Driven to find a better future

A longer read, in-focus blog, by EA Mike.

“Abdullah. Abdullah!”[1]

This is the dawn chorus in Yatta, where our team’s driver, Abdullah lives with his family. We are shouting outside his door trying to wake him. Many times he has told us that he “wakes up a-slowly.” In the time since we last saw him, Abdullah has, amongst other things, played with his two young boys, planted nectarine and apricot trees in his land, cut grass to feed his sheep, took part in a family meeting at the Susiya Cooperative and got his car fixed – again. Our team are impatient to get to the local school, where we provide an international presence. We forget that Abdullah has a life and has been working hard since driving us to and from our activities yesterday.

Day-to-day life

As well as being our driver, Abdullah is also an important source of information about what is going on in the local area, including the many home demolitions and violent attacks. He knows the local communities who need the most support. They are largely based in Area C, an area under full Israeli military control. Abdullah’s home in Yatta is a sprawling Palestinian town in Area A.  Although theoretically under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority, it is still, like all areas of the West Bank, deeply affected by the occupation.

One evening, Abdullah took me to the home that he is building in Yatta and we drank Arabic coffee on his balcony. After an hour, all the electricity in the area went out. Another power cut. Stars lit our conversation. Abdullah explained that when there is pressure on the electricity supply, the nearby Israeli settlement comes first; so the supply to Yatta is simply cut off.

“I don’t have freedom when I move,” he tells me. To go from Yatta to Susiya in Area C is a journey of about three miles. It involves passing an Israeli Defence Force watch tower and, not infrequently, a ‘flying’ (pop-up) checkpoint is set up where soldiers check the ID of Palestinian drivers and the road worthiness of their cars. Sometimes soldiers are friendly. Other times, Abdullah has been called names that he doesn’t want to say and has been treated in a humiliating manner.

Abdullah tends to his sister’s bees. Photo Credit: EAPPI/Mike.jpg

Abdullah has family and land in Susiya. His big dream is to run a farm with sheep, goats, bees, fruit and vegetables. But he cannot build the house that he wants in Susiya. The Israeli Civil Administration would not allow this for a Palestinian. And the neighbouring Israeli settlement, also called Susiya, makes shepherding and farming difficult for Palestinians.

Protection for settlers but not Palestinians

Over the ten years that Abdullah has been a driver for internationals, his car has been attacked several times by settlers. Once, with EAs in his car, the four wheels of his Subaru were punctured by a knife. Israeli soldiers were standing nearby but did not discourage this vandalism, nor punish it. Regrettably, impunity around settler violence is not uncommon. Israeli NGO, Yesh Din report that only three per cent of “ideologically motivated” crimes against Palestinians lead to a conviction (compared to a 97% conviction rate for Palestinians).

Settler harassment has occurred infrequently in the three months that we have been here. There is now a large ‘buffer’ or security zone around the settlement that is patrolled by Israeli soldiers. However, this settlement and the surrounding security area is built on is the pasturelands of local Palestinian shepherds, leaving them a shrinking space.

Over the years, Palestinian shepherds have been effectively ‘shepherded’ by soldiers and settlers. They are told where they can and cannot shepherd. By and large they stick to the invisible lines that have been drawn for them by their neighbours. Fear of confrontation constrains where Palestinian shepherds take their sheep.

Separate Roads

As well as the risks he faces from settlers, the roads that Abdullah has to drive on for his job are also full of hazards.  In the South Hebron Hills, as elsewhere in occupied Palestinian territory, there are often separate roads for Israeli settlers and Palestinians. Whilst settler roads are usually tarmacked and well-kept, those for Palestinians are frequently dirt roads or rocky paths. The Palestinian roads Abdullah has to use puncture his tyres regularly. He tells us that he spends a lot of time in Yatta’s garages.

“Ordinary life is routinely dangerous”

Abdullah says that it is hard to find work in Yatta. Many Palestinians are forced to pay a lot of money for permits to work in Israel. So Abdullah is grateful to work in the West Bank with EAPPI. He is happy that internationals like us share stories across the world of how Palestinians try to live ordinary lives under the deeply challenging conditions of military occupation. But he is frustrated by us too. He doesn’t want to put us in danger but sometimes feels that internationals are not present when they are needed due to concerns about their own safety. “Ordinary life is routinely dangerous for Palestinians” says Abdullah.

Making a life

Abdullah and his wife, Sausan on their balcony. Photo credit: EAPPI/Mike
The desert past Firing Zone 918. Abdullah rests in flowers in the desert. Photo credit: EAPPI/Mike

Abdullah works hard to look after his growing family – son number three is on his way. He faces many difficulties to build his life and his business. Everything is made to be expensive in Yatta – petrol, water, electricity. Abdullah is now in full flow, “Israel uses us as a company. They herd us into our open air prison. They make us buy their products. We are cheap labour. We build their settlements; they take our quarries and our water; even the cows in Israel have more water than us. The chicken farm in Umm al Khair uses more water than all the Bedouin in the area.”

Abdullah is a proud man. “I fight for my freedom in the right way.” He understands himself to have mixed heritage. “My family was Christian or Jewish maybe. And now I’m Muslim.” He is proud that his people still speak Arabic. The occupation has not swept Palestinian culture away. Abdullah is proud that he speaks Hebrew as well. “If this is a holy land, we are holy.” Abdullah says that he would love a land of peace and freedom where people from around the world could experience famed Palestinian hospitality; where neighbours get on with each other; where you are able to work hard and enjoy the fruits of your labour.

Abdullah and his mother have told me repeatedly about the responsibility that Britain has for their life under occupation[2]. What has happened has happened, but in Abdullah’s opinion Britain continues to support the Israeli government’s policies in occupied Palestine and as he sees it, ignores the need for Palestinian rights. His message is that Britain is a strong country and has the power to persuade Israel to bring about a just peace. I promised, as all EAs do from all countries, to raise the issues that Abdullah faces with people in my homeland and my elected representatives.

Take Action!

You too can raise your concerns about the injustices experienced by Abdullah and other Palestinians. Please write to your elected representatives in the UK and Ireland and ask them to put pressure on the Israeli government to halt their expansion of illegal settlements, and to put in place effective measures to protect the Palestinian population from violence and harassment by Israeli settlers.

[1] Not his real name.

[2] Abdullah references the Balfour Declaration of 1917 in which the British government avowed support for a Jewish state in Palestine. Many Palestinians see the British declaration as a catalyst to their lands and homes being dispossessed in the coming years.