Surrounded by the occupation

By EA Elaine, Southern West Bank.

Mahmoud, his family and extended family live in the beautiful South Hebron Hills at the southernmost tip of the West Bank. They are in what is now called the ‘Seam Zone’. Since 2006 his farm has been trapped in the area between the Green Line (the 1949 armistice line between Israel and occupied Palestine) and the illegal Israeli separation barrier which cuts deep into Palestinian territory. Next to his farm is a large illegal settlement.

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Mahmoud talking to EA Elaine in his village in the ‘Seam Zone’ [Photo: EAPPI/E.Mitze]

The family must renew their residency permits every three months to live on their own farm and living in the ‘Seam Zone’ brings with it many other regulations that make life difficult for them.

To get to the nearest town to do a simple shop, they must go through the checkpoint to leave the ‘Seam Zone’ and enter Palestine. They of course cannot enter Israel. When they return through the checkpoint, their cars are often searched and sometimes they may only bring in a certain amount of groceries.

There are sometimes problems from the settlers in the illegal settlement right next to Mahmoud’s land. It is built on Palestinian land but only Israeli citizens can live there.

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Mahmoud pointing out the large terminal of the checkpoint in the distance (on the left) with the red-roofed white houses of the settlement to the right of it and the large Palestinian city of Yatta beyond [Photo: EAPPI/E.Mitze]

Settlements are illegal under the Fourth Geneva convention, which states that “The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies” (Article 49, Geneva Convention IV). There are currently 150 settlements in the occupied West Bank and a further 100 outposts, with 550,000 Israeli settlers living there.

One night in late 2015 settlers smashed some of Mahmoud’s solar panels.

We visit at lambing time. He shows us around and holds a two-day old lamb in his arms, a beautiful, little creature.

Afterwards he invites us in to sit around his wood burning stove to drink tea as he reflects on his situation. It is easy to imagine that life is peaceful and calm. Mahmoud loves his farm.

“The land gives us everything,” Mahmoud says. “Oil from the olives, milk, cheese and meat from the sheep, wheat for bread making. I don’t like to eat anything I haven’t grown.”

Yet when he looks out from his farm, he is completely surrounded by signs of the occupation. The checkpoint. The settlement. The military base. The settler outpost on the hill. And he and his family are trapped inside the occupation’s rules and regulations.

The children of the families (about 20 in all) must walk from their ‘Seam Zone’ home, down a busy main road and through the checkpoint to their school on the other side of the separation barrier. Then they do the same journey at the end of the school day.

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The large checkpoint the villagers in the ‘Seam Zone’ must pass through every day to go to their businesses, schools, hospitals and shops [Photo: EAPPI/A.Lopez]

Mahmoud is extremely worried about the children. He worries about the busy road. He worries that settlers travel on this road and have been known to harass the children. He worries that they are sometimes searched as they go through the checkpoint. Even the youngest children’s bags are searched.

The headmaster of the children’s school keeps a log of incidents and is concerned about their wellbeing.

And because of the checkpoint, the children cannot invite their friends home at the end of the school day.

Theirs is a growing isolation from ordinary, everyday life. Mahmoud worries that his children have no future.

“Surrounded” is a word he often uses wearily. The restrictions of the occupation wear him down day by day. Yet still he greets his few visitors warmly.

After we have drunk tea with him, we get up to leave. He has a last word for us. “Tell people about this,” he says. “Tell them about our life here. Maybe it will change. Maybe.”