Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Nonviolence in the South Hebron hills

This is an exciting time to be in At-Tuwani, the tiny village in the South Hebron hills, from which I have just returned. We are seeing the beginnings of organized nonviolent resistance.

Just two weeks ago Palestinian shepherds would flee at the sight of an armed Israeli settler. Last Saturday shepherds from At-Tuwani and from neighbouring villages gathered with their flocks on the slopes surrounding the Avigail settlement outpost, about 3 miles west of At-Tuwani. Sheep and goats were everywhere. Here a flock is about twenty animals; there must have been a dozen flocks grazing on hillsides that the shepherds had not dared to crop for years.
They came within 80 metres of the settlement. When an Israeli army officer warned them not to approach within 500 metres they moved round to the other side of the outpost.

On Sunday the combined flocks approached the woods by the Ma’on settlement – another area from which they had previously been driven. Settlers and police were ignored. Eventually a pair of senior Israeli army officers appeared, warning the shepherds, and their accompaniers from the Christian Peacemaker Team (CPT), that they were in a military firing zone and would be arrested if they returned.

Previous attempts have been made to declare a large area south of At-Tuwani a live training area for the Israeli army. In 1999 the Israeli carried out mass evictions; the Israeli High Court of Justice confirmed the villagers’ right to return home temporarily, but a final ruling is still awaited. Now the villagers seem confident of eventual victory. On Monday the shepherds were
back on the Ma’on slopes. On Tuesday they returned to Avigail.

It is doubly exciting to realize that our simple presence has helped to bring this change about, and is giving us a grandstand view of history in the making. No Gandhi or Martin Luther King: just sheep and goats, shepherds, and us, far away in the South Hebron Hills on the edge of the Negev Desert.

Of course there will be setbacks. Only last week one of our Italian colleagues from Operation Dove was attacked by an Israeli settler from Ma’on. His jaw was broken and he suffered neurological damage – blurred vision and memory loss. Call me an optimist, but I feel more hopeful every day I spend in At-Tuwani.

Do you remember what I wrote in January about abandoned villages in the South Hebron hills? I blinked in disbelief when I revisited one last week-end, empty for ten years. Hens clucked in the yard. Washing flapped on the line. Two or three families have ventured back. Nonviolence thrives on steps like these.


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