Well watched sheep

Protective Presence for shepherds is an important part of EAPPI’s work in the South Hebron Hills. Without international or Israeli presence, shepherds are afraid of Israeli settler or military aggression.

by South Hebron Hills team, Group 49

A shepherd with his sheep in Umm al Ahmad. Photo EAPPI/S. Masters.

A shepherd with his sheep in Umm al Ahmad. Photo EAPPI/S. Masters.

We leave early for Umm Al Ahmad to walk with the shepherds. It is a cool morning and the light is dim as we leave. We are going there almost every Saturday to offer protective presence to the shepherds. Four people from Ta’ayush, we two EAs, five shepherds and two dogs set off together with some 130 sheep and goats.

A shepherd gives his sheep water to drink from a well. Photo EAPPI/B. Rubenson.

A shepherd gives his sheep water to drink from a well. Photo EAPPI/B. Rubenson.

One shepherd opens the gate of the sheep pen and the sheep hurry out – the other shepherds follow with their flocks. We head up to the cistern, a shepherd drops a bucket into the well four times in all, and the animals gather to drink. Soon we climb over the dry rocky ground towards the valley past the family olive grove. The hooves of the sheep can be heard softly pounding the dry, rocky earth and the tinkle of bells is clear this early in the morning. Across the hills we see a settlement. As we round a hill we see the Israeli army vehicles waiting ready for us!

Without internationals or Israelis, the shepherds would not go

The settlement is illegal as it has been built on occupied Palestinian territory. According to the 4th Geneva Convention, which Israel ratified in 1951, it is prohibited for an occupying force to build permanent dwellings or move their own population into occupied land (article 49), as it is also prohibited to destroy private property (article 53).

Although the shepherds own the land and are entitled to graze their animals there, they only dare do so on a Saturday when international volunteers or Ta’ayush are present. The shepherds have experienced settler and military aggression and they just too scared – two of them are just 16 years old and the settlers carry guns – Israeli law allows settlers to do so. The valley is in area C (i.e. under Israeli civil and military control) and the Otniel settlement has clearly shown its ambition to include it into the settlement by building new roads to demarcate their future borders. The court case is pending in the Supreme Court.

The sheep eat hungrily, it is important for them to graze this area when possible as it “rests” the other pasture and stretches the fodder they have saved from the summer harvest. As we all walk along, the soldiers get out of their vehicles, they wear their machine guns like hand bags slung over their shoulders. As we move through the valley an army vehicle is following us close from behind. Soon the sheep have found their spot and cluster to graze.

Ta’ayush volunteers share their experience

We volunteers stand close to the sheep or sit on rocks to chat and share stories. One woman from Ta’ayush tells how she was not hired in her line of work as she had not done her National service in protest to the government policies; another says she is self-employed so no one ever asks her if she did her service; still another was arrested only yesterday and still shaken – apparently he stood too close to an Israeli settlement. He was soon released though, as he was an Israeli himself. The security guard from Otniel comes up to us and starts filming us and soon we are all filming and taking photos of each other.

We have met these shepherds before and know that one of them is particularly keen on singing. As he walks, we hear him singing folk songs, some Ta’ayush members also join in. Today an EA gets out his flute and the army gazes on.

How many people does it take to graze sheep?

After a while the sheep are satisfied and we head back to the village. The soldiers move their vehicles. The only communication between the shepherds and the army has been nonverbal. The army vehicles move up the hill, where the settlement is. For us it is a slow walk up the valley and slopes as the sheep are well fed. We have been there for four hours. Nineteen people have watched these sheep eat. The shepherds rest – later in the afternoon they will take their flocks out again this time to a field close to the village.

Israeli settlers attack Palestinian family on their way home in Hebron

Violent attacks like these are hard for many to believe, but are common place in Hebron

Khayed, the disabled son of Mohammad and Ramsina.  Here he watches as they are taken to the hospital in an ambulance after settlers attacked them on October 29. Photo EAPPI/M. Ward

Khayed, the son of Mohammad and Ramsina, watches as his parents are taken to the hospital in an ambulance after settlers attacked them on October 25, 2013. Photo EAPPI/M. Ward

On the evening of October 25, Mohammed, Ramsina and their 4 year old daughter Aya, parked their car near the Israeli settlement outpost of Givat Ha’avot in Hebron.  They are not allowed to drive their car to their house, as vehicular access is restricted for Palestinians in that neighborhood of Hebron.  As they were walking home carrying sweets, Israeli settlers, visiting Hebron for the the holiday of Shabbat Sarah, harrassed them.

The settlers swore at Ramsina and insulted her. A male settler about 20 years old spat at the family.  Then they began to block the way for Mohammed and his family.  When Mohamed asked them to move, the settler hit him in the face. Mohammed began to fight back, but many more settlers arrived and surrounded the family. Ramsina told Aya to run home. She arrived home yellow in the face from shock, neighbors recalled.

Meanwhile, the settlers began to beat Mohammed and Ramsina.  They tried to pull of Ramsina’s hijab, head covering, and punched her in the neck and sprayed pepper spray in her eyes.  After that, she passed out.  She remembers waking up in the ambulance.

Before the ambulance arrived, their son Khayed, who is disabled, walked by on his way to the mosque to pray.  He became very upset when he saw the settlers attack his parents, but the settlers began to beat him too.

Even when the neighbours came to carry Mohammed and Ramsina back to their house and call an ambulance, Israeli settlers followed them and surrounded them shouting; “There are Arabs here, come and attack them.” During the incident, the Israeli soldiers stood by and did not help Mohammed and Ramsina. They even tried to arrest the neighbors who assisted Mohammed and Ramsina.

When EAPPI arrived at the scene, there were roughly 10 soldiers, military jeeps, Israeli police, and an ambulance outside the home of Mohammed and Ramsina. Khayed stood nearby, looking visibly distressed. Later that night, Mohammed and Ramsina were released from the hospital.

The next day EAPPI’s Hebron team visited the family. Mohammed and Ramsina recalled that this is not the first time Israeli settlers attacked Mohammed and Ramsina’s family, but they are now more fearful. Ramsina explained:

“Since the attack we have closed all the shutters at the front of our house and told our daughters to stay away from the front of the house – we are scared that the settlers will come again.”

New perspectives: EAs react on twitter

Last week, all our EAs got a break from their difficult work as humanitarian observers and had the chance to hear new perspectives on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

Here are a few tweet updates and reflections from the week:

Meeting with Nomika Zion of The Other Voice:

Touring Sderot:

Meeting with Ruth Hiller of New Profile:

A chance to relax in Haifa:

Experiencing Shabbat Worship and Dinner:

Follow these and other current EAs HERE.

EA Blog: “Do They Hate Us?”

by Johan, South Hebron Hills Team 

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 the challah, 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

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