Sunday, October 21, 2007

Good Shepherds

You, God, are my Shepherd
I will never be in need.
You let me rest in fields of green grass
You lead me to streams of peaceful water,
And you refresh my life.

Abu Basil walks slowly, constantly mumbling to himself and to his sheep. At 70, he is the oldest man living in at-Tuwani. Within his life time, he has seen the end the British mandate over Palestine, the beginnings of Jewish immigration to his homeland, the 1964 Israeli occupation of the West Bank, and the arrival Israeli settlers in the South Hebron Hills. Throughout all of these changes, the rhythms of Abu Basil’s life have remained steady. This morning I found him grazing his sheep in a valley near the Ma’on settlement. Like every morning when I accompany him in his fields, Abu Basil shook my hand and then motioned for me to sit down on a rock. For a while we talked - not much since Abu Basil’s Arabic is nearly incomprehensible to the best Arabic speakers on our team - about Ramadan and his baby goats. While we spoke, his month-old kids baaed and trotted over towards greener thistles on the opposite hillside. Abu Basil arose from his rock and walked over to them, shouting, waving his arms, and tossing rocks in their path. Eventually the goats followed his commands and left the ungrazed hillside for the all but barren valley. Abu Basil sat in silence while he waited for his herd to finish. Then, abruptly as always, Abu Basil dismissed me with a nod, indicating that he was heading home. I stood up and gathered my bag and camera, but then Abu Basil took my hand. “I can’t go to the hill,” he told me, “because of the Israelis.”

You are true to your name
And you lead me along the right paths.

I may walk through valleys as dark as death,

But I won’t be afraid.

You are with me,

And your shepherd’s rod

Makes me feel safe

The people of at-Tuwani village have been shepherds for generations. Raising sheep and goats provides meat for the family and wool and dairy products for sale in the nearby city of Yatta. But in the 1980s, extremist Israeli settlers moved onto land belonging residents of At-Tuwani and other neighboring Palestinian communities. Now shepherding is a tricky business. Because of settlement expansion and Israeli army restrictions, shepherds like Abu Basil cannot access enough land to graze their flocks. Settlers attack Palestinian shepherds in their fields. CPTers now accompany shepherds in these dangerous areas. Most mornings I pack up my video camera and cell phone and walk out to Khourba hill. I pick a comfortable rock to sit on and chat with shepherds, as old as 70 and as young as 14, who quietly herd their folks, occasionally looking over their shoulders at Havot Ma’on settlement. Knowing full well the dangers they face, these farmers calmly call to their sheep and goats and stand their ground.

You treat me to a feast,
While my enemies watch.

You honor me as your guest,

And you fill my cup Until it overflows

In the face of violence and injustice, the shepherds of at-Tuwani still find land sufficient for their flocks. The settlements may have electricity 24 hours day and water to spare, but at-Tuwani is rooted firmly to the land it has always known. As the villages of the South Hebron Hills organize themselves to nonviolently resist the expansion of Israeli settlements, slowly they are reclaiming more and more of their land. In 2004, when Christian Peacemaker Teams was invited to accompany shepherds in at-Tuwani, the valleys and hills to the south of Havot Ma’on settlement were inaccessible. Now, thanks to their courage and determination, shepherds are able to graze in more of their land than at any time since the arrival of Israeli settlers. The quiet persistence of these shepherds gives me the hope I need to continue working here in the South Hebron Hills. Come what may, I believe the people of at-Tuwani will still be here.

Your kindness and love
Will always be with me
Each day of my life,
And I will live forever
In your house, God.

Text: Psalm 23 from the Hebrew Scriptures

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

At-Tuwani Dance Party!

I challenge anyone to find cuter children, or better dancers.


A few days ago, I sat on a hillside surrounded by sheep and kept an eye out for armed Israeli settlers through binoculars. I watched goats munching on thistles and Palestinian shepherds calling to them, occasionally glancing over their shoulders at the Havot Ma’on Israeli settlement, and I wondered at the situation where I find myself. I never expected my life to include angry armed men or sheep.

I live in a small Palestinian village that is filled with a beautiful quietness, but plenty of activity. No one who lives in at-Tuwani is still. The South Hebron Hills that this village called home may be gorgeous as the morning sunlight fills the valleys, but it isn’t an easy place to live. Our Palestinian neighbors know how to farm and graze in rocky soil and scant vegetation, and under the threat of drought. They work hard, but their work follows the rhythms of the seasons. As I wave to children riding donkeys and sit under olive trees, I am taken by how right this way of living feels.

“Things are very quiet right now.” My teammates and I regularly comment, always slightly surprised, on the recent peacefulness of our lives. Tuwani may be beautiful, quiet, and calm, but it is still under Israeli military occupation. The Havot Ma’on Israeli settlement, sits on a hilltop next to the village, always in view. Havot Ma’on is home to far-right Israeli settlers who believe in the importance of claiming the South Hebron Hills for themselves exclusively and are willing to use violence against Palestinians to do so. As we walk over the hills, we always carry cameras and cell phones with us, as settlers may appear with guns at any time. At-Tuwani may be peaceful, but for Palestinians, the presence of Havot Ma’on makes it dangerous.

“But lately we haven’t had much to do. There haven’t been any problems.” It’s true. My first 2 and a half weeks in Tuwani were extremely quiet, mind-numbingly so. It’s the job of us in Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPTers) to accompany Palestinians who are threatened by violence and respond when the Israeli army harasses Palestinians or settlers attack. And when I arrived in Tuwani, we had very little to respond to.

But within this quiet, soldiers and settlers are constantly present. Shortly after I arrived, I waited for the Israeli army for an hour with a group of schoolchildren from the village of Tuba. These children must walk near Havot Ma’on on their way to school in Tuwani. Settlers have attacked these children as they walked with their books and backpacks. The Knesset has ordered the Israeli army to escort the children past the settlement, after settlers attacked and injured CPTers accompanying them. Everyday we walk out in two groups, one to where the soldiers meet the children and another to a hillside where we can see the point where they leave them. Often, we have to call the army to ask them to come to escort the children. That day, I called the army and the kids waited for the soldiers for another forty minutes before they were able to walk home with the jeep following behind. Even when the soldiers arrive on time and escort the children the entire assigned distance, the situation remains dangerous. Settlers have attacked the children while the army was present. As I wait for the kids to come walking down the hills, I think about of the other Palestinian children who have to take dangerous routes to school but have no one to escort them.

Yes, it has been quiet, but the Palestinians who live here are still struggling to survive under this occupation. The settlers have claimed much of the land owned by the people of Tuwani, and Palestinian shepherds are having more and more difficulty finding enough food for their flocks. Settlers may not attack every day, but their presence is constantly felt.

Then 10 days ago, the calm was shattered. Ten settlers entered the village of Tuba. They threw stones at the villagers, hitting and elderly woman and her grandson. Then, a few days a later, fifteen settlers came to the hill where CPTers were accompanying two Palestinian shepherds. They chased the sheep and their shepherds, yelling curses and insults. “You come back here and we kill you,” they shouted. One settler grabbed my teammates video camera. When she demanded it back he responded, “You go now and you go with your life.”

Our lives have continued here. This morning three settlers came down from Havot Ma’on, walked over the hills for a while, then yelled at a Palestinian family, and went home. It was a quiet day, I suppose. I pray tomorrow will be as well.

As summer lingers, we have been sleeping on the roof under the stars. As we fall asleep beside our neighbors, I can imagine what peace will feel like when it comes to Tuwani. Shepherds will have enough land to graze their sheep and goats. Children will walk to school without fear of armed strangers. Everyone will walk freely over the hills. Under the stars, peace seems close by, like something I could reach out and touch. For now we wait and enjoy the quiet, until the calm is shattered again.