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Close Encounter of a Settler Kind

(Israeli settler after assaulting a Human Rights Worker. Behind the car is the settlment of Suseya)

by Jon

Qawawis is a village in the south Hebron Hills, very close to the green line, and surrounded by settlements and settlement outposts. In Qawawis are about 5-6 families, all of whom have roughly 10 kids (the kids, however, are scattered about the region depending on their age & schooling; some are close to home, some in Yatta or Al-Khalil/Hebron). They have been tending their sheep and goats their for generations, carving and digging from the rocks of the hills caves & wells, which they use for shelter and sustenance for both themselves and their flocks. Some of them, such as my dear friends Hajj Khalil have built small homes for themselves, and Hajj Mahmoud has a clay walled home. But Hajj Ibrahim, he lives in one of the caves, which is a great place; the light almost always seems to be filling the cave, no matter what time of day. And aside from their kindness and hospitality, the people of Qawawis are renowned for their sweet tea; and oh so much of it! I have never drank so much tea in my life!

Within the last two years the people of Qawawis were evicted from their lands and homes, only to return after a year due to an Israeli court ruling & the support they received from organizations such as Taayush and the ISM. Since their return, we have tried to keep a near constant presence of internationals in the village due to the presence of numerous violent and unpredictable settlers in the region. On my last visit, December 12th, we found that 6-7 olive trees had been cut down in the night by settlers. The most basic tactic of Zionism, at just about every stage of the colonization of Palestine, is to acquire as much territory as possible with as few Palestinians as possible. One sees this pattern very clearly in the South Hebron hills, with small villages such as Qawawis being surrounded by expanding settlement blocs while being terrorized and harassed by the presence and impunity of the settlers and the army.

So, despite what has been weeks of either bitter cold or rain (or both), I went to Qawawis via Al-Khalil/Hebron, along with a new ISM volunteer from the bay area. We did the usual, packed up with food & essentials such as candles for the required nighttime reading once the lights go out, and off we went. To get there, one takes a service/bus from Al-Khalil to Yatta first, but this time we had to take a different route. Previously, we had been able to pass through the Al-Fawwar refugee camp, but that route, most likely due to the elections, has been closed, so instead you now take a bus about 15 minutes down the road until you reach a truly ridiculous Israeli-made assemblage of large rocks, dirt and concrete. Its only purpose is to block direct transit between Al Khalil and Yatta, making life just that more difficult for Palestinians.

So, we cross the wasteland barrier of sorts, get another service ride, and luckily, this one takes us all the way to Yatta & beyond the next town of Al-Karmil, which is cut off to the east by a settler highway. We go down the hill, cross the highway, and that’s it, we are back in Qawawis!

I was slightly nervous about our reception there, because it has been difficult to keep every place we have committed to covered with an international presence, and Qawawis has been on its own lately. This is a truly critical area that is obviously coveted by the Israeli settlers and government; the first wall route planned cut off almost all the villages east of the settler road, annexing numerous settlements and outposts into Israel (for a great map and report on the area, go to http://www.btselem.org/English/Publications/Index.asp ). Qawawis is hemmed in by the road, and a number of settlements, such as Suseya, Mizpe Yair and Avigayil; seriously, you can stand in front of Hajj Khalil’s house and see all three of them, and the road.

But, with their usual hospitality and welcome, I was home again with no worries. They did relate to me some incidents, mostly having to do with being too close to the road and the army yelling at them, but no one had been hurt and no property had been damaged, so all was good. There are three brothers that rule the roost, and they are Hajj Khalil, Hajj Mahmoud, and Hajj Ibrahim (and of course, along with their spouses, the Hajjas; Hajja Aime, Hajja Fatmi, and Hajja Aeshia). Then there and the sons, the daughters, just so so many kids! While we were there, the kids of Ibrahim and Aime (different Ibrahim) were there, tending the goats, making meals, playing marbles, you know the usual.

Yes, I’m back in Qawawis, drinking insane amounts of sweet tea and getting up at the crack of dawn to take out the goats and sheep for some walking and eating. The land seems more green since I was last there, possibly due to the fact that we haven’t been around as much, so they haven’t taken them out much for grazing. With the loss of so much land due to settlements and roads, they have to bring in food for them to eat.

The first night back, we are in our room but cannot sleep; from the nearby settlements we can hear the sound of rifles firing, and loud noises and people speaking. I’ve heard similar things there before, but the shooting, that is something new in my experience of this area.

So, the first morning, I am up at around 6 am, I take a few pictures, talk with Hajj Khalil, drink some tea, and then wander over to the house of Ibrahim, who is taking his goats out at that moment. But, in the distance I see Hajj Khalil taking his sheep up the hill, right near the settler highway leading to Mizpe Yair. Being an area prone to confrontation with settlers, I asked the other ISMer to stay with the other sheep in the village while I catch up with Khalil.

So off I run, trying not to twist my ankles (again), and I reach Hajj Khalil. We take the sheep up the hill, and he does his usual combinations of clicks, whistles, commands and grunts to tell them where to go; and when that doesn’t work, just throw a rock at them, no problem!

While we are walking with the sheep, we can hear more of the rifle noises we heard the night before, this time coming from Mizpe Yair. After about nine-o clock, I noticed a white van sitting at the intersection, which is closer to Suseya settlement, but didn’t think anything of it. A little later, I saw a person slowly walking up the road from the intersection, on his own, and walking very slowly. He was heading in our direction, but at that point, I had no idea what to expect. Then, I noticed that Mahmoud was bringing his goats near to where we were, and the other ISMer was with them as well. I was really hoping that the man would pass up harassing them, which he did, but then he started to get close to where I was. He immediately turned off the road and headed straight for Khalil’s sheep, yelling at them and kicking them. He had a kipa on, so he was obviously a settler, but thankfully he had no weapons. So I did what I thought was best, I moved between him and the sheep stating calmly “sir, this is not your home, please leave, this is not right,” and such. He screamed at me “Go back to Europe!” and shoved me a couple of times with his shoulder.

Being a bit bigger than me, I was knocked about a few times, but not hurt, and the sheep were able to take care of themselves. But then the man turned from me and headed straight for Hajj Khalil, who is about 80 years old. He got right in his face, screaming at him, while Hajj Khalil simply replied “Marhabah, Ahlen Whasalen,” that is, hello, welcome. It was a remarkable sight that I wish could have been photographed; this young, unstable, angry bully face to face with a man old enough to be his father’s grandfather, that stood his ground, not moving an inch, and returned his insults with nothing but kindness and a firm rootedness in his place, his home… his land.

So, without thinking, I rushed over and got myself in between the two of them; one body check to Khalil and he could be seriously hurt. So I got shoved a again, at which point I repeated the things that I had already been saying, along with “I am calling the police.” I don’t know if that worked, but then the man turned back towards the road, where there was a white car waiting for him.

At this point, with the threat of violence subsiding, I took some pictures, as did the woman driving the car; she also screamed at me “Nazi,” Nazi dog!”

As I got closer, I noticed two small children in the back seat. Hmmm… is this a settler family outing?

After getting into the car, they drove away towards Suseya, while I spoke to the police. They came back, stopped the car for a minute, and then drove to Mizpe Yair. Then after five minutes, a police jeep shows up, with 2 men in the front and 1 in the back. I walk over to them, as they declined to get out of their jeep, and I described the incident. I showed them the pictures, 2 of which had the car’s license plate on it. In an incredible display of unprofessional police work, they looked up the number on their computer in front of me and said out loud the name it was registered to. After that, they told me “you must go to the Kiryat Arba police station and file a report.” I said, “ok, maybe I can go tomorrow, it is far from here,” to which they replied “NO, you must go TODAY!” Ummm… ok! Even worse, the police inform me that the land of that area “belongs to the people there,” as he pointed to the settlements, which of course are all illegal under international law.

Now, just stop and think about this for a moment. I was attacked, and Hajj Khalil was threatened with violence by a settler that is only there because the Israeli government subsidizes his residence and provides the military force to make it possible. But when this person is to be reported for an act of violence (as if his presence in itself is not enough violence; road construction, land confiscation, occupation, etc), one must go to the police, who happen to be located in one of the most extreme, racist, and violent settlements in Palestine. Sometimes, when confronted by such ugly realities, I think that Kafka and Orwell must be either laughing or weeping in their graves; probably both.

The police leave, and I talk with my fellow ISMer and the others, but as soon as they leave the army arrives! Yes, a humvee and about 7 soldiers or so arrive and could not care in the slightest about the settler attack. All they want to do is enforce some arcane military order which says that the sheep must be 200 meters from the road, end of story. So, I talk to them, try to stall them, keep the situation de-escalated, while calling anyone and everyone I can. I’ve already called Hamoked (human rights group), so I call Ezra fro Taayush (Israeli/Palestinian anti-occupation group) to see if he knows what to do next; although the settlers are more unpredictable than the army, the army can arrest people, and a lot more too. Ezra answers the phone saying, to my surprise, “I’ll be there in a few minutes.” Oh, this is going to get good!

Ezra arrives just in time, as more soldiers and other military functionaries have arrived, and he does what Israeli peace activists do best; scream and yell at the army in Hebrew!

It is really just a joy to watch, and it allows me to be the good cop and stay cool, because there isn’t really much I can do at this point. If they want us back from the road, we’ll probably do it, but we will put up a fuss. The minutes ensue with either Hajj Mahmoud arguing with the soldiers in Arabic, along with Ezra, who tells me in front of the soldiers “You should be here every day by the road, make them work, hell, make them arrest you if they want!” Hmmmm… ok, Ezra, I’ll see you at my deportation hearing!

After the scene begins to settle, I query a few soldiers as to why they need large guns to deal with the oh-so dangerous sheep of Qawawis. Then I get a ride from Ezra north to the Kiryat Arba police station… or at least close to it. We stop once in Tuwani, another village in a similar situation, and then they leave me at a checkpoint where I take a taxi through the surrounding towns.

I am left at what I assume is a building, although hidden behind blocks of concrete, fencing, and walls. There is a phone to call in, but the instructions are in Hebrew, and there is a water fountain turned towards the fence; but the fence makes it impossible to use, unless one shoots out the water into one’s hand, and then slurps it from there. When I get there, a Palestinian man and woman are already there, to get information about a friend who has been arrested. When another man leaves the police station, he explains to me that he was there to sign a statement swearing that he has no intention to kill a certain settler… who had filed a complaint saying that this man was going to kill him… ahh, it’s good to be the king! (sarcasm alert, part II) He asks me why I am trying to get in, and I tell him the story; he waves his hand and says to me “don’t bother, these people (the settlers) are above the law.”

Finally I am let inside the compound (after calling a few times) and I wait a bit until I am called in to file my report. I could list the details of this, but the important thing is that it was so surreal. The (I assume) detective, had no idea what or where Qawawis is or was, or the name of the smaller settler outpost Mizpe Yair, or even what I could possibly be doing there. The whole recounting of the event was dealt with as if I was describing my latest foray into the jungles of the Congo. But it was right in his backyard, I mean, he’s the police, shouldn’t he know that?! That, however, is just part of the apartheid reality of this place; many different peoples and communities, all of the living in close proximity, but according to very different rules, with the threads of connection between them tenuous, if there at all.

So, after writing many facts down, they ask for my pictures of the man. I show them, and then they want to take my camera to copy them, which I decline to do. After some haggling, it turns out they don’t have the right connections to hook up my camera anyway, so another police man says, “come back tomorrow with the pictures.” The last thing I want to do is take all day to come back to this place when I could be drinking tea with my dear friends in Qawawis, so I leave the station trying to think of what to do. After a bit of walking, I realize that I am very close to Baba Zawya, in Hebron, and I know a great photo store there that could probably burn the pictures to disc. Soon enough, I am there, getting the pictures copied and burned, seeing some friends, eating a bit, and heading back to the station.

I get there, and to my dismay, the same Palestinian couple that were there hours earlier are still waiting outside the fortress of gates, fences & disembodied voices. When my cop comes to let me in, I say to him, “could you please see that these people get some help, they have been here all day.” They talked a bit, and then we went inside. I have no idea if I helped them at all, but it is so excruciating to see just how thoroughly degraded and humiliated a Palestinian can be by just about every facet of the occupation. I, on the other hand, have white skin, speak English, have one of those Euro-american passports, and can pass for the Chosen People, which makes all the difference.

Back in the station, they fill out more paperwork, and I am asked at least 12 times if all 6 pictures are on the 1 disc. Yes, they are I say…again. Then they have me look at a book of pictures to see if I can id the man.

While waiting, I find myself looking at the display of pictures behind the desk of another cop. There is the usual combination of friends and family, along with other ones of a quasi-military nature. One of them I can still remember; there he is, in a t-shirt, green army pants, and wearing sunglasses. In the background are sheep, and slung around his shoulder is a large rifle. I still wonder whose sheep they are, where he was & what he was doing. Could it be his friend’s kibbutz in Israel? Or maybe he was in one of the many Palestinian villages and stopped for a photo op. Was he in the army? Or as a policeman? Or, dare I ask, policing the natives on his own initiative?

So they put the book of Jewish Israeli settler felons in front of me and I peruse. I really don’t think that I have seen such a collection of maladjusted, freaked out & scruffy people in my life. Half of them were staring into the camera with a confused malaise of anger in their eyes; of just wanting, needing, to let loose and project some serious violence. The other half smile like it’s their yearbook picture, kind of “look at me mom, it’s my first arrest! I’m a real settler now!” After looking through 2 books of these pictures, I had had enough, and more importantly, I could not identify the settler.

So, that was that. There was a brief discussion of getting Hajj Khalil to come and testify, but that was just ridiculous. I told them, why don’t you just drive your shinny jeeps 30 minutes down your settler highway and talk to him yourselves? I also was unwilling to put him through the humiliation of the Kirayat Arba police station, all in regards to a complaint that won’t be followed up by the police anyway. At one point, a cop was talking to me and seemed surprised when it was clear that I didn’t think they would do anything to follow up my complaint. He said to me “Do you think that we just take our salaries?” No comment, sir (sarcasm alert, part III, in 3-D).

Soon enough, they were done with me and I was on my way back to Qawawis via Al-Khalil. This time, the service driver from Yatta got some bad directions from my fellow travelers, and I was dropped off near the village of Tuwani. Now, as the crow flies, it’s not far from Qawawis, but the sun was going down, and the terrain is very tricky. I had to manage walking near the highway, but not too near so the army jeeps driving down wouldn’t notice me. Also, I had to make sure to give a wide berth to the outpost of Avigayil, so they wouldn’t see me, and keep an eye out so that any Palestinians I would see would not think that I was a settler going out for a night time stroll. All in all, a great time and place for a relaxing walk!(sarcasm alert, part IV, the Final Chapter)

After making it through, I was back in Qawawis, exhausted, physically and mentally, but missed by the village. But finally I was back, and the day’s ordeal, which really wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been, was over.

The next few days at Qawawis were calm, no problems or events to report. I’ve been away for a little while now, but I am already feeling the need for some sweet tea and the company of Hajj Khalil… and his sheep & goats, of course! See you soon, Qawawis inshalah, inshallah.