Text by Ali Awad, photos by Emily Glick
To be an activist in the South Hebron Hills is to live a life that is not yours. In this region of the occupied West Bank, which suffers from near-daily home demolitions and violence at the hands of the Israeli state and settlers, you must always be ready for an emergency.
You might be asleep and then suddenly get woken up by a call to come and document a settler attack in a nearby village. You might have a plan for the day — just regular things to attend to in your personal life — and have to put all that aside in order to track down and document a convoy of soldiers and bulldozers on their way to demolish someone’s house. Or you might have to spend the day accompanying a shepherd grazing their flock in an area that has been declared state land, who has asked for activists to be present in case they are attacked by settlers or harassed by the military.
I didn’t grow up thinking I would become a human rights activist. I was born into a family in which our lives revolved around raising sheep and goats and cultivating the land. As a child, I thought that when I grew up I would have my own goat farm surrounded by trees. Once I started school, I discovered my love for the English language, so I added being a teacher to my dream of raising goats.
However, being born in a place under threat of forced eviction, it didn’t matter what I wanted. There’s a reality imposed on me, and in order to survive here I was forced to shape myself according to that reality. So instead of following my dreams, my life since the age of thirteen has been devoted to documenting rights violations by the Israeli occupation forces and settler violence against Palestinians in the South Hebron Hills.
I was only a child when I discovered that my very existence here in the village of Tuba is threatened by Israel’s policies of displacement. In 2001, the outpost of Havat Ma’on was built less than a kilometer away, on the road that connects Tuba with the rest of the West Bank. This road was my path to the nearest school, in the neighboring village of a-Tuwani; since Tuba falls in an area that the Israeli military has declared to be a “Firing Zone”, we can’t even build schools or medical clinics.
I decided to become an activist after witnessing the increasing violence of settlers in my village. I remember, for example, returning from school one day when I was in the third grade to find that a settler had chased after my uncle and his herd of goats, stabbing one of the goats 14 times.
The threat of violence from the settlers of Havat Ma’on, which is illegal even under Israeli law, also extended to us children. As a result, in 2004 we started having to walk to school under military escort: instead of investigating the settlers’ crimes, Israel decided to send a military jeep twice a day to accompany the children, because that is what was necessary to protect us from the settlers. This absurd situation continues to this day.
Palestinians in the Masafer Yatta region of the South Hebron Hills, in which Tuba is located, have been subjected to these violent attempts to displace us for almost my whole life. The majority of residents have either been attacked by settlers, had their homes demolished, or been subject to arrest by the Israeli military. Some have even become permanently disabled as a result of this abuse.
These are the experiences that led me to devote my life to accompanying other people in my community as they go about their daily lives, and documenting any attacks they experience. And beyond showing up as an activist on a daily basis, I believe that writing about this reality and sharing it with the world is something I can do to try to change it for the better.
‘Not only are there people living here, it is our only home’
One of the most important things we try to do as human rights activists in the South Hebron Hills is to raise awareness about the violence we experience at the hands of soldiers and settlers. Most of the residents of the area, including my family, are busy with hard work all day, and the majority have not been able to practice their right to education. But because I can speak English, I bear the responsibility of conveying our message to the world, and collecting data for campaigns and advocacy within the framework of international agreements that protect human rights and dignity.
The latest project in which I’ve been involved is the #SaveMasaferYatta campaign, which aims to raise awareness about Israel’s attempts to expel over 1,000 Palestinians from Masafer Yatta. Eight whole villages, including Tuba, are at risk of destruction by virtue of being located in what Israel calls “Firing Zone 918,” even though the villages pre-date the firing zone by several decades.
When the firing zone was declared in the 1980s, the military claimed that there were no permanent residents living in these villages; they even carried out an expulsion in 1999, before being forced by a court decision to allow our return pending further legal proceedings. Yet my grandparents were both born in Tuba in the 1940s, and they inherited our land from their grandparents. This is not unique: you hear similar stories throughout all the villages of Masafer Yatta.
Since I was a child, my grandfather has told me about the forced displacement of November 1999, which took place when I was just one-and-a-half years old. Whenever I used to see something written about this displacement by a journalist or human rights organization, I knew from my family’s experience that there were more details that had been left out, so sharing these stories myself felt like quenching my thirst.
When my family was displaced from Tuba, we set up camp in another part of our land, 3 kilometers from the village. The expulsion happened at the beginning of winter, and my grandfather, Ibrahim, told me that all they had was two tents: one for more than twenty people, and another for hundreds of our sheep for whom it was lambing season. The Civil Administration forces were not satisfied with displacing us from our original homes, and they followed us to that area and confiscated the two tents and even our food and the food of our sheep.
They left us in the heavy rain in those muddy plains with nothing, and that same night my mother went into labor with her fourth child, my brother Musab. My mother and brother were somewhat lucky, as someone agreed to bring his car from the nearby town of Yatta and rush them to the hospital. The rest of the family spent the night in Masafer Yatta in a tent we borrowed from another family. My grandfather’s sheep, which were out in the open, were struggling with the cold and the pain of their own childbirth; according to him, the next morning he found 30 of his young sheep frozen dead, including 12 who had been born that night.
Every time I hear these stories, with the details narrated by those who lived them, I become more sure that the policies we experience today aim to expel us from our homes again. I feel very sad for the children who might become homeless, as me and my brothers did when we were babies in 1999.
Our goal in the #SaveMasaferYatta campaign — which is a joint effort by Palestinian, Israeli, and international activists — is to show that not only are there people living here, but that it is our only home. We wanted to show what life in this area looks like, and that there are people who work in their fields, raise sheep and goats, and learn, love, and raise children, like in any other community. The more attention that we succeed in generating around our struggle pending the decision of Israel’s Supreme Court, the better the chances that we won’t lose our homes and livelihoods again.
‘A clear attempt to displace us’
Over the course of our research, we heard stories from people in all the villages of Masafer Yatta. We heard from children studying in schools threatened with demolition, and others whose schools have already been demolished. We heard from families whose homes have been destroyed dozens of times. And in the village of Al-Mirkez, I saw with my own eyes the soldiers’ training fields just a few meters away from the homes of the Palestinians.
I cannot forget the tears of Wedad, a mother in Al-Mirkez, while she offered us a cup of tea. She is worried about the future of her son, the young Muhammad Makhamra, who lost his hand after he stepped on an unexploded grenade left by the Israeli army a hundred meters from his home in “Firing Zone 918.”
Muhammad is eighteen years old, and his parents’ only son. He was a very active young man; he left school to help his family take care of the sheep and the harvest. He described to us how he used to enjoy grazing their flocks in the fields near his home, especially during the spring, and making food and tea with his mother on the fire.
Now, Muhammad has lost his right hand, he had to recover from the fracture of his right leg, and shrapnel from the bomb has affected his heart and stomach. All of this has led to the weakening of his body, and his mother is worried about him because earning a living in Al-Mirkez largely relies on hard physical labor.
I also interviewed my grandmother about what life was like here before the occupation. “When I was seven years old, I could move all over the area and nothing would happen to me, even when I went far from home,” she told me. “A few years ago, however, my seven-year-old granddaughter, Sujood, went to take a bottle of water to my son, her uncle, just behind the nearby hill.
“On her way, a group of settlers started chasing her and throwing rocks at her. She fell, and they came closer and struck her in the head directly with a rock. I hope that my grandchildren will get back the security and freedom that I had when I was a child in Tuba,” she concluded.
Like all the residents of this area, my family have lived here for generations, practicing our traditional culture, work, and agriculture — cultivating the land and raising livestock. However, since the occupation began, settler violence and the declaration of firing zones have constituted a clear attempt to displace us and other communities throughout the occupied territories from our land. These policies also go against international conventions: they violate our human rights, endanger our personal security and safety, and threaten our rights to adequate housing and education.
Growing up in this area and hearing the stories of those who lived here before the Israeli occupation is what motivated me to document, write, and be part of this kind of campaign. I have experienced and witnessed Israel’s violations my whole life. But despite all the challenges of being an activist in Masafer Yatta, I know that I have the right and the obligation to share these violations with the world, so that we can change the reality and once again live in safety and security on our land as our ancestors once did.