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