Ten months after completing our term as Ecumenical Accompaniers in the West Bank, teammates Rachel (UK), Birgitta (Sweden), and I gathered again in Jerusalem. We had maintained contact after leaving the country and dreamed not only of a reunion, but of a return to our beloved village of Yanoun. Consequently, we had arranged to ‘cover’ the village while Team 34 was away for their Midterm Orientation and we set out in high spirits.
We could not have been more warmly received, especially considering the fact that four teams of four EAs have served after us and the villagers cannot possibly remember all who have inhabited the International House. But the broad grin of our friend and driver Ghassan when he met us at the Zatara checkpoint and the equally delighted smile of villager Kemal, who stood at the entrance to the village holding up a newborn goat for our inspection, were a true “welcome home”.
After tea and a brief status report from Team 34, we began visiting families and fell back into the rhythm of village life as though we had never left. Over the next several days we drank enormous amounts of thick Arabic coffee and sweet tea, and relished every morsel of the bread from the taboun and fresh cheese as well as the other treats that began to appear on our doorstep. On the surface, the village was the same as we remembered. The children are naturally a bit taller and village matriarch Adla is a bit more stooped and now uses a cane to help navigate the uneven ground in front of their house. But it wasn’t long before we sensed a new tension and a kind of watchfulness just under the surface of the conversations and daily activities. Though we had followed the reports of the teams that succeeded us, we weren’t prepared for the changes that have taken place since we left.
There has been a marked expansion of the outposts on the surrounding hilltops. While the outposts are illegal even under Israeli law, they have government provided electricity, telephone lines, water and military protection. There are increased incursions into the village by armed settlers and by the military. While there has been no violence, they are very intimidating and dehumanizing. The settlers rarely speak, but peer into the homes and other buildings without even acknowledging the presence of those who dwell there. On one occasion, the men between the ages of 15 and 50 were ordered out of their homes at midnight by the military and forced to stand outside in the bitter cold for three hours because a settler reported that someone had been seen near their sheep shelter and was “thinking of stealing a sheep”. There has also been additional confiscation of agricultural and grazing land, and more restrictions have been placed on the maintenance and harvesting of olive trees. Sometimes when the men are out with the sheep, armed settlers ‘suggest’ that if they “don’t want trouble” they should take their sheep and return to their homes. Internationals are no longer permitted to help with the olive harvest in Yanoun. All of these things have directly and negatively impacted the economic viability of the area and its residents. One family has moved to Aqraba and two others are considering moving. The others feel they have nowhere else to go nor should they be forced to do so.
We took daily walks to Nabi Nun to visit Ahmad, the young shepherd, and his family. Ahmad now spends most of his time in Aqraba doing day work, trying to earn enough money to marry Fatan (we attended their engagement party last April). His younger brother, Yusef, looks after the sheep and goats. Settlers have been coming down to their land every day after Yusef has left with the flock and their mother often keeps her youngest son, 12-year old Fouad, home from school because she is frightened to be there alone.
Although it was a joy to be with Rachel and Birgitta and the Yanounis, and the weather was glorious, it was also a difficult time and we found ourselves searching desperately for some glimmer of hope. And we were very conscious of not wanting our despair to spill over onto the people. We would be leaving while they must remain. After five days, Anders from Team 26 and Hilary from Team 29 arrived to cover the remaining days and we traveled on to Nablus. While in Nablus, we arranged with Ghassan to take us to visit our other villages.
In Burin, our contact family, refugees from 1948 whose home is separated from the rest of the village by a settler road, reported the same pattern of increased harassment and destruction. Twenty-three olive trees were burned during the summer. Settlers also entered their home and attempted to set fire to it. Last year there were water storage tanks on their roof, but the settlers protested and the military removed them. Whereas last year settlers came in twos and threes, they now come in groups of twenty to thirty. But there is a new baby to cuddle, and coffee and tea and fruit and popcorn … and for a brief time we were able to laugh and reminisce and put aside the grim realities. Iman, the daughter with whom I used to practice my Arabic and she her English, confessed that in her dreams she flies away from all of this but that she knows it will never happen. Two days after our visit to Burin, another family had forty-three olive trees destroyed. The EA program is now considering placing a team in Burin.
Khirbet Tana had received a total demolition order in January, 2009. On Jan. 8, 2010 the village was indeed razed with the exception of the mosque and one house. The villagers are now living in Red Cross – Red Crescent provided tents which are stifling in the heat and leaky in the rain. But they are determined to stay and rebuild, and began to dig through the rubble for anything salvageable even while the demolition was taking place. Over tea they reported that several families that had moved to nearby Beit Furik following the first demolition of the village in 2005, have now decided to return. Last year’s “freshly born child” was toddling about and the other children were laughing and playing amongst the rubble. The resilience of these people is both astounding and humbling.
Tawayel had also received a total demoliton order while we were there in 2009. We were delighted to hear that the order has been temporarily rescinded. But military considerations trump any civil decision and the military has always coveted that particular piece of land. While visiting with the mayor’s wife, whose home has been moved three times by the military, we noted that their well had been destroyed. Water must now be purchased and stored in tankers that are towed into the village by tractors.
While in Nablus we worshipped at the Anglican Church of the Good Shepherd, our ‘home congregation’ during our term of service as accompaniers, and were welcomed warmly by Father Ibrahim and the congregation. We also visited Project Hope where we learned that there is an effort to discourage/prevent internationals from working and volunteering in the West Bank. Hakim, the director, reported that ten international volunteers have been denied entry in the past three months. Other organizations, including the EAPPI, are experiencing the same problems. Hakim’s wife, who is French, has been denied entry for ten years. Hakim has dual citizenship, but this ruling puts him in the position of having to leave Project Hope or incurring the expense of traveling back and forth periodically to be with his wife.
A glimmer of hope? The closing of the Huwarra checkpoint has been a definite improvement, easing restrictions on movement in and out of Nablus and permitting improved access to medical care among other things. The Zatara checkpoint, just a few miles away, regulates vehicles only and is not nearly as restrictive. However, there is a bit of a downside even to this event in that the business/income of the taxi and service drivers that served the Huwarra checkpoint has decreased.
This was a bittersweet visit. The villagers were pleased that we have not forgotten them and we assured them that we are telling their stories and advocating for an end to the occupation … but it feels like so little.
The following week, Birgitta returned to Sweden and Rachel to her volunteer position in Beit Jala. I spent several days in the Beit Jala – Bethlehem – Beit Sahour area and found it even more difficult. Whereas Yanoun and the surrounding areas are pastoral and open and visually lovely, the Bethlehem area is surrounded by large, well-established settlements and nearly surrounded by the Wall. It is crowded and oppressive and “in your face”. And the tension was even more palpable as there were announcements of new restrictions by the Israeli government each day. A ban on internationals traveling to Jerusalem on Palestinian busses without first going through checkpoint 300 in Bethlehem, which had been previously lifted, was reinstated. It was announced that Rachel’s Tomb, the Ibrahimi Mosque, the Tomb of the Patriarchs, Herodian and others, sites important to all three monotheistic faiths, are to be taken as Israeli Heritage sites. And another 600 (Israeli) homes were approved for building in East Jerusalem in addition to the 900 recently approved. There is a terrible sense of a relentless “picking at an open sore”, and many Palestinians think the Israelis are trying to provoke violence. It is impossible to envision the resumption of meaningful peace talks in this current atmosphere.