Yesterday took an unfortunate, though not unexpected, turn for the worse. We had barely been picking for 45 minutes in the Saffa valley when the army came and forced us to leave. They gave no explanation, and refused to acknowledge their promise to protect the farmers. We were not able to pick a
full harvest, and the Soleiby family was once again forced to suffer the loss of income (see previous post - “South Side Story: Beit Ommar). The army’s behavior is not in the least bit surprising. Violence, lies and broken promises are trademarks of the Israeli military.
I did not go into the fields this morning (there were already enough internationals), so I will use the extra time to tell another story – the story of Susya. Susya is a mountainous region just south of Hebron, near Yatta. For over 170 years a small population of farmers and shepherds has inhabited the region. The village is surrounded on all sides by settlements, most notably Maon, Yatir and Susya. The closest settlement, Susya, has intentionally claimed the name of the entire region, making its goal of total annexation unbearably clear. The settlement is a mere 20 years old, populated primarily by Americans (many from the New York/Brooklyn area). They are some of the most vicious extremists in the region, and have carried out a policy of terrorizing the Palestinian population in hopes of driving them from their homeland.
For the past 20 years the settlers, in conjunction with the Israeli government, have been systematically encroaching on Palestinian land, terrorizing and displacing the inhabitants. In 1996 the Israeli army blew up 10 homes, and in 1998 demolished 113 tents. In 1999 the Israeli government declared the village an archeological sight, claiming it was built on the ruins of an ancient synagogue. They annexed 150 dunams of land, destroying every home in the village. The population dropped from over 2,000 to under 400 inhabitants, who set up tents in between the settlement and the archeological park.
The tents, and the farmland surrounding them, are regularly attacked by the settlers. The few families remaining in Susya have had their trees cut and burned, their water supplies poisoned, and their tents lit on fire. Many have been directly assaulted be settlers. 2 weeks ago (the day before I went), settlers lit fire to one of the tents with two people sleeping inside. Both suffered smoke inhalation, but neither were seriously injured.
The army has declared the stretch of land between the tents and the settlement a Closed Military Zone, despite the fact that it is legally owned by a family of Palestinian shepherds living at the edge of Susya. The family relies on the land for grazing, and is hence forced to confront Israeli soldiers on a daily basis (much like in Beit Ommar).
International activists are currently staying in Susya about half the time. We would like to have people there full time, but we are spread thin in the Hebron area. I spent 3 days there, and every morning at 5:30 AM would go with the shepherds into the fields where the sheep graze. Soldiers would come to the top of the hill and tell us to leave, and we would argue with them. The arguing bought time, and by the time we were finished the sheep had eaten their fill.
The largest obstacle facing the people of Susya is water. Most of the cisterns used to catch rain water were destroyed by the Israeli military in 1999, during the major settlement expansion. The remaining cisterns are now filled with purchased water. Most of the water in the Susya area is used by the settlement, which is filled with artificially lush greenery. In general, Settlers in the West Bank use 5 times more water than Palestinians.
In May of this year, an activist organization helped install wind turbines in Susya. They are currently being used to power electric butter churners, which has increased the community’s butter production (and income) exponentially. They could not put the turbines on top of the hill because they would be in sight of a nearby military base, which the residents feared would provoke military retaliation. They are less efficient in the valley, but are still tremendously useful.
The people of Susya are some of the most beautiful I’ve ever encountered. From the moment I set foot there I felt like part of the family. I learned to milk sheep, to dance dabka, to churn butter, and am hoping to learn to make flat bread the next time I go (which will inshalla be quite soon). I am also starting to be able to communicate with people in Arabic, which is proving to be incredibly important. The ability to speak English seems invariably to correspond with class (and often with gender). Communicating in Arabic allows me to talk to the people least often heard – namely, poor Palestinian women.
Well, I think that’s more than enough for now. I will try to write again very soon though. There are many more stories to tell.