It’s apartheid. South Hebron Hills, part 2.

Having filled the last blog with cycling escapades, there are still many stories to share from the south Hebron hills.

Just one of the astounding people we met there is 24 year old Sausan from the village of Al Mofaqura. Sipping sweet tea in a large tent, we hear her story.

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The whole village was declared a ‘closed military zone’ in 2000; all the residents were forced to seek refuge in nearby At-Twani. After six months, they had proven ownership of their land in the courts and were desperate to return to their homes. However, from that time until today they have suffered constant attacks and harassment from the Israeli military, who are determined to remove them from their land.

‘Thursday 24th November 2011…I will never forget this date’, Sausan tells us. On this day, she was at home by herself when the Israeli military showed up with their bulldozers. Seeing her home was about to be destroyed, Sausan asked the officer for a warrant. She was rewarded for this attempt to follow legal procedures with having tear gas sprayed in her face and being arrested.  On this day, the Israeli military demolished her home, two others, and the village Mosque.

The Occupation authorities would not give Sausan’s family any information about where she had been taken. The officer in question claimed that she had tried to kill him with a stone. The family had to hire an Israeli lawyer, who was eventually able to locate Sausan and secure her release. Although the judge imposed conditions on her freedom, including that she was not allowed to live on her land, Sausan tells us she ‘left whatever he said there with him and carried on her life as before’.

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Sausan talking to us in the cave where she lives with her family

Sausan is now in her fourth year of studying social work; she is the only one from her village in higher education. She travels hours to and back from university each day, and talks about feeling tired and separate from her course-mates, who generally live in Area A and live a very different life to herself. She is looking forward to graduating in order to have more time to dedicate to defending her community, ‘I don’t want my children to have the same life I have’, she tells us.

Leaving the impressive, determined Sausan and her village behind, we next visited Um Elkheir. My stomach flipped as I stared around me. Having been demolished so many times, the village now mostly consists of shacks and tents. Right next door, so close we could see through their shiny windows is an Israeli settlement. A wire fence is all that separates these two communities, but their lives could not be more different.

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As soon as we arrive, we were greeted by the elder of the village. Sleman Al Hadelin is speaking at 100 miles an hour in Arabic, desperate to impart all the details of the injustice that has befallen his community. He speaks of the house demolitions, of sheep being poisoned, of attacks and assaults. The frustration and sadness emanating from his being. ‘Where is the democracy? This can’t be right, this can’t be legal.’

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For fifty years the villagers of Um Elkheir have made bread in a large stone oven. Even this has not escaped the Israeli bulldozers. ‘Where in the world are people not allowed to make bread?’ Sleman asks. ‘They are killing us slowly.’

The communal oven means that families can save time and resources by making their bread together, rather than each build a fire, as they have had to do since the oven has been destroyed. In 2006 – around forty years after the oven was built – the settlers came next door. They complained about the smoke the comes from the oven, although every one knows this is just an excuse. The aim of the game is to force these Palestinians from their land, with vindictiveness and a complete lack of humanity, in order to expand the adjacent illegal settlement.

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The Freedom Ride aims to support these communities by displaying solidarity, helping with practical work, and sharing the reality of the occupation far and wide.

In Um Elkheir we split into two groups, one moving stone rubble from a demolished house to prepare a foundation for a mobile home, and the other rebuilding the communal oven.

In the afternoon we were just settling in a tent in the village for a Playback Theatre performance, when the army arrived. Called to provide support, we followed Sleman and other villagers with our cameras and our chants as he confronted the invading occupation forces.

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The soldiers initially went to the communal oven, clearly planning to destroy it once more; it was unbelievable to see how quickly they reacted. In the face of such a mass of internationals and cameras, they appeared to have a change of heart though.

With the fearless Sleman at the front, as a group – people from Um Elkheir, from all over Palestine, and from all over the world – we moved as one mass, without weapons or threats, and managed to intimidate a dozen M-16 wielding soldiers and border police. For once the village was left unharmed.

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It was exciting and empowering. Watching the soldiers walk away, spirits soared. ‘I am a winner today!’ Sleman smiled.

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It was an intense experience, and as we left Um Elkheir tears started rolling down my face. Tears because of the injustice and unfairness. Tears because wrapped in our white skin, we helped force the invading military out of the village, but tomorrow those villagers would probably pay for it. The army would be pissed off, and the destruction would be worse. Tears because of Sleman’s words, ‘we are people, we are human beings’.

Why aren’t they treated us such?

This is apartheid. Next to Um Elkheir those living in the illegal settlement don’t think twice about how much water they use, never worry about where the next meal will come from, or how they will survive the winter. The illegal settlements in the West Bank have all their material desires met, their racism nourished, and their violent actions met with a blind eye.

In my tent that evening, I continued to reel with anger and dismay at what these Palestinian communities endure. I reflected that one more privilege I can add to the long list is seeing how you can resist in the face of such a brutal occupation.

Wiped off the map: South Hebron Hills part 1

So I’m cycling up from the lowest place on earth, at the hottest time of day. ‘You’re so stupid,’ I tell myself, scouring my surroundings for an inch of shade. There is none. I sit at the roadside with my map on my head for a bit of protection from the burning sun.

It is a horrible, Zionist map. A ‘Super Touring Map of Israel’, the cover proclaims. The map includes the whole of the West Bank, with all the illegal settlements marked, as though it is all Israel. Many Palestinian towns, and most Palestinian villages, are not labeled. Slightly ironic that this is my tool for exploring and learning about Palestine.

I automatically trace the most logical route to my destination: from Fasiyel, down to Jericho, up up up, then into Abu Dis, through Jerusalem, and into Bethlehem to stay the night with a friend before continuing to the South Hebron hills.

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Having climbed up to sea level and beyond, passed the massive sprawling settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim (home to 30,000 settlers), it felt good to get to Abu Dis. Staying focused on the road full of maverick drivers, whilst not ignoring the chorus of ‘welcome, welcome!’ is a necessary skill to cycle through Palestinian towns.

I was just negotiating this balance when I suddenly faced the wall. The 8-metre high concrete separation wall was blocking my route. ‘I forgot’, I thought – again reprimanding myself for stupidity. It felt bizarre to have the luxury of forgetting that I couldn’t just cycle from Abu Dis to Jerusalem. They were so close on the map.

So I cycled around the golden city, winding up and down the hills to Bethlehem. After a restorative evening with a friend from university (and porridge for breakfast!), I was pedalling once more.

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The ride was beautiful and hilly. Dusk was just settling in as I approached Atawna, I had made it! I turned off the main road, down a bumpy track to the village. Water tanks perched on every roof, unpaved roads, it was a total contrast to the towns around. Something felt quite strange though. After a series of weird interactions, where I tried to speak some Arabic, but got mostly Hebrew in return, the whole atmosphere was shouting at me: something is wrong.

It was only after a rang my friend at the Freedom Theatre and asked him to speak to someone in the village, to try and give me directions, that suspicions were confirmed. ‘Next time give me to someone who knows something about Palestine!’ my aggravated friend said down the phone. I was in fact in Israel. (Palestine ’48).

Feeling quite scared now in this less-than friendly village, with darkness descending rapidly. I tried to get out of the maze of walls and houses as fast as possible, being chased by barking dogs helped with the speed, although also accelerated the fear. Back on the main road, I pedalled my heart out and breathed a sigh of relief as I got back through the check point.

By this time, it was too dark to cycle safely to At-Twani – the Palestinian village I had been aiming for (which didn’t appear on the map). It wasn’t far though, I stuck my thumb out, got a lift, and received a wonderful warm welcome.

The next morning I was sitting on a hilltop, reunited with the Freedom Ride group, listening to Nassar from the Popular Struggle Committe for the South Hebron Hills. To the left of us the village of At-Twani (much prettier than Atawna) is nestled neatly among the slopes, sheep roaming, scattered olive trees, and traditional stone walls lining the roads. To our right, is an illegal settlement.

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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 those living in the settlements (in this area mostly radical orthodox Jews).

Just a few days ago, a six year old girl suffered a head injury after being hit with stones by settlers. This is not unusual, children travelling to the school in At-Twani 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.

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.

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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.

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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.

According to the road map I have been using to cycle across this land, there is no Palestine. If you look on google maps, there is no Palestine.

So what about all of these Palestinians? Of these stunning songs passed through generations? Of this culture, so kind and hospitable that I breathe relief when I pass back through the check point to the West Bank?

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Right now, Israel is ethnically cleansing Palestine. Withstanding over a century of this Zionist project, Palestinians day in day out face the unjust realities of occupation and colonisation with determined spirit, and a call for support.

Time and time again we are asked to share their stories, ‘please, tell people in your countries what is happening’, right now these communities need a life line. They need something to restore faith in democracy, justice, and humanity.

Existence is resistance in the Jordan Valley

“You couldn’t find a better place to go on holiday?” The soldier tried to joke with me as he looked at my passport when I passed through the checkpoint. I ignored him, in my head thinking it would be one of the best places to go on holiday if only him and his army pals would bugger off.

It really would be! Cycling to the Jordan Valley from Jenin was a dream. Friendly faces offering me water and delicious falafel, spectacular scenery and golden sunshine. It was only sights of Israel’s very active colonisation which dampened my soaring spirits.

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I've put my flag here, therefore this land is mine.

I’ve put my flag here, therefore this land is mine.

I arrived in Fasiyel (a Palestinian village in the central Jordan Valley) in good time, but a bit unsure as to what to do next… I didn’t really fancy putting my tent up just anywhere – Area C is now covered with army outposts and settlements. I thought I would just ask in the village if I could pitch up by someone’s house. But first things first – bread and humous took priority.

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As I munched on a late lunch outside the shop, many curious kids and adults approached. Not much English spoken, but I repeated that I loved Palestine (one of the first phrases I learnt in Arabic) – desperate to convey as soon as possible that I wasn’t a settler! Soon I met Abed, who spoke a little more English, ‘where will you stay tonight?’ he asked. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘I have a tent, I was wondering if it’s OK to put it up in the village somewhere?’ He looked aghast. ‘No, no, no! You will stay in our home!’

Over the course of the evening I drank around a gallon of sweet bedouin tea, as I visited various members of Abed’s wonderful, gigantic family! It was very special. The evening ended by rolling vine leaves with rice, ready for lunch tomorrow. I felt completely blessed to get this beautiful insight into village life here in the Jordan Valley, and was smiling from ear to ear.

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In the morning, Abed’s sister Fatima took me to her favourite spot in the garden – where she starts each day by smelling the flowers and drinking tea in the morning sun.

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Having fallen in love with the Jordan Valley, received the warmest welcome from its inabitants, and feeling blown away by the hills, it has been particularly difficult to absorb the ugly truth about what’s happening here.

One month ago, we visited villages whose inhabitants were forced to flee by Zionist militias – through violence and fear 78% of Palestine was ethnically cleansed, in the space of around 18 months. Today, here in the Jordan Valley, the process is slower, but no less brutal. Violence and fear are just two tactics amongst dozens which Israel is currently employing to remove the Palestinian population. Unable to use the pretense of a war (as in 1948), families have not been forced out at gunpoint; they have, however, had their water sources stolen, had their livelihoods destroyed, and their homes demolished.

‘The Zionist line is that they “make the desert bloom”, but they are doing completely the opposite. They have made the breadbasket of Palestine into a desert!’ Rasheed, who coordinates the Jordan Valley solidarity campaign, told us.

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Since Israel started occupying this region in 1967, the population has decreased dramatically. Traditionally a heavily cultivated area, when Israel began its policies of stealing water, preventing Palestinians from accessing their springs, and digging deep wells so as to deprive the shallower Palestinian ones of water, the farmers of the Jordan Valley had little choice but to move.

This used to be a flowing river all year round, until Israel started digging the wells.

This used to be a flowing river all year round, until Israel started digging the wells.

There are many families, however, who are determined to withstand anything that is thrown their way. ‘Sumoud’ (steadfastness) is often said to characterise the Palestinian people, and it is certainly the case here.

Abu Saqeer has watched the Israeli army demolish his home, and those of his neighbours, many times. ‘I don’t have the power to prevent them, so I’m not going to give them the satisfaction of seeing me sad or annoyed. I sit calmly with a cup of tea and watch them’, he tells us.

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When asked if there is any pattern to when they come to demolish, Abu Saqeer says that during winter it is always right before a spell of particularly cold weather comes in. And during summer it is always the hottest days, when you are desperate for shelter, that they come with their bulldozers.

His message is clear though – ‘no matter how much you demolish, I will never leave this land’.

As he speaks, gunfire from a nearby Israeli army training base mingles with the bleating goats and sheep. A military plane roars above us for good measure.

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Stopped by the Israeli military, as we walk through the beautiful hills.

Groups such as the Jordan Valley Solidarity Campaign aim to support these steadfast communities, by helping build mud brick houses, schools, and clinics. These environmentally friendly bricks make buildings that stay warm in winter and are cool in summer.

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If not thirst, parched land, or a bulldozed home, I think the injustice of it all would send me over the edge.

Palestinian communities in the Jordan Valley have water pipes running through their villages and under their homes, to provide the nearby settlements and army bases with water that has been stolen from them, but from which they are no longer allowed to touch. Instead they are forced to buy water at inflated prices, and fund the occupation that oppresses them. According to Amnesty International research, 9,400 Israeli settlers use 6.6 times more water than the 65,000 Palestinian living in the Jordan Valley.

This is apartheid in action.

Israel’s flagrant abuse of international law and disregard for human rights are dangerous for us all. Palestinians in the Jordan Valley are a beautiful example of how to resist, and how to be human – despite living daily with such injustice they are open, kind and generous to fellow humans (particularly if you arrive by bicycle I think!)

Just staying on their land is an amazing feat of courage, determination, and resilience but its time the playing field was leveled. The international community must stop arming Israel; we encourage everyone to join the movement for Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions until Israel starts abiding by international law, and valuing human rights.

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