sitting on the floor in his `parlour’, with tea served by the shepherd’s children while his wife rocked her baby to sleep in a cradle, when in walked the big-wig from Dublin – Senator David Norris of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Irish Parliament, accompanied by two Israelis from the peace movement Ta’ayush. They had visited our empty hut in At-Tuwani and been redirected to Mufakra. Senator Norris joined us for tea and a briefing, being deeply affected by parallels between settler attacks on Palestinian school children in At-Tuwani and Protestant attacks on Catholic children in Belfast: both in the name of religion.

Finally the officer in the Israeli police jeep drove up and announced that it was far too dangerous for the Senator to remain inside the Palestinian dwelling. This caused some merriment. We finished our tea. David Norris had his photograph taken with one of the dead sheep and treated the Israeli officials to a vigorous and highly relevant homily on the troubles in Belfast before driving off in the Ta’ayush car, now closely followed by the protective blue Israeli police jeep and an additional Israeli army jeep.

I am still haunted by those abandoned villages. Their inhabitants left in about the year 2000, intimidated by the neighbouring Israeli settlers. Most moved in with extended families in the nearby town of Yatta, but continue to graze their flocks and till the fields around their old caves and houses. Historians and politicians will continue to debate who was responsible for the exodus of Palestinian refugees in 1948. But who remembers the villages deserted just yesterday in this remote corner of the occupied West Bank? The caves chiseled out of solid rock and cherished for generations? The grave elders and their rugged wives? Their frightened grandchildren? Each empty home, now perhaps vandalized by settlers, holds the memories of a heart-broken household. Each abandoned hearth cries out to heaven: ‘Inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these …’

Abandoned Village Near Tuwani Posted by Hello

Saturday, January 01, 2005

Israelis & Palestinians protest together at Jayyous

I spent the summer of 2003 with the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI), in the village of Jayyous. In this village the Israeli Security Fence cuts the farmers off from most of their land.

When it was announced earlier this week that a protest rally was to be held in Jayyous on New Year’s Eve, I felt sad that the Christian Peacemaker Team (CPT) in Hebron was too stretched to release me to take part. However the team caucused (my American colleagues’ word) in my absence and told me to go to Jayyous as their representative. Tom Fox, an American Quaker from the CPT team in Baghdad, who had come to Hebron for a rest (!) joined me on the long journey to Jayyous.

We arrived on the evening of 30th December at the EAPPI house in Jayyous whereI stayed in 2003, and the ecumenical accompaniers (EAs) readily offered usfood, bedding and – so unlike Hebron – warmth and a shower. One of the EAs turned out to be a Friend from Somerset, and the resulting critical mass of Quakers enabled us to hold our own meeting for worship under a vine and next to the fig tree. In the village shop and streets I was greeted warmly by old friends. Farmers in whose fields I used to sleep were especially welcoming. But sadly their situation has grown worse since I left.

The illegal Israeli settlement of Zufin on Palestinian land close to the Green Line (the Israel-Palestine border) is about to build over a thousand new homes on fields, owned by Jayyous farmers, between the Fence and the Green Line. The settlers claim to have bought the land, and have already bulldozed hundreds of olive trees. The villagers deny that their fields were sold, and certainly Turek Salim, the owner of the olive trees, is heartbroken and would never knowingly have parted with his land. Indeed he would not have been granted his permit to pass daily through the Gate in the Security Fence if he had not satisfied the Israeli authorities that he was the owner of the land. A legal appeal has been launched.

The rally was a joint action involving the villagers and Israeli peace groups.The Israelis approached the fields from the West, and defied police warnings by planting olive saplings on the bulldozed land. They then moved eastwards towards the Gate in the Security Fence. Meanwhile the farmers emerged fromtheir Friday worship in the village mosque. Tom and I walked with them downthe track from the village to the Gate. We were confronted by dozens of armedIsraeli soldiers, who prevented us from any contact with the Israeli demonstrators.

The villagers had been at great pains to keep their protest nonviolent. The “shebab” (youngsters) were asked to hold back. We “internationals”, EAPPI, CPT and mostly International Solidarity Movement (ISM) were asked to keep ahead. Palestinian rallies usually end with stone-throwing, tear gas, rubber bullets and arrests, and as we came face-to-face with the Israeli troops (see attached photograph) I confess I feared the worst. But this time no stones were thrown and the rally ended peacefully.

I was disappointed that the soldiers prevented protestors on opposite sides ofthe fence from meeting, but my predominant feeling was one of hope. The twin demonstrations had given the lie to the notion that Israelis and Palestinians cannot work together. The Israelis had shown, both symbolically and practically, their opposition to the Fence and the Occupation. The Palestinians had shown restraint in the face of army provocation. We hear of Palestinians starting to advocate nonviolent resistance on Gandhian lines. Will the little village which I love be in the forefront? This is my prayer.

Meanwhile we must be alert to the significance of the Zufin expansion. This isthe first major Israeli annexation of land between the Green Line and theFence. Unless this can be stopped in Jayyous it will surely happen elsewhere, creating fresh waves of resentment and violence. Please make this known as widely as you can, not only for the families in Jayyous but also for the sake of peace and justice in the Holy Land.

Israeli troops at Jayyous Posted by Hello