As we stood on the hillside, we watched a small group of Palestinian children walk home from school up a long winding road past a settlement. They were escorted by two soldiers on foot, followed by an Israeli army vehicle. Eventually they turned the corner out of sight. An Israeli man, well into his seventies stood near me, speaking Arabic on the phone. When he had disconnected the call, he turned to us and said ‘just five more minutes and then they will be safe’.
He was referring to the children arriving safely back within sight of their village, out of danger from settler harassment. He has been doing this kind of ‘protective presence’ in the South Hebron Hills, the most southerly part of the West Bank, for more than twenty years. He is one of a group of Israeli activists who show solidarity to Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation in the South Hebron Hills and the Jordan Valley.
Many of the Jewish activists drive down to the South Hebron Hills on a weekly basis from their homes in cities such as Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem. They may support Palestinian farmers when they go out shepherding and are vulnerable to settler attacks, or participate in land actions where Palestinians work their land to resist its confiscation. Others are attached to one of several Israeli organisations which work to make visible the realities of the occupation to Israeli citizens.
On such organisation is ‘Looking the Occupation in the Eye’, which focuses on social media campaigning as well as solidarity actions inside the West Bank. Another is Machsom Watch, which monitors the checkpoints and helps Palestinian workers with getting permits to travel to work inside Israel. The organisation was set up in 2001 by three Jewish women from Jerusalem. They say this on their website:
One of their members, *Shahar, who was visiting the South Hebron Hills in September of last year, after a particularly violent attack by settlers on the Palestinian farmer and activist, Hafez Huraini, talked about her motivation:
‘Unless you are a settler or a soldier, as an Israeli you don’t see the full enormity of the occupation’
Itai Feitelson, who for the last two years has spent much of this time supporting Palestinians living in isolated communities in the South Hebron Hills, says he grew up in home which was against the occupation in broad terms but were uninformed about the realities, and also didn’t feel anything could be done about it. ‘Unless you are a settler or a soldier, as an Israeli you don’t see the full enormity of the occupation’. He says his family’s attitude in fact amounted to cooperation with the occupation because they never did anything to challenge it.
It was only when he started to read and learn for himself that he started to think critically. He realised there were people who were actively challenging the occupation and decided he wanted to visit the West Bank. He started off helping Palestinian farmers to pick their olives at the annual harvest and joining protests and other direct actions. Gradually he spent more time in the West Bank and started to love the land the people.
Together with a handful of other young activists, Itai lives most of the time in a small village in the South Hebron Hills. They take Arabic classes with local teachers and spend their days monitoring human rights violations committed by the settlers and the Israeli army and police. They provide protective presence where they can to children walking to school, or Palestinian farmers working their land and sometimes do sleepovers with families who are experiencing settler raids during the night. Because they speak both Hebrew and Arabic they can be negotiate with the army, for example seeking assurances that children will not be harassed. Further reflecting on his solidarity work Itai says:
Certainly many of the local Palestinians EAPPI spoke to are clear that the Israeli’s solidarity is making a difference:
Nasser Adraa, South Hebron Hills
‘Gradually my walls opened up and there was no way back as I was unlearning everything I had been taught’
Other Israel activists spoke about their motivations to take a stand. *Ariel is 35, and went regularly to the South Hebron Hills for several years to take part in land actions, the olive harvest, and for protests which are sometimes called when particular villages are targeted for harassment by the Israeli army. He now tries to focus more within the 1948 borders, trying to raise awareness within Israeli Jewish society about the injustices of the occupation. Ariel comes from a European Jewish family who immigrated to Israel when he was ten years old:
Ariel* started to focus on other issues which also intersect with the occupation: militarism and the Israeli arms industry, climate justice and anti-racism. ‘Its good to feel in solidarity with people’ he reflects.
What difference does he feel his activism makes for the occupation?
‘I do my activism so I can look at myself in the mirror each day’
*Lior sees his activism as being for both Israel and Palestine.
Despite the deep challenges, many Palestinians in the South Hebron Hills tell us that the commitment displayed by Israeli activists and the internationals who stand in solidarity with them, gives them another reason to be hopeful and continue to resist the injustices of occupation.
*Real names witheld
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Watch the film, 5 Broken Cameras made by a Palestinian activist documenting the Israeli military’s excessive use force against peaceful Palestinian protest and the resilience of the Palestinian resistance movement.
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