Villagers from Wadi Jahish in the Hebron Hills were trying to plant seeds but were stopped and turned around by Israeli soldiers. One man, pictured here, was held away from the group and questioned. Photo: Dan Mossip-Balkwill
Villagers from Wadi Jahish in the Hebron Hills were trying to plant seeds in January 2024 but were stopped and turned around by Israeli soldiers. One man, pictured here, was held away from the group and questioned. Photo: Dan Mossip-Balkwill

International Solidarity in the Hebron Hills

Masafer Yatta in the South Hebron Hills region of the West Bank has faced an extreme increase of violence from both neighbouring Israeli settlers and the Israeli army since Oct. 7. This region, also known as Firing Zone 918, is used for Israeli military training purposes.

Since the 1980’s, Palestinian residents of Masafer Yatta have been at risk of forced eviction and under strict “no build” orders. Since October, the almost 1,000 people living in 16 villages have been forced to leave their homes under threat of death by armed settler militias.

For those who choose to remain, settlers and the army seek to make their lives unbearable. With movement almost entirely restricted in October, many villagers were unable to visit their lands and undertake their yearly olive harvest, one of the main sources of income for families.

Shepherding too is severely restricted by encroaching illegal settlements which claim grazing land in the area. The army ensures Palestinian livestock cannot graze there either. Since the beginning of the war on Gaza, which is around 60 km away, shepherds are often not even allowed on the small patches of land the settlements have left them.

We visited the village of Umm Al Khair, which is surrounded by barbed wire and fences separating it from the illegal settlement of Carmel. Only a yellow gate along a road separates the village from the settlement. Every so often during the day, settlers honk at the children playing in the road until the older boys run to get them out of the way.

Despite the constant threat of danger and the palpable stress and tension in the air, the children we meet are unwavering in their pursuit of playtime and childish antics. We are forced into soccer games from the moment we wake up until the parents send their children to bed. Of all the villages in Masafer Yatta, only Umm Al Khair has actual soccer goals and a very small paved field.

In the village, we witnessed the Israeli army force a shepherd to bring his sheep and goats back to their pens instead of grazing. This is an almost daily occurrence between villagers and the army. Despite the “no build” orders, the village was able to build a trench to connect plumbing to some newly constructed homes. Residents explain to us that on Saturday, the Jewish day of rest, Jewish settlers would not be flying drones or driving by. They tell us that typically, they will put up a tent and build inside the tent, so settlers and the military do not realize they’re building until construction is completed.

We ask how long new building typically last. Our host tells us it’s important not to get attached to any building, as they could be demolished at any moment. The young man who we talk with is an expert at overcoming instances of settler violence. As he casually sips his tea and jokes around with the other men in between pick axe swings, it is easy to forget that just a few weeks earlier he was kidnapped, beaten and tortured by the Israeli army. To protect him from retribution at the hands of the Israeli army, we are not naming him.

An Israeli soldier yells at our host Ibrahim for standing on this hill a few meters from the village of Wadi Jahish. This was the last plot of land to be plowed, but the soldiers pointed their guns at the villagers and demanded they leave the area. Photo: Dan Mossip-Balkwill.

At night, as the adults watch Al Jazeera on TV, we share art supplies and books we bought with the children. The stress is palpable as the adults discuss the situation in Gaza. Many of the men in the village worked in Israel before Oct. 7, but after all Palestinian work permits were cancelled, many became unemployed. The news offers a distraction, albeit a painful one, to their worries of how they will provide for their families.

We also stayed in the remote village of Tiran, joining a group of both Israeli and international activists who have answered the call to support the resistance of these threats. In November, Tiran’s residents were given 24 hours to evacuate or be killed by the neighbouring settlers. In part because of co-resistance efforts, village leader Bassam and his family have remained on their land. He and his family keep all sorts of livestock on the rocky hillside just above the Israeli settlement of Hevat Yehuda.

The situation is tense, and foreigners sleep over in the village almost every night in case the settlers return. Living and resisting in Masafer Yatta requires the continuation of farming and shepherding on their traditional lands. But with army outposts and settler drones, these attempted daily outings can sometimes last for as little as five minutes before being confronted with Israeli soldiers. With our camera gear and international passports, the outings can often last a little longer.

Palestinian culture celebrates the value of sumud, or steadfastness. In Masafer Yatta, sumud is cultivated from a young age as families continue to hold onto their land, lives, and traditions. In Tiran, we are shown how to turn dried cheese into milk. In the evenings, Bassam insists we drink as much tea as possible. With the sounds of warplanes overhead and faint bombing of Gaza in the distance, the laughter of the children that fills our entire tent teaches us how to live with sumud.

NOTE: This article was lengthened on Feb. 10, 2024, to include more details from the trip.

This article appeared in the 2024 Feb/Mar issue.