Now the people of At-Tuwani fear yet another expulsion as their entire village, they were informed by the IDF, is currently under demolition orders. “The Israeli army told us our homes are part of an ongoing demolition order for new structures because they were built without a permit.” Hafez explains. “They consider our homes new structures even though our families have lived in them since 1948 and some of them are hundreds of years old. Of course, permits to build are obtained from the Israeli military.”
Due to the nature of the situation in the West Bank, the status of At-Tuwani is unclear at any given moment. Because of its small population, remoteness, proximity to the Green Line, “Area C,” and established settlements, residents and international groups embedded there believe At-Tuwani is an obvious candidate for a land takeover by Israel because its
confiscation would help the facilitate the contiguous Jewish presence Israel desires within the West Bank.
What Can We Do?
Gathered under a tarp beside her home, Khadra Rbeay, 52 years old and a lifetime resident of At-Tuwani, drinks sweet mint tea and shoos flies as lethargic breezes drift through giving momentary relief from the midday heat of a summer day. She is wearing a colorfully hand-embroidered traditional Palestinian dress and perches crossed-legged on the cement slab. Deep scars on her lip and chin punctuate an easy smile. A lull settles over the village and she begins to relate her experiences with the settlers.
“My family was harvesting our sheep,” Khadra says, “the settlers came and began burning the wool we were gathering. The police came and stopped them but ordered us to return home. As we were leaving, the settlers were shouting at our backs, ‘go home, this is our land...if you come again we will bury you inside this land.’ We went back that night to secretly finish (the harvest). As we were working, four settlers snuck up and attacked me, beat me with sticks. I didn’t know what was happening, it was so dark. My arm was broken and I had a concussion. They also beat my four children. After two and a half hours the police came. They arrested my four children and we had to pay 2000 shekels [about $450 US dollars] for each child to be released from prison.”
Khadra pauses only to pour more tea. “Once, I was grazing my sheep near our olive trees close to Ma’on. Twenty settlers came out of the woods, accompanied by security forces, with sticks and slingshots. They beat us and even beat our sheep. One settler hit me on the head with a stick so hard I became unconscious. I woke up at Yatta hospital and discovered I was not only beaten, but when I became unconscious I fell and seriously injured my face. Afterward, I went to the police station in Kiryat Arba to complain, but they did nothing.
“We can’t live near them in peace. We can’t trust them...settlers have never come to help us, only to beat us. They have guns and we have stones. What can we do?” she asks.
A Great Place for Kids
In 1983 Jews established the settlement of Ma’on and by 1999 some residents splintered off to form a more radical by-product, the Havat Ma’on outpost. This outpost was declared illegal under international law and Israeli forces dismantled it later that same year. By 2000, outpost settlers returned and took up residence in a grove of cedars planted by the Jewish group Karen Kayemet Le’Israel whose mission is to reforest Israel. Unfortunately the group’s good deeds ended up providing refuge for the more zealous settlers who harass Palestinians in At-Tuwani.
While it’s difficult to travel to At-Tuwani, speaking to the inhabitants of Havat Ma’on is nearly impossible. Few outsiders get inside the outpost settlement and its residents are extremely reluctant to share details of their lives there. These settlers, sometimes known as the Hilltop Youth, are among the most extreme and devout in their belief of a divine connection to the land in the Occupied Territories. Even among other settlers they are often labeled as outcasts and troublemakers.
Yet in a somewhat ironic twist, the outpost settlers are also in fear of being evicted from their homes as they do not have official government approval to be on the land. But unlike the Palestinians, they receive assistance from the established Ma’on settlement and also rely on the Israeli military for protection. At first Havot Ma’on consisted of little more than a few tents scattered under the trees. Now the structures have become more permanent and more numerous. A large synagogue with a concrete foundation is being built, electric cables and water pipes snake along the
ground from nearby Ma’on, washing machines, refrigerators, and toilets await installation in new homes.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, one young woman related her version of events regarding life in the settlement and alleged violence against the Palestinians. An American originally from the suburbs of Pittsburgh, her
family and friends thought she was crazy marrying an orthodox man and moving to a tent on the West Bank. She and her husband both have university degrees but feel a compulsion to live simply on what they consider sacred land. Currently, they are finishing construction of a modest home among the trees.
“It’s scary having Arabs know where you live,” she says, “but because of all the trees they don’t know exactly what’s in here and that frightens them and makes them afraid to enter so we feel safer because of that. But we don’t put bars on our windows because how’s a window going to stop a terrorist anyway? The kids love living here and thrive here; they aren’t scared at all and will walk around at night. I’m more scared than they are. It’s a great place for kids.”
When asked specifically about the situation in At-Tuwani she tells a version of events nearly opposite the claims of the Palestinians. “There are Israeli leftists and Christian leftists who live among the Arabs,” she states, “and they cause us problems. One Shabbat an incident occurred that caused lots of trouble. People started going out and, you know, screaming at them (Palestinians) but no one did anything (violent). Then I guess the army got real scared something was going to happen and one of the leftist soldiers started screaming he was going to remove us, to bulldoze us down. That Saturday night on the news they were showing little Arab kids with bandages around their heads and arms and crying and they said that we attacked them—they said they had got assaulted. It was a big deal and the government started talking about it and that’s when we almost got taken down.”
The incident she’s referring to occurred in the fall of 2004 and sharply focused international media attention on At-Tuwani and its struggles with the Ma’on settlers. Earlier that year the people of At-Tuwani invited the Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) to establish a presence in the village to try and ease tensions with the settlers. CPT, an international peace organization headquartered in Chicago, had already been working in Hebron for a number of years and quickly set up a small camp in At-Tuwani.
Since At-Tuwani has a school, a number of smaller Palestinian communities send their children there to attend classes. Some children travel several kilometers by foot on a route passing through the hills near the Havot Ma’on outpost to reach At-Tuwani. CPT and members of another international group began escorting kids to and from the school in an effort to prevent harassment from settlers. In late September two members of CPT were attacked by five settlers hiding in ambush with chains and baseball bats. They suffered broken arms and cracked ribs. One member’s lung was punctured. This incident attracted the attention of the press and journalists descended on the area to report the story; settlers beating foreign nationals was seen as especially violent and threatening.
Days after this first incident, CPT members escorting children were again attacked. This time a representative from the American Consulate in East Jerusalem traveled to At-Tuwani to assess the situation and shortly afterward the Israeli military was tasked with escorting Palestinian school children around the settlements. Like all news stories, however, interest soon faded and At-Tuwani was but a fleeting blip on media radar screens.