By Ellen Davidson
ANATA, East Jerusalem, August 9—What happens when some 60-plus well-intentioned international activists swarm into the hills south of Hebron? It stirs up some hornets is what.
Participants in the seventh annual summer rebuilding camp here, sponsored by the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) took two days off from reconstructing demolished houses here in Anata to build toilets and a stable in the Bedouin village of Omer Kher in South Mount Hebron.
Because we are such a large group, we go in two sections — the first on Friday and Saturday, the second on Saturday and Sunday. I am in the first group; we start with a tour of the area accompanied by a member of Breaking the Silence, a group of ex-soldiers speaking out about their experiences in an occupying army. We pass through a checkpoint, where we are asked if we are leftists, whether we plan to do any “left things,” and why we are carrying 30-some mattresses and blankets in the luggage compartment of the bus.
Ilan Fathi, the ex-soldier, tells the young Israeli soldiers that he is indeed leftist, but that the only “left thing” he will be doing is talking. The guard says he will be sure to send a patrol by to see what we are up to. Fathi says that he is an Israeli citizen doing nothing illegal, and eventually they let us through.
Fathi explains to us how the population around Hebron has shifted since 1948. Originally, the Israeli strategy was to push as many Palestinians as possible west of the Green Line, the border between Israel and what was then the Jordanian-administered West Bank. Since the occupation began in 1967, the goal has been to force the Palestinians off the agricultural land and into the cities. He tells us how the villages surrounding Hebron have expanded into vast refugee camp cities, as the Palestinians are chased away from their farms by settlers and the Israeli military.
We finally arrive in the village of Susya, which consists of several large tents and a dozen pens holding sheep, goats and chickens. Susya has one toilet — a porcelain hole you squat over and douse with water from a nearby bucket when you’re done. These people are poorer than poor. Everything here is put to use — an old truck bed forms part of a chicken run; the tent poles are weighted down with old tires filled with rocks. Every available scrap of metal, wood and plastic is cobbled together to make animal pens and other structures.
The residents, refugees forced out of Beersheba further to the south in 1948, are very excited to have us, and they crowd us into a tent to give us a presentation on the history of the village, which has been moved and reconstructed multiple times.
Across the dry rocky valley, we can see an Israeli settlement, also called Susya, located where the original Bedouin Susya once stood.
We won’t be working on the toilets and stable, we are told, because the project has already attracted Israeli military attention and soldiers have threatened to demolish anything we build, plus all the “illegal” houses in the village, if we proceed. Instead, we split into smaller groups for other tasks.
I go over the next hill to an even smaller cluster of tents and animal pens. Some of us are asked to clean out a cave, while others build a small terrace from the ubiquitous rocks. Down in the cave, we are literally digging shit — a thick covering of sheep and goat droppings has fused into a thick moist layer on the cave floor, and at first, we can pull up large flat peat-like chunks, which we hand up a chain to be piled nearby. Soon we are into the more densely packed strata, and we scoop the wetter, crumbly pieces into makeshift baskets. The smell of ammonia is so strong that we have to spell each other, trading off digging in the airless cave with carrying the waste to the surface. We tie rags around our mouths and noses, but this traps the heat to our faces.
After an hour, much to our relief, we are called up to lunch, where we are served a delicious spread of fried eggplant and salad that we scoop up with fresh chewy bread. After lunch, we traipse back across to the main village, where the promised Israeli patrol has dropped by. The soldiers follow us as we are dispatched to a field to clear rocks and dig a water hole — there are no springs here; water is stored in holes and must be delivered. It costs the villagers 50 euros for 10 cubic yards. For Israelis, the price is 10 euros for the same amount.
As the soldiers look on from 30 yards up the hill, we carry rocks off to the side of a football field-sized area in homemade baskets constructed from old tires. The soldiers eventually leave, but later we spot some more on a hilltop off to the west, staring down at us through binoculars.
As the sun gets lower, we gradually knock off work, and the Palestinians and the mostly Spanish members of our house-building camp start up a game of football (soccer) in the cleared field, using old tires as goalposts. From my vantage point on a rock overlooking the game, it’s impossible to tell who’s winning or even if there are defined teams.
After dinner we hear presentations from Combatants for Peace, a group of former fighters from both sides of the conflict who have joined together to explore nonviolent ways of resolving the conflict. We also hear from Sahar Vardi, an ICAHD staffer who served three months in jail for refusing to do military service. In the background, the residents of Susya sing, clap and dance around a campfire.
Most of us choose to sleep in our clothes rather than contaminating our pajamas with our redolent selves; for those of us who worked in the cave, the odor of dung that clings to us is now a badge of honor.
At about 4 a.m., roosters from all over the village start a lively conversation. The donkey occasionally chimes in with a sustained commentary.
After a refreshing breakfast of salad, hummus, bread, and tea with mint and sugar, we return to the field to dig and clear some more. We are supposed to be relieved by the second group of ICAHD volunteers so that we can go on a tour of Hebron city, but we are told that they have been held up at a checkpoint set up especially for them. They finally arrive, and we leave the hot sun for a while.
Hebron, a city of some 180,000, is divided into H1, under nominative Palestinian control (although our guide, Hisham Sarabouti informs us that Israeli soldiers do not hesitate to patrol in this part), and the Israeli military-controlled H2, where 35,000 Palestinians live with severely restricted mobility in order to segregate them from some 800–1,000 violent and hostile Israeli settlers. For more on this, see my Indypendent article, “Living and Dying in a Divided City,” Sept. 17, 2007
When we return, we go to the village of Omer Kher, which sits right next to the Israeli settlement of Karmel. This is unusual, as most settlements are surrounded by a security area set up by the military, making yet more land inaccessible to the Palestinian farmers. We can see the identical yellow houses as we clamber down a steep rocky slope to yet another rock-filled field; there are no windows on the sides facing the Palestinian community, although a view in this direction would overlook the desert valley. Because it is Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, no one is visible on the streets, although an Israeli military jeep guards the entrance.
As start down to the field, one of the Palestinian villagers stands in our way, arguing with the others and becoming increasingly agitated. Later, he apologizes to us, explaining through a translator that he was afraid that the presence of so many internationals would draw unwanted attention from settlers and the military.
After another afternoon of rock-gathering, we climb back up the hill; this time, however, some of the settlers are outside their houses watching us. We rejoin the second group at Susya for dinner and a presentation from Bet Tselem, an Israeli human rights group that has supplied Palestinians in Hebron’s H2 with video cameras to record the frequent incidents of harassment by the settlers. We watch some shocking footage of settlers throwing rocks at people while soldiers do nothing to prevent it. Some of this has made its way into the mainstream media and even former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said it made him “ashamed.” To no one’s surprise, it hasn’t moved him to any action about the situation.
Finally, our group piles on the bus to go back to our main camp in Anata and some welcome showers. We never thought we’d consider the Beit Arabeia, the house where we sleep on mattresses on the floor practically on top of each other, so luxurious.
Things don’t go so smoothly for the second group, however. They are awakened by a settler boy accompanied by four soldiers, who is telling Nasser, one of the Bedouin villagers, that it’s not his land. Nasser takes it in stride, explaining that this happens every two or three days.
During the group’s Hebron city tour they witness soldiers shouting at a Palestinian who tried to take a picture of the Abraham Mosque/Synagogue with his cell phone, and other soldiers entering the mosque without taking their shoes off, a sign of great disrespect.
When they return to Omer Kher to clean rocks off the road and fill in holes with gravel, they are visited by a contingent of military and police accompanied by a settler. Eventually the area commander tells them to stop working, although there is nothing illegal about what they are doing. Rather than risk an escalation of the confrontation that might have repercussions for the residents later, the ICAHD volunteers stop, instead marching around the settlement, accompanied by some 20 soldiers and police.
“We use whatever space we have,” explains Julia Alfondari, an ICAHD staffer. For the Palestinians, space is becoming increasingly hard to find.