Ismael has violent neighbors

To read this in Norwegian, click here.

The Palestinian village of Bir al ‘Idd is perched like an eagle’s nest on a hillside of South Hebron Hills, and offers amazing views over the vast, arid landscapes of the southern West Bank. This place takes my breath away every time I come there. On the surface, the place appears so peaceful. However, the villagers of Bir al ‘Idd are very unfortunate with their neighbors.

Ismael's sheep can enjoy the panorama

Even the sheep can enjoy the panorama

On both sides of the village, extremist Israeli settlers have established their outposts over the years. The infamous settlement of Mitzpe Yair lies to the north and controls the access road: In November we witnessed that the road was blocked with truckloads of sand. And the Israeli Army keeps blocking it at regular intervals.

The road to Bir al Idd is a mere track, but the Army keeps blocking it

The road to Bir al Idd is a mere rough track, but the Army keeps blocking it. The main road only goes to the settlement.

Our contact in Bir al ‘Idd, the 65-year old farmer Ismael Adara, can tell us that the settlers and soldiers in the area harass him frequently. Last time we met him, soldiers had been throwing stones at his tent just a few days before, waking him up in the middle of the night. Ismael had ran out just in time to see the Israeli soldiers speed away in their jeep. A few days before that, the settler Jacob Taljah from the neighboring outpost Nof Nesher, or Lucifer’s Farm, came up and accused Ismael of steeling his sheep.

Jacob Taljah

Jacob Taljah

In the South Hebron Hills, Jacob Taljah is known as an extremist settler who moved here from South Africa 20 years ago, after he converted to Judaism.

It’s not the first time he accuses the Palestinians living in the vicinity of theft. So Ismael suggested:

-Let the sheep walk freely, and see which way they prefer to go. If they are yours, they will of course go to Lucifer’s Farm. Now if they’re mine, they’ll come to me.

Jacob could only accept this proposition, and the lambs immediately ran back to Ismael’s pen.

Ismael, our contact in Bir al 'Idd

Ismael, our contact in Bir al ‘Idd

That situation ended well, but Ismael has been in real trouble before. In August last year, settlers from nearby Mitzpe Yair attacked him in the fields and beat him up so badly that Ismael had to be hospitalized in nearby Hebron for three days. The Ecumenical Accompaniers (EAs) in Hebron visited him in hospital.

Ismael recounts:

-The Israelis came onto me when I was herding my sheep alone. They knocked me down with a direct headbutt, and kicked and beat me savagely with their sticks. Ismael is not a young man anymore, and he couldn’t possibly have dealt with several attackers. Luckily for him, the Israeli Army had an ambulance nearby, and Ismael was rushed to the Aliyah hospital in Hebron. He could go home after three days, but when we meet him, he says his shoulder still hurts badly, and he has had to return to hospital for further scans and follow-up three times over the last 6 months.

Ismael shows us how the settlers attacked

Ismael shows us how the settlers attacked

-My shoulder still hurts when I work, Ismael says.

And life in Bir al ‘Idd entails a lot of hard work.

The settler assault on Ismael was actually widely disseminated in the media, and this is not the only time the inhabitants of Mitzpe Yair have committed severe acts of violence.

The settlement of Mitzpe Yair (“Yair lookout”) was established in October 1998 by people who wanted to take revenge on the local Palestinians for the alleged murder of a settler named Yair Har-Sinai. Today, Mitzpe Yair consists of an encampment of mobile homes on a windswept hilltop close to Bir al ‘Idd.

The outpost of Mitzpe Yair on a nearby hilltop

The outpost of Mitzpe Yair on a nearby hilltop

There have been so many reports of violence by the settlers of this encampment, that the Israeli Police last fall conducted an operation to test their behavior.

According to our guide Ayal Kantz from the Israeli organization Breaking the Silence, the policemen dressed up as Palestinians and approached the hilltop. They were then fiercely attacked before they could even explain that they were police.

The incident created quite a scandal in Israel, and the Minister of the Interior had to promise that the Police would not use such tactics again. So can the settlers attack people with impunity? I wonder who controls the settlers and their organizations.

Lucifer's farm, another outpost nearby

Lucifer’s farm, another outpost nearby

No one was ever sentenced for the attack on Ismael. Furthermore, the villagers of Bir al ‘Idd continue to experience pressure from the Army, which administers the area. There were several demolitions in June 2012, even though an Israeli court annuled the demolition order. Ismael and Abu Tareq, the two heads of families in the village, are not allowed to rebuild anything. Hence, the families live in tents which give no protection against the winter storms. And the weather can be harsh in the South Hebron Hills.

Arik Aschermann from Rabbis for Human Rights met Ismael shortly after the attack

Arik Aschermann from Rabbis for Human Rights met Ismael shortly after the attack (Photo:

All these episodes point towards a deliberate Israeli policy of making the lives of Palestinians in the area miserable, so as to drive them out. But Ismael is not giving up.

In fact, Bir al ‘Idd was abandoned for ten years after the Army evicted all the Palestinians. However, the Israeli organization Rabbis for Human Rights fought for the village in Court, and the four families of Bir al ‘Idd could finally return in 2009.

Despite ongoing pressure by the Army and the settlers, Ismael intends to stay: He has experienced displacement once before, and he will not let it happen to his family again.

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You want to go to school? Papers, please!

To read this in Norwegian, click here.

A tall fence, topped with barbed wire, runs just below the windows of Imneizil primary school in South Hebron Hills. This fence is a part of the separation barrier that Israel is currently building around the West Bank. Some of the students at Imneizil live on the other side of the fence, and have to cross a military checkpoint every day to go to school. One of our main tasks as Ecumenical Accompaniers (EAs) here in South Hebron Hills is to monitor this school run and accompany the kids through the checkpoint.

My colleague and I accompanying the kids

My colleague and I accompanying the kids

After two weeks of holiday, school will resume tomorrow in the West Bank. We’ve been here for two months now, and the children recognize us and are always happy to see us. The EAs usually meet them a few hundred meters from the school, and walk with them through the checkpoint itself, which is called Beit Yatir. At the checkpoint, the kids have to show their IDs and have their school bags searched and scanned. The guards know the kids after all these years, and watch as the younger ones run around, play and taunt each other like kids do everywhere. Indeed, the youngest are only 6 years old. They’ve gotten just as used to security guards and guns at the checkpoint as American kids are to yellow school buses. However, even though the guards are polite and and we haven’t seen any problems yet, we know that there have been difficulties before.

The Israeli authorities are in fact requiring the kids who live outside the Fence to carry special permits, which they have to get renewed every three months. It has happened that kids have been detained for hours because they forgot their papers at home.

My Swiss colleague at the checkpoint

My Swiss colleague at the checkpoint

You might think it’s strange that kids living outside the Fence attend school in the West Bank. But in fact, all the students at Imneizil live in the West Bank! The problem is that Israel’s new separation fence does not run along the internationally recognized border between Israel and the West Bank, the so-called “Green Line“. In places such as Beit Yatir, the fence runs deep into the West Bank. 7,500 Palestinians thus live trapped between the Fence and the Green Line, in a special military area called the “Seam Zone”.

Even though Israel treats the Seam Zone as an integral part of its own territory, the Palestinians living there cannot travel freely to the rest of the country. At the same time, they are closed out from the West Bank, where they typically have their relatives, friends, and school (Before the Fence was set up ten years ago, the kids could go to school without problems).

Me and Amir, 8 years old, on the way to his village

Amir, 8 years old, and me on the way to his village outside the Fence

Amir and Jamilat are two of the children we meet at the crossing. They are 8 and 6 years old respectively, and live in the village of As Seefer in the seam zone. Both are always fascinated by my sunglasses, and they ask me if I remembered to bring them colored crayons. Their home is just a few hundred meters away from Imneizil school, but they have to pass by the armed guards twice every weekday to get there. If their father goes to the nearby town of Yatta to do shopping, the guards search his vehicle upon his return, and it has happened that they have confiscated his shopping bags. The Palestinians in the seam zone make up one of the most vulnerable groups in the whole territory, caught between a rock and a hard place. We EAs visit the village of As Seefer often, and we know how isolated and impoverished the villagers are.

Usually the crossing goes well, and we walk with Amir and Jamilat a few hundred meters up the road before we have to turn back. At the checkpoint I turn around one last time and I see them strolling home – on the other side of the barbed wire.

My EA colleagues and the kids. The settlement of Mezadot Yehuda is directly to the right

My EA colleagues and the kids. The settlement of Mezadot Yehuda is directly to the right.

Some people are happy with the route of the Fence: The settlers in Mezadot Yehuda, which lies right next to As Seefer village. This settlement is actually situated inside the West Bank, but outside the Fence, and the “seam zone ” problems do not affect the settlers. The inhabitants of Mezadot Yahuda are considered full citizens of Israel with all their rights and privileges, and they can travel, work, and shop as they want.

To them, the West Bank is a totally different place – on the other side of the barbed wire.

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Occupation? What occupation?

To read this in Norwegian, click here.

Recently, the Ecumenical Accompaniers (EAs) had their mid-term orientation, which consisted of a week of seminars focusing on the Israeli side of the conflict. In order to understand more, we headed straight for one of the core issues of the conflict: We visited the settlement of Efrat south of Bethlehem. Efrat is situated deep into the West Bank, which the international community views as occupied by Israel. According to international law, it is illegal for an occupying power to move its population, by force or willingly, to the occupied area (IV Geneva Convention, Art 49.). Hence, Israeli settlements are considered illegal by every government in the world except Israel itself.

Bob Lang, spokesman for the settlement

Bob Lang, spokesman for the settlement

We visited Bob Lang, and American Jew who moved to Efrat more than 30 years ago. Bob has his house and his job there, and his kids go to school in the neighborhood. Bob thinks, just like the Israeli government, that he has the full right to live in the West Bank:

-Jews used to live in this area before World War II. Don’t forget that. Then the Jordanians came in 1948 and threw us out, and no Jews could live here until after Israel won the war in 1967. After that, we could finally rebuild our homes in this area. In 1967 there was nothing here, and now we have a well-organized community. The people you meet here are normal people just like you and me: Most of them commute to Jerusalem every day to work.

-We Jews have the right to live in this land between the sea and the Jordan River. The land was promised to us, and is Holy to us. Israel is of course sacred to Muslims and Christians as well, but you cannot deny us the right to live here. Look at this map, Bob said,

-There are no good maps of Israel.

Why aren't the cities in palestine marked on this map?

Why aren’t the cities in Palestine marked on this map?

-But when you hear about Israel in the media I’m sure quite a few of you think that Israel is a big place. But that’s wrong – Israel is small. In order for us to be able to defend ourselves, we need to control the highlands of Judea and Samaria, or what you call the West Bank. Without those areas, Israel is defenseless.

Security issues take up a large portion of Bob’s presentation on this rainy afternoon. Bob accepts many of the current policies in the West Bank because he thinks they increase security for the Israelis. For instance, he accepts that Israelis are legally barred from visiting many Palestinian towns, because he knows examples of Israelis who have been lynched there. In his view then, security supersedes the need for maintaining regular meeting places between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Before the Second Intifada (2000-2004), Israelis would travel much more often into the Palestinian areas to shop, sightsee or just eat out. We EAs have learned that after Israel set up the Wall around the West Bank from 2000 onwards, these everyday interactions between Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank have been drastically reduced.

-Why don’t you use the Biblical names Judea and Samaria? Bob asked.

-In other circumstances, you refer to the Galilee and the Negev all the time, and these are Biblical terms too. The designation “West Bank” is an artificial expression made up by the Jordanians, who consider themselves the “East Bank”, Bob insisted.

-The Jordanians expelled all the Jews from this area and confiscated their land, something that almost no other government in the world accepted. Bob argues that if almost no one acknowledged Jordan’s annexation of the West Bank, they can also not say that Israel occupied the West Bank from Jordan in 1967.

To Bob, Judea, which is to the south of Jerusalem, and Samaria, which is to the north, consitute the heart of the Promised Land. These are the old Jewish provinces where the Biblical stories happened, not the coastal plains and Tel Aviv where most Israelis live today.

In short, Bob is very confident that his case for settling in the West Bank is strong. He adds that the Efrat settlement has a good relationship with its Palestinian neighbors:

-Who did we call when the last Gaza war began? First we called our families, then we

Ny library in Efrat

New library in Efrat

called the Palestinians. We don’t want anything bad to befall them. We know them well, here in Efrat they work alongside Israelis in the supermarket, for instance. I think the average Palestinian wants peace, but the problem is their leadership.

Bob spends a lot of time criticizing the Palestinian Authority:

-We have offered them peace several times, but they refuse! Their leadership is corrupt and mismanaged, and they still do not accept the existence of Israel. They still talk about “liberating all of Palestine”! Bob paused.

-Are they my partner for peace? he asked rhetorically.

Modern healthcare facilities in Efrat

Modern healthcare facilities in Efrat

-Aren’t you and the settlements an obstacle to peace? We asked.

But Bob Lang was confident that he was right. He just perceived the narrative about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a diametrically opposite to the histories we hear in the field. He knows Palestinians and condemns settler violence agains them, but he also defends the need to rule the territory with military force. Bob Lang  did not worry too much about the borders between the West Bank, and he refused to call it an “Occupation”.

Regardless of what the politicians, diplomats and international lawyers say, I see a country that controls another by military force. I see the soldiers, the guns, the barbed wire, the armored cars in the field. Every day. I see Palestinians who strongly dislike this rule, who get treated differently from the Israeli settlers, who get treated unfairly, and who protest against this situation. Every day.

What I see is an occupation, regardless of how the politicians and diplomats label it.

And in the middle of it all lies Efrat, surrounded by barbed wire. Here lives Bob Lang, and his reality is completely different from the one that surrounds him. Still, he invited us to his home, and I am grateful that he took the time to talk to us about his side of the story.

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“Do They Hate Us?”

Last week, the Ecumenical Accompaniers were invited to participate in Shabbat celebrations in Jerusalem. We went to the Kehilat Yedidiya synagogue, where we sat in for the evening prayer. Kehilat Yedidiya is a congregation that is used to welcoming visitors from all faiths.

Deborah Weissmann, former Chair of the Council on Jewish-Christian Relations, is a member of the synagogue and welcomed us with a smile:

-It has been a hard week with lots of snow in Jerusalem, and people are tired on a Friday evening. If you fall asleep during the sermon, you won’t be alone!

The prayer consisted of Kabbalat Shabbat – welcoming the day of rest. The entire congregation joined in the singing, and the atmosphere was solemn, yet relaxed. Children were playing in the aisles, and people prayed in their own rhythm.

Inside the synagogue. Photo: Kehilat Yedidiya

Inside the synagogue. Photo: Kehilat Yedidiya

The service was a very nice experience. Still, the highlight of our evening was to be invited to Shabbat dinner after the service. I thus had the privilege of joining a Jewish family in their home in the Talpiyot neighborhood of Jerusalem, along with two other EAs. Our hosts had also invited some other friends and their children to share the evening with us.

Before the dinner we washed our hands in silence, and our hosts blessed the wine and thechallah, the bread. They also sang to welcome the Shabbat angels into the house: According to some Jewish rites, two angels accompany every person home from the synagogue on the eve of Shabbat. The dinner itself was a feast consisting of many tasty, home-cooked dishes.

We had already realized that our host and his friend were politically liberal. They were genuinely interested in our experiences as Ecumenical Accompaniers in the West Bank, and they also asked about what we do back home. Since I just graduated from university, the question of where I studied came up.

-The American University in Cairo? Wow! Bruce, one of our host’s friends, said.

-What was it like to study there?

-Well, I learned a lot about the Arab perspective on Israel and Palestine. So, it’s also good for me to come here and hear the other side of the story.

-I’m glad to hear that. Bruce nodded. All of a sudden, his daughter burst out:

-Do they hate us?

That question hit me right in the stomach. She hadn’t said anything until then. She basically wanted to know whether my Lebanese, Palestinian, and Egyptian friends hate her. If they hate her for being Israeli. I wasn’t prepared for such a question, and what do you answer to that? I thought for a second about the word “hate”. A strong, harsh word which didn’t belong in that house, in such pleasant company. The word “hate” left a gloomy atmosphere around the table.

I though it was sad that she, a 21-year old girl with her entire life ahead of her, asked this question first and foremost. I hesitated.

-Tell us the truth, everyone said,

-We probably know it already. And don’t worry, we can handle to hear it from you.

Bruce continued: Do your Arab friends perceive Israel as a Western, colonial power, or as the Jews returning to their home?

-I know students in Cairo who don’t think that Israel fits into the region as things stand today, I finally replied, -To them, Israel ripped apart the common cultural and social fabric that was the Middle East before, and now they don’t know what to think about the country. There are so many painful stories. In Cairo, I met Lebanese who were teenagers during the war in 2006, I met Palestinians who grew up in refugee camps…

– And the hatred exists. Unfortunately, it does.

Our hosts and their friends nodded and understood. We sat in silence for moment.

The rest of the evening we often returned to the topic of the occupation, the settlers, and the clashes we have witnessed between soldiers and Palestinians. Our new Israeli friends appreciated that we told our stories, and they understood the problems the Palestinians face in the West Bank. Our host had even worked on human rights issues in the Occupied Territory before. We had a great night and enjoyed unforgettable hospitality, but I was reminded that politics are never far away when you talk to Palestinians and Israelis.

And on my first Shabbat, I faced some difficult questions. As I make more friends on both sides of the conflict, the tough questions become even more difficult.

The solution must be peace. Hatred is not perpetual; it can and must be changed. If 1948 tore up the Middle East, a just peace can sow it together again, with Israel as a natural part. My host in Jerusalem agreed. His friends agreed. I know that many in Israel and Palestine, and elsewhere in the Middle East, agree. As Israel gears up for elections next week, this message is more important than ever.

Shabbat shalom, and have a nice weekend.

From Acre, Israel (pictured) to Beirut is only about 110 kms. Photo: J. Roko

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“Do They Hate Us?”

I am reposting this from the official EA Blog: “Do They Hate Us?”, since I translated it from Norwegian.

Have a good week!


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Demolition Day

To read the Norwegian version, click here.

This week, the Israeli Army suddenly decided to demolish a number of houses here in the South Hebron Hills. The bulldozers came early in the morning to Um al Khair, a little village situated between a Jewish settlement and the desert. There, the Army demolished the house of a Beduin family. This family was first evicted from their original home in the Negev desert in 1948, and now the Army seems to want to chase them away from Um al Khair as well.

The Israeli Army demolished the house of the Hadalin family. 8 people lived in the house

The Israeli Army demolished the house of the Hadalin family. 8 people lived in the house

Um al Khair is one of the most vulnerable communities here in the South Hebron Hills. However, the bulldozers were not finished – they went on to al Hawarah, another hamlet a few miles north on the way to Yatta. Here, the Ecumenical Accompaniers (EAs) were present while the demolition took place. The procedure is usually the same: The Army sets up a closed military perimeter and forces people out of the house. A few pieces of furniture might also be salvaged before the machines go to work.

The soldiers keep people away from the bulldozers

The soldiers keep people away when the bulldozers arrive

Of course, people get extremely upset when the soldiers arrive. The families had received the demolition orders only a few months before. In addition, the Army chooses to demolish people’s homes in the middle of winter, when it can get really cold here in the West Bank. Last week we even had a blizzard in Yatta. So where are people supposed to go when their homes lay in ruins and the storm clouds gather?

Soldiers prevent the family from getting close to the demolition

Soldiers prevent the family from getting close to the demolition

A bulldozer can turn a house into a pile of rubble within a matter of minutes.

Ecumenical Accompanier observes the demolition

Ecumenical Accompanier observes the demolition

To witness a house demolition is an upsetting experience, but the worst is to see the people affected. Tears, anger, despair. Israeli authorities would state that the house was built without permission, and that it is therefore a normal administrative procedure to demolish it. The Civil Administration, which is the name of the military institution that manages large parts of the West Bank, is preoccupied with ensuring that people obey bureaucratic regulations. However, the story is not that simple: Palestinians living in so-called “Area C” (under full Israeli control) almost never get their building applications accepted.

The bulldozers doing their grim work

The bulldozers doing their grim work

In fact, Area C covers more than 60% of the West Bank, but only 1% of building applications in this area receive approval. Now, the Palestinians have lived here for decades, maybe centuries, and they want to improve their homes and their lives. Families grow naturally, and new ones are founded. So what do the Palestinians do? They build anyways, on the land where they’ve always lived.

When wrecked roof sheets and rubble are the only things left and the bulldozers return home, the Army considers its job done. The Army has used vast resources on that day: Fifteen soldiers and their assistants, and two massive Volvo machines have travelled miles and miles just to destroy a few small houses. However, the Army has stated an example, and proved again that they can make lives difficult for the Palestinians. The UN actually interprets such events as part of a long-term policy to drive as many Palestinians as possible out of Area C. The Israeli Army obviously ignores the widely held view that displacement of people from occupied territory is a flagrant violation of International Law.

Alaa Mohammad Etay looks at the furniture that was rescued at the last moment

Alaa Mohammad Etay looks at the furniture that was rescued at the last moment

Alaa Mohamad and his little brother sitting on the ruins of heir home

Alaa Mohamad and his little brother sitting on the ruins of heir home

House demolitions happen every day in Palestine. But that doesn’t mean they become routine. For every family, it’s a shock. For every house, it’s a lifetime’s worth of savings and investments that are lost. For every home, only the memories are left.

The Etay family and their former home. 15 people lived here

The Etay family and their former home. 15 people lived here.

Fortunately, the families receive some emergency assistance after the demolitions: The ICRC provides tents the same day, and Doctors Without Borders offer psychological therapy. But it’s cold to live in a tent in the South Hebron Hills in January. Both people and their livestock are freezing, and the Etay family needs water, electricity and firewood.  The EAs talk to them and contact organizations which can help. A group of journalists pass by and take pictures. But their focus is quickly shifted somewhere else, and the Palestinians are soon left with their daily lives. Then, it’s more important than ever that the EAs follow-up.

EA talking to the women and children

EA talking to the women and children

The Occupation forces use Volvo

The Occupation forces use Volvo!

Usually it is possible to counter a demolition order with a court case, and many demolitions here in the South Hebron Hills have been postponed in this way. The Rabbis for Human Rights and the Norwegian Refugee Council can offer invaluable help in this regard.

It is very tough for the children to see their home be destroyed

It is very tough for the children to see their home be destroyed

The EAs in South Hebron Hills just hope that Israel will not have another Demolition Day any time soon. Have a good week.

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