A protective presence

By returned EA Alison, Northern West Bank

I was recently part of an international team living in a tiny Palestinian village in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. We were participants in the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme for Palestine and Israel (EAPPI), which is run by the World Council of Churches.

Village fields [Photo: EAPPI/Alison]

The village overlooks a long fertile valley to hills beyond. Mostly, the peace is broken only by the sound of sheep, goats, cockerels, hens, turkeys, donkeys, cuckoos and woodpeckers. As Ecumenical Accompaniers (EAs) we made our presence known by taking long morning and evening walks past the fields and ancient olive trees, enjoying some splendid views.

 

View to Jordan valley and Jordan [Photo: EAPPI/Alison]

 

We joined a community of people getting on with their everyday lives.

A local farmer ploughing [Photo: EAPPI/Alison]

 

Young shepherds returning with their sheep [Photo: EAPPI/Alison]

Cheese (sheep/goat) production in a village home [Photo: EAPPI/Alison]

Breadmaking in a taboun [Photo: EAPPI/Alison]

We bought eggs, almonds, olives, olive oil, soap, embroidery and honey, and were given lemons, pomelos, tomatoes, parsley, mint, bread and cake. We were touched by the warmth and generosity of this traditional community of around 80 people.

But why were we there? Looking upwards from the village the reason was clear. Houses, agricultural buildings and watchtowers – outposts from a nearby settlement – have taken over the surrounding hilltops, connected to each other by tree-lined roads. Some of the buildings are barely 400 metres from the village.

 

Settler neighbours [Photo: EAPPI/Alison]

Settler presence by night [Photo: EAPPI/Alison]

The buildings are a constant reminder of land lost to Israeli settlements and outposts, as well as settler violence; they also threaten more violence to come.

In 2002 almost all the residents fled after several years of violent settler attacks. These resulted in the death of a villager and several animals, as well as the destruction of the village’s electricity and water pumping system. Some farmers were beaten up in the presence of their families; even children were threatened by armed settlers. People from Ta’ayush, an Israeli peace group, were first on the scene, followed by others from different international groups. Over time these accompanied most of the villagers back to their homes, and stayed on. The violence reduced. EAPPI has provided accompaniment and a protective presence since 2003.

 

EA presence, visible to settlers and villagers [Photo: EAPPI/Alison]

Life is restricted now, though. Grazing is only possible close to the village; flocks of sheep and goats, previously of around 200 animals, are now typically just 20–50. Animal feed must be purchased year-round, using money earned from cheese making. Meanwhile on our walks we saw large settler flocks on village land.

Farmers must request a military presence when tending their land near a settlement or outpost. We were told that soldiers restrict access according to settler instructions; that little or no protection is available against settler violence; that any army intervention is for the protection of settlers, not Palestinians. Work on these lands is limited to the two or three days where such ‘protection’ is provided, often leaving work uncompleted or olives unpicked.

None of the villagers has engaged in any violence against the settlers. Theirs is a peaceful resistance, steadfastly continuing their lives as normally as possible until, ‘Inshallah’, peace finally returns to Palestine.

The building of settlements on occupied territory by an occupying power is illegal under International Law. Article 49, Para. 6 of the Fourth Geneva Convention states explicitly that “The occupying power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.”

Article 27 of the Fourth Geneva Convention states that an occupying power is responsible for the security and civil rights of the people living on the occupied land.