An Olive Tree Grows in South Hebron

This is where the road ends. The morning began with a service taxi from Bethlehem to Hebron, followed by another further south to Yatta—a scattering of buildings and remnants of an ancient souk; a sea of olive trees. Then a private taxi as far south as Palestinian taxis can go on Israeli settler Route 317: an Israeli army patrol. We do not belong, they tell us in postures and guns. To our left is the dirt road to At-Tuwani. "It is an island," my driver says, "you don't want to go there."

At-Tuwani is one of some 50 communities that make up the West Bank region of "Masafer Yatta," the Hebrew name given to Yatta's southern hills, where about 8,000 Palestinians inhabit 170,000 dunums (17,000 hectares) of semi-arid farmland. In 2004 Israeli authorities began implementing a colonial delimitation policy (first envisioned in the 1980s) that would cut off these communities from Yatta, the Palestinian economic hub, by constructing various separation barriers—fences and walls—along segregated bypass roads like 317. Once completed, Masafer Yatta would become a "closed area," thus securing a massive land theft for the Israeli settlements that were illegally established after Israel's 1967 occupation of the West Bank.

Since 2004 a series of demonstrations and court battles, crucially facilitated by Israeli anti-segregationist advocacy groups like Taayush, stalled Masafer Yatta's severance from Palestine. Nonetheless, the original plan appears imminent. In January of 2006, the Israeli military implemented a smaller, more innocuous version of its original plan. The present barrier, whose construction began in February, is an 80-centimeter high concrete wall that runs over 40 kilometers along the southeast rim of Yatta's outskirts, hugging the northern edge of settler Routes 60 and 317. Although the military promised several openings for Palestinian vehicles to access Yatta, these "gates" are now sealed off with immovable concrete blocks. The road leading into At-Tuwani from surrounding Palestinian villages is one of three main arteries into and through Masafer Yatta, and a critical junction to the north.

I phone the colleague I was scheduled to meet for field work further south. He is in Jerusalem, turned back hours ago. I nod to the driver. Gravel grinds into gravel, rubber slips from one stone to the next, the taxi's suspension groans and wheezes, sputtering more distantly until it vanishes in highway sounds and diaphanous dust.

I find myself in At-Tuwani at its graveyard hour: noon. It is the heat that makes it so. The sun is not over you so much as it is upon you. Life has retreated into caves and stone dwellings, all of which blend into the village's rocky ravine.

There is a shop, two meters deep and built of cinder blocks and corrugated aluminum. A dog lies in the shade nearby and pants in somewhat deranged fashion. Inside are four men smoking cigarettes, drinking tea, chatting with minimal movements. The shopkeeper smiles, I am welcome. I could ask a question, but that would be moving too fast. Besides, I had never intended to come here. In time, a boy is fetched to lead me to who they assume is the right person.

Soccer in main street of At-Tuwani. Photo: Mike Brown, CPT.

Hafez Hereni is sitting against a wall in his home when I greet him. His brother also rises from the floor and extends a hand. We are in a breezeway between two doors with bedrooms on either side, also empty but for several sponge mattresses folded over with blanket rolls atop. A sandy-headed boy not much older than two clings to Hafez's knee. Hafez, a man of perhaps 38, uses English in a manner that indicates linguistic confidence, emphasized accordingly. His eyes are gentle and his hair tawny.

Hafez's home is built just below the lip of At-Tuwani's eastern ridge. It is the closest Palestinian village to Ma'on, an Israeli settlement that was erected on Palestinian land in 1981, and which lies about one kilometer from Hafez's home on the northeast side of the hill. At-Tuwani's water services—a hand-drawn collection system—are provided by a spring and two underground cisterns, both of which lie between Hafez's home and the settlement. There is a reason why the men at the shop sent me to Hafez, and it has little to do with the language convenience. In fact, Hafez's English, the emptiness of his home and the physical elements surrounding it carry a sequence of causality. Rather than asking who I am, Hafez's first concern is that I stay the night.

I fish for a cigarette while Hafez's wife, Nidaa, appears and asks how I like my tea. Hafez studies the Gauloises I've drawn from my shirt pocket. "No, here we smoke these," he says offering a Jamal. I consider the snobbish revulsion to Jamal cigarettes—the cheap brand—that is common among Bethlehem urbanites. "This is the cigarette of At-Tuwani," says Hafez, smiling, "Or the only kind our shop carries." I put away the Gauloises.

When he was a boy, Hafez begins, At-Tuwani had a population of 700-800 that subsisted on raising sheep. The large herds in those days numbered up to 500 while the smaller herds consisted of about 150. Now the village's human population numbers no higher than the small flocks of yesteryear, and shepherds can be seen with no more than 20 sheep at a time. At-Tuwani's sheep once carried a reputable market value in Yatta, but ever since an incident several years ago when settlers from Ma'on littered the village's pastures with rat poison, the shepherd economy here has run into the ground. As Hafez tells this story, the little boy, whose name is Hamudi, braves a stab at touching the foreigner's knee. He shrieks and retreats to Hafez's side grinning. "I have four," says Hafez, "Hamudi is the only boy."

The diminution of At-Tuwani and its neighboring villages is on everyone's mind, Hafez tells me, wiping Hamudi's runny nose. He doesn't have to tell me that the situation is directly attributable to the activities of Israeli settlers and their government—nothing could be more apparent: the segregated Route 317, the proximity of Ma'on, the barrenness of his home. But communities like At-Tuwani lie far beneath the world's consciousness. Too far, perhaps, for people to want or care to know better.

Israel has always spoken with two voices on the issue of West Bank settlements—like Ma'on and hundreds of others—depending on whether the audience is local or international. The diplomatic effect is evident in the tendency among the western media to portray settlers as a radical fringe, a paranoid flock that barricades itself behind barbed wire and scrawls racist graffiti like "gas the Arabs" and "Watch out Fatima, we will rape all Arab women" (as is visible in Hebron). Accordingly, it is fashionable among Israeli and American liberals to distance themselves from the settlers and spout anti-occupation rhetoric. However, history reveals a less ambiguous message.

Following the 1967 war, Israel seized on the colonial logic that a civilian presence on its peripheries would ensure security—a dubious reasoning given that the settlements stoke Israel's unpopularity in the region. Within the first year of the occupation, around 30 settlements with approximately 5,000 settlers were established mostly in the eastern margins of the West Bank, according to the Israeli group Peace Now. By 1989, 20,000 settlement housing units had been constructed for a colonist population of nearly 99,000. In 1991, following the first intifada, Israel increased its settlement efforts by 60 percent (12,000 more units), allocating $900 million to settlement infrastructure—a significant sum when compared to the $175 million the state allotted to its other domestic ministries.

Throughout the 1990s, as the Oslo Accords provided the veneer of a "peace process," settlement figures jumped even higher as leaders like Ariel Sharon encouraged Israelis to "grab every hilltop." During the ten years that roughly coincided with the Oslo peace process, the settler population in East Jerusalem alone increased from 124,000 in 1992 to nearly 176,000 in 2002. Today, according to the Applied Research Institute of Jerusalem, nearly 400,000 Israelis occupy 211 settlements throughout the West Bank—including those in East Jerusalem, which are normalized in popular discourse as "Jewish neighborhoods." Israel's human rights organization B'Tselem estimates that the settlements and their attendant infrastructure, including settler-only roads, control 42 percent of the West Bank. An additional 123 settlement outposts, usually comprised of mobile units and tents, exist within a few kilometers of "parent" settlements and function as their extensions. Although Israeli policymakers, along with their counterparts in the United States, periodically vow to dismantle all outposts in the West Bank, Israel continues to enhance the plumbing and electricity services at outposts in addition to providing them with military protection. Even Israeli politicians who call themselves the Israeli left—Yossi Beilin and Shlomo Ben Ami come to mind—prioritize the imagined rights of settlers over those of Palestinians.

View a map of the Southern West Bank (PDF, 484 KB), including the area around At-Tuwani. Map: Courtesy of B'Tselem

The population growth of Ma'on since 1993 mirrors the subtle political trends of the Oslo years, according to figures from Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics. Shortly after a slight dip in 1994, the settlement's population more than doubled to 327 in 2003. In early 2001 three families broke away from Ma'on and occupied the wooded hilltop—known as "Hill 833" by Israelis and "Tel Abu Jundiya" by Palestinians—350 meters south of the settlement. Although the outpost consists of only ten cabins, a tent and a bus frame that serves as a nursery school, it extended Ma'on's territorial claim and usurped 39 dunums of Hafez's most arable farmland. Later that same year, another seven families from Ma'on established Avigayil, which lies 2.5 kilometers southwest of Ma'on, sandwiching At-Tuwani in between. These developments were preceded by an even harsher colonial stride: one day in 2000, the inhabitants of Tuba and Mufakar, two Palestinian villages south of At-Tuwani, received an Israeli military order to leave their homes. The residents of those villages ignored the order, and Israel answered with bulldozers.

The political climate at the time that Hill 833 and Avigayil were established begs questions concerning their logic. Disenchanted with the peace process, the increase in settlements and Sharon's provocative display at the Haram Al Sharif in Jerusalem in September 2000, Palestinians resurrected the intifada, albeit more spontaneously and in a less organized manner than the uprising of 1987. Hafez reminds me that villages this far south had nothing to do with the second intifada—indeed, it would be spurious, many Hebronites say, to conclude that the movement reached as far south as Hebron in any concerted sense.

In time, the settler activity in Masafer Yatta garnered outside attention. Shortly after the depopulation of Tuba and Mufakar, Hafez established contact with Taayush, which brought the matter to Israel's high court. The court ordered that the Palestinian refugees could return to their homes. However, the refugees returned only to find that the road connecting them to At-Tuwani, home to the only Palestinian school in the area, now went between Ma'on and Hill 833. Attacks on inter-village commuters—stone throwing, shooting, beating—soon became a daily occurrence.

"The people from Taayush would come on Saturdays," Hafez says of the Israeli activists that monitored the settlers' behavior, "but what about all the days in between? How were we supposed to send our children to school?" Hafez recalls the numerous visits he paid to the Israeli police at the district office in Qiryat Arba, "They just smile and shrug their shoulders," he says mimicking the gesture.

In September 2004 Hafez forged a partnership with Christian Peace Team (CPT), Taayush and Operation Dove. CPT is the advocacy/monitoring group that won fame for its work in Hebron's old city, which messianic Israeli settlers have literally divided into two planes of existence. Meanwhile, Operation Dove is an Italian Christian organization that undertakes accompaniment work similar to CPT's. The three groups committed delegates to reside in At-Tuwani in weekly rotations, their purpose being to escort children to and from school. "For the first week we had no problems," Hafez says, spreading a blanket over Hamudi, who has fallen asleep on the mattress beside him.

But on Wednesday morning of the second week, CPT members Chris Brown and Kim Lamberty were confronted by five settlers from Hill 833, dressed in black and wearing masks. The settlers attacked Brown and Lamberty, both American citizens, with a chain and baseball bat, beating them to the ground and kicking them repeatedly. The children they were escorting fled back to their homes terrified but uninjured. Brown suffered a punctured lung while the settlers broke Lamberty's arm and knee, and stole her passport, money and cellular phone.

Chastened by the international media—apparently, the previous attacks on Palestinian children were not substantial enough—the Qiryat Arba office, at the behest of the Israeli Knesset, ordered the Israeli police to patrol the road from Tuba during school commuting hours. "They show up, usually late, but their presence is usually enough," says Hafez. Usually.

It was only a matter of time before the Hill 833 assailants began attacking the Israeli police as well. In response, Israel's government ordered the evacuation of settlers occupying Hill 833. Then the war in Lebanon happened. "Now the settlers on Tel Abu Jundiya are behaving," Hafez says.

On a morning in July 2004 Hafez's mother, Samia [not her real name], awoke to the sound of dogs barking in the direction of Tel Abu Jundiya. She climbed out of bed and made her way uphill toward the water cistern near the Hereni's small olive grove. Samia saw three figures standing over the cistern. She could not make out their features in the pre-dawn light, but they wore black pants with white shirts, the customary dress of religious settlers, like those of Ma'on. When the figures noticed her presence they fled. Samia returned to the home and alerted Hafez about what she had seen. As he pulled on a shirt and began lacing his shoes, she warned him, "I think you should wait for the smell to clear, it might be dangerous."

Hafez could smell it as soon as he was within two meters of the cistern. "I cannot explain it. Something terrible, like chemicals," he says with a grimace. The Herenis spent two days rinsing out the cistern before the smell finally dissipated. They are still not certain what toxin the settlers used, but they have since limited their use of the cistern to watering crops.

When Israel occupied the West Bank in the Six Day War of 1967 they took over the underground aquifers that, according to international customary law, belonged to the Palestinians. According to Oregon State University's Aaron Wolf, an expert on Middle East hydrology, control over the region's scant water resources was not the primary reason for Israel's occupation of the West Bank, but it would be misguided to say that water played no role at all. Since then, as Hebrew University's Eran Feitelson has written, Israeli politicians have faced considerable pressure from agricultural lobbies to award larger shares of water to their constituents, thus increasing demands on an already strained and politically contested resource.

It was in this context that Palestinian rights to water were presented at the Oslo Accords in 1993. The Oslo Accords acknowledged the existence of Palestinian water rights, but put off defining their parameters until "final status negotiations" (which never happened). Until then, water matters would be handled by an Israeli-Palestinian Joint Water Committee, in which Israeli delegates had veto powers—any new wells, cisterns, or spring access had to be ok-ed by the colonial authority.

I recall an email from Feitelson last fall in which he called the post-Oslo water policy framework an "overall success." Listening to Hafez, I cannot help but find Feitelson's spin rather cynical. At-Tuwani is one of hundreds of Palestinian communities that lie in "Area C," which, according to Oslo, are under complete Israeli administration—Areas "A" and "B" are partially administered by the Palestinian National Authority—and receive little to no public services.

The scenario goes as follows: Hafez reports the cistern poisoning to Qiryat Arba; there is no investigation much less a protocol for law enforcement. At-Tuwani is now down one cistern, but installing a new one requires the approval of an authority that has already expressed an interest in expropriating the village's inhabitants. Because the At-Tuwani "gate" in the barrier along Route 317 is closed, water tankers that service At-Tuwani, Tuba and Mafaker from Yatta must drive on Route 317. Because 317 is a settler road, the drivers are stopped by Israeli soldiers. The soldiers confiscate their IDs. The tanker drivers are out of work until they can afford new IDs. Incidentally, Masafer Yatta suffers from a drought this year.

Overall success.

There is an olive tree sapling that Hafez planted at the summit of his land to commemorate the life of Tom Fox, the CPT member who was abducted and killed in Baghdad last March. The tree sits on its own, on a plot of earth raised above a grove of Hafez's remaining 20-odd olive trees (he had scores more that have since been uprooted and vandalized by Hill 833 settlers). The sapling's existence seems fragile given the backdrop of Hill 833, less than 100 meters away. Yet Hafez maintains a daily ritual of carrying four buckets of water to the tree just before sundown.

Tonight he is joined by his brother, myself and three internationals from Operation Dove and CPT who are presently stationed in the village. As we climb the hill with our buckets, Hafez encourages Hamudi to go back to the house where his mother waits in the doorway, a red sun behind her. Hamudi breaks down in tears, extending a hand toward his father. Hafez hands off his bucket and swings Hamudi onto his shoulders, suppressing a smile.

There is nothing at this point that has led me to believe that Hafez is particularly religious. The women in At-Tuwani cover their heads, some men have beards, but there is nothing strikingly devout about village society here. It is for these reasons that I am taken with Hafez's motions as we water the olive sapling. He kneels penitently, sitting on his heels, but he is not praying. He extends a hand and gives the sapling's limbs small tugs to check their strength. He drags on his cigarette and considers the tree for a few more moments. "The drought has made an effect," he says to no one.

I look from Hafez to At-Tuwani's sloping ravine of stone hovels and caves, then to the east where Ma'on's modern, uniform houses and paved roads are contained behind an electrified fence with surveillance cameras. I imagine the industry and machines that go into creating such structures, and then I recall a scene in John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, in which the author depicts a man operating a bulldozer as it tears into farmland:

He could not see the land as it was, he could not smell the land as it smelled; his feet did not stamp the clods or feel the warmth and power of the earth. He sat in an iron seat and stepped on iron pedals. He could not cheer or beat or curse or encourage the extension of his power, and because of this he could not cheer or whip or curse or encourage himself. He did not know or own or trust or beseech the land.

At dinner time, the Herenis gather on the roof of the house. I am given a coat, as the night winds are cold, even in August. Hafez's wife and sisters are to one side, while Hafez, his brother and I are on the other, eating from separate serving plates. We are in an adult, gendered world. Children run around us, playing in a boundless, children's world. Hamudi is torn between worlds. He wants to be near his father, eat like his father, but his dexterity with a spoon prevents him from doing so and he knocks over a bowl. Mother whisks him away and he cries.

Not every night is this peaceful in the Hereni household. Ever since Hafez initiated ties with Taayush, both he and his family have become targets of persecution by the Israeli authorities. Every two or three nights, the family is visited by soldiers. They wake up the family and root through their possessions, dismantling all sense of order and destroying or confiscating anything they find. Hafez's brother was recently forced to move in after the Israelis demolished his home, saying that he violated the law by building a new bathroom—an outhouse by western standards—without permission from the Israeli civil administration: another aspect of life in "Area C."

In April, Hafez was arrested and jailed for two weeks after At-Tuwani villagers organized a joint demonstration with Taayush against the construction of the Route 317 barrier. I had seen video footage of the incident earlier that day on a laptop belonging to a CPT worker: the Israeli authorities, armed to the teeth, tolerate the peaceful demonstration for a short time before they order everyone to move to the At-Tuwani side of 317. Several Israeli activists from Taayush defy the orders and are carted into police vehicles, their bodies limp. Then, as if pre-meditated, the soldiers/police go into the throng of onlookers and grab Hafez, though he was complying with the order. His mother, who is among the demonstrators, throws herself into their midst. She is flung effortlessly to the pavement by a soldier. A Canadian activist runs to Hafez's assistance and she is seized by the neck and similarly cast aside. Hafez is beaten to the ground and kicked, then hoisted to his feet, blood streaming from beneath his right eye. The soldiers pin him to the hood of a jeep with his head in front of the jeep's bullhorn. The horn lets off a deafening siren and Hafez grimaces in pain. The video ends with the jeep driving into the distance.

"They continued beating me on the way to Qiryat Arba," Hafez says. This is not hard to believe.

I awake to the sound of roosters and dogs barking. Across the valley I see the CPT and Operation Dove workers returning from their morning monitor run. The school in At-Tuwani holds a summer camp, which attracts children from Tuba and surrounding villages. The monitors would later tell me that this morning's commute was without incident. The Israeli military arrived, somewhat late, but there nonetheless. People wonder how long this relative peace will last.

The ravine is alive with noises. Mothers order their children to morning chores, sheep hooves thunder up the road. I find Hafez on his roof, where the family sleeps in the summer. He is playing a game with Hamudi, who giggles and squeals. Hafez looks up and says that there is an emergency: The shop in At-Tuwani has run out of Jamals. For this, he will have to go with me to Yatta. I welcome the charade, as I was wondering how I would make it home that day.

As we walk to the school house, Hafez reminds me of another, less benign charade. At-Tuwani's school was built without a permit from the Israelis, and it has therefore been slated for demolition. However, a court case lodged by lawyers with Taayush won the school a few more years of existence, stalling perhaps the inevitable. When we arrive, I am introduced to the two men who administer the summer camp—although it appears that women are doing all the administering—who are also our ride out of the village. We load into a station wagon that is at least five years older than is mechanically feasible, and make our way down the hill, jump starting from a second-gear coast. We pause to pick up a shepherd holding a lamb.

The station wagon stops at Route 317, where we get out and cross, straddling the concrete blocks. On the other side there is a dirt road leading to Yatta, and a tiny yellow Fiat of similar dilapidation to the station wagon. Hafez pulls a plastic water bottle from behind the Fiat's driver seat and begins filling the radiator. The shepherd climbs into the back with the lamb. I ask Hafez how long the passage between At-Tuwani and Yatta has been blocked. He considers the question until the radiator is full. "Thirty five days now," he says.

On the way to Yatta, the road turns from gravel to tar, and we find ourselves in the sea of Yatta's surrounding olive groves. It is here that I muster the courage to test the boundaries of my nascent familiarity with Hafez, someone I have known for less than 24 hours. It came from a place too curious to ignore: "It must have been difficult for Hamudi when you were in prison."

Hafez retreats into his skull, and runs a hand through his hair, "Yes, it was."


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