By Melkam Lidet
Saturday morning, July 22, I got off to an early start with two of my friends and about 20 volunteers from ‘Ta’ayush’ to head down to villages southwest of the Hebron Hills. Ta’ayush is an Arab-Jewish organization for non-violent direct action. Part of what it does is to accompany Palestinian shepherds and farmers in the south Hebron area who have experienced settler and/or Israeli army violence, as they work their lands and look after their herds. This Saturday, the group divided into three to head out to three villages. I joined the group going to of Um al Amad.
Once we got to the village, we walked up a hill to meet Munir (not his real name) and his flock of sheep and goats. After exchanging greetings, we were all looking to our right and left, admiring the beautiful scenery and one of Munir’s goats with peculiarly long ears that hang all the way down to its jaws. On this side of the hill, it looked so peaceful with a clear blue sky, bright morning sun, a cool, refreshing breeze and sheep bell jingles in the background. It’s an ideal place for a yoga practice.
On the other side of the hill however lies the Israeli settlement of Otniel surrounded by electric poles and an intimidating watchtower on one side, deep within the West Bank. The settlers are often violent towards the Palestinians and their herds around the area, preventing them from using the farming or grazing land. In addition, the Israeli army posted there to maintain the security of the area and everyone who lives there (both Israelis and Palestinians ostensibly) usually acts with indifference towards settler attacks on the Palestinians. That is, when the soldiers themselves are not using violence towards them.
Back in Um al Amad, Munir started telling us about his 15-year old friend Nadir (not his real name) who was beaten up by the army recently and put in detention for six hours. Before he finished speaking, we spotted a man coming down from the settlement. Two of our group members started preparing their camcorders while Li, our captain for the day reminded us not to use any verbal or physical attack or gestures on the settlers or the soldiers. “You just try to come in between the settlers and the shepherds or their herd and just document them,” she added. While she was explaining, the settler we had our cameras on went back and came down with another man, preceded by an army vehicle. After some conversation with the soldiers, the two settlers came marching up to where we were.
Li then started calling out to the soldiers and telling them that two armed men were coming up and that they should do “their job” which is to protect everyone in the area, but to no avail. The two settlers started getting closer and got to where we were, walking over to the grazing sheep. Li and another man started walking in front of them to block them from going further, talking to them in high pitched Hebrew not to go beyond. But they didn’t listen. Once the sheep fled, the settlers started to back off; only then came the soldiers. It reminded me of this saying in my mother tongue – Amharic: “The dog barks once the hyena has left”; meaning, they only act once the deed is done.
All of this was very foreign to me. It was my first time in such a confrontational proximity to soldiers (and let me just say that I’m not even from a democratic country). That said the soldiers were also the ones I found peculiar and disoriented. They spoke little and did nothing. They would just look at us, then the shepherds, then the settlers and then look around to take pictures of the topography as well as everyone there. I was intrigued.
The argument from the settlers as I later learned was that they want a “security buffer zone” for their settlement even though there’s an understanding that the land where the sheep were grazing is Palestinian. Surprising though is how they can claim a “security buffer zone” when they have a guarded compound with about a dozen soldiers and a police force from the Israeli Civil Administration. Not to mention that they (the settlers) are armed and already have a buffer zone of about 300 meters from their compound. If this is not enough, and if “security zones” and not land grab is what they seek, why don’t they just go back to mainland Israel and live there?
Heading back, I could feel my frustration building up. Thousands of thoughts and questions were racing through my mind faster than I could make sense of them. I felt powerless and betrayed. What would the theories of non-violence and “we can solve everything through dialogue” speak to this situation? What does “yes-can-do, you’re the author of your fate” preaching mean for Palestinians? I wanted to think it meant nothing at all.
The encounter would have ended on a sad, pessimistic even fatalist note for me had it not been for the conversation I had with one of the activists in the bus on our way back from the field. He explained how he only joined such activism recently after living most of his life in oblivion just like the average Israeli. “Because” he said, “indifference is easier”. He shared with me his personal questions: whether his actions as a volunteer prolong the occupation as it creates a state of normalcy within the Palestinian society thus weakening the need for resistance, or it just makes daily life bearable for those that have to live under this occupation. But then, he added, “this is not humanitarian work only. Israelis and Palestinians working together in friendship and equality – we can show our societies and politicians that we, as people, can trust each other”. He reminded me of the significance of citizen diplomacy in non-violent social action. I thought of the possible change that would come by erasing years of “they hate us” lessons from the collective memory of both societies. Suddenly and slowly my faith in joint and collective advocacy started coming back to me.
Yet, I couldn’t help but think what if Nadir was called Elad and he was Israeli and Munir was called Sean and he was American? What if the Israeli soldiers were Palestinian security forces and the land an Israeli Kibbutz? Would the situation and reactions have been the same? How different would my life have been if I were one of the shepherds playing hide-and-seek with those who stole my land; if I were a Palestinian and had to live in constant fear of attack, my rights being violated by individuals and soldiers without any recourse; if my belief in equality of all humans contradicted my reality of double standards. Would I even believe in equality at all?
Melkam Lidet is a Writer for the Media and Information Department at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at [email protected]