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Hebron: “We have been waiting over 60 years for this”

21 September 2011 | International Solidarity Movement, West Bank

The Atta and Rudaina Jeber’s farm is situated upon a hill. The area is called Sheik Sherah, in the Beca’a Valley in the outskirts of Hebron, or Al-Khalil.  Atta’s family has owned the land since the Ottoman Empire was in power, and he explains that he is part of about 19,000 Palestinians who originally settled the hills when they came from the lands now called Jordan, some 800 years ago.

He will also show you the caves where many of his ancestors were born.  It is in this part of Palestine where the Israeli settlers have fought so aggressively in recent years to invade Palestinian lands especially where Atta and his brothers live on two hills now fractured by two large settlements, Gryet Arba and Givat Ha Harsina.   Atta and his brothers and cousins have been petitioning the State of Israel to recognize their deeds to the land since 1986. Instead, in 1982 Israel had already confiscated thousands of dunams to build a highway which links Jerusalem in the north to southern towns like Hebron which bring settlers in.

To date they have confiscated about 7,000 dunams  and bulldozed the  fruit orchards of the families.  The confiscation of the land, however, was kept a secret from the Palestinians, Atta said.

“They wanted to bring strange people from different countries,” he said.

According to Atta, the Israeli judge in Beit Il himself is a settler.  This struggle has cost the Palestinian families thousands of dollars in legal papers, and lawyer fees, only to give people like Atta and his brothers reprieves of three days or one month or a year, but never a clear permit to remain on their property. Sometimes the families don’t get the permits to keep their houses.  When that happens, “You don’t know when they (Israeli Military) are going to come. Sometimes it is about 5 AM, and they come with many soldiers, and they tell us to get out.”

Atta’s two houses were bulldozed twice in the past 10 years.

“My family has been petitioning the Israeli government for a permit since 1983 and we have spent thousands of dollars in legal fees. They do this until you don’t have a cent left. Every time you go to the high court it costs us $1,800 dollars. When they take over our houses, they demolish them and then rebuild for settlers.”

Both Atta and Rudaina were born in 1962, but like the rest of the Palestinian farmers, their weathered faces show the hardship they have endured since the 1967 Israeli-Arab war.  They were both seven years old when the Israelis first bulldozed their fathers’ homes.

Rudaina’s brothers then joined the resistance with the P.L.O. One brother spent 16 years in an Israeli prison; her other brother spent three years, and the other spent one.  At one point, an uncle and his three sons spent five years in jail.

Atta laughs at the pain. This is life for the families.  Their four children go to school. When they are not fighting in court to keep their property, they till the soil, separating the mineral rich dirt from the rocks. They built terrace farming where they grow abundant eggplants, tomatoes, peppers and other vegetables which they sell in the marketplace. Their white grapes are abundant and their fig trees bend with fullness.  Over the years the families have built an extensive irrigation network for their crops and they have a well that has also gotten them in trouble with the State.  The well was also bulldozed once.  Within the last 10 years, 13 cisterns of all the families have been destroyed.  Atta’s irrigation system was also destroyed.  But again, the family rebuilds and fixes what the settlers and the Israeli Military destroy.  And now, the family must buy their drinking water from the Israeli district authority which sells them their  own water.

“They try to steal our humanity,” Atta said, when asked by a visitor to explain what the Palestinians want.  He waves his hands, “I’m asking the world to support us in our struggle for humanity.  This is all we want. We don’t want help from the world. We have minds and muscles. We have a rich mind. We don’t want a million or a billion dollars. We are not beggars.  We have been waiting for over 60 years for this. I can support myself and my family,” he looks down at his wife who is busily making stuffed grape leaves for supper, and he gazes with pride at his daughters nearby working on a computer.

When asked where he learned his English, he proudly states that he worked in an Israeli hotel  for 12 years and pointed to a hotel management certificate on the wall. He added that he also speaks some Spanish and German.

Atta and Rudaina have three daughters and one son all of which go to school in Hebron.  One of them comes to us with a huge sunflower and breaks it in several parts. Together we pick the seeds and crunch them in silence occasionally looking down the next hill at a gas station across the road in what was also once family land, where the settlers are amassing.

Rumor around the town all week has been that there would be trouble with the settlers. They are incensed that the United Nations this week is considering a petition by Palestinians to declare them a legitimate state.  Whenever there has been trouble in any part of the Occupied or Israeli territories, the settlers from the two illegal settlements descend upon the Palestinian families.  They have entered Atta’s house and set fires then afterwards prayed.  “They are a very religious, you know,” Atta said as he crushes a cigarette butt in an ashtray.  The irony is not lost on the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) observers.  In Hebron in August the Israeli military arrested 200 men when the attacks in Eilat occurred.

Today especially there is talk of problems in Hebron particularly in the old city. Everyone is on high alert. Abuses by the Israeli military happen daily especially at night and around the checkpoints.  Atta looks out in the distance and sees a white car approaching.

It is Rabbis for Human Rights activist, Rabbi Arik Acherman. The family is elated. Rudaina and her daughters serve dinner. Both the Rabbi and Atta are on the phone connecting with other Palestinian leaders as they eat.  By now about 50 people have amassed at the gas station. In the distance we can see several armored cars and dark figures that turn out to be soldiers.  Some people carrying Israeli flags begin walking toward the lands of Atta an his brothers.  A regiment of about six soldiers begin to ascend up the road, but stop at a large boulder below the house.

Lara, Atta’s youngest, clutches her father waist. He strokes her head tenderly, looks over and says she is afraid.  Meanwhile, Rudaina retreats to a corner of the terrace and begins to pray.  Rabbi Acherman sooths the family and observers by explaining that he has spoken to the Israeli military, and they have told him that the settlers would be allowed to go onto state land but not unto private property.

Evening has descended upon this human drama.  Rudaina comes out of the house, nervously looking towards the valley.  She takes out an automizer inhaler and breaths in.  After about two hours, the settlers begin to disperse. Only an SUV with a very,very loud speaker and a glowing menorah defiantly blasts music to the wind.  The observers wondered if the driver’s hearing will be permanently damaged by the blasts.  Only the soldiers behind the boulders can be seen. Eventually, even they disappear down the road and into the night.  Rabbi Acherman takes his leave saying he has to get back to his family in Jerusalem.  The children gleefully guide the ISM observers down the hills around to a waiting taxi.  They kiss and bid the ISM observers goodby. The last words they hear are al hamdulilah, Praise be to God, and ma’ al salama,[go] with Peace.

For now, at least.