©2008 Stephen J. Shaner

©2008 Stephen Shaner

Blindspot of a War: Survival on the West Bank

Stephen Shaner

white mini-van with yellow plates pulls to the side of the paved road that Hafez Hereni is about to cross, blocking his path. People climb out of the van. Hafez, a resident of the tiny West Bank village of At-Tuwani, brings his gutted Fiat to a quick stop and shuts off the engine. Silence ensues in a long, uneasy pause. The situation seems innocuous enough; it appears the van’s passengers are switching drivers or merely stretching their legs. To Hafez, though, the momentary shuffle is cause for grave concern, as anyone who has spent time in this troubled region knows the van contains Jewish settlers.

This time, however, the anxiety is for naught as the passengers step back inside and the van continues down the highway. It’s just another routine encounter in an embattled area that serves as a front line for conflict between Arab and Jew in the Holy Land.

At-Tuwani, a centuries-old Palestinian community, sits on the extreme edge of the 1967 Green Line in the southern Hebron hills, the land religious Jews refer to by its biblical name, Judea. Arid and rock-strewn, At-Tuwani is a 45-minute drive, via settler roads, from Jerusalem. Positioned just outside what modern Israel designates “Area C,” a closed military zone under full Israeli military control, the low rolling hills and monotone palette disguise a tough and inhospitable terrain.

At-Tuwani and the West Bank With limited contact to the outside world beyond the length of a dirt path, At-Tuwani is nearly inaccessible to the average traveler. It’s even more difficult for anyone living there to leave due to Israel’s restrictions on its inhabitants’ movement; while settlers enjoy driving on modern paved roads, Palestinians like Hafez are forced to travel on dirt roads and ad hoc paths subject to random Israeli checkpoints and roadblocks. Though geographically close to crowded Hebron to the north and Jerusalem a short jaunt away, At-Tuwani shares none of the larger cities’ luxuries.

The 150-or-so residents of At-Tuwani are not particularly religious or politically minded people. They live in simple adobe or stone structures—some dating back 300 years—and provide for themselves mostly through subsistence farming. With a small store, a five-room school for grades K-6, and a new medical clinic and tiny mosque still under construction, Hafez half-jokingly considers At-Tuwani the “Beverly Hills of the villages.”

A diesel generator operates a few hours in the evening supplying electricity to residents’ homes, a luxury used mainly for refrigeration, cooking, and laundry, “things that make the woman’s life easier,” Hafez clarifies. At-Tuwani citizens grow olives, tomatoes, lentils, and figs, eat the indigenous thistle, and sell surpluses of cheese, yogurt, and wool as their primary means of income. They obtain drinking water from a spring and the heat often reaches over a sweltering 100 degrees inside their homes during summertime. Winters are cold and wet. There is no plumbing.

Though dreadfully inconvenient to the average citizen of an industrialized nation, the rugged living conditions pale in comparison to the more precarious and discouraging task of living in daily terror of your neighbors, who are slowly confiscating your land. The nearby residents of the Jewish settlement Ma’on, and even closer outpost settlement Havat Ma’on, are within a stone’s throw, literally, of At-Tuwani.

©2008 Stephen Shaner According to the villagers, these settlers have poisoned At-Tuwani’s livestock and water supply, burned wool harvests, uprooted olive trees, ruined crops, stolen land, hindered movement, and verbally harassed and physically assaulted the people who live there. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and settler security personnel, as well as the nearby Kiryat Arba police, “do nothing,” Hafez says repeatedly, to suppress the alleged abuses and confiscation of land.

As settlements creep farther into Palestinian territory, Israel is reshaping the map of a future two-state solution. At-Tuwani is but one of many Palestinian communities in danger of eradication due to an expanding Jewish presence within the boundaries of the West Bank.

Where Can We Go?

Unlike other threatened communities, however, At-Tuwani’s story has been slowly revealed to the outside world due to the actions of its residents and a handful of devoted internationals who have gone to great lengths to protect the fragile balance between a traditional way of life and expulsion from the land. Much of this responsibility has fallen upon Hafez, who now describes himself as an activist. He’s one of the few in the village who has some university education and his language skills—Arabic, Hebrew, and English—have made him the de facto point man dealing with the Israelis as well as internationals who visit At-Tuwani.

This activism has come at a price. In 2006 Hafez, who’s in his mid 30s and supports a growing young family, spent several weeks in an Israeli jail after helping organize a demonstration against the security wall that is being built throughout the West Bank and threatens to completely isolate At-Tuwani. He was arrested protecting his elderly mother from soldiers and police who attempted to break up the protest. The incident was well documented and Palestinian newspapers ran dramatic photos of the confrontation on their front pages.

©2008 Stephen Shaner
         Listen to Hafez Hereni talk about his arrest

Hafez feels his increasing role in his village’s struggle has made him a target of the Israelis. After much of his land was seized by settlers, he was forced to find alternate means to provide for his family. For a brief time he performed secretarial work at the police station in nearby Yatta. After elections in February 2006, when Hamas candidates won a majority victory in the Palestinian parliament, the U.S. and other governments cut off the flow of international aid to the West Bank and Gaza, fearing this funding would support a terrorist organization that doesn’t recognize Israel as a legitimate state. This reduction in aid meant that many Palestinians employed by the government couldn’t be paid. People like Hafez were forced to make the decision to continue to work months without compensation or find a source of income elsewhere.

Despite these hardships and an increasing sense of despair, Hafez remains a passionate representative for At-Tuwani. When asked if he wants to leave, there’s no hesitation in his answer: “I am from here...and we can’t go back (to his family’s pre-1948 village). Our villages were destroyed. Where can we go?”

Many of those presently in At-Tuwani have lived there since the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, what Palestinians call “al-Nakba,” an Arabic term meaning catastrophe. When the United Nations voted to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab regions and Jews began to claim Palestinian land as their own, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians either fled their villages in fear or were forced out by Jewish fighters. The Palestinians whose homes and villages were either destroyed or occupied became the refugees who presently populate Gaza and the West Bank, as well as camps in Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria.