After nine nights in the Palestinian village of Deir Istiya, we boarded a minibus and headed to Tel Aviv to begin the next stage of the Being Peace retreat.
At the HaShalom Interchange bus station we joined a much larger group for a special bus tour run by an Israeli organisation called Breaking the Silence.
Founded in 2004, Breaking the Silence was formed by a group of Israeli ex-soldiers who served as combatants in the Hebron region some time after the Second Intifada (the second major Palestinian uprising against the Occupation that began in 2000). Since leaving the military, they have taken it upon themselves to inform the Israeli public and the wider international community about the reality of life in the Occupied Territories.
As part of their work, Breaking the Silence have collected and published over 1000 testimonies from ex-soldiers who describe the daily reality of their job while serving in the West Bank and Gaza. They highlight the regular abuse of Palestinians and the looting and destruction of property which are often portrayed in the media as one-off cases. The organisation believes that Israeli society in particular, which tends to be either unaware of the issue or silent on it, needs to be made aware of what is really going on in Palestine.
As part of their approach to raising awareness, they offer two bus tours into the West Bank, one to the city of Hebron and the other to the South Hebron Hills (the tour we had joined). Our tour guide, an Israeli ex-solider, stood at the front of the bus with a microphone in his hand. He was a young man who spoke to us throughout the tour, providing a detailed overview of the Occupation, along with an informative description of relevant sites we would see along the route.
The South Hebron Hills is one of the most rural areas in Palestine, located at the southern end of the West Bank, but under full Israeli control. The land is hot and dry throughout most of the year, vegetation is scarce, the ground is stony and rainfall in the region is very low. It is a kind of no-man’s land, yet people live there.
Most of the Palestinian population in the area is poor. They often live in caves or temporary shelters and subsist on the grazing of farm animals. Israeli policy in the region prevents most Palestinians from any kind of building and construction work while a separate policy allows Israeli settlement expansion and readily connects illegal settler outposts to facilities and services.
Our guide informed us that between 2000 and 2016 only 5% of Palestinian building applications were approved. During the same period, 13,791 demolition orders were issued on Palestinian homes and structures. Not all of these were necessarily carried out but the Israelis know that such issues are an effective means of instilling fear and uncertainty amongst the Palestinian population.
An Israeli water company has laid pipelines in the South Hebron Hills to connect settlements, outposts and related infrastructure, but does not allow Palestinian villages or farms to connect to it. Instead they must rely on cisterns or wells to collect rain water or to store water they have bought from water trucks. The Israeli administration has destroyed many cisterns and issued demolition orders for others, leaving Palestinians in the region with water shortage problems similar to humanitarian crisis areas elsewhere in the world.
Settlers in the area tend to be young, new-age hippy rebellious types, not necessarily born and raised in Israel, full of religious conviction, pioneering spirit and an adamant determination to stake their claim on the land. There is an absurdity to such actions given their lack of experience in a land that is so extreme and unforgiving. It is like a hotter and more barren version of the Wild West.
In late October during our tour, whenever we got out of the air-conditioned bus, it was hot. In July and August it must be unbearable. Most settlers seem to live, at least initially in outposts – trailers and mobile homes – and even though they are illegal, they are quickly connected to electricity and other services.
Perhaps fuelled by the isolation or the intense heat, the South Hebron Hills is one of the worst places in the West Bank for settler violence against Palestinians. They destroy fields and olive groves, poison cisterns and pastures, damage buildings, steal or kill farm animals and harass and even attack the farmers themselves. It is all done with a self-righteous conviction and persistence they hope will eventually force the Palestinians from their land.
There is always in the region the ever present Israeli obsession with ‘security’. At one location our tour guide pointed to an Israeli settlement on the horizon around which he said a large portion of the land had been declared a ‘sterile security zone’. It was 400 metres deep, bound by a perimeter fence and its declaration as ‘sterile’, implied that Israeli soldiers could shoot to kill any Palestinian who happened to stray inside.
One of our first stops on the tour was a desolate hilltop with a clear view of an illegal settler outpost known as Lucifer’s Farm. The name comes from the settlers themselves, not a nickname given to it by Palestinians. It is apparently the home of one family, founded in the 1980s by Yaakov Talia, a South African who converted to Judaism after the end of apartheid, and moved to Israel.
We all got off the bus and surveyed the landscape around us. On one side the hill dropped away into an immense and desolate valley, home to an extensive military firing zone. If we looked along the hilltop ridge past the radio tower and electricity pylons that supported it, we could see Lucifer’s farm and alongside the dirt road in front of us was a wall of razor wire. All throughout the region these kinds of infrastructural elements supported the presence of the Occupation.
It wasn’t long before we were approached by three military vehicles, each with a large Israeli flag attached. The soldiers spoke briefly with one of the tour organisers before driving on towards Lucifer’s farm. Settler bravado in this region, like everywhere else in the Occupied Territories, is clearly propped up by a strong military presence.
Our next stop was a Palestinian camp made of tents and makeshift shelters near the settlement of Susiya. The people living in the camp had been forced out of their nearby villages because of demolition orders relating to land being declared either an archaeological site or a military zone. Even the camp itself was under the constant threat of demolition.
We got off the bus and walked amongst makeshift shelters covered with tarpaulins and various structures for animals like chickens, geese and the odd donkey. There was playground as well which looked strangely out of place. The camp didn’t look like the kind of environment where you’d expect to see children.
The Palestinians who lived in the camp were basically surrounded on all sides by an Israeli presence, whether in the form of settlements or military outposts. They lived there with the knowledge that at any time what little remains of their livelihood could be demolished without their consent.
As we walked into the camp, Palestinian children came to meet us. Apparently, most of the adults were away at a local wedding. The tour guide spoke to the children and they showed us a cistern within the camp that had been poisoned. We gathered around it and looked down into the well, seeing polluted water in the bottom. The children offered wristbands, purses and honey for sale. There were some chickens and some geese wandering around but not much else.
By mid-afternoon, the tour was on its way back towards Tel Aviv. Our group disembarked at a service station somewhere south of Jerusalem and we boarded the minibus still full with all our gear. We were driven to our new residence for the next three nights, an eco-lodge in the desert between Jericho and the northern edge of the Dead Sea.