Occupational Hazard: reclaiming the caves of the South Hebron Hills
It’s 5am in the South Hebron Hills. Up on the hillside, I shiver and rearrange my blankets.
Over to the left, a cock crows in the settler outpost of Havat Ma’on. A light flicks on and off again.
Thom Yorke’s voice wails quietly on my stereo: ‘You And Whose Army?’
Silence. And the dawn creeps up over Jordan.
Imperceptible at first, a flickering grey half-light, it gradually clarifies. Eventually a small sliver of red sun arrives, quivering over the bank of mountains, gaining strength as it rises.
All clear. I go and wake Yusuf for his shift.
There is a spot on the map, southeast of the town of Yatta and near to the village of At-Tuwani, which still demarcates Sarura. In days gone by Bedouin peoples lived in the caves, pitched thick canvas for tents, and grazed sheep on that spot.
But until recently nobody was living there. Nobody except some new arrivals who planted a thick bank of trees on the hillside in the 1980s and founded a settlement called Havat Ma’On. Since then, Ma’On has grown in size beyond the zone granted it by the Israeli planning department. Later, an appendage of the settlement slowly grew up onto the hilltop, where it now sits, shrouded in woodland, under a telephone mast.
Like all the settlements in the West Bank, Ma’On is illegal under international law, since it constitutes the movement of people into territory occupied during war; although whether this means anything in practice is a matter of much debate. Its outpost, however, breaches Israeli domestic planning law and is therefore illegal in the eyes of the State of Israel. Doubly illegal.
This Spring, the Popular Committee of the South Hebron Hills decided to do something about it.
Concerned at the calculated expansion of the settlement outpost, a group of Palestinians re-inhabited the caves and pitched their tents again on the hillside for the first time in years. Some of the younger group leaders have been living up here since, Sami — weatherbeaten beyond his 20 years — tells me as he ducks into the cave.
Their actions have not gone unnoticed. When I arrive at the Sumud camp — meaning ‘steadfastness’ in Arabic — I am shown the remains of Camp 1, a few hundred yards away and within spitting distance of the Ma’On outpost. There they had pitched a tarpaulin as a sunshade to house the many international volunteers coming, to assist, to show solidarity — and to act as a major deterrent to police violence. One morning in May, the IDF arrived to requisition it without a permit. Despite the best efforts of the community, who sat on the tent to rebuff the soldiers, it was quite literally cut away at with knives and confiscated.
Yet it is not only the authorities who the Sumud inhabitants have had to deal with. Often, during the night, the Ma’On settlers will creep up and steal what they can: Palestinian flags, construction equipment, and even their generator (‘that cost me 6000 shekels’ says Sami). Which is why I — nightwatchman on the bum shift — am sat outside at 5am watching the sun rise.
One night, they even sowed poison pellets among the long grass, for the livestock to eat. As goats started to fall ill, the Sumud campers were forced to criss-cross the fields in rows picking out every pellet one by one: a scene from some gritty English crime drama played out under the burning sun. On that occasion the settlers didn’t quite get away with it, taking heat from the Israeli Environment Agency for soil pollution — but not criminal damage.
Camp 2 is in a reasonably advanced state of development. Thanks to the tireless efforts of the Palestinians, with help from a revolving group of international volunteers, the cave is tidy. Poured concrete floor, whitewashed walls, a cooking prep and washup area, plenty of mattresses (‘to replace the 60 the IDF stole’). The yard outside is encircled by a new drystone wall, the walls are daubed with Palestinian flags and the #weareSumud slogan. Sami, Basil and the other permanents sit quietly blowing smoke rings from a shisha pipe in the shade.
The day usually proceeds like this. Awake late after the sun is up, making up for the lack of sleep during darkness hours. Tidy cave, wash dishes at the well, prepare breakfast: coffee, tea with sweet wild za’atar (‘baladi’), pitta bread, labneh and olive oil, boiled eggs. Cigarette. Before it is too hot, continue work on ongoing construction projects: walls, floors, dirt tracks. At the weekend, when volunteers are there in numbers, this work progresses at speed — but on this Thursday morning nobody feels like doing anything. In the heat of the day, rest. More shisha.
A visit from a good-natured group of geriatric Christian activists passes the time during the savage high noon heat. Several elderly Canadians, part of the Christian Peacemaker Teams, have been visiting the cave-dwellings of the southern West Bank under threat from settlement expansion, including nearby Umm al-Kheir, under imminent threat of demolition by the Israeli military. The CPT are longstanding and well-respected members of the peaceful resistance movement, and have had a permanent presence in the contested city of Hebron for years, where they monitor military activity and abuse.
Later, as Sami shows us around the abandoned site of Camp 1, we have our first, distant, encounter with the security forces. An Israeli police van pulls up a few hundred yards away, and an officer spends the next 30 minutes watching us silently, intently, through his binoculars. An unexpected pair of Italians from Operation Dove pitch up — Sami has called in backup. These two have committed to Sumud long term, living nearby in At-Tuwani and assisting the local shepherds in resisting attacks on livestock by settlers.
Sunset over the South Hebron Hills comes in fifty shades of pink. Then dinner — bucketloads of pasta and pungent, crumbly local cheese — followed by loud wedding music and dancing ‘to keep spirits up’. Finally, we settle down by the fireside for the early part of the night-shift together, armed with black coffee, and watch details are organised. Sleep comes around 1am — on mattresses, dotted about the hillside above the caves, the heat still rising off the stone.
The key to Sumud’s resistance lies in its resolute, peaceful insistence upon simply continuing. In spite of arrests, requisitionings and thefts, the people of Sumud are determined to carry on living on the land which their families have inhabited since Ottoman times.
What has made this effort notable, among countless like it in the daily experience of Palestinian life, is the extent of the international presence. Activists from all over the world, from the USA, Europe, and even a significant number of Israeli Jews have had a role to play in safeguarding the camp.
Personally, I was cautious of coming for such a brief period, wary of the pitfalls of unsustainable, virtue-signalling activism. But what I saw there in the brief time I visited was a coalition deeply committed to the cause of non-violence.
Sami prefers to adopt a more direct view — for him the international presence is an opportunity for internationals to dispense some of their privilege, shielding and assisting the work on the ground. ‘Every blogpost, share and tweet fills me with pride’, he says, ‘because I know our message is being spread’.
So that’s what I did. Because occupation is not my Judaism.