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.