Part 1: At-Tuwani
We drive up through hilly rocky land to the stone building in the center of the small village of At-Tuwani. Laundry flaps in the wind from other buildings, the whole place giving a sense of space under bright hot skies. Hafez meet us at the door, and invites us in to sit on mats as he tells us the story of the village.
At-Tuwani is a tenacious town, clinging to its centuries old history. But it has suffered. In 1980 almost 700 people lived in the village, surrounded by their lands where they grew olive trees, and pastured their sheep. But in 1982 the first of the illegal Zionist settlements was established on the hill tops around the village, on land that belonged to Palestinian At-Tuwani families. They have the deeds to prove it dating back to the Ottoman empire. Neither the legal documents nor the actual existence of Palestinians living on the land stopped Zionist settlers from destroying fields and orchards and building houses, aided and abetted by the Israeli army.
The same story took place all over the South Hebron hills, and refugees from other villages fled to At-Tuwani. Other villagers left for Yatta and further places to escape the persecution. But At-Tuwani fought back, and with the help of human rights organizations like Rabbis for Human Rights, Tayush and the International Solidarity Movement they tried to stop the continual encroachment of Israeli settler homes onto At-Tuwani land. By 2002 the population of the village had dropped to a mere 100 residents, the others fleeing in self-protection from attacks from the settlers that were neither impeded by the army or prosecuted by the courts.
At-Tuwani grew as a centre for non-violence. Operation Dove from Italy and Christian Peacemakers Teams arrived to help ensure that there would be an international presence to document the continued abuses, including attacks on children as they made their way to school. Some of these observers suffered serious injury in attacks. Tony Blair heard of the village thanks to the media efforts of the international peace workers, and showed up for a visit in 2010. With his influence the village was finally able to obtain electricity and water, forbidden by the army until then even though wires and pipes ran through the village to the settlement.
Today the village is still under constant threat from the settlers who move closer and closer one house at a time. Hafez tells us of a particularly horrific attack on his elderly mother as she herded sheep. When he heard her cries he was meeting with Jewish Israeli peacemakers. They ran to the field where she was being attacked and found her bloodied with her jaw broken. One of the settlers shot at Hafez as he ran toward them, wounding an Israeli peacemaker. Only when the bullets were gone did they turn, abandon the sheep they were trying to steal and run back to their settlement.
Hafez talks about how hard it was afterwards to stick to his commitment to non-violence. But his mother, released from hospital three days later, told him that he must look to the future, to hope and peace. Revenge was worth nothing.
Today At-Tuwani runs an annual festival for non-violence. Jews, Christians and Muslims both international and local come together to work for a just future. It still suffers attacks from settlers and persecution from the army. But it is a place of courage and hope. Villagers have started to return and the population has risen to 350. Every week the villagers perform a non-violent resistance action, whether it is simply building a fence or replanting trees. But their greatest action is simply staying there and working for a normal future for their children on the land of their ancestors.
Part 2: Susya
The ramshackle collection of makeshift tents hardly qualifies for the title village in my experience, but Susya has a heart of home. Nasser Nawaja tells us of the severe persecution suffered by this little village as it tries to maintain its precarious existence under constant threat. Like At-Tuwani, a Zionist settlement has been established nearby on the land of the Palestinian villagers. And they want to grow.
Susya was first demolished in 1986 when the Israeli government discovered an ancient synagogue on their land and told them that they could not live that near to an archaelogical site. Many of the stone homes of this old village were destroyed and the villagers shifted across the road. A month later, zionist settlers moved into the remaining houses and started to build their own.
The Susya Palestinians complained but to no avail. Their new houses were constantly attacked, either demolished by the army or sabotaged by the settlers. They were told they were on their land illegally and had to leave. Their wells were poisoned, one by settlers dropping an old car in it. Their olive trees were cut.
Then four months ago a radical settler organization called Rigavim applied to the supreme court to have Susya destroyed once and for all. Human rights organizations, both Israeli and international have been advocating and protesting but so far without success.
The whole area is under attack by settlers and army. Last night 45 olive trees belonging to a neighboring Palestinian family were cut down by settlers. Any semi-permanent residences are destroyed. Roads are blocked.
Nasser's cell phone rings as we sit under the tree. We can tell by his voice he is agitated. He works for a Jewish Israeli human rights organization called Bet' Salem, or 'Shoot Back', which takes pictures of human rights violations. The caller tells him a road into a nearby village has been bulldozed by the army. We ask if we can go with him to take pictures and he invites us along. We are joined by some members of a British Jewish human rights organization called Yachad. Their leader is a Jewish Israeli man, a young former soldier who also joined a group called Breaking the Silence, former soldiers who speak of the atrocities they performed and work for justice and peace. it's worth googling them to find out more.
As we drive to the village, we stop briefly so Nasser can show us the olive trees chopped down last night. 'Death to Arabs' has been spray painted on a nearby rock. When we arrive at the road, it looks as if bombs have been set off all along it. The stone walls that lined it have been caved in and deep gouges intersperse piles of boulders. Nasser tells me the road was funded by 'Save the Children' foundation. A neighbour tells me it is the only access to the village, who were supposed to receive a water cistern.
The army says it can demolish roads and homes because if they are built without a permit. But the Israeli government does not grant permits to Palestinians. So clinics, schools and homes must be built without permits only to be destroyed again and again. I wonder how the families in this village will cope. I wonder what the generous people of 'Save the Children' will think. I wonder how and when this will ever end.